As a band forever dogged by Rolling Stones comparisons, Boston blooze-rock outfit Aerosmith might be expected to generate a literary canon that doubles as a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-lite examination of what really went occurred in the mayhem days of groupie queues, stacks of amps, and energy sucking tours. (And in the case of both bands there’s plenty of time for talk now that the music has mostly dried up.)
So it figures, perhaps, that just as the preeminent Stones book was an autobiography from its guitarist (Richards’s 2010 “Life”), Aerosmith ax man Joe Perry has now given us the best book on a group that needs a little more selling than the Stones.
Aerosmith, of course, figures prominently in any discussion of the history of Boston rock. The band’s big problem in the overall saga, however, revolves around its inability to produce long-form opuses that could stand next to the big boys turned out by peers like Led Zeppelin, the Who, and even AC/DC.
But as Perry shows again and again here, the boys had a penchant for the big moment, which was often a case of catering to the devil in the details of a given situation — a Perry strength — and making something rather larger out of something so small as to be barely discernible. A throwaway blues lick, a line from an old screwball comedy, a cover song of a cover song of a cover song.
The well-paced, well-plotted memoir, “Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith,” begins with Perry’s youth in Central Massachusetts in the 1950s and ’60s. As a kid, Perry, who had a learning disability, struggled in school and suffered over it.
Beyond that, young Joe is portrayed as a nature lover/
BB gun marksman/wannabe marine biologist, his parents promising him that if he gets his grades up he might be able to intern one summer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.
“I was obsessed with learning from those men who explored the deep. I wanted to go deep,” Perry writes. And he would. Only in a different way.
That new way came in 1964, the year Perry turned 14. This was a prime time to turn 14 given that you could then have your entire life changed — as in, time to start a band — by the sight and sound of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” exploding onto a local movie screen. A plan for a band is hatched, and a Ben Franklin-esque concern with it: “That band would require electricity.” In guitar form, naturally.
From there the narrative is pretty familiar to even the casual fan: Perry plays with a few bands, eventually helps form Aerosmith, which takes off in the 1970s; next comes the infighting, drug abuse, poor management, and breakup, followed by rebirth in the 1980s.
Naturally, the meat of the book proves to be the relationship between Perry and frontman Steven Tyler, a rock ’n’ roll partnership with all of the carnage, love, backbiting, separations, and reunions you’d expect. Perry’s anecdotes could have been flown in from some ace rock ’n’ roll-centric novel, and do more than amuse; the best enlighten, not just about this band and the partnership at the core of it, but the very nature of creativity itself.
In the mid-1980s, the guys find themselves hanging out with a mega fan who had “every bootleg known to man” by the band. Tyler hears “You See Me Crying,” a cut from “Toys in the Attic” (1976), thinks it’s by someone else, suggests that the band cover it, only to be told it was their own material. The band, it seems, looked back when necessary, but the spirit, the push, was always toward the future. Even to the point of not being able to recollect having made a mini-masterpiece, a term that, scaled back a touch further still, describes this able memoir.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming “The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From the Abyss.”