The Essential Steven Tyler
By Andrew Corsello
Look at that mouth! The outthrust mandible that supports it; those
flared, blared, bared lips, custom-built for screaming, belonging to
some humanoid species, parallel to but not quite ours, that has found
an evolutionary edge in eardrum-bursting ululation. Doesn't matter if
you're man, woman, straight, gay, or something in between: That
glistening orifice calls to you, pulls you in. You can't resist it,
can't ignore it. It disgusts you; it turns you on. You need to shove
something into it, but can't decide whether it ought to be your fist or
your tongue. (Or . . . !) And yet what comes out of that mouth— Brika braka firecracker sis-boom-bah . . . here comes trouble in a pushup bra! —is even more wondrous, more mystifying. What do
you do with it? Plug your ears and flee, or stay shocked-still and
revel in its beautiful baboon-shriek intensity piercing your flesh?
Amazing, the decibels that come out of Steven Tyler's body, 'cause
he's a tiny creature, a delicate hollow-boned bird of a man, strangely
preserved, “heroin-cut,” I've heard it said. Fifty-seven years old and
every vertebra can still be traced with a fingertip; 57 years old and
still good to go in nothing but leather pants, a codpiece, and a dollop
of mascara. But as any musician can tell you, it's not just the volume,
it's the pitch-perfectness of the notes that amazes—especially since
Steven Tyler has always sung wrong.
Fact is, all rock singers sing wrong. The rock aesthetic—in
particular, the metal aesthetic Tyler has perfected—requires it. Forget
clarity. That's for Kathleen Battle types. Electric guitar riffs, muddy
with distortion, demand an equivalent friction from lead singers. In
pursuit of a sound that's properly raw, unfiltered, authentic, a rock
star's gotta push where classical singers are taught never
to push: high up in the nose and throat, where the passage of air goes
from vertical to horizontal and the tissues are tender, rather than
down low in the diaphragm and belly. And for more than three decades
now, nobody in the business has sung wronger than Steven
Tyler. As hard as the man has pushed—the unoiled metal-on-metal screech
he's produced in his throat gig after gig, record after record, year
after year—he should have long ago destroyed the instrument nature gave
him. Even fans who know nothing about singing have beheld Tyler on
stage, the mic stand in his embrace, leaning, pushing, his body warped
and coiled with effort, and have thought with both fear and elation, He's gonna explode!
He almost did. By the late '80s, Tyler was routinely enduring
migraine headaches during live shows. According to Mark Baxter, the
Boston-based vocal therapist from whom Tyler sought succor, “He would
literally 'whiteout' after screams, and when he came to, he'd find
himself hanging on the mic stand not even aware of what song he was
singing. The crazy stumbling he did onstage during that period—it wasn't drugs! He was clean by then. It was just that the guy was pushing so incredibly hard.”
That Tyler would put out to the point of literal self-oblivion—it makes you want to kiss the man in gratitude, no?
“He pushes even harder than it looks like he's pushing,”
Baxter adds. “He has a very large larynx, which usually means a low
singing range. So he's got to strain even more to hit those incredible
Cs and Ds he comes out with. His voice really is more of an extension
of his personality—the hard-driving intensity, the abandon—than a
The rap against Tyler has always been that he's the poor man's Mick
Jagger. An apples-and-oranges thing, if you ask me. But the truth is
that in terms of pure notes, Tyler's always sung circles
around Jagger. He can bark and rage as ferociously as the Mick, but he
can turn on the balladeer's voice, too. And thanks to the warmup and
maintenance routines Baxter gave him, Tyler's voice is even more
dynamic today than it was in the early '70s. Most rock singers aim to
be conversational, to musically impersonate one friend talking to
another in an excited and intimate way. But there's never been anything
conversational or intimate about Tyler's voice. It is supremely
operatic—not classically, of course, but in the sense that it's
delirious, epic, cosmic. Think of the end of “Dream On,” when Tyler
shoots up an impossible octave into pure thin air, or the creaking
madness he imparts to the chorus of “Livin' on the Edge,” or the
Homeric sorrow he brings to the moment “when JANIE was arrested!” He is the most lyrical singer ever to front a hard-rock band.
And it is precisely this musicality, even more than the man's
undeniable charisma, or his showmanship, or his preening, gleeful
lewdness, that compels you to try to sing along every time an Aerosmith
song comes on the radio. Even though such attempts invariably leave
mortals such as yourself coughing up your tonsils and bursting the
veins in your eyeballs.
By Karl Iagnemma
Imagine, if you will, my bedroom circa 1986: an airless sweatbox
hung with Journey and New Order and Human League posters, brown shag
carpet rubbed to a greasy nap, the air a swirl of armpit and Parmesan
cheese. Beside the bed, on a sort of makeshift altar, a broken Atari
2600 and a 14-inch color Magnavox. There I lay, every day from 3:55
until dinnertime, entranced by MTV. “Maneater,” “Total Eclipse of the
Heart,” “Who's Johnny”—I knew all the words, to all the songs, and
though they weren't exactly good, their regular appearance was somehow comforting, a quiet gesture toward order in a time of hair gel and chronic acne.
Then one afternoon, a revelation in an unlikely form: a rap video. I
was no fan of rap. Rap was new and therefore suspicious, its beats too
hard, its lyrics too fast, its melodies elusive to the point of
frustration. The video showed a man in a black jean jacket in a
brick-walled studio, rapping lyrics that were oddly recognizable. The
camera panned to the other side of the wall. Steven Tyler, dressed like
a gypsy drag queen, was strutting around a standup microphone.
The rap group was Run-D.M.C., the song was “Walk This Way,” the
words were Aerosmith's. What was Tyler doing? I felt shocked and
unnerved, as though—how to explain?—as though my best friend had just
tongue-kissed my sister. And yet . . .
And yet “Walk This Way” rocked. At the video's conclusion, when the
wall separating the bands crumbled and they united in recorded
history's first rap-rock jam session, I felt as though something
unnatural and possibly illicit had taken place. And I wanted to see it
That, after all, was the point. The kings of rap tag-teaming with
the (slightly faded) kings of rock—it was a bizarre and fantastic
cross-genre matchup, the musical equivalent of Brad Pitt dating Hillary
Clinton. That friction alone would have sold lots of records, but “Walk
This Way” transcended its own hype through its raw, dirty beauty.
Skip ahead 15 years. I'm a graduate student at MIT, researching ways
to improve the mobility of Mars rovers. By chance I'm granted a meeting
with an esteemed researcher, whose brilliance (it is hoped) will
illuminate the dark corners of my thesis. For 15 minutes he listens to
me babble about a knotty mathematics problem. The esteemed researcher
closes his eyes and strokes his patchy beard. He raises a finger and
opens his mouth. I lean forward. His breath smells of onions and stale
He says: Have you considered using mixed-integer nonlinear programming?
I had not considered using mixed-integer nonlinear programming.
I had not considered using mixed-integer nonlinear programming
because I barely knew what it was, and had never seen it applied to my
type of problem. Of course, mixed-integer nonlinear programming was
what eventually allowed me to finish my thesis, and escape the
purgatory that is graduate school.
What does mixed-integer nonlinear programming have to do with Steven
Tyler? Nothing, other than to illustrate what must be a natural law:
that new and good are highly correlated
adjectives. Art and science agree on this one—newness is a necessary
(though not a sufficient) condition for goodness. Artists since
Sophocles have struggled to make it new, and in the sciences
newness is essential: If an idea is not new, it is not publishable, and
therefore usually not worth investigating.
But in music, and rock music in particular, newness has always
seemed optional. After the Beatles, how many Beatles-esque bands did we
endure? (Answer: About 63,000 too many.) Ditto Dylan. Ditto Nirvana. In
the world of drive time and double platinum, it's often enough to mimic
your peers, to wear the groove a bit smoother. The resulting songs may
be well crafted, or catchy, or brilliantly performed, but they lack
that delicious tingle of shock and awe.
Although Tyler and Aerosmith haven't reinvented themselves quite so
dramatically since “Walk This Way,” they've evolved just enough to keep
their sound fresh. In the string arrangements on Toys in the Attic, the quirky interludes on Pump, the blues-dipped riffs of Honkin' on Bobo, we see musicians itching for the new, itching to keep themselves interested
in their own music. So mark it this way if you're scoring at home: lots
of singles and doubles and triples over the years, plus one walk-off
grand slam that not only revitalized the band but rewired the
sensibilities of rock and roll. Not bad for an act founded by a pair of
ice cream scoopers.
These days I crank up the volume whenever I recognize the first
beats of “Walk This Way.” Although the song no longer evokes a full-on
head rush—19 years of listening have damped that buzz—I feel a twinge
of nostalgia for that summer of 1986, when I was an itchy, zit-pocked
13-year-old, watching in dread fascination as one of the great rock
anthems was translated into rap. It felt strange and dangerous,
thrilling and new. And very, very good.
By Dave Itzkoff
When the February 17, 1990, broadcast of Saturday Night Live aired the latest installment of the cable-access parody Wayne's World,
there were two surprises awaiting insomniac, stay-at-home rock fans.
Alongside Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's gleefully goofy headbangers,
Wayne and Garth, a post- Big, pre- Philadelphia
Tom Hanks drew solid laughs as Garth's dorky cousin Barry, an Aerosmith
roadie whose primary job, apparently, was leaning into the mics and
intoning, ” Sibilance. ” But the actor didn't generate a
fraction of the electricity sparked when the members of Aerosmith
themselves strutted into Wayne's basement. Dressed in a leopard-print
bandanna and matching blouse, Steven Tyler seemed dangerously unsuited
for live TV, blithely flubbing his lines before wailing through a
killer cover of the Wayne's World theme song. Moments earlier, Wayne had declared Aerosmith the greatest band in the world. It was hard to disagree.
That night, the Aerosmith singer was playing the only part he's ever
known how to play: himself. Tyler the man didn't look as if he was
working very hard to assume the role of Tyler the character, which was
hardly surprising. Then, as now, we'd come to regard him as the
embodiment of a singularly casual coolness, as the rare rock star who'd
behave the same around a future Oscar winner or a couple of excitable
heshers, whether performing for an audience of millions or the tiny
TV-watching populace of Aurora, Illinois. Though Tyler has made subtle
changes to this persona over time, what we've always seen is someone
perfectly at ease with his place on the pop culture spectrum—a guy who,
to us, always seems to be exactly where he belongs.
You have to go all the way back to 1978 to find an onscreen moment
in which Tyler appears even a bit out of place. In the megaflop Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,
a surreal attempt to string together a narrative from the Beatles
songbook, Aerosmith portrays the bad guys, the Future Villain Band, who
seek to steal the musical instruments of Peter Frampton and the Bee
Gees. At times, Tyler looks as if he has no idea why he's in the film. But
the dinosaurs of disco surely knew the message they were sending by
casting him and his helter-skelter rock group: Left unchecked, this was
the band that would soon shove them from their own teetering pedestals.
After overcoming this prejudice—then squandering their reputation,
then rehabilitating themselves—the members of Aerosmith reconfirmed
their greatness with a cameo in a 1991 episode of The Simpsons
titled “Flaming Moe's.” It's not hard to imagine Steven Tyler as a
cartoon: With his angular features, outlandish wardrobe, and trademark
giblet lips, he fits more naturally into a two-dimensional universe
than almost any other rocker. When Tyler and company turn up to cover
(what else?) “Walk This Way” at Springfield's beloved watering hole,
it's easy to imagine the same thing happening in the three-dimensional
world, too—that the Boston-by-way-of-Yonkers frontman of the people
could be in touch just enough with his roots to stroll into your local
tavern and join your next karaoke session. He'd even invite the
bartender up onstage to warble off-key with him. And he probably
wouldn't complain too much if the town oaf fell from a catwalk and
In recent years Tyler has continued to let himself be caricatured,
though it's not clear he's always been in on the joke. Perhaps to reach
an untapped preadolescent audience, he consented to appear as an eerily
soulless elf in the computer-generated Christmas cartoon The Polar Express. More inexplicably, he shows up in Be Cool, the celebrity-bloated sequel to Get Shorty,
to compliment Uma Thurman's fine posterior and share a duet with
R&B pinup girl Christina Milian. John Travolta's gangster hero,
Chili Palmer, bamboozles Tyler into admitting he was inspired to write
“Sweet Emotion” by the births of his daughters Liv and Mia—an
impossibility, since both arrived years after the song's release. It's
an unnecessary and ever-so-slightly indifferent performance, and I
won't dare draw the comparison between Tyler's cinematic laziness and
some of Aerosmith's latter-day musical output.
Instead, I will only say to anyone who believes he has cause to
doubt Aerosmith's historical awesomeness that there is a record that
contradicts that claim, preserved permanently in the excited laughter
of Wayne and Garth as they sit on a couch next to a most excellent rock
icon, and the trembling voice of Moe the bartender as he struggles
through the chorus of “Walk This Way.” If Tyler should someday find
himself among skeptics, suddenly short on inspiration or unsure of his
place in the world, I recommend that he wander into the first dive bar
he sees, or the basement set of the nearest community-access television
show. Restored to his proper setting, he will surely find himself among
fans eager to acknowledge they're not worthy to share his stage.
By Amanda Fortini
A well-aged rock star is a rare and strangely seductive phenomenon.
Steven Tyler, at 57, is one of our more conspicuous examples of the
breed. We are fascinated as much by Tyler's creative
longevity—Aerosmith's success has spared him the trundling-off to Vegas
revues and midwestern county fairs that is the fate of many an elder
singer—as by his ageless features and slender, sinewy frame. How, we
wonder, did Tyler manage to binge his way through youth and yet avoid
either an early death or the soft paunch of middle age? It's not just
that the years have done Tyler well, as they have for his handsomely
craggy contemporaries (Jagger, Richards, Dylan on his good days). It's
that, aside from a slight facial crease or two, they seem to have done
little to him at all. Indeed, to watch clips from Aerosmith's recent
performances alongside footage of the band from the late '70s is to
glimpse the music world's Dorian Gray.
Tyler's suspicious vitality constitutes a large part of his peculiar
appeal. In fact, the more you think about it, Tyler is a rather
unlikely sex symbol. His attractiveness arises not from conventional
good looks—his face is odd and unbalanced, with that prodigious mouth
overwhelming his beady eyes and tiny nose—but from some ineffable
charisma. Unlike most of his peers, Tyler relaxes into his stage work,
parodying the role of rock idol even as he inhabits it. He transforms
his scarf-festooned microphone stand into a baton, a horse, an unwieldy
appendage. He swigs from a bottle of Evian and empties the leftover
water onto the audience, a sendup of rockers who spray fans with beer.
Yet while his routine is clearly self-consciously constructed, Tyler is
an amazingly unselfconscious performer. He communes with his audience
in an almost primal way. “You get goose bumps and you see the people in
the front are getting it and you're getting it and they're getting it,”
he has said of this connection. “It's a real magic moment that's hard
to describe.” However you describe it, Tyler's presence induces women
(and some men) to scream, swoon, and, not infrequently, remove their
tops in homage.
In true rock-star style, Tyler's magnetism is fueled by a seemingly
overactive libido. When, in a clip from Aerosmith's 1994 video
collection, Big Ones You Can Look At, a British interviewer
asks him, “How do you keep going?” he retorts: “If you walked up
onstage and in the front row was a girl going like this”—here, he lifts
his shirt—”wouldn't you keep going, too?” While there might be a darker
truth to this aspect of his persona (it's rumored he has sought
treatment for sex addiction), Tyler also plays it as burlesque for
comic effect. He dry-humps the drum riser; he points to women in the
crowd and mouths, “Call me.” This hormonal-ninth-grader act is of a
piece with Aerosmith's lyrics, which evoke a time when sex was a feat
to boast about and love was always dire. In Aerosmith's universe, women
on elevators offer to “show you how to fax in the mailroom, honey” with
all the innuendo a teenage boy could hope for, and lovers actually
“stay awake just to hear [each other] breathing.” The band's music,
those thunderous power ballads especially, distills adolescent longing
into its purest melodramatic forms.
Aerosmith's potent blend of sex and nostalgia, captured by Tyler's
nimble (if at times shrill) voice, has proved a lucrative commodity.
That the music at once speaks to the universal experience of teenage
yearning and brings adults back the days when they made out in
wood-paneled basements must partly account for the tens of millions of
albums the band has sold. But the sex that flavors Aerosmith's music is
not limited to the nostalgic variety. The band also has an uncanny
ability to tap timeless, elemental desires. Each of at least three
Aerosmith videos (“Rag Doll,” “Crazy,” “Livin' on the Edge”) features a
Catholic schoolgirl gone bad, a trope that resonates with both sexes:
Men want to sleep with her and women want to be her, in all her
unbuttoned carnality. Tyler, as the face of the band, becomes a woman's
dangerous yet intriguing agent of dissipation.
But Tyler's allure is more complicated than this fantasy. There is
something inherently feminine about him—accentuated by his feline body
and styled hair—that renders the bad boy nonthreatening, even a bit
goofy. Sex symbols have long exhibited varying degrees of androgyny:
Think David Bowie, Iggy Pop, or Skid Row's comely Sebastian Bach. Tyler
highlights his epicene looks with flashy sartorial choices—sequins;
stacked silver jewelry; long, flowing bell-bottoms; a hairless,
oft-exposed chest—that channel, among others, Mick Jagger, Neil
Diamond, and a '70s-era Cher. And he explores gender norms with
characteristic sly wit in “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” a song that could
plausibly have been autobiographical. In the video, he camps it up in
pink sequins and frosted lipstick, as if to underscore the point. Of
course, it hardly bears saying that the ability to laugh at yourself is
the sexiest attribute of all.
By Greg Lalas
He may now fall within the Viagra demographic and qualify for 10
percent motel discounts, but Steven Tyler is still every bit a rock
star. More than that—he still makes you want to be a rock
star. Not the “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” kind he was in the '70s,
when you were probably in Underoos. And not the detoxed, high-on-life
kind he was in the '80s, when you maybe first saw Aerosmith in concert
at the Garden or the Centrum or (in my case) Detroit's Joe Louis Arena
and were mesmerized by the hip-shaking, lip-smacking character who
strutted the stage, shredded his vocal cords, and played to the crowd
like a preacher in the pulpit.
No, Tyler makes you want to be the kind of rock star he is today.
The kind who's seen it all, done it all, smoked, snorted, and shot it
all—”We believed that anything worth doing was worth overdoing,” he
once said—and somehow stuck around long enough to define the
imperishable rock-and-roll poster boy.
“You gotta figure what it's gonna take to make it last,” Tyler sings midway through the first track on the band's 1973 debut, Aerosmith. The fact that, 32 years later, he and Aerosmith are about to release their 24th record, Rockin' the Joint, to much salivating anticipation says very clearly that he did.
But you wonder: Did it have to be so hard to learn his lesson?
Maybe. Maybe a dreamer whose dreams suddenly come true needs a kick in
the ass to remember what the hell he was dreaming on in the first
place. Up and down, down and out, out of his gourd for months on end,
Tyler and his partner in smack, Joe Perry, consumed legendary amounts
of drugs and alcohol. They screwed anyone who came backstage. The music
suffered. The band broke up. Only an intervention at 6 one morning in
Boston in 1986 got Tyler to go straight.
He emerged from his haze with the clarity of the redeemed and the
high-octane mile-a-minute energy of his old-school storytelling self,
but with a new plot twist: the been-to-hell-and-back parable that VH1
loves to rehash and fans love to revel in. “I came out sober and
stunned at the brightness of the world,” Tyler said of his
rehabilitation. “I'm blinking at the light like a blind man whose sight
has been restored.”
No way he saw what would happen over the next 20 years: a number-one
album, four Grammys, a first (and only) number-one song, in 1998's “I
Don't Want to Miss a Thing”—from burned-out rock cliché to the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame. A few months before their 2001 induction, Aerosmith
performed during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. The
band did a new single, “Jaded,” and was joined onstage by Britney
Spears and 'N Sync for “Walk This Way.” The 'N-Britney crowd thought it
was, like, way cool to see their heroine onstage with those old-school
rockers; Britney even wore a skintight Aerosmith T-shirt.
The Aeroforce, on the other hand, went berserk.
“Lighten up,” Tyler advised his fans via an article in the Globe.
“It doesn't matter. It's all about a good song. Aero-smith has always
been about extremes anyway. And hey, rock 'n' roll is supposed to piss
people off. If some people were unhappy, that's okay.”
Rock 'n' roll is built on conflict and resolution, discord and
harmony. It's just a loud way to tell a story, and every story needs a
villain and a hero if it's going to hold our attention. At heart, Tyler
is a ringmaster, a snake-oil salesman, a carnival barker—the villain
and the hero of his own story, a story we have followed now for more
than three decades. In that time, Tyler has become an old man right
before our eyes, an entirely new man, yet somehow convinced us all he's
still the sexy, brash punk he was back when Aerosmith was rehearsing
after-hours in the Charles Playhouse and jamming at high school dances
for 300 bucks a night. He and the band have endured because, rather
than simply rehashing the old hits the way the Peter Framptons and Eric
Burdons of the world have done, they've woven their roots into the
Zeitgeist of each era their long career has spanned—the blues-rock
heroin-chic '70s, the hairspray-and-spandex '80s, the earnestly ironic
'90s, the polished-soundtrack '00s—and ended up rising above them all.
Tyler and Aerosmith are not of any era because they have always stayed
true to what they are: just another band out of Boston.
So damn the claim that rock 'n' roll is a young man's game. They
only say that 'cause it hasn't been played long enough for age to be a
factor. The reality is that rock 'n' roll is a young man's mind.
Attitude. Foolishness. Experimentation. Sex. Tyler never outgrew any of
those things, the way most of us sadly do. Which explains how he has
not only lasted all these years, but remained relevant: He might be 57,
a father, a grandfather, but he is still just a brass-balled kid, looking for a good time and wondering what he's going to do when he grows up.