I’ll admit it to you now; I am not a huge Aerosmith fan. I do not own, nor do I seek to own, any Aerosmith records. But I will admit: the band is fascinating to look at. Over the past few decades Aerosmith has managed, perhaps better than any other ‘70’s act, to become mainstream rock and roll icons existing simultaneously as real, living people and as cartoon caricatures of “classic rock stars.”
In a world where record buyers believe that music really was better 30 years ago, Aerosmith has marketed itself to be exactly what people think of when they’re remembering “the good old days.”
Or at least that’s what I imagined. I hadn’t seen them perform so I didn’t really know for certain. When I noticed a “ONCE IN A LIFETIME AEROSMITH LIVE EVENT!” in Virginia, I decided to put my curiosity to rest.
From their humble first meeting in a New Hampshire ice cream parlor, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry undertook a strange metamorphosis from pimply teenage soda jerks to drug addled, androgynous, monster rockers. The kind of men who would one day place a set of udders on their album cover and challenge the world to “Get a Grip.” What a long strange trip indeed.
Aerosmith lived mega-hits, rock bottoms, break-ups, sell-outs, come-backs and even a Super Bowl half time show that somehow involved Brittany Spears. While most of their 70’s peers have been discarded in budget bins, Aerosmith have somehow managed a peculiar contemporary relevance. Via administration of periodic blood transfusions in the form of carefully selected power ballads, they have accomplished the difficult feat of becoming a band that both you and your parents danced to in junior high school.
You can’t say it hasn’t taken its toll though. Steven Tyler now stands before me as a strange reptilian creature, the end product of whatever Faustian bargain he made as a teenager. Clad in leather pants, his eyes are coated in mascara, huge and legendary lips painted red, his cheeks rippling curiously around them. Steve Perry looks slightly healthier, but no less strange in his leather pants, a portrait of a buxom blonde airbrushed onto the body of his pearl white guitar. The first song up is a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Roadrunner.” Much like Robert Johnson, having arrived at the end of their own deal with the devil, Aerosmith want one thing and one thing only: to play the blues.
Though the set will concentrate mainly, and rightfully, on their gamut of hits the band is trotting out some numbers from their latest release, an all blues cover album titled Honkin On Bobo. If Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson is the more traditional and loving tribute to the music that so inspired him early in his career, Honkin On Bobo is the nuclear version of Ghost World‘s Blues Hammer.
The riffs are inflated to arena size with all the sonic Viagra Aerosmith and their road crew can pump out, so matched to racecar tempos that any resemblance to the original material is wholly annihilated.
Down by the stage the crowd loves it. Fists are wildly pumping, bosoms shake. Where I’m sitting the crowd is more reserved. One gentleman makes a fainthearted attempt to “hoot and holler” but quickly backs down in the face of our section’s collective indifference.
The crowd down by the stage is all over the map, parents and their kids, pasty teenagers, gaggles of mid-twenties girls and their mookish dates, eyes slightly adrift from a few too many beers. All of them are pleased with what they’re getting. The band knows what everybody wants to see and seem all too happy to revisit their greatest hits like “Love In an Elevator” and “Cryin.” Steven Tyler jumps on a rope swing suspended from the rafters and glides in circles out above his screaming fans. Joe Perry hurls his guitar through an acrobatic series of histrionic poses. The rest of the band is strangely inanimate.
It might be worth noting that I am not actually at a “live” performance. I am at the “screening of a live performance” in a mall-bound movie theater in Ballston, Virginia. The people who are generally having the best time seem to be on the screen, but then again those are the people who are actually “seeing” an Aerosmith concert. What I am seeing in the theater is Aerosmith’s carefully rendered depiction of an Aerosmith concert.
This experience is something akin to having your disembodied consciousness tossed into the audience like a beach-ball and bounced around for two hours. Quick jump cuts from band to audience prevent you from ever being able to actually watch Aerosmith play through a full song. Nobody is dancing in the aisles. A few even get up in the middle of the movie, having heard what they came for. I accidentally nod off for a few of the Honkin on Bobo tunes.
When the film finally ends I don’t feel much closer to answering the questions I came with:
Is Aerosmith a cartoon caricature of classic rock pawned off on impressionable masses?
Is that wrong?
As I walk out of the theater I realize that I came here on the attack, seeking something to fume over in print. I wanted Aerosmith to present themselves in a way that would be an affront to all the things I loved about rock and roll. What I saw (in between jump cuts) was just a bunch of guys who play in a band for money and have a lot of fans. I meander through the mall for a few moments, stomach aching from overindulgence in peanut butter M&M’s, feeling juvenile and immature. I purchase the Nirvana box set and head home.