Graded on a Curve: Aerosmith,
Toys in the Attic

Back in the day I went back on forth on Boston Very Baked Beans like a yoyo–liked ‘em in high school, loathed ‘em in college, then did what any sane person would do and put ‘em out of mind altogether. “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” didn’t exactly make me want to keep abreast of what Aerosmith was up to.

First year in the dorms at Shippensburg College Aerosmith were inescapable, what with my floor’s resident dope dealers Sheesh and Shrooms cranking the Toxic Twins around the clock, and I’ll never forget the day in the dining hall I warned ‘em Aerosmith would rot their brains, and if they really wanted to improve their minds they’d switch to Frank Zappa! Who at the time, if I recall correctly, was producing such IQ-raising fare as “Crew Slut” and “Wet T-Shirt Nite”!

Yeah, I was full of shit for sure. Because like ‘em or not, Aerosmith were on to something. Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and the boys fused the New York Dolls’ glam-rock sleaze with Led Zeppelin’s sonic bombast to produce a brand new kinda high-stepping boogie strut. Aerosmith translated the leer into sound, brought David Johansen’s trash raunch aesthetic to the unwashed masses, and gleefully knocked the blues topsy-turvy, tossing in a whole bunch of dirty limericks in the process.

Theirs was garage rock of a sort, but the garage had a supercharged 1964 Pontiac GTO in it. Fact is Aerosmith boogied faster than almost any machine on the streets back in 1975. Punk was considered the fleetest thing on wheels at the time, but the title track of Toys in the Attic crosses the finish line before anything on Never Mind the Bollocks, and it came out a year and a half earlier! And Tyler’s nursery rhymes for adults are anything but dumb–anybody who can fit poor Paul Getty’s ear into a lyric is A-OK by me.

Lots of folks–one-time New York City Dolls Fan Club President Stephen Morrissey being one of them–dismissed Aerosmith as a shameful vulgarization of the Dolls. And it’s true to an extent.–Aerosmith lacked the sly wink, the ramshackle charm, and “we got their first” street cred of their Glam Trash New Yawrk forebearers. But it’s not as if Aerosmith tried to hide their debt to the Dolls; Tyler happily acknowledged David Johansen as a role model. “I was in awe of the Dolls” just about says it all.

Aerosmith’s debut album is Dolls-like in its primitivism–”Mama Kin” sounds like a demo, for god’s sake. And they learned everything they knew about style and attitude from the Dolls. But that’s where the comparisons end. The biggest difference? The good old Protestant work ethic. You can argue (and I’d agree) that Aerosmith never wrote a song as good as “Personality Crisis.” But Aerosmith won fame and sold millions of records because they kept it together long enough to get it together. The New York Dolls simply couldn’t be bothered–they were too busy getting elegantly wasted and shopping for clothes. Sure they were great and ahead of their time–but how far did that get the Velvet Underground?

Aerosmith stuck around long enough to grow up. And their mature sound was leaner, meaner, and quicker on the trigger than anything the Dolls ever put out; if the former were the boys in the schoolyard striking poses, Aerosmith were the crazy kids hurling themselves off the monkey bars. Their songs are always going rope-a-dope on you–they exude this madcap energy that still thrills. I may be sick and tired of “Walk This Way,” but it’s one joyous cock-walk of a song, all adolescent bluster and jaunty sprung wordplay–anybody who ever took a chance at a high school dance with a missy who (they hoped!) was ready to play can relate.

“Sweet Emotion” was something entirely new in my neighborhood; all muscle and menace but with a mysterious sheen, it has a shadowy, shimmery feel to it, like a half-glimpsed albino tiger stalking through a dream. Perry talk-boxes the title, Tyler shakes a packet of sugar cuz somebody forgot to pack the maracas, and if that chainsaw of a guitar riff can’t deforest rain forests it’ll sure come handy the next time you need firewood.

“Walk This Way” spawned the groundbreaking rap version by Run-DMC, and no wonder–the damn thing swaggers like Godzilla, and it’s got mad rhymes. With his tongue-twisting, quick-punching, stream of consciousness vocal delivery Tyler prefigures the free-styling chutzpah of the Beastie Boys–comes up a bit short in the funny department, for sure, but there’s no denying the guy’s got wit. And Aerosmith anticipates Buster Poindexter’s retro blooze lounge shtick with their remake of the hoary novelty tune, “Big Ten Inch Record,” on which Tyler brags he’s got a big one, but not of the sort you can suck on.

“Round and Round” has a bottom as big and round as Big Butt Bertha’s, and sounds like an outlier–Aerosmith can’t be bothered to hide their debt to Led Zeppelin on this one, and frankly I don’t care. This ain’t the Titanic–it’s the iceberg that sank it. And I love those backing vocals in the round–sounds like a salute to the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water!”

“Adam’s Apple” is a bump and guitar grinder and all cowbell–Tyler retells the story of the Garden of Eden, and you’d better believe his version’s juicier than the one in your King James Bible. “No More No More” boasts a guitar sound that harkens back to “Street Fighting Man”; Scott Cushnie punches the piano like he’s Ike Turner or Little Richard, while Tyler sings the Perils of Fame blues–”I ain’t seen no daylight since we started this band,” he sings, then complains he’s tired of locking the door at the Holiday Inn to keep all the groupies out!

“Uncle Salty” doesn’t exactly make me wanna jump and shout–it lacks oomph. That said, the chipper wind tunnel chorus (Tyler moans, “Oh, it’s a sunny day outside my window”) strikes an intriguing contrast to the dour verses, and the song has a certain atmospheric charm. Power ballad “You See Me Crying,” meanwhile, is a lovely thing; Mike Mainieri conducts, Tyler takes his rasp into uncharted territory, and Brad Whitford plays on and on and on, happy to be the lead guy at last. The single may have failed to chart, but “You See Me Crying” is a winner and the perfect way to end a record.

I don’t know what intangible something keeps me from loving Aerosmith–could be a vestigial symptom of my innate dislike of cock rock, who knows. That said I respect ‘em–by dint of staying power alone it’s Aerosmith, not the Dolls, who deserve to be called America’s Rolling Stones. And they do occasionally win my affections. “Lord of the Thighs” is one helluva funny song title, and that line about Paul Getty’s ear always cracks me up.


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