How Aerosmith Got Their Wings Back on ‘Done With Mirrors’
In purely commercial terms, Aerosmith's improbable resurrection after seven years in career purgatory began in 1986.
That year, frontman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry appeared on Run-D.M.C.'s groundbreaking hip-hop remake of the Aerosmith classic "Walk This Way." Propelled in part by an unforgettable and inescapable video, the new re-imagined version became a runaway hit that out-performed the original and jump-started Aerosmith's comeback.
According to then-manager Tim Collins, the band's blockbuster second act -- a run of three multi-platinum albums starting with 1987's Permanent Vacation -- simply couldn't have happened without every member of the group doing his part to conquer individual addictions. They did (at least for a time), and the rest, as they say, is history. In the U.S. alone, Aerosmith went on to sell five million copies of Permanent Vacation and seven million apiece of the two albums that followed, 1989's Pump and 1993's Get a Grip.
By contrast, Aerosmith's 1985 reunion album, Done With Mirrors, sold poorly, taking a full eight years to scratch its way to gold certification. As music critic Chuck Eddy writes in a guest essay in Richard Bienstock's photo book Aerosmith: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Boston Bad Boys, "Not much time passed before [Tyler and Perry were] apologizing for the album."
Along with Collins, certain critics were even more disparaging than the band (which has, over the years, been quite disparaging in various outlets). According to Boston Globe contributor Steve Morse, at a lavish listening party arranged for the Boston press, the media members who were present "went catatonic" on hearing the music, which Morse called "terrible" and compared to "bad Motley Crue."
Rolling Stone drubbed Done With Mirrors as well. But Eddy praised it in his Village Voice review, while All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine retroactively enthused about the album, flat-out proclaiming it better than Permanent Vacation and identifying it as "the beginning of their remarkable comeback."
Any way you look at it, Done With Mirrors plays a pivotal part in the Aerosmith story. (Incidentally, in both the aforementioned essay and his own book Rock and Roll Always Forgets, Eddy proposes that it was his review that inspired Run-D.M.C. producer Rick Rubin to approach Aerosmith about a collaboration.)
The band's first offering for Geffen, the album marked the return of Perry and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford, who had quit in 1979 and 1982, respectively. Naturally hyped as a return to form after Aerosmith soldiered on with replacement guitarists Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay, Done With Mirrors captures the reunited original fivesome practically wallowing in a nastiness that nothing else in their catalog touches.
It's not that other Aerosmith songs ("Uncle Salty," "Lightning Strikes," "Monkey on My Back" -- take your pick) don't go down some dark alleys, but throughout the nine songs on Mirrors Tyler references all manner of depravity, including underage prostitution, underage drug use, general drug use, more drug use, sex with a sex partner's younger sister (with drugs present), possible prison sex and a shady character named Julio Afrokeluchie. (The vinyl version was originally issued with eight songs, with "Darkness" included as a bonus album closer on the CD and cassette.)
If opening track and lead-off single "Let the Music Do the Talking" has a more celebratory tone than the rest of the album, that's because it was originally recorded by Perry's solo vehicle the Joe Perry Project. Tyler overhauled the lyrics and melody, but he didn't quite go as dark as he does on the rest of the songs.
Though difficult at times to get a coherent sense of what the songs are about (good luck deciphering "My Fist Your Face," for example) you do get enough pictures from Tyler's stream-of-consciousness sleaze to understand that he's coming from a gritty place. It's also clear that the specter of drug abuse still loomed large over the band at this point. (Amusingly enough, the "Let the Music Do the Talking" video shows them hanging out with a group of teenage bootleggers after a show at a hilariously straight-laced afterparty where Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton, and drummer Joey Kramer stand stiffly, looking more like chaperones than rock stars.)
But no matter how much damage Tyler had done to himself, his motormouth tongue-twisting wit was still intact. Done With Mirrors gave us the line "the reason a dog has so many friends is 'cause he wags his tail instead of his tongue" -- a turn of phrase that should by all rights have made it into everyday parlance back in 1985.
Mirrors is noticeably devoid of the power ballads, outside songwriting doctors and the titillating-but-safe-for-the-mall sexuality that would characterize the band's next three albums. And while Aerosmith certainly sound re-energized on Permanent Vacation and Pump, on Mirrors they sound like they have something to prove as they climb out of a filth-encrusted, needle-littered gutter. Songs like "Let the Music Do the Talking," "My Fist Your Face," "Shame on You," etc., slink along with that trademark Aerosmith boogie, but the rhythm section maintains an almost threatening swagger in its grooves.
Producer Ted Templeman, fresh off his extraordinary streak at the helm for Van Halen's first six albums, captured Aerosmith's spirit at its most ragged and scrappy. Listening to Done With Mirrors alongside the albums Aerosmith made before and after it, you have to wonder if -- at least attitude-wise -- the gutter is where this band truly belonged. For better or worse, they never returned to that same headspace again, which makes Done With Mirrors both a new beginning and the end of an era.