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.

In the summer of 1979, the band got into its biggest fight ever, the circumstances of which have gone down as among the most bizarre in rock history. The band members and their wives were backstage at a show in Cleveland when Elyssa Perry and Hamilton’s wife, Terry, got into a scuffle. When Elyssa threw a glass of milk at the other woman, the rest of the band got into a shouting match that didn’t end until Joe Perry said he was quitting (not long after, Whitford followed him out the door).

Perry wouldn’t return for four years. What he and Tyler discovered during that separation was that they needed each other. Though Perry had started his own band, the Joe Perry Project, none of the three albums he released in quick succession reached anywhere near the levels of critical and commercial success Aerosmith had enjoyed. And though Tyler had kept Aerosmith going with two replacement guitarists, the two albums he finished without Perry, Night in the Ruts and Rock in a Hard Place, turned out to be complete flops.

By the early 1980s, Tyler and Perry were still making money from song royalties, but Aerosmith’s brand of music had fallen out of favor, which meant neither man was making enough to support his epic drug habit. Tyler lost his Porsche, his private jet, and his house. Perry, who divorced Elyssa, was several million dollars in debt and in trouble with the IRS. Near bankrupt, Tyler lived in a decrepit New York hotel on the $20 a day his manager gave him. Perry slept on the couch of his new manager, Tim Collins, who also paid several months of his child support.  

Tyler tried to put on a brave face. Perry wasn’t “missed except in the hearts of die-hard fans,” he said three years into the breakup. “He thought he had a lot more to do with the band than he really did.” Meanwhile, though, it was impossible to ignore that Tyler was dressing up Perry’s replacement, Jimmy Crespo, to look like, well, Joe Perry. Rick Dufay, Whitford’s replacement, noticed a measure of heartsickness in the lead singer. The music aside, Tyler deeply missed Perry; he didn’t feel like the same person without him. “On some level,” says a former manager, “Steven is always torn between feeling like ‘I don’t need these guys’ and not wanting to lose Joe. I think it’s a deeper, more emotional thing than songwriting chemistry.”

On Valentine’s Day 1984, Perry went to see an Aerosmith show for the first time since quitting. He visited with Tyler backstage, and they started the process of rebuilding their relationship. “They realized the tension between them is what serves them,” says Tim Collins, who began representing the whole band when it reunited. “Steven knows it, so does Joe, but they don’t want to know it.”