#229: Aerosmith, "Toys in the Attic" (1975)

I didn't go out of my way to choose Toys in the Attic—it sort of fell into my lap because no one else who writes for this website wanted to write about it. And I understand why people who love music wouldn’t want to write about this band. Because of their longevity, Aerosmith has managed to be present in every generation of music since the Nixon administration, but also to be strongly associated with none of them. Even as they re-emerge with each new generation, they seem to belong to no single era in particular. Having been constantly handed down, they are always re-invented, but never different. They are a product—an LLC in 4/4 time. The band is everywhere, from everywhen, but belong to nobody.

Younger Baby Boomers, whose older siblings had greedily claimed Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers for their own, saw Aerosmith as ersatz versions of those earlier, better bands. To Gen-X kids, Aerosmith sat between Creedence Clearwater Revival and Cheap Trick as one of the only rock ‘n’ roll bands from their parents’ collection that they could stomach, buoying those desperate rock ‘n’ rollers through the hair metal era until grunge could arrive. For millennials, Steven Tyler and Co. became ubiquitous and ever-presently acceptable. They were the white noise of rock ‘n’ roll, somehow evading the critical skewering they were owed for records like Pump and Get a Grip.

So, who would want to be stuck with the task of writing about a band as uninteresting as this?

I wasn’t upset about the assignment, though. For me, it was a nice surprise. It was like unexpectedly finding yourself in the same place, let’s say the juice aisle of the Walgreen’s, with someone you haven’t seen in awhile, let’s say…your dad. Yeah, I said it: this record reminds me of my dad. Because, of course it does. Sure, my dad is the one who first introduced me to the band, but even if he hadn’t been, I think we can all agree that for the last four decades Aerosmith has become the Dad of rock ‘n’ roll.

Mind you, I am not talking about the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No, that honorific goes to Chuck Berry or Ray Charles or someone foundational like that. I am not speaking about the prolific, Genghis Khan-esque parentage of Elvis Presley, nor the Abrahamic father to nations of Robert Johnson. I am talking about the Hootie & the Blowfish type, sandals and socks wearing variety of dad. I am talking a good old fashioned, scare your prom date away, burn the brats at every barbecue, farts in his sleep kind of dad.

Aerosmith, also not unlike most dads, has a special knack for being impossibly corny. Their songs are the equivalent of knock-knock jokes, their shows are cringey, hours-long Adam Sandler impressions. Some of the earliest levers the band used to fulcrum their way into power are just karaoke covers of songs like “Come Together” and “Train Kept a-Rollin”—soon to be standards the band changed just enough to be able to put on their records, but not enough to distinguish them in any way from the originals. Similarly, their own catalog is just a series of near-parodies; “Round and Round” is a fake Motorhead song, “Kings and Queens” a limp take on Black Sabbath, and “Back in the Saddle” is a dusty Skynyrd rip off. The rockabilly innuendo of “Big Ten Inch” is an old Bull Moose Jackson record that Aerosmith legitimately plucked from the Dr. Demento show, making it an actual, honest-to-goodness parody. Aerosmith established themselves as a variety act of sorts. A dress-up-and-be-someone-else-for-a-little while type of act. Not unlike the detachable thumb trick that your dad taught you, Aerosmith would pull any cheap gag just to get a reaction. And, just like your dad, Aerosmith inexplicably has cool friends, with Run-DMC and Willie Nelson popping up every once in awhile to lend credibility. People like to call Jeff Tweedy and Warren Zevon “dad rock” but there is no rock more dad-erific than Aerosmith. So sappy and melodramatic. So bland and cliché. So ubiquitous. (This is all not mentioning Liv Tyler, of course, whose movie career has made Steven Tyler one of the most famous celebrity dads in existence. But that is a whole other essay.)

They weren’t always like this, however. Aerosmith is from a generation of artists who came by their fame organically. They were discovered, more or less, not manufactured. They wrote “Dream On” in a tiny apartment in Boston. It wasn’t endlessly revised and tinkered with by songwriters-for-hire and image consultants. They are from an era of music that is often (for better or for worse) longed for wistfully by music fans, critics, and artists alike. They were even briefly considered dangerous, with the drug-addled Perry and Tyler referring to themselves as "the Toxic Twins," and the music press sometimes calling the band "the Bad Boys from Boston" (though that was probably mostly because the moniker was alliterative.) It seems impossible that they are now commonly called "America's Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.” (Go ahead and google it.) I’m embarrassed to admit that at one time I too put them in league with the sexually explicit 2 Live Crew, the satanic Slayer, the violently angry Sex Pistols, and the vulgar Ice-T. Aerosmith just seemed so wanton.

I remember an older cousin mischievously putting on a concert film called Aerosmith: Scrapbook that I was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to have. I can still recall the image of a groupie who turned toward the camera, a stand-in for Stephen Tyler, and who pulled down her bathing suit asking, “Hey Steven…remember these?” I probably remember her small, untanned breasts, poking out pink-tipped and beautiful from her sun-browned body, better than Tyler ever could.

Looking back, the video seems so tame, almost quaint; the woman wriggling on stage next to Joe Perry, Tyler sniffing his gloved fingers, the strange physics of the way breasts moved when women, propped on their male counterparts’ shoulders, bopped along to the beat of “Walk This Way.” It is almost coy compared to what a lifetime of internet pornography can impart. Compare the messy fun of that concert footage to the near antiseptic chic of a video like “Blurred Lines,” where the women are mere accessories, or to the exploitative faux-elegance of any Weeknd video. It is only the decades separating us from that Aerosmith concert film that teaches us how innocent all that cocksmanship was. The craven corporatism of the band in 2017 reveals how relatively harmless all that transparent phallicism was back in the mid-70s when Toys in the Attic came out and they were playing shows just to get laid.

Their relative inoffensiveness should make me hate them more, of course. Rock ‘n’ roll bands aren’t supposed to be benign. They are supposed to be dangerous and scary. Your aunt isn’t supposed to like the music you listen to. She’s supposed to think it’s terrible. But your aunt kinda likes Aerosmith. Everyone kinda likes them. Being kinda liked and accepted by as many people as possible has been their prime objective since they first became famous. In that way they are actually America’s least Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.

So, if they are doing this much posturing and most of their work is objectively terrible, where is the backlash? You’d think that now that the people writing for Rolling Stone (which we lately only read for the Matt Taibbi articles anyway, don’t we?) and the people who make the A&R decisions about music—people who, just like you and me, grew up on the Roots and Pearl Jam (each of whom have just as valid a claim on being called the Greatest Rock Band in America)—might get wise to hucksters like Aerosmith. I submit to you that it’s because of dads. All of them. All of our collective dads. American dadhood in general.

Our dads are embarrassing, goofy, and lame. Their hearts are in the right place, but they try too hard at the wrong things. They are just guys figuring things out as they go, but by the time we realize that, it’s too late because we’ve already built the resentments and anger towards them. They are guys who have a hard time realizing we aren’t little kids anymore and that, as much as we’d all like that, there is no way to get back that time. So, even though a lot of the mistakes they make are understandable or even for the right reasons, it’s still hard to forgive him. (Think of Liv Tyler, so emblematic of the catastrophe of American parent-child relations, being that she longed to know him, but couldn’t because she was busy being raised by Todd Rundgren of all people.)

So, as you can see, my relationship with Aerosmith, not unlike my relationship with my dad, is complicated. I look back on records like Toys in the Attic and I try to look past Revolution X, that awful videogame they were in, their dumb cameos in Wayne’s World 2 and Be Cool, those desperate attempts to cling to stardom by aligning themselves with the pop world, and their insistence upon still gyrating their hips into their guitars past retirement age, but I can’t. As much as I want to, it’s hard for me to forget those scarves flying out of everywhere like some bad magician when I am trying to enjoy the surprisingly melodic “No More No More.” It’s hard to nod my head to the good enough “Toys in the Attic” without thinking about the Cocked, Locked, and Ready to Rock Tour of 2010, or the band’s cozy relationship with professional phony Lenny Kravitz.

Even the problem of memory, though, reminds me of my dad. I’d like to think back to the time period when I first encountered Toys in the Attic without messy facts about my own dad emerging around the edge of my memory like detritus. I want to think back fondly on those days when he was teaching me how to work-in a baseball glove, how to pump gas, and how rock ‘n’ roll worked, without the recollection being smeared by estrangement and hostility. I’d like to look back on those trips in my dad’s car, driving around in the little blue Hyundai, listening to Aerosmith singles crackling from the radio, without looking past decades of debris; ruined Christmases, bitter arguments, or what his blood alcohol content was on his third DUI.

My dad was sort of an average type of dad and by that I mean he worked a job he hated, told a lot of bad jokes, and really liked Aerosmith. He had been in a band when he was a teenager. They broke up and reformed, replacing him with Tommy Hilfiger's brother Billy, of all people. I guess they ended up playing a few shows at CBGBs. I don’t think my dad ever got over the fact that he never became a rock star. So, despite or because of the disappointments of his youth, rock ‘n’ roll was very important to him. He taught me that Richard Thompson had the gift of story-craft and that Neil Peart was the most important drummer since Buddy Rich but that Mick Fleetwood was his favorite, and that Clapton was God.

“That’s Aerosmith,” he explained to me when I was eight and we heard “Sweet Emotion” on local rock station PYX 106. When we got home he plucked the Toys in the Attic cassette from his own collection and he gave it to me. I guess that for the entirety of the rest of my life I’ve been trying to get back to that moment of first hearing them because it’s been sort of all downhill for all of us since then.

Even though my dad saw himself as a failure, he wasn’t to me. I would look at old pictures of him playing drums in a cowboy hat and long blond hair, or picking on a guitar in his dorm room and he was a rock star, right up there in the constellation that contained Hendrix and Dylan. Because that is what kids do. They look at their dads like they are superheroes. Until they don’t. That is what kids do until they discover that their dads are just human beings, mixed-up guys who are doing the best they can, and often making a lot of mistakes.

Like most dads, Aerosmith is corporate, not living their dreams, but they are still going to work every day regardless. They are corny and silly. They are not the infallible superheroes we thought they were back when we were kids. They are flawed, sad, and human, making a profit on a product no one really wants, but doing it because they think that’s what their kids need. In that way, it seems less like they are sellouts and more like they are just guys, doing a job. Just stuck in a bad situation they don’t know how to escape.

And so now I’m a dad. I have my own hang-ups and problems, and one day my kid will hold resentments about all of them. So far I’ve taught him to love music, though, and I feel it’s my responsibility to carry on the tradition of listening to Aerosmith in the car with my kid. Do I feel 100% on board with it? Not really, but there are other traditions I'm not fully on board with that I participate in because that is what dads do with their sons. Like Christmas. Like telling bad jokes. Like making a lot of mistakes.

While I can't look back on the songs from Toys in the Attic without seeing embarrassments like the Gap ad Perry and Tyler did in the 90s and terrible music like Honking on Bobo, my son doesn’t have that problem. He just hears music for what it is and doesn’t come at it with a lot of baggage, which makes me sort of happy. I guess only children can hear Aerosmith for the first time the way any of us did, before the Armageddon soundtrack, before Dad died, before MTV. In a way, it gives us all a chance to start over.

So, when I hear “Sweet Emotion” come on the radio, I will turn it up and, even though I won’t be able to forget all the stuff that drives me nuts about them, I’ll tell my son, "Ya hear that, kid? That is Aerosmith." Because that is what dads do.

—Matt Meade