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POP MUSIC

Nine Lives and Counting

After decades of highs and lows, Aerosmith is rocking without drugs (they swear). But topless girls are still cool.

March 09, 1997|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

BOSTON — Steven Tyler, the flamboyant voice of Aerosmith, blows into guitarist Joe Perry's spacious suburban home, located just outside of town, like a skinny, shaggy-haired hurricane.

After shouting out greetings to his bandmate's wife and toddler son, Tyler bounds downstairs to the basement, which Perry has converted into a home studio, equipped with a vintage control board from the '70s and decorated with pictures of scantily clad blonds.

As the relatively sedate Perry, 46, burns vanilla incense, Tyler, 48, finally sits down on a stool, looking ready for business--at least, as ready for business as a guy wearing a leopard-print shirt and shades could be expected to look.

The two principal characters in one of the most colorful and longest-running chapters in American rock are here to discuss important matters: a high-profile change of record labels and managers, as well as drug-relapse rumors.

"I want to say it's like the ice on the ocean has melted, and the sun came out, but it's so much more than that," says Tyler, relieved to have survived all the tension and turmoil of recent years.

Aerosmith's formal resurfacing begins March 18 when the group releases its first studio album in four years. Fittingly titled "Nine Lives," the collection marks the band's return--under a whopping $30-million contract--to Columbia Records, where it launched its career in the early '70s.

It didn't take long for the original contract to pay off. Aerosmith was soon selling out arenas, thanks to such massive hit singles as "Dream On" and "Walk This Way." Some people even began calling the band a junior-grade Rolling Stones--which wasn't too difficult a leapsince Tyler and Perry seemed to pattern themselves after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, from wardrobe to rebellious antics.

In the early '80s, however, years of drug abuse and personal tension began to take their toll. Record sales slipped, and Perry and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford left to pursue other projects.

In 1984, the guitarists rejoined the band, which also includes bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer. The following year, though, the band's future seemed so bleak that its contract was not renewed by Columbia.

With its options limited, Aerosmith accepted an offer from a then-upstart company called Geffen Records. That led to one of the great rock recoveries ever. With the release of the late-'80s albums "Permanent Vacation" and "Pump," Aerosmith's sales surpassed even those of the group's first glory days.

But as a new decade dawned, a funny thing happened, says Tyler: "Our manager [Tim Collins] heard rumors that [label owner] David Geffen thought that we didn't have another album in us."

"[Geffen and his staff] were divesting themselves of a lot of music from the '80s," Perry says, "and I think they saw us as part of that. Clearly, we didn't agree."

Just as Aerosmith started questioning Geffen's loyalty, Columbia came a-courtin'. Michelle Anthony, the executive vice president of Sony Music Entertainment (which has owned Columbia since 1990), and Columbia chairman Don Ienner orchestrated a deal with Collins, even though the band still owed Geffen three more albums. Anthony and Ienner later persuaded John Kalodner, the artists-and-repertoire executive who engineered Aerosmith's Geffen deal, to join Columbia once his contract with Geffen expired in 1994.

Given that the members of the band would be nearly 50 by the time the new contract kicked in, many industry observers scoffed at the Columbia deal.

But the label's faith seemed vindicated in 1993 when "Get a Grip," Aerosmith's final studio album on Geffen, shot to the top of the charts and matched "Pump's" sales of 7 million in the U.S. alone, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. A double-platinum greatest-hits collection, "Big Ones," followed in 1994, leaving the group free to record "Nine Lives" for Columbia. (The final album owed Geffen, due probably next year, will reportedly be a live collection that will draw on the group's entire catalog, including "Nine Lives.")

While the thrashing rockers and power ballads on Aerosmith's new album hardly seem like a departure for the band, Tyler says that Columbia's support has played an important role in building the band's confidence.

"Positive affirmation fans the flames of creativity," says the singer, flashing his Cheshire-cat grin. "When I hear, 'Donnie [Ienner]'s rockin' out so much to your music, and he's such a big fan' . . . that's just a kick in the ass. And it feels good."

To help them write the songs on "Nine Lives," Tyler and Perry turned to, among others, longtime standby Desmond Child, who collaborated with them on such hits as "Angel," "Crazy" and "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," and Glen Ballard, who produced and co-wrote Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" album.

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