“I’d still be a rocker,” says Joe Perry when asked about what might have been. But the Aerosmith guitarist reveals that he flirted early on with becoming a marine biologist instead. His new memoir is called Rocks, and it’s a candid glimpse into his childhood, the ups and downs of his band, and what he’s learned from it. Joe talks about all of the above in our Beatweek interview.
Why was now the time to write Rocks? Why not five years ago, or five years from now.
There are so many changes going on in the music business, and during this change of the way that music is getting out to the fans it was the fortieth anniversary of the band. We were finishing our last record for Sony, my youngest song just graduated from BU, so all four boys are out of the house, so personally things were kind of changing and we’re going into a new era, so to speak. It felt like time to do it. It always felt like there was one more thing to do before I could settle down to write a book like this. I could have written it five years ago, but it just felt like there was always something left. One more thing. It just felt like it was time.
In a lot of these stories, the traditional parents are the villains. But your parents, despite your disagreements with them, end up being the heroes of the story.
There are certain things that are stereotypical of the rock band story, but I wanted to dig down a little deeper. The book almost starts with a question: how did I end up there? I came from a very non-musical family. I had to really go digging to find this pop music and then of course rock and roll. And at the same time, having some natural affinity for playing the guitar. Then as time went on, those years that every kid goes through, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, you’re wondering what you’re going to do with yourself. I think that a lot of people can relate to that. You don’t have to be a rock and roll fan or an Aerosmith fan to get something from the book, because there’s a lot of common human nature, dealing with egos in different families and things like that which are common in life. I wanted to point that out.
I was lucky enough to have really nice parents, and I really wanted to be happy with what I was doing. I just wasn’t designed that way. I had a learning disability that they really didn’t have a name for at that point. It really held me back from doing what they wanted me to do. But I also felt like the life that they had set out and planned for me wasn’t what I saw myself doing. I was too much of a rebel, too much of a loner, too much of an outsider. I never saw myself putting on a tie and going to work every day. I just didn’t…
Being an oceanographer sound pretty attractive and exciting, and I would get to see the world. But that would also take a fair amount of skill in the classroom that I didn’t have. So that knocked that out of the box. But as much as they wanted me to follow that path, they realized that I was cut out for something different. In their own subtle way, they were helpful. I don’t think I realized it until I actually wrote the book and then read it, and saw it in a chapter, instead of thinking back to this instance or that instance out of context. It was part of the story.
There were times apparently when my father went to see the band play, and he never told me that he went. I found this out from my uncle, who has long since passed away. He said ‘Your dad was real proud of you, we used to go shows together and we would’ tell you.’ Fortunately I was able to show him the gold record before he passed away, so he knew at least I had a source of income. That made me really happy. Yeah, it was important for me to put that in there.
If certain things hadn’t happened, such as you getting kicked out of school for having long hair, would you still have found your way to music or I would I be speaking with Marine Biologist Joseph Perry right now?
I have to say that there was something about music that drew me on a subconscious level. The whole period that I was going through that was a really tumultuous time, and I’m not sure if I made that evident enough in the book. One thing I probably would have focused on more is just how crazy it was during that period, the sixties. Everything from the assassinations to the marches for equality, the college kids taking their vacations to go down to march down south, and of course the Vietnam war and worrying about getting drafted. Those were really big things. There was a lot going on in the background, and certainly a lot to rebel against at that time. People’s lives changed because of it in a big way. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind when you read about some of the decisions I had to make, and how music was such a part of everyone’s life at that point, especially for young adults my age. That music meant so much. The Beatles White Album. We listened to those records over and over while we were sitting there fretting over, what’s my draft number? It was a really, really hard time.
I really thought that I could add something to the science end. I love the ocean, I love the outdoors, and I’m still fascinated by it. But rock and roll was right there. It fell in with my own feelings. I wasn’t going to stay in that small town. I knew the world was too big to just stay there and follow that kind of path, even if I could have. So I have to say, I would probably still be playing rock and roll. Maybe be more involved with oceanography. At this point I’m a big supporter of the Sea Shepherds. We’re constantly watching the alternative news to see what’s going on with the oceans and the weather and the climate and all that stuff. I still have a fascination with it.
What was the hardest chapter to go back and revisit? What was the most enjoyable subject matter to go back and write about?
Some of the stuff that happened to us in the seventies when we were just starting, some of the stuff that fell together, I’m really kind of stunned by the turns of events. Being at the right place at the right time, or running into this one who could literally bail us out. I always felt like there was something bigger going on, even before we had the kind of success we had. So it was interesting to go back and think about those times. Certainly, my summer with Judy Carne was a high point, no pun intended. She turned me into a man, I’ll tell you.
But then also, meeting [wife] Billie. I was so fortunate to be away from Aerosmith, not to be this big rock star playing in front of sixty thousand people, just playing in what she saw as a local band. So I knew that she liked me for me. I certainly didn’t have any money at that point. In fact the first time I took her out to dinner, they brought my credit card back cut in half. So it wasn’t about the money. It was about finding two kindred spirits. I found my best friend, and still I’m amazed that I was fortunate enough to be in that position, just me and my guitar, in meeting her. It was just a miracle. I see guys that are hugely successful, and they’re still looking for their mate. It’s got to be really hard.
And yet see seems to be the one who steered you back toward reconnecting with Aerosmith.
Definitely. I think part of that was because she didn’t know, not that I think it would have mattered, because so much had changed between the time I left and the time I went back, that I think she probably would have given me the same advice. A lot went on during those late years, late seventies. A lot of that was my own issue. The band never really sat in a really objective way and dealt with some of the problems that we had. We were still basically kids getting fucked up. If we had our arguments it would often end up with someone walking out of the room slamming the door and going and going and getting fucked up. That’s not how you handle things if you’re looking for longevity.
So those are the kind of things that we learned after the band got back together, how to separate the two. Keeping the band together and not letting the differences in the way we wanted to live our private lives get in the way.
The introduction is by Johnny Depp. I was aware that the two of you were close friends. I was not aware that you’ve only known each other for three years. Are you surprised that you could meet someone at this point in your life and become so close of friends with them that quickly that you’d pick them to write the introduction to your memoir?
As it happens we became friends pretty fast because he’s a musician. After the first half hour of meeting him and the old ‘I’m a huge fan, I’ve seen this movie sixteen times’ and then him saying ‘I remember seeing you guys play when I was fifteen and I picked up a guitar’ and all that, after that got out of the way, we just talked music and family and that kind of thing. And we became really good friends. During that period he was around here, around LA, and we got to know each other pretty well. It’s really not so much about the length of time, it’s the quality of the time you spend with somebody that dictates if you’re gonna be really close friends of acquaintances. And we’re very similar. We’re both very private people, we’d just as soon not walk on the red carpet. We’re not out there wanting to be seen every week. We just like doing our gigs then going home. As it turns out, we just became really good friends. It’s really hard to find people that you can trust and become friends with at this point in my life.
What do you most want your sons to take away from the book?
I think there’s not much in there that they haven’t heard in some form or other, when it’s being in the room when I’ve made phone calls, or being upstairs when the band’s been rehearsing. I know at one point the two of them had a band together, and we were recording Honkin’ On Bobo. You could go down in my basement and take a left, you’re in my garage. Take a right, you’re in my studio. There were a couple weeks going by where they were rehearsing in the garage, and the band was recording Honkin’ On Bobo. The whole house was filled with music.
So they’re pretty immersed in the business. They’ve seen the high points. They were raised on the road. Billie and I decided early on we were going to be together. I wanted her to be with me, and then when it came time to have kids, they were going to be with us too. So we raised them on the road. We’re a really tight family. So it was a different way to live, but it was also a great way to raise a family. A lot of times we felt like gypsies out there. It was just a great time. The band was in a very creative place too.