Joe Perry: Shiftless In Idle

The legendary Aerosmith guitarist wrestles with bittersweet emotions about touring in a time of COVID-19

Joe Perry (Photo: Roza Yarchun)

Every touring rock band has been derailed by COVID-19. It’s the great leveler of our time, bands large and small forced to the sidelines – like the rest of us – waiting and wishing for something to change.

Like a successful vaccine to be developed and put to widespread use. Like what the new “rules” might be when concerts finally happen in clubs, theaters and arenas. Should we be saying if and not when?

I surveyed a group of music industry vets and the general opinion was that, without an effective vaccine developed in the near future, the touring/live concert world could be shut down for 18 months to two years. 

Aerosmith – they of 150 million records sold around the world, the one-time Bad Boys from Boston – had to hit the pause button in March while they were in Las Vegas, after having played 45 dates of an on-and-off residency at the Park MGM. The band members scattered. Guitarist Joe Perry went home to Sarasota, Fla., where he shares a beachfront condo with his wife, Billie. 

“I would say this is as close to a world war as you could get, in a lot of ways,” says Perry, on the phone. “If you tick off the boxes, it is a world war. Basically, it has shut down the touring business for an indefinite period of time.”

Perry is doing his best to look at the current situation, however uncertain, as not a prelude to a permanent vacation, but a time to enjoy the time off stage and studio as best he can. “We don’t go anywhere,” he says. “Especially now, but Aerosmith goes out so much on the road and we’ve been around the world so many times …”


VIDEO: Aerosmith social distancing PSA

After decades of being on the road constantly his idea of time off is different than most folks. “Most people have a regular job where they get to sleep in their own beds,” he says, “and make a living in the same city every night, so that when they go on vacation it’s like two weeks to do nothing. We don’t feel that way. I don’t and Billie doesn’t.”

Perry and his wife have binge-watched Ozark and have dug deep into European TV shows – particularly Scandinavian ones, on Netflix. They used to love zombie movies like 28 Days Later, but those days are done.

“We’re not going for the dystopian stuff,” he says. 

They’re taking comfort at home. They’ll get take-out food, go grocery shopping every week and a half. Maybe take a walk on the beach, but certainly not lay out in the sun. When they’re out in public, it’s masks and gloves and social distancing.

One thing he’s not doing: Playing guitar. Generally, he says, when the band is off, he’ll practice two to three hours a day. “As soon as I realized we weren’t gonna be playing for at least months, if not a year, doing a show, it was almost like I felt I was on vacation for the first time in 30 years, where I didn’t have to think, ‘Well, I don’t need to unpack my bags because I’m leaving in a week.’ Knowing we don’t have to go anywhere for X amount of days …”

Perry did not go into this unprepared.  He and Billie both read The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.   

“A lot of things are different now,” Perry says, “Medical things, but on the other hand we got a lot of people flying around the world. So, in a lot of ways, we’re in the same position we were in in 1918. I don’t like to use the word ‘preppers,’ but I guess you would call us that. The point is, Billie and I were kind of ready for this because we studied the whole 1918 pandemic and saw what happened, the two different waves that mutated and exploded around the world, and this had all the earmarks of the same thing.”

Johnny Depp x Joe Perry (Photo: Roza Yarchun)

Aerosmith had dates slated May 20 through June 4, with another few legs under discussion that would have taken them into 2021. MGM, which owns the Park MGM venue, announced its closure through June 30. As of this writing, a European tour running June 13 through July 27 is “still on the books,” says Perry, as is a date in Moscow July 30.  Perry says before the pandemic hit, his secondary band, the Hollywood Vampires (with Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp etc.) had been discussing doing dates in China. 

There has been no announcement in regards to a postponement of Aerosmith’s homecoming return to Boston Sept. 18 at Fenway Park with Extreme. But Perry says everything – the European tour, the Fenway gig – are in the hands of “the powers that be, the government, the CDC or WHO – who knows? If they say we can’t do the shows, that’s when they’d be canned.” 

If the Vegas venues opened up and bucked scientific advice – that is, if MGM wanted Aerosmith back in the saddle for their next leg and the pandemic situation had not been bettered – don’t expect the band to jump into the fray.

“If they somehow wanted to open the shows – and I doubt they would do it – we wouldn’t push our luck,” says Perry. “We also feel like we don’t want to be the ones responsible, the ones to say to people: ‘It’s OK to come in. Take your chances. Wear masks. Come in and rock out!’ I don’t see 5000 people in an arena or theater. It’s too contagious. It doesn’t take much to pass it from one place to another. It would take a lot to get me on a plane to Vegas at this point.”

And there’s this, the health of the band. “We definitely take that into account,” says Perry. “We’re pretty healthy as far as 70-year-olds go.” (He’s actually 69, as is drummer Joey Kramer; guitarist Brad Whitford and bassist Tom Hamilton are 68; singer Steven Tyler is 72.) “Whatever we do on stage, with Steven, as physical as he is, that stuff doesn’t bother us, but it definitely puts more pressure on your immune system and we’re in that [danger] zone.

“We have nothing like life-threatening underlying medical issues, but we’ve definitely lived hard lives. The things that you’ve done twenty or thirty years ago, like smoking. You smoke for ten years and still they can see signs in your arteries and lungs.”

Drug abuse, of course, is part of Aerosmith’s saga, too. Perry gave a famous quote for Stephen Davis’s Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, saying that by 1978 the members of Aerosmith “were drug addicts dabbling in music rather than musicians dabbling in drugs.”

Tyler had another good one: “Probably, realistically, five or six [million dollars], easy,” he told Australia’s 60 Minutes in 2014, about his cocaine bill. “But it doesn’t matter. You could also say I snorted half of Peru, but, you know, it’s what we did.”

Just as famously, the members all went into recovery and moved forward, one day at a time.

Aerosmith’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, certainly. They have been on long hot streaks and have been derailed, some of that related to addiction and illness. They have been counted out at times, as the public’s tastes changed or they hit a creative lull. But there’s always been a bounce-back.

Perry says when news of the coronavirus first hit in January, he got word from an American friend, a guitar builder, living two hours from Wuhan. He told him that what the West heard about the coronavirus was “ten times worse” in reality.

“It was interesting talking to him about what he was hearing on the street, and a lot of stuff they weren’t allowed to say on the internet or online or texting,” Perry adds. “The last time I talked to him about it, he said it was about 100 times worse than what they’re saying.”

Alice Cooper × Joe Perry (Photo: Roza Yarchun)

He is miffed at people who do not take this pandemic seriously. Like those people who insist on flocking to church to praise the Lord. “I think certain religious things people go to without the masks on – God bless ‘em but you know, the Lord said ‘You don’t need to go to church [to worship].’ Read the Bible. You don’t need to pay money to go church, all that tithing. Whatever, that’s their business, they do it. But the big problem is, when they get sick it puts pressure on the rest of us. You gotta think about that stuff.  Stuff you normally would take for granted. I see people doing it and I think it’s really selfish. It puts strain on the rest of the machine. 

“And I was really amazed to see people who are saying their lives are being trodden on because they’re being told they can’t go to the beach. Within two weeks [of coming home to Sarasota} Billie and I started locking up and self-quarantining. We don’t need the government to tell us which way the wind’s blowing.”

So, as we’re all realizing, there are those among us who don’t care about anyone else, those who deny the data from scientists, or believe jobs take preference over lives. Sometimes, they make those points by waving semi-automatic weapons. 

And then there are the others, the essential workers, for whom Perry’s praise is voluminous. The doctors, nurses, police, firefighters, EMTs – of course. 

But also: “The people that are driving the trucks and getting the food to people; those people are just as important as the first responders,” Perry says. “If you go out at three in the morning on the highway all you’re gonna see are 18-wheelers flying from state to state delivering food. We’re really lucky as far as that goes.

“It’s made it so we’ve been able to have some kind of normal situation where food comes into the stores. You may not be able to get your favorite kind of milk but there’s food. If you start seeing those shelves totally empty, there’s going to be a big change out on the street. That has to be avoided. It’s not so much about keeping the economy going as it is keeping people fed and that’s the most important thing. And the people taking care of that, they’re just as important as the doctors that are fighting on the front lines, the people driving the trucks, working in the factories and harvesting the food. 

“I think one of the best things that’s gonna come out of this, whenever it does, is that America will start making more of our own stuff again and not rely on a country like China. I can see relying on Canada or Mexico, but China? You place an order for a million N-95 masks and ¾ of them are defective? Come on. You can’t get a straight answer out of them to save your life, no pun intended. All the factories over there are all being [manned] by Chinese people who have to do whatever they’re told and if they’re told don’t ship anything to the states, they don’t or they’re off to the ‘re-education’ camps.”

As to America, Perry evinces what I’d call guarded optimism. “The economy will come back,” he says. “We’re a big country and there’s a lot of layers and red tape and bureaucracy and it is what it is. We’re lucky that it works.  Anything, anytime.” 



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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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