Tracing his journey through the highs and lows of rock stardom 

By Russell Hall

More than forty years have passed since guitarist Joe Perry partnered with singer Steven Tyler to form the songwriting core of Aerosmith. During those years the Boston-based superstar rock band—which also includes bassist Tom Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer and guitarist Brad Whitford—has experienced every triumph and tribulation imaginable. “In the beginning we had this one vision,” says Perry, “and that was to entertain fans—because we were fans first. I remember how I felt when I first saw the Who and the Jeff Beck Group. For some reason we felt we could add something to that.”

That they did. Aerosmith’s hits—“Walk This Way,” “Dream On,” “Janie’s Got a Gun” and “Sweet Emotion,” to name but a few—have become classics. The band’s swaggering riff-driven rock has established Aerosmith as the best-selling American rock band of all time, with more than 150 million records sold worldwide. They’ve scored more than 20 Top 40 hits and won four Grammys, and they hold the U.S. record for gold albums—25. In 2013, Perry and Tyler were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Despite the mountain of success, Perry’s quick to point out, “It’s all basically the same thing. We like that R&B backbeat. Sometimes it sounds poppy and sometimes bluesy, but it’s all wrapped around that same feeling.”

In his new memoir, Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith, Perry offers an in-depth look at his amazing journey. Childhood struggles with ADHD, his tempestuous relationship with Tyler, his defection from Aerosmith in the late ’70s, and the band’s roaring comeback in the ’80s are laid out in unflinching detail.

Guitar stories abound as well, including a fable-like tale about reconnecting with a cherished Les Paul, and the revelation that the ace axeman became a right-handed player only by accident. “It’s not unlike making a record,” says Perry of writing the autobiography. “It was a bigger job than I expected, but it was worth it.”

Why pen a memoir now?

I had been thinking about it for quite a while. There were lots of signposts, both personal and with the band—our 40th anniversary, finishing the last album for Sony, and other things. By no means was it a case of, “OK, I’m retired. I’m doing my memoirs.” It just captures things up till now. I certainly could have been adding chapters over the past year.

Were you concerned you’d step on toes?

I had to put that aside, make it a secondary consideration. It would have been easy to slip into, “He did this to me, he did that to me,” and I didn’t want that. By the same token, there are things I did to the guys that I’m sure they perceived the same way. Looking back, I did screw up, I was arrogant and a jerk sometimes. I made decisions that were very self-serving, and it was tough to revisit that stuff. But for it to be the book I wanted it to be, I had to put that truth in there.

You’re naturally left-handed. How did you end up playing rightie?

As a kid I wasn’t aware of any guitarists who played left-handed. All the instructions said to play with the neck in the left hand. I was fortunate enough to cut a song with Paul McCartney a few months ago, and I asked him, “How is it you ended up playing left-handed?” He said there were a few artists he was aware of—chiefly Slim Whitman—who played that way. So he saw it was an option.

Which guitarist impacted you most?

Probably Jeff Beck. The way he plays is very verbal, and based on melody. You can tell he’s paid attention to lots of vocalists by the way he phrases his licks. Certainly he can be flashy and show off his technical abilities, but he never loses sight that he’s playing a melody. He knows using just three or four notes can be as impactful as ripping up and down the neck. There’s also humor in the way he plays. He’ll throw things in that are almost like a joke, like he’s giving you the finger. He’s always been a bit of a wise guy, and that comes through in his playing.

When did you find your voice on guitar?

Actually I’m still looking for a voice, continually looking. I’m always wanting a little more of this, a little more of that. What I’ve found, going back to the first Aerosmith album, is that my voice on the guitar varies with each song.

Has your approach to solos evolved?

I feel I’ve gotten better technically, and that’s given me more to work with. But mostly it’s always been about steering clear of obvious riffs and trying to focus on something that works melodically. It’s like a vocalist looking for a melody to sing over the riff. Obviously there are songs where you cut loose and don’t plan things out. But whenever I sit down and put riffs together, it’s always about breaking new ground. That’s why I listen to different types of music for inspiration—Frank Sinatra, for example, the way he bends notes or sings a throwaway line. You can learn a lot about playing a guitar solo from listening to great singers.

Still practice?

I make sure to at least keep the basic stuff going. There are few things I do every couple of days, even if I’m in a mood where I don’t want to touch the guitar. I either practice with a metronome or I’ll “free riff.” And whenever I find something I can’t play, I’ll stay on that until I can play it.

What makes a great riff?

I think it’s something people can sort of sing along to. For the average fan, it’s something that’s memorable. Take “Walk This Way”—even in the solo, there are certain phrases that are important to keep when we play live because they’re part of the song. Your ear expects it. One of the greatest examples is the original Batman theme song: It’s just three notes, but if you hum them everyone recognizes it. The same is true of the theme for Bonanza. If I’m doing my job, a guitar hook will stay in your mind just as much as the vocal does.

Is Aerosmith primarily a live band?

We love being in the studio, but for me it always feels like we’re working on the album so that we can get on the road. I suppose the two are equal as far as the job description goes, but I’ve always felt each record is like an advertisement for the band. They’re invitations to come see us play. It used to be a matter of performing each new album for each tour, but that’s changed through the years. Today, if we don’t play “Dream On,” for instance, we may not leave in one piece.

How do you develop a set list?

That’s a group decision. I would really like to play more new songs, along with things like “Toys in the Attic,” “Rats in the Cellar” and “Kings and Queens”—the kinds of songs where you can stretch out a bit. Everyone wants to hear “Dream On” and “Walk This Way,” but we do get requests for lesser-known songs as well. And I think it’s a good thing to occasionally play something people might not have heard before.

Has Steven read the book?

I haven’t talked with him about it. I’ve heard he isn’t too happy with it, but that’s secondhand. He sent me a text saying he liked the first four chapters, the photographs and the whole feel of the book. Since then I’ve heard nothing from him, so I really don’t know. There’s a gig we have in February, which will be a chance to get together and sort of blow out the tubes. He’s still going to sing, though he might not come over to my side of the stage very often. (laughs) We’ve been through much worse.

Still have lots of riffs in you?

That’s why I keep making solo records—I’m still searching for those things. I do have lots of riffs inside me, and lots on my iPhone. (laughs) And who knows? Maybe Aerosmith will come out with something sooner than later. Right now we’re sort of taking a break. We’ve been working pretty hard the last three years, and everybody needs some time apart. When we get back together, we can all bring something new to the party.

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