The author F Scott Fitzgerald once famously claimed there are no second acts in American life. But Aerosmith prove him resoundingly wrong. Currently well into the third or even fourth act of their roller-coaster career, these raunchy rockers from Boston transformed themselves from self-destructive casualties to platinum-selling superstars at the end of the 1980s. Despite four decades of fights, fallouts and fateful accidents, they remain America's favourite cartoon bad boys. A gigantic billboard advert for bad behaviour and conspicuous consumption. The ultimate party band.
Fronted by the rubber-lipped singer Steven Tyler and the granite-jawed lead guitarist Joe Perry, Aerosmith are now a brand name as globally recognisable as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the rock duo they were inevitably compared to in their early days. The band have maintained their popularity for a reason, which is grounded in giving audiences what they want. Perry confirms Aerosmith's first-ever show in the Gulf will consist of wall-to-wall stadium anthems. "What we've found is that when we play a new country for the first time, people want to hear the songs that were hits," the 59-year-old says.
"I know the show will be full of fire." The prospect of playing a grand prix was especially appealing for the band's second guitarist, Brad Whitford, an amateur racing driver himself. "Brad more than anyone else is the real car nut," Perry explains, "but I think the whole thing's about being a part of a sport that is so much bigger than anything else. I mean Nascar's big in America but it's nothing like the money that goes into the Formula One. We're gonna be paid, sure, but you do it for the experience."
On the cusp of their 60s, Aerosmith remain a huge corporate machine, with total album sales of 150 million and counting. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, they have spent much of the last decade on tour, while lending their brand name to Disney theme park rides and Guitar Hero games. A hard-nosed business sense has been a key factor in their longevity. But behind their bullish sales figures and eternally adolescent swagger, Aerosmith have been dogged by problems in recent years. The Abu Dhabi show marks the end of a troubled tour in which four out of five band members were treated in hospital for various ailments and accidents.
The most serious came during their August 5 concert in Sturgis, North Dakota, when Tyler toppled from a stage catwalk, sustaining head and neck injuries. The band subsequently cancelled all remaining tour dates until October. Having endured his own leg injuries earlier in the tour, Perry is not unsympathetic to Tyler's painful plight. But more long-term career matters are also preying on his mind, as the duo have not written a song together in more than a decade. Their last album of new material was Just Push Play, released in 2001.
Recording sessions for their 15th studio album were initially scheduled before this tour, but have now been pushed back indefinitely while various members concentrate on solo projects. Perry is clearly frustrated at this shift in Aerosmith's established routine. "Steven really wants to go off and do some other projects," Perry shrugs. "But if Aerosmith want to be viable and deliver to the fans what should be delivered, we need to do a studio record with some new material and do a tour behind it. That would have been standard operating procedure until about six years ago. I know he loves to play live in front of Aerosmith, or at least I know that's what he used to love to do. But I guess now he wants to do other things, which is fine as long as it's planned out, so the rest of the band can plan their lives around it."
Of course, like most veteran rockers, Aerosmith have survived their fair share of fights and disagreements during four decades together. Formed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1969, they first hit the stadium superleague in the mid 1970s with their Rocks and Toys In The Attic albums. But by the end of the decade, their commercial star was waning. A notoriously excessive appetite for drugs and alcohol was also taking its toll on relations between Perry and Tyler.
Perry quit the band in 1979, launching his side group The Joe Perry Project, reportedly to pay off astronomical room service debts. Whitford followed in 1981. Tyler, the bass guitarist Tom Hamilton and the drummer Joey Kramer soldiered on with replacement players, but the old chemistry was gone and the hits began to dry up. Only after Perry and Whitford patched up their disagreements with Tyler, rejoining the band in 1984, did Aerosmith begin to turn their fortunes around.
"Taking time away from each other, that's really the biggest thing," Perry says. "We should have just taken a year off. We'd been touring for eight years, putting out records, on the treadmill. But we kinda kept in touch with each other, and we all realised the real reason we put the band together was still there, and we really needed to be together." In 1985, a newly reunited Aerosmith began their comeback after signing a new record deal and releasing their Done With Mirrors album. But it was a steep climb back to the top.
"We really had to prove to the industry that we were back and accountable," Perry recalls. "We couldn't get bookings because we cancelled so many gigs and had to stop playing in the middle of the show because we were so screwed up. In fact, when the band got back together, Columbia wouldn't release an Aerosmith record. We had to pay them $300,000 to get out of the contract so we could find a record label that would believe in us."
In 1986, Tyler and Perry guested on the New York rap trio Run DMC's hip-hop cover version of their 1975 song, Walk This Way, which went to No 4 in the US Billboard charts and introduced Aerosmith to a whole new generation. Destiny had handed Aerosmith their second act. Even so, the band's drug habits continued to be a hindrance. Their manager Tim Collins intervened, promising to make Aerosmith the biggest rock group in the world by 1990 if they all attended rehab programmes. Led by Tyler, each member got clean. Starting with the spectacular success of Permanent Vacation in 1987, followed by Pump a year later, Aerosmith then established themselves as the comeback kings of American rock with a string of massive hit singles, including Love in an Elevator, Livin' on the Edge and Cryin'. Miraculously, they were not just back but bigger than ever. "We really took a chance going straight because we were known as the party band," Perry admits. "We thought maybe our fans won't like us anymore now that we're straight. But then we decided the bottom line is we were not making good music, but we can make great music if we get straight."
In the 1990s, the newly cleaned-up Aerosmith became a kind of inspirational living advertisement for surviving the rock-star lifestyle. "People could see you could actually come through some pretty horrible times and come back and have some sanity in your life again," Perry says. "There's always liquor around, there's always the temptation but you learn to live without it. You're far better off without it, far more creative, and you don't have hangovers."
A crucial element in Perry's personal comeback was marrying his second wife, Billie, in 1985. The couple now have two sons, Tony and Roman, and raise Friesian horses on their farm in the US state of Vermont. Perry's stepson, Aaron, also runs the guitarist's culinary side project, Joe Perry's Rock Your World hot sauce. Family life, Perry admits, provided a much-needed anchor after Aerosmith's wild years.
"You have to get a balance," he says. "As far as I'm concerned family comes first, no matter what. If you don't have a good solid base then you're kind of useless out there. I've been married for 24 years and I haven't been married long enough yet. It still feels fresh and great. I couldn't be doing what I'm doing now if Billie wasn't there to help me to do the best I can do." At the time of this interview, in early October, Perry was launching his new solo album Have Guitar, Will Travel. He was also excited about playing a one-off show with the former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash in Las Vegas. His frustration with Tyler and enthusiasm for working outside the Aerosmith machine were both evident.
Perry and Tyler were finally reunited onstage a couple of weeks ago in Maui, Hawaii, fulfilling a legal commitment to make up for a cancelled show two years ago. The good news is, they reportedly blew the roof off. Even when playing as a contractual obligation, it seems Aerosmith are still the ultimate party band. There was scant trace of tension between the singer and guitarist, and Perry even apologised for suggesting the band were on indefinite hiatus. Whatever Scott Fitzgerald claimed, some American lives just seem to go on forever.
"Over the years we've learnt that the magic is in having five guys that work together and make music," Perry says. "We may not be the best musicians in the world but there's a certain thing that meshes together and it just gets stronger with time. We're kind of like a family by choice, and - as with most families - you're not always on the best of terms. So you've got to figure out how to make it work because you're bonded together. Families are bonded together by blood. Bands are bonded together by the magic of being able to make music."
Aerosmith play the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix tonight. Joe Perry's album Have Guitar, Will Travel is out now * Additional reporting by Peter Makowski