Whammy Bar: Joe Perry Print
Tuesday, 07 August 2007 03:46
ImageBy Larry Dobrow, GJD Contributor
I first saw Aerosmith live during their first comeback, one record before they realized the best way to court 1980s-1990s music fans was with hooky, innuendo-laden pop songs and videos teeming with jailbait. Given the band's, uh, "allergies," the set was predictably sloppy: Half the arena mistook "Let the Music Do the Talking," the band's single at the time, for "Toys in the Attic." It wasn't pretty.

Ah, but then Joe Perry approached the mic. This was the guy who gave us the monster pre-verse "Mama Kin" solo, the riffy "Same Old Song and Dance," the "Train Kept A-Rollin'" squeal. He was the only band member who, at least on the surface, hadn't devolved into a caricature of hard-living burnout. Surely he'd make everything better.

joe perry.jpgInstead, with his eyes half-open, he stammered a few sweet nothings about the Jer-Z crowd (apparently we sounded "ready to party" on that fair evening). He introduced the next song thusly:

"Tonight after the show, I'm gonna get some girl backstage to give me head - not because of the way I look, but because of the way I plaaaaaaaay."

What followed, if memory serves, was a middling-bar-band version of Hendrix's "Red House" and a whole lot of laughter. Sure, some of the gals in the audience unleashed the scripted torrent of "woooooo!," but mostly the response was one of disbelieving hysterics.

Perry hadn't come off as dangerous and authentic; he'd come across as a Spinal Tap-ish boob, albeit one who lacked the six-string dexterity of Christopher Guest/Nigel Tufnel. It was during that moment that the realization washed over me like a wave of backstage vomit: Joe Perry kinda sucks, as both a guitarist and as a "cool" rock star.

What lured fans, male and female, to Perry in the first place was that very combination. He looked the part, what with his Les Paul slung low and his face creased in a perpetual sneer. Plus he had a Jimmy Page/Leslie West thing going for him on those early Aerosmith records, especially when he wrapped himself around a riff ("Uncle Salty") or lost himself within one (the still-electric "Sweet Emotion"). Say what you want about FM radio staples like "S.O.S. (Too Bad)", "You See Me Crying" and "Last Child" - nearly 30 years later, it's still Perry's playing and the sense of menace it adds that elevates them above songs from that era.

Since Draw the Line, though, Perry hasn't produced a single memorable moment - unless you want to count the ones that were memorable for the wrong reasons, which we'll get to in a minute. Given Aerosmith's off-the-radar status at the time, it's unfair to fault Perry for lending his axe to the Run-D.M.C. remake of the seminal "Walk This Way." When the band returned to prominence, however, it was almost entirely on the strength of its melodies, punched up by professional songwriters (Desmond Child et al) and given an MTV sheen by producer Bruce Fairbairn (Bon Jovi, Loverboy).

Perry got lost in the mix, as radio smashes like "Hangman Jury," "The Other Side" and "Cryin'" emphasized multi-tiered background vocals and keyboards over any vaguely jagged-sounding stringed instrument. Even when given a moment to shine, like in the "bluesy" burble of "Crazy," Perry offered little beyond unimaginative pentatonic ascents and descents. He also missed numerous obvious opportunities to cut loose on the Honkin' on Bobo album of Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon covers.

And then there's the off-the-record stuff, which has drained Perry and his bandmates of every iota of rock-and-roll credibility. Performing a Diane Warren-penned ballad for a Michael Bay flick? A Super Bowl "collaboration" with Britney Spears? Perry's appearance alongside Sanjaya during the "American Idol" finale in May? The latter alone makes a pretty good case for Perry as one of the three most embarrassing rockers of his generation; Phil Collins wouldn't have been caught dead in that spot. I mean, jeez - how wealthy does one guy need to be?

By the way, if you check the discography page of the band's Wikipedia entry, you'll learn that Aerosmith has sold 126 million albums. Riiiiiiight. Delusional fans are so cute.

But that's getting off the topic. Down at the music store where I worked as a kid, Aerosmith was sneeringly referred to as a "big sister" act and Perry in particular as a "big sister" guitar hero. Why? Because band and player were largely introduced to my generation by our big sisters (in my case, my pal Bryan Reiss's big sister). The girls responded to Steven Tyler's late-‘70s slink and the band's effortless way with FM-friendly crunch. It was left to those of us who judged with our ears to filter out the pretenders.

Then as now - especially now - Joe Perry doesn't pass muster. How he and Aerosmith have survived with their classic-rock luster largely unscuffed remains one of the great cultural mysteries of our time.