I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.
I’ve always thought it portentous that Columbia released Bruce Springsteen’s and Aerosmith’s respective debut albums on the exact same day in January of 1973. For better of worse, those two artists eventually gave us arena rock as we now know it, and for pretty much the same reason: Despite their stylistic differences, their respective audiences were overwhelmingly male and middle class.
But whereas Springsteen’s appeal ranged from the more thoughtful high school kid to the less cerebral frat boy, Aerosmith was the band of choice among jocks of all education levels. The group’s hedonistic credo appealed not so much to any spirit of rebellion or alienation, but to a baser passion for partying. It is this aspect that has always kept the Boston band out of the critical canon, even if it’s difficult to imagine the Seattle grunge movement without their influence.
Nevertheless, a usually sensible critic like Greil Marcus once wrote that Aerosmith “will never be more than a footnote” in the annals of pop, an opinion whose stoneheaded scholasticism is, like those impenetrable Bob Dylan seminars held at Stanford last fall, antithetical to the very spirit of rock.
Aerosmith’s place in the the rock pantheon should be guaranteed if only because they are the most classic American example of a popular rock group whose fortunes were dictated by lifestyle decisions. As the money and drugs poured in, the music reached an apex of riff-rock magnificence that became the decade’s standard for hardness. Marcus notwithstanding, Toys in the Attic and Rocks will always be classic albums of a sort if only for their definitive guitar lines. (Run DMC wouldn’t have achieved crossover success without Joe Perry’s funky breaks in “Walk This Way.”)
But eventually the drugs took over. Perry and Steve Tyler, the group’s slim-hipped, liver-lipped lead singer, hit bottom financially and physically. Their subsequent rise from the ashes in the late 1980s to reclaim their headbanger crown has been called a miracle.
Now that the miracle is more than ten years old, Aerosmith has lost its phoenix PR advantage, even if the albums have steadily improved. And while their ability to keep the energy level high for close to two-and-a-half hours at their March 8 show at Tokyo Dome was impressive for a group whose members’ average age is 47, something essential was missing. I felt like the woman who watches her sex partner get his rocks off while she herself lies there wondering why she isn’t enjoying it.
If the simile sounds a little off-base, well, they started it. Sex is the only “theme” Aerosmith has ever addressed at any length, and though it’s certainly a worthy subject, the band’s attitude as conveyed in Tyler’s lyrics is as unenlightened as the average high school linebacker’s. The only imperative I witnessed at the Dome was a determination to stay hard.
More than two-thirds of the songs were post-rehab. Since reforming in 1985, Tyler has treated sex with more jaded distance than he did on the 70s albums. This is partly due to maturity and partly due to a shift in the band’s promotional means from concerts to videos. “Pink,” the latest single, is one of the niftiest lyrics Tyler has ever written, and the video is funny, sexy, even a little shocking. Before they played the song at the Dome, though, a female roadie brought Tyler his harmonica, sunglasses, and pink boa. Tyler kissed the messenger and remarked about the harmonica, “It’s still warm.” It was such a dumb throwback, an auto-pilot witticism that was neither funny nor sexy.
The band couldn’t quite recreate the song’s charms in concert. In a promotional interview for their latest album, Nine Lives –the group’s ballyhooed return to Columbia/Sony after having been nursed back to health by Geffen — Joe Perry said that the new songs were “basically a soundtrack for our next tour.” Like a lot of dinosaur bands, Aerosmith has always measured its worth by its ability to turn on huge numbers of people in concert, but since it regrouped it has put most of its energy into albums. The core songwriting team of Perry and Tyler is increasingly augmented by professional song doctors like Desmond Child and Glenn Ballard. Now, a song’s appeal has less to do with inspired riffing than with lots of carefully calculated details. These details don’t always come through effectively in concert, and never in a place like the Dome.
So while the audience was pumped, and stood and sang along during the entire set, I didn’t sense any mutual engagement until about halfway through when the band played “Draw the Line,” the first song of the evening from the 70s. I barely remembered it, but the song’s intensity and Stones-like simplicity connected in a way that the newer songs — all of which are superior as songs — did not. It was also the first song where the band allowed itself to stretch. Perry actually faded out after an extended solo and flopped down on the floor as if dead (his blue-lit, ravaged face was projected on the Dome’s huge TV screens to excellent effect) before rebooting the song into hard rock heaven. Tyler was taken aback by the audience’s reaction. “So that’s what you want to hear,” he said, mistaking a visceral response to music performed with feeling for mere nostalgia. (Most of the people in the audience looked to be in their twenties and early thirties, which means nostalgia for them went back only as far as “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”)
If, on the whole, the group failed to recapture the vigor of their first golden age, it wasn’t because of any physical deterioration. All the members seem to be in good shape. But the trappings they’ve kept from the 70s — the cheap-looking inflatable phallic props (cobras, in this case); Tyler’s top hat-of-many-colors and skintight orange velour bell-bottoms; Perry’s floor-length black leather coat; everybody’s mandatory crotch thrusts — looked every bit as silly in the 90s as ducktails did in the 70s.
This focus on the cosmetics of the past had the effect of highlighting the group’s diminished musical attack. Both “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion” were a tad slower than the originals, which didn’t wreck the funk but did remove the singular pleasure of Tyler’s machine-gun enunciation. “Back in the Saddle” lacked the jittery, explosive punch that used to make it the centerpiece of their shows. The only classic that came through exactly the same as ever was “Dream On,” which isn’t surprising since it was already a fossil in 1975.
Aerosmith believes that since they get a kick out of showing up and banging away methodically, that’s what everybody wants. Maybe they’re right. Most arena crowds these days simply want the artist to recreate the sounds in their Walkmans, but I would think a real rock band wants to give their audience more. Springsteen once wrote a song entitled “Prove It All Night,” and everyone automatically transferred the sexual metaphor to the way he treats his audiences in concert. He delivers not just the music but himself for three hours plus at a time. Aerosmith just wants to prove they can still get it up.