The Day Joe Perry Quit Aerosmith
For much of the '70s, Aerosmith reveled in their reputation as rock's most delightfully sleazy bad boys, with creative anchors Steven Tyler and Joe Perry – a.k.a. the Toxic Twins – as famous for their chemical appetites as for their creative spark. But by the end of the decade, the party was just about over – and on July 28, 1979, one particularly nasty backstage argument sent Perry packing, seemingly for good.
It all went down at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the site for 1979's World Series of Rock. A legendary run of concerts that stretched between 1974 and 1980, the World Series played host to countless big-name bands. In fact, on the night in question, Aerosmith shared the bill with AC/DC, Journey, Ted Nugent and Thin Lizzy. It proved a crucial year for a number of those acts, in good ways as well as bad: Journey soon graduated from the ranks of supporting acts, but AC/DC's Bon Scott would be found dead just a few months later. For Aerosmith, the show would be a night that lived in infamy.
In retrospect, the signs of trouble were easy to spot. The band was struggling to finish their follow-up to 1977's Draw the Line, and Perry grew increasingly more frustrated as Aerosmith's setlist stagnated. "We were pretty burned out," he later admitted. "And instead of taking a vacation, we let loose on each other."
That "letting loose" took the form of passive-aggressive snarking between the band members – and, just as crucially, their assorted significant others, a group that included Terry Hamilton, wife of bassist Tom Hamilton, and Perry's wife Elyssa. In Cleveland, Tom and Joe found themselves drawn into the backstage fray when Terry and Elyssa got into an argument that turned nastier than most.
"Terry could be very blunt and really nail somebody," recalled Tom Hamilton in the Aerosmith biography Walk This Way. "I guess she said something to Elyssa, who threw a glass of milk at her. So there was this physical confrontation between them before we went on at Cleveland. It was loud. There was yelling, and we could hear it. No one got hurt, but it was also a reflection of the conflicts going on in the band."
The incident, stressed Hamilton, was just one in a series of arguments that unraveled during the tour. "Steven would do something to piss Joe off, then Joe would cold-shoulder Steven onstage – it would be very obvious," he continued. "By the end of this particular night, I remember Steven was over the top, he was so angry."
"Joe and I weren't there when the Big Bang occurred," recalled Tyler in his own autobiography, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?. "I walked in, panting and dripping, soaking wet, and Elyssa and Terri were screaming at each other. 'Get the fuck out of here,' I yelled. 'Can't you see that we're working in here?' That's when I found out that Elyssa had thrown milk at Terri and Terri just wouldn't have it. Elyssa would take no shit from anybody and got off on being that way. And neither would Terri. Tom was spewing."
"I wouldn't even change in the dressing room because they were screaming and throwing shit," recalled guitarist Brad Whitford in Walk This Way. "I thought, 'These guys are nuts.' I'd just get my bag and go. Total insanity, and no part for me to play in it. Being in Aerosmith was like walking into a dog fight and both dogs bite you."
"I got into it with Joe," admitted Tyler in his book. "'Man, can't you come over here and control your woman?' ... Joe was acting like it was Elyssa's right to do what she did, and he's saying as much while Terri's still in the room. Didn't care." "Something happened," shrugged Elyssa Perry in Walk This Way. "Things were said. Terri and I didn't get along at all. I remember asking her something – sarcastic – and she might have thrown some ice at me. I had a glass of milk in my hand because I drank milk exclusively, and..."
At the time, neither Perry nor the other members of the band were particularly eager to tell fans how out of control things had really gotten behind the scenes. Out promoting the debut release from his Joe Perry Project solo outfit, he shrugged, "It was just taking Aerosmith so long to get that album out, and I was so fed up with that because in the meantime all during the summer we played these gigs and couldn’t play any of the new material because it wasn’t ready. Instead we had to go back and do the same old songs. ... It came down to I called up Tom Hamilton and said, ‘It’s off, I just don’t think I’m going to be able to go on the road with you this time, I’m going to stick with my own solo thing and I can’t put up with it anymore.’ That was the last official word I said to the group."
"We didn't talk about it," explained Hamilton in Walk This Way. "This became a dead baby in the closet, because we wanted to keep the old ladies out of it. Throwing milk? We didn't want this to get out, and it didn't for years."
Even after the pre-show blowup, Elyssa Perry seemed to think the discord brewing in the band's ranks was still throwing solid musical sparks. "Tom said something, Joe said something. They all started fighting," she recalled in Walk This Way. "Then they had to go onstage and it was the best show of the tour. Awesome! Everyone loved it. They were the best rock band in the world when they were on."
Tyler, while conceding he "was so drunk" after the show, remembers feeling differently. "I remember clearly being on the steps of the trailer, walking down and yelling at Joe, 'You're fucking fired!' ... We were a gang, a unit, but I was just so angry. ... You can get into a crazy head space where all you want to say is 'Fuck you!' I could have just said, 'I'm outta here, but I didn't; instead I said 'You're fired!' Those were the words! I've never actually punched Joe, but that night I came really close."
"We came offstage and went right into the trailer and we were freaked at Joe and started yelling at him," concurred Hamilton in Walk This Way. 'And then Joe's answer finally was, 'Well, maybe I should leave the band then.' And Steven said, 'Yeah, well, maybe you fuckin' should.' And the rest of us stood there, basically agreeing with Steven. And then Joe stormed out."
"It was a hard period in my life," Perry reflected in Walk This Way. "There was a short time in there when I had no band, no recording contract, no management. It was just me and Elyssa alone in Boston. All I had was the idea to do some new music. I was psyched about doing my own thing, but a big part of me wanted to be in Aerosmith. A part of me was missing, and I just denied it."
"We completely fried ourselves," admitted Tyler in his book. "It was an insane thing to do after all we'd done to make it. But I had gotten so enraged I'd now destroyed the one thing that had made Aerosmith so powerful, that fine tension that created Aerosmith's feral howl."
Fans seemed to agree. Although 1979's Night in the Ruts, which included some Perry performances but was completed after he quit the band, was a decent-sized hit, things went steeply downhill shortly thereafter. Whitford quit in 1981 to start a new band with former Ted Nugent singer Derek St. Holmes, and sales plummeted for 1982's rather lackluster Perry and Whitford-free Rock in a Hard Place LP; for much of the next five years, Aerosmith seemed creatively and commercially adrift, touring and struggling to secure label support in the face of dwindling sales.
Still, for years, Aerosmith seemed determined to keep carrying on. Perry and Whitford were replaced with guitarists Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay, and although the band had basically ground to a halt in the studio, they remained on the road. It wasn't until Feb. 14, 1984, at the end of a lengthy and fairly dispirited tour for Hard Place, that a fateful backstage meeting started the healing process that finally brought the classic Aerosmith lineup back together and paved the way for some of rock's biggest records.