A lengthy chat with the Aerosmith guitar great
The first time I had any kind of extensive talk with Joe Perry we were both gawking at a massive display of electric guitars. Not at a guitar shop.
It was late in 2000 and we were at the opening party at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for an exhibit called Dangerous Curves: Art of Guitars. There were more than 130 guitars on display, instruments played and owned by John Lennon, Les Paul, Prince and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
If you know nothing else about the Aerosmith guitarist and co-leader, know this: The man loves playing guitars and talking about guitars.
Some people at the exhibit wondered what electric guitars were doing at an institution called the Museum of Fine Arts – you know, such a tony, high-end setting. Rock ‘n’ roll guitars in the house with Rembrandts, Van Goghs and Monets.
“But it makes sense,” Perry reasoned, “because the guitar has become an art form. They’re like motorcycles or something – they go beyond the function they were designed for.”
Perry had donated his favorite slide guitar to the exhibit. He told me he owned “a couple hundred guitars, but I’ve never considered myself a collector like Rick Nielsen. I’ve got guitars that are collectible, but playable. I’m not going to deny myself the pleasure of their sound.”
As Perry, among others, noted, the value of a guitar does not necessarily correlate to its cash value. His most valuable guitar was a Stratocaster “mongrel” that he pieced together himself. “It’s maybe worth $150, but I could never replace it. It’s got my sweat all over it. I never bring it on the road without me carrying it myself.”
Another of his faves on stage: A Gibson Es 335 (a B.B. King “Lucille” model with no f-holes) with his wife Billie’s face on it. Aw.
Skip ahead 22 years. We’re on the phone – Perry in Las Vegas, where Aerosmith was about to kick off its long-delayed residency, and me just outside Boston in my Brookline home/office. I’d just seen them at Fenway Park, only their second gig since the pandemic shut them and everyone else down. Their first gig was in Bangor, Maine. Before that, the last concert was Feb. 13, 2020. Although, this spring Perry had re-assembled a version of the Joe Perry Project for three East Coast gigs and two sets at a Brazilian blues festival.
We were supposed to meet up for a quick pre-show howdy at Fenway, but Perry had a short window of opportunity before the band had to get their stage face on and we couldn’t connect. Perry texted the following day to say he’d call me in the next day or two.
On Tuesday afternoon Sept. 12th – two days after his 72nd birthday- he rang in. I wasn’t sure if this was a chat – we’ve done that a bit over the past few years – or an interview (same) – and he basically said either or both. Whatever. I told him I’d roll the tape and see if anything came out of it …
Stuff did. Aerosmith stuff certainly, with the Vegas dates looming, but, mostly, guitar stuff. The evolution of the electric guitar. How it changed his world, the world. What flies and doesn’t fly in music and comedy these days. So, I’ll turn this over to Joe, with just a few interjections, queries and guideposts from me.
I told him I’d seen a post in my Facebook feed about somebody writing a new biography on him. He knew nothing about that, but it led to musing about his 2014 memoir, Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith, which he co-wrote with David Ritz. And what he might want to do to follow up, if he decided to do so.
Joe Perry: I’m not writing another one for a while, but, God willing, there is going to be be more [to say] after [the first book] ended. So much more has happened after. My perspective on things is definitely different. just like everybody’s. That’s why there are multiple biographies – you get another 10 or 15 years of life experience and you tend to look at some of the events you put down the first time around and you might have a different outlook on them. That’s one of the things that would make me want to do it.
Dave Davies just did that with his second memoir, which just got published in the UK and will be in the U.S. in January. His first one, Kink, in 1997, was wild and raunchy, and he painted himself as a bit off the rails, not exactly “likable.” I’ve known Dave for years and in my experience, he’s a pretty gentle, reflective soul. I’ve not read his second memoir, but from what I’ve read about it, he’s more philosophical, more mature, part of it being that he survived a debilitating stroke and relearned playing guitar, grateful to be able keep on doing what he’s always done.
Yeah, definitely. I owe The Kinks a real debt starting way back when. One of my favorite English bands to come in the first invasion. My friend in high school who played bass in one of my kid bands, his older brother was going to UMass at Amherst and he would come home with albums like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. It was really interesting to hear some of those songs and then hear the Beatles and Stones and other bands playing these songs. An early education, more than what was just going on the radio.
There’s a live record they put out [Live at Kelvin Hall, 1967] that I can’t find anywhere, a live record and where they were doing songs like the “Theme to Batman.” I lifted the riff for [Aerosmith’s version of] “Milk Cow Blues” [on 1977’s Draw the Line] from that, that’s kind of how I played it in my garage band. The other guys probably don’t even know that. The kind of energy [the Kinks] had live, that record subconsciously worked its way into my vocabulary all these years [ago].
Of course, Dave was the prototype of the ‘60s aggressive lead guitarist, the famous story about his distorted guitar sound on “You Really Got Me.” That he slashed the speaker cone in a fit of rage with a razor blade, inadvertently paving the way for lots of hard rock and metal guitarists.
That’s interesting because there are a number of stories about how that sound actually got there, that turned the corner on the electric guitar. There are a lot of different legends about how that happened. Some people are trying to take credit for it. It’s just one of those things, like ‘Rocket 88” was supposedly the first time it was introduced and that was kind of by accident but every one of them was not planned. Most were because something was broken. When Link Wray played “Rumble,” the audience loved it so much he had to play it five times in a row. And then when he was in the studio, he couldn’t get the sound that he wanted, so he took a razor blade or a switchblade, whatever sounds better, and slashed the speakers a little bit to get a little more distortion. So, there are a number of those stories going around. It just shows how important the speaker component is to the electric guitar.
Over the past couple of years, with the electric guitar, the amp and pre-amp and the speakers, the speaker has taken second place to all the electrical stuff. Amplifiers have started to generate the sound and then the speakers reproduce it, as opposed to being part of the sound. The early amplifiers were basically designed to be clean and only amplify the sound and not distort it and it evolved.
It’s the only instrument that did not exist as we know it until the late ‘40s and really the sound of it started to develop in the ‘50s. Every other instrument out there – [except] if you wanna call the synthesizer, which is basically an emulator and they make their own sounds – every other instrument there was some form of it, even acoustic guitar, piano, saxophone, all the classical instruments. They have been around for centuries, not to mention world [music] type instruments. We saw an era where a couple of really brilliant guys got a hold of it and moved it ahead in the ‘60s and it turned into something brand new. It got to the point where if you were in rock ‘n’ roll you had to have a hot shit guitar player and it was the era of the guitar hero. It was a statement if you played guitar. If you walked down the street [with a guitar case], you couldn’t get a better response from girls. The guitar was such an iconic image of freedom and self-expression and rebellion. Keith [Richards] wasn’t too far off the mark when he said “The electric guitar brought the wall down.”
Now, number one, you can’t watch TV without hearing a lot of guitars. And number two, you’re in somebody’s apartment or house, there’s usually a guitar hanging on the wall. It’s really made its way into the mainstream. But the age of the guitar hero has passed. It’s not that important anymore to have a gunslinger. There are guys out there that do that and have their own clique – the magazines [built] around them -but there’s certainly a lot of rock songs that don’t have guitar solos in them anymore. It’s just one more instrument now.
The last three years gave me a lot of time to sit back and think about why those early recordings sounded the way they did. The guitar was basically a rhythm instrument and the guys were beating the hell out of it trying to keep up with the horns and all the others. You get in front of a 19-piece swing band and it’s really hard. The distortion opened up a whole new world and [the guitar] turned into its own instrument rather than being an amplified acoustic guitar.
Now, emulators digitally reproduce the real thing – it sounds just like the real thing, and it’s certainly a lot more economical to travel with and they weigh about eight pounds as opposed to hundreds. There’s a lot to be said for it, but I’m still hung up on the old stuff. It’s been amazing being here, the sound in this building [Dolby Live at Park MGM] is as close to being in a studio as you can get. The sound is so amazing. Everybody gets a great mix. I’ve been all around the building and it’s phenomenal. It’s a different kind of vibe playing here, but it’s still a rock ‘n’ roll show. I’ve had to change the way my guitar rigs sound to mix right, and I’ve played enough in the studio to do that. We were hoping to have done this before we did Fenway. [The first leg of the 2022 residency was scrapped when singer Steven Tyler, being treated for a foot injury, went into rehab for opiate abuse.] It would have been a lot slicker and smoother.
Back to the guitars …
That’s something I was thinking of writing about, doing a book about that, as a bystander and participant in this amazing revolution in sound, how it’s developed technically. The deeper you dig, [the more you see] how it informed popular music. It’s like the snare drum. And they don’t give it enough credit for that, that backbeat. That’s what drives the car. If you don’t have a powerhouse behind you, you can’t play rock ‘n’ roll.
Speaking of, Joey Kramer is sidelined now and his drum tech John Douglas is in the chair.
Joey’s drumming is signature and it beats the shit out of you, playing drums. It’s really tough [and there’s] a lot of personal stuff, but the bottom line is Joey – and every drummer I know of who’s played hard rock – has joint problems. Physically, it’s one of the hardest gigs out there and you have to be in really good shape. He’s paid the price and had problems with every joint. That’s why we had to have John sit in. He knew the songs, but you can listen to a song a thousand times but when it comes time to play it, you gotta learn it. He’s really stepped up to the plate. It was amazing. The show is pretty much there. He’s played 32 shows.
What can people expect in Vegas? Same set every night or are you switching some songs in and out?
We wanna start pulling some more of the songs that got overlooked. During the MTV era, there were a lot of songs that got a lot of focus, but there were songs next to them [on the albums] that were really good songs. Like on [1979’s] Night in the Ruts, which I think is one of the most overlooked records, even [by people] in our camp. We played that live in the studio. And that’s right when I left the band, so we never toured around that. They left all of mine and Brad’s [Whitford] guitar playing on [the record]. I thought they might have the other guys play on it, but they didn’t. There’s a vibe to that album. We’re gonna start pulling a few of those things out. As long as we play the [hit] songs – we don’t want people walking out going “Shit, I came to hear ‘em play this one.” There are probably 8-10 songs that we will always put in the set, unless it’s like we’re gonna just play this album or that album. I think even with 10 songs, that leaves you with five spaces to fill up with songs we’ve been dying to play live and never got to.
But in Vegas …
You’ve got to be a little more careful there because of our audience. They say the population here changes every two-and-a-half-days, and people are coming from all over the world. A lot are coming to see the band, but others to see a magician or Cirque du Soleil or the Love Beatles thing. Hopefully, we win ‘em over. Our outlook, we’ll play things [that are] a little more tried and true – we don’t want anybody walking out. But people should know we have more than five albums out there.
I can think of a few you can’t leave the building without playing – “Mama Kin,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Walk This Way,” “Cryin’,” “Sweet Emotion” and, of course, “Dream On.” But, yeah, there’s a lot to be said for those “deep cuts.”
I saw the Stones maybe 10 or 15 years in Shepherd’s Bush and it was a warmup show for their Wembley show. It was the Babylon tour and they played all the songs off that record and a couple [of hits] “Honky Tonk Women” and a couple of those, but mostly it was all album cuts. Being a fan, I loved it. Mick said “If you wanna hear the hits, go down to Wembley Stadium next week but right now we’re gonna play this stuff.” It was great.
What did you think about them dumping “Brown Sugar” from their set?
I understand it. I get it. I had my doubts about [our song] “Janie’s Got a Gun,” but I think that because people listen to the lyrics it’s a real positive song. It gave birth to the Janie’s Fund thing that Steven did. We all help get funds for girls who are in trouble. So much positive stuff. At this point, the song is a statement. It might offend some people. I would have to think it does, judging what is going on [these days]; we’re living in insane times. I was texting with Bill Burr who did that introduction at the [Fenway] show. We know him going way back and I said, “It’s gotta be one of the hardest jobs being a comedian in this atmosphere,” and he’s managing to do it and doing it great. But it’s gotta be so hard. Some stuff you can’t go near, it’s too touchy. Most of the time I think the people in the audience see it for what it is, but as soon as it hits the internet, it’s over. I think things will eventually balance out. It was once all the way one way and now it’s all the way the other way. It’s gotta come back to the middle, I hope.
I covered Sam Kinison in his early club days and tears were streaming down my face I was laughing so hard. It was so funny and so wrong.
Yeah. It’s interesting, Richard Pryor’s stuff, holy shit. It came up when we played Blazing Saddles, one of the funniest movies. I couldn’t wait to play it for my kids when they were five or 10 or something. Billie and I sat down and started running it and after five minutes we had to shut it down. [We said] “When they get older and they can see it and make their own decision.” I’m surprised they haven’t done a public burning of all the copies. It was great for the times.