Band of Brooders

After everything Aerosmith has been through in the past year — rehab, injuries, infighting — the question isn’t why America’s most dysfunctional rock band would finally break up, it’s what the hell has kept it together for so long.

TO ANYONE WHO HAS PAID much attention to Aerosmith over the years, the most recent dramas weren’t altogether unexpected. The band has pretty much operated as a wildly dysfunctional family since the beginning. At some point or another, each of the five members has had to be talked out of quitting; and each has had to be assured that he was absolutely essential to the group’s survival. But even the rhythm section, made up of Whitford, Kramer, and Hamilton — who early on began calling themselves “the Less Important Three” — would agree that their enterprise revolves around Tyler and Perry. “The relationship between Steven and Joe is really the axis of the whole thing,” says a former band manager.

Musically speaking, the singer and the lead guitarist couldn’t have been more different. Before he formed Aerosmith, Tyler was already a polished drummer with a deeply ingrained musical discipline instilled by his father, a Juilliard-trained pianist. Perry, in contrast, was a self-taught guitarist from a family that barely ever turned on its record player. In the summer of 1969, Tyler saw Perry’s group, the Jam Band, perform in Sunapee, New Hampshire, and found them terrible — out of tune and sloppy. But during a song called “Rattlesnake Shake,” Tyler had an epiphany. “There was just something about the way Joe played it, this whole fuckin’ train feeling,” he recalled in Aerosmith’s autobiography, Walk This Way. “I thought, If I can put that energy together with something my father gave me, that classical influence, we might have something.”

Tyler persuaded Perry to quit his band and form Aerosmith. They moved into an apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston with Kramer and Hamilton. Tyler traded his drum kit for a microphone and set out to mold the group according to his vision. “He was the dominant force in the band ‘family’ with great expectations for the band that he loved, as well as for everyone in and around it,” Kramer has written. “But Steven could be punishingly critical when those expectations weren’t met.” During recording sessions, he perched himself on a high stool, his dark, deep-set eyes alert to any signs of weakness, like a raptor. “I taught them how to be a band. They’ve hated me for it ever since,” Tyler once told an interviewer. “You laugh, but there’s been lots and lots of therapy over this.”

The first two Aerosmith albums didn’t get much radio play, so the band had to build its name through constant touring. All that time on the road provided plenty of opportunity for Tyler’s and Perry’s personalities to clash. “Joe is kind of demure and laid-back, where Steven is flamboyant and outrageous,” says Raymond Tabano, the band’s original rhythm guitarist (whom Whitford replaced in 1971). “You put those two things together and you’re going to get friction, and when you get friction you get sparks, and when you get sparks you get a fire.”