In 1998, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” rocketed to the top of the charts like a space shuttle launched to nuke an asteroid headed for Earth. Released in late August, the song took the #1 spot by September 5 and sat there for four weeks. Aerosmith’s biggest hit also reached the top of the charts in Italy, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, the Netherlands, and Australia. Anchoring the soundtrack for the film Armageddon, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was nominated for an Academy Award and received the MTV Award for Best Video from a Film.
The song put the plus-or-minus 50-year-old rockers at the top of the music world, silencing critics who had bet that the Bad Boys from Boston wouldn’t be alive, much less still performing, at the end of the century. But Aerosmith fooled everybody. Through high-profile battles with drugs and alcohol, break-ups and reunions, on-stage meltdowns and back-stage brawls, the band has carried on. Some credit Mama Kin; some say they have, as their 1997 album suggested, Nine Lives. But most likely Aerosmith’s against-all-odds-and-medical-science survival is due to the band’s ability to adapt and re-invent itself.
Bad Boys from Beantown
Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler and lead guitarist Joe Perry met at an ice cream parlor in 1970, like most hard rocking bad boys. Despite a pricey prep school education, Perry, 19 at the time, was filling cones. At night, however, he played guitar for the Jam Band, a group modeled after British blues bands like The Yardbirds and (the original) Fleetwood Mac. Tyler had a band of his own, Chain Reaction, but the ice cream-united musicians soon decided to form their own group. In less than a year, they had put together the line-up that would define the band for most of the next 40 years: Joey Kramer on drums, Tom Hamilton on bass, and Brad Whitford on rhythm guitar.
For the next two years, Aerosmith (a name not drawn from the Sinclair Lewis novel) lived in Boston and built its sound. They had plenty of work at clubs in and around Beantown, but mostly they watched a lot of Three Stooges and smoked a lot of dope. This seemingly bulletproof game plan did not bring them major success until 1972 when a scout for Columbia Records caught their act in New York City and signed the band to a contract.
The band’s eponymous first album limped to #166 on the charts, but one single, “Dream On,” reached a respectable #59. The band’s 1974 release, Get Your Wings, did a bit better; it reached #70, and one single, "Same Old Song And Dance," peaked at #54. But two other singles from the album did not even chart. Even worse, the critics had reached a conclusion: with their blues-infused rock and Tyler’s Jaggeresque lips, Aerosmith was just another Rolling Stones knock-off.
Their next album, however, forced the critics to take a closer look. Toys in the Attic climbed to #11 on the charts, and two singles reached the Top Forty. Even former skeptics acknowledged that the Bad Boys had concocted a certain crusty magic. Robert Christgau said that Tyler had a downright “gift for the dirty line as well as the dirty look.” Rolling Stone’s Gordon Fletcher said that their “strongest asset” was their feel for “hardnosed, aggressive raunch” (Rolling Stone, 31 July 1975, 63). The album’s most successful single, “Walk This Way,” reflected the raunch that the critics loved. The song featured a buzz-edged riff coupled to a syncopated, jazzy beat and a set of lyrics that set schoolboys a-dreaming:
See-saw swingin' with the boys in the school
And your feet flyin' up in the air
Singin' hey diddle diddle
With your kitty in the middle of the swing like you didn't care
But there was more than just riff and raunch to Aerosmith. Basking in their new success, they re-released “Dream On,” and the old single blew past its earlier chart performance, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unlike “Walk This Way” and similar tracks, the power ballad was musically and lyrically sort of soft. Joe Perry’s guitar was gentle, even sentimental. And in the vocals, Steven Tyler philosophically mused over life and its passing. Of course, the song built toward a harder conclusion, as about midway Perry threw in some rougher riffs and Tyler, the “Demon of Screamin',” unleashed a throat-busting howl. The song demonstrated that Aerosmith was more than America’s answer to AC/DC; they had a “softer side” as well.
Rolling Stone would later write that, with this song, Aerosmith—not Journey, not Styx—invented the power ballad. That may be true, but it was Aerosmith’s harder side that asserted itself over the next few years. On vinyl, the band released Rocks in 1976, their most hard-smacking raunch and roll to date. Off vinyl, they became poster boys for the rock and roll lifestyle. Their stories from the road ranged from the adolescent to the unbelievable—firecrackers chucked from hotel windows, furniture rammed through television screens, $100,000 room-service tabs. And their drug use was elephantine. Tyler and Perry bought heroin in Costco-like volume. Even Jerry Garcia, guitarist and singer for the Grateful Dead and himself a drug addict, worried about the Toxic Twins; he described them and their band as the “druggiest bunch of guys” he had ever seen (Rolling Stone, 5 September 1990, 46).
For hardcore fans, it was all part of Aerosmith’s charm, and they answered their hard-living idols with a little craziness of their own. Beer bottles, Frisbees, and even an occasional M-80 were heaved at the stage during performances. Unfazed, Joe Perry said that rock and roll was “a contact sport” (Rolling Stone, 18 September 1997, 43). The guys even coughed up bail money for fifty of their rule-breaking fans arrested for violating an arena no-smoking ordinance. But occasionally it wore even the Bad Boys down. “Maybe if I worked harder on my guitar playing,” Perry said in 1979, “we’d attract a better class of people” (Rolling Stone, 22 February 1979, 11).
More importantly, the hard rock lifestyle that Aerosmith were living had begun to affect the band’s music. After the success of Toys and Rocks, Rolling Stone declared their next album, Draw the Line, “flaccid and lazy.” Live! Bootleg in 1978 drew a better response, but even so, the consensus among insiders was that Aerosmith was spent. And they were right. Joe Perry walked out, tired of it all, in 1979; Brad Whitford did the same in 1981. In between, Tyler wrecked his motorcycle and was hospitalized for months.
A Second Chance to Rock
But in 1985, the band was granted a second life. Joe Perry and Brad Whitford returned, and according to Tyler, “it was like the five years had never passed.” In reality, though, things had changed, and Aerosmith Beta would be different. First Tyler went through rehab, followed by the rest of the guys. When they re-recorded “Walk This Way” with Run D.M.C. in 1986, they could actually walk in a straight line, finally. The reborn band also adapted nicely to the new world of music videos. Acting like the new kids rather than the old farts on the block, they quickly mastered the new medium, and over the next fifteen years they won ten MTV awards, more than most other artists during that time.
Perhaps most importantly, the band resurrected the “soft side” that they had been introduced in “Dream On.” The power ballads that had earlier lurked (apologetically) in the background of their work now took center stage. Songs like “Angel,” “Crazy,” Crying, “Amazing,” and “What it Takes” made up almost half of their charting singles.
It may have been a market calculation. Or perhaps the Bad Boys were mellowing with time. By the mid 1990s, they all had families (the Toxic Twins had seven children between them). In fact, one of Tyler’s daughters had just newly entered his life. Liv had been born in 1977, but her mother, Bebe Buell, a puritanical former Playmate, had decided that Tyler would make a lousy father, so she kept the child’s paternity to herself. Eventually the truth came out, and the two Tylers shared a rock and roll reunion. Steven even cast Liv in one of Aerosmith’s videos; she ditched school, shoplifted, won an amateur stripping contest, and then went skinny-dipping with a farm boy. Daddy’s little girl.
Whatever the explanation, by the late 1990s, Aerosmith had ridden their new ballad-heavy formula to the top of the music world. They had four Grammys and five American Music Awards on top of their ten MTV Awards, and in 1998 they finally achieved the one distinction that had eluded them: a #1 record.
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” actually reflected more than just their mid-life, second-life success; it also reflected their new formula. Like many of their more recent songs, it was written by an outsider, in this case Diane Warren. In turning to the “Queen of the Ballad” (some of Warren’s other writing credits include “How Do I Live,” “Because You Loved Me,” “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and “Un-Break My Heart”), the band revealed its greater willingness to go soft. This was the new Aerosmith: older, wiser, drug-free family men. Their willingness to record another ballad was no great surprise. Nor was it a surprise that the song featured a lush orchestral arrangement or that Steven’s daughter Liv showed up once again in the music video (she was, after all in the film for which the song was written).
Aerosmith may have blown people away with their excess in the 70s, stunned everyone when they reunited in the 80s, and shocked the skeptics with their string of hits in the 90s, but since then the unexpected has become the norm. Today Steven Tyler, the man who claims to have lost his virginity at age seven—to twins—and spent more than $20 million on drugs, dispenses advice to young up-and-comers as one of rock’s elder statesmen. But who’s surprised?