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POP REVIEW : Aerosmith Draws Line Against Nostalgia

January 29, 1988|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

What a difference a decade makes.

It's often a thin line that separates historical significance from simple nostalgia, but it's usually easy to tell the difference in rock.

A quaint and entertaining yet thoroughly inconsequential '60s act like Herman's ("I'm Henry VIII, I Am") Hermits is flat-out nostalgia in concert, while the Rolling Stones, when in form, remain an absorbing piece of rock history.

But what about Aerosmith, whose concert Wednesday night at the Forum was a commanding display of visceral energy that delighted the near capacity audience?

Is the veteran band's appeal, as it nears its third decade in rock, simply nostalgia . . . or something more?

For much of the '70s, Aerosmith was widely viewed as a sort of surrogate Rolling Stones--partly because the East Coast quintet's bluesy-based rock projected much of the sensual explosiveness of the Stones, and partly because the band's prancing, pouty-lipped lead singer Steven Tyler looked so much like Mick Jagger.

Just when the group appeared doomed to the cut-out bins, however, it came up with two albums--1975's "Toys in the Attic" and, especially 1976's "Rocks"--that were among the leanest and most snarlingly convincing hard-rock collections ever put together.

Before fully emerging from the shadow of the Stones, however, the band lost momentum and all but disintegrated when a key member, guitarist Joe Perry, left to form his own band.

Tyler tried to keep Aerosmith going, but the music wasn't as compelling and eventually the band's self-acknowledged use of drugs and alcohol seemed--in his words in a recent interview--to "do us in."

But time has served Aerosmith well.

Perry has rejoined Tyler and mates Tom Hamilton on bass, Joey Kramer on drums and Brad Whitford on second guitar. Moreover, the band, Tyler insists, is drug free.

It was tempting when the reformed group hit the arena circuit again in 1984 to think that the band's appeal was based simply on nostalgia.

You could imagine old Aerosmith fans lighting matches in salute when Aerosmith played the slow, anthem-ish "Dream On" or dance with abandon as Tyler and Perry stormed through snarling, once turbo-charged numbers like "Draw the Line" and "Back in the Saddle." Ah, sweet memories.

But Aerosmith has more to offer--and the first glimpse of it Wednesday night was in the devotion of its fans.

Most of the two dozen fans interviewed before the concert approached the show with the eagerness and, even, reverence that fans a decade ago might have shown before the start of a Rolling Stones performance. Several of the fans, mostly in their early 20s, mentioned words like "history" and "classic."

To Ricky Reid, 20, Anaheim, the Stones are just some ancient memory--"like the Beatles"--while Aerosmith is the band that shaped his own concept of rock and which, he suggested, influenced most of his current favorite hard-rock and heavy-metal bands.

Curt Combs, 24, Costa Mesa, wore a Rolling Stones T-shirt to the concert, but he too objected to the suggestion that Aerosmith was an echo of the Stones. "For one thing, Aerosmith's music is much faster," said Combs, who added that he first saw Aerosmith 10 years ago at the Long Beach Arena.

"They are great bands from different eras . . . just as the Stones influenced bands in the '70s, Aerosmith influences bands in the '80s."

Aerosmith's standing these days is also benefiting from the accolades paid the quintet in recent years by such contemporary bands as Motley Crue and Bon Jovi (whose lead singer Jon Bon Jovi joined Tyler on stage during the encore Wednesday for a rave-up of the Beatles' "I'm Down").

Mostly, though, Aerosmith states its own case--and its Forum show was a strong case indeed.

The band doesn't exhibit the Stones' early revolutionary musical or sociological stance; its music is built around a traditional hard-rock sound--as close in many ways to the pop-minded strains in the Beatles' most aggressive rockers than the country backwoods blues of the Stones' most influential work. And the band doesn't make any pretense about leading a generation through a dark look at life's forbidden underbelly--the way the Stones once did. The only message: Have a good time.

Now that Tyler--who pranced around the stage bare-chested in a Japanese cape/robe and tights with fish-net openings on the sides--has been around long enough to establish his own persona, there's isn't even as much invitation to think Jagger, Jagger, Jagger . He's a more straight-forward, street-corner rocker than Jagger's frequently self-conscious celebrity tease.

Yes, thousands of fans lit matches during "Dream On" and even more moved about with abandon on the faster numbers, but Tyler and the band performed the early hits--including "Walk This Way," which rappers Run-D.M.C. re-introduced to the pop charts in 1986--with a fresh exuberance and joy.

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