AEROSMITH: PERMANENT VACATION (1987)
1) Heart's Done Time; 2) Magic Touch; 3) Rag Doll; 4) Simoriah; 5) Dude (Looks Like A Lady); 6) St. John; 7) Hangman Jury; 8) Girl Keeps Coming Apart; 9) Angel; 10) Permanent Vacation; 11) I'm Down; 12) The Movie.
Permanent Vacation. What a brilliant title — no, not for the album, but for the entire career of Aerosmith starting with the unhappy day of September 5, 1987, when the first record buyers subjected themselves to its treatment. Or, perhaps, starting with the Run D.M.C. collaboration on 'Walk This Way' from the previous year? No, probably not. When they did their rap-rock thing in mid-1986, the band was still drugged out and scary, and the friendship between rock'n'roll and hip-hop was still an exciting, rather than languid, thing to consider. In fact, when Steve Tyler popped his head through that hole in the wall that Perry cut with his guitar, screaming a bloody 'WALK THIS WAY!' into the surprised faces of his black partners, this just might have been the very last time we caught him in a genuinely scary appearance.
With the appearance of Permanent Vacation, the bodies were healed and the souls were sold. This, of course, is not just a personal impression, but is deeply rooted in factual basis. In order to «modernize» (shudders!) the band, Geffen Records brought in producer Bruce Fairbairn, whose main claim to fame was engineering Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, and outside songwriters Desmond Child and Jim Vallance, to «help out» the band in the same humiliating way that mainstream labels were «helping out» old-time heroes like Cheap Trick and Eric Clapton. The goal was as obvious as the quest — the goal, to make a record that sells, the task, to maintain some sort of artistic integrity and save some sort of artistic face in fierce battle with the demon of corporate songwriting. The goal was achieved; the quest, mostly flunked.
I am not saying that Permanent Vacation is a bad album. It has to be approached according to the standards of its day; as a chunk of hairy pop-metal, it is actually better than most of the Poison / Def Leppard / Bon Jovi albums of its era, if only because old-time guitarists like Perry and Whitford, even if they really wanted to, could not play in the same flat, leaden, funkless way than the guitarists in most of these bands. But every effort has been taken to make them sound like these guys. The worst news is that the guitar melodies do not register any more in my memory bank. In the Seventies, it was all about the guitar groove; on tunes like 'Toys In The Attic' or, let's say, 'Get It Up', Joe Perry was the hero and Steve Tyler the afterthought. On Permanent Vacation, the roles are permanently reversed. Guitars are there to provide loud, fat (I'd even say «overweight»), and utterly unmemorable backing to catchy pop choruses. Nothing else.
And they aren't necessarily ugly pop choruses. After all, corporate songwriters usually know their job, and at least a guy like Desmond Child knew a thing or two about catchiness (unlike, for instance, Diane Warren, the biggest musical orgasm faker in the history of bad sex). If the chorus to 'Rag Doll' or to '(Dude) Looks Like A Lady' (which otherwise sounds like a bizarre cross between the Who's '5:15' and a particularly sleazy AC/DC anthem) does not stick in your brain, you must be tonedeaf or something. But even 'Rag Doll', arguably the strongest song on the album, is hopelessly spoiled with its dumb electronically enhanced drums and marinated guitar sound.
Nasty green stuff keeps splurging out all over the place. What is the point of covering 'I'm Down' by The Beatles, reproduced note-for-note but with atrocious late-Eighties production values? No point. What is the point of the closing pseudo-«Kashmir»ian drone 'The Movie'? To reaffirm the listener's faith in the band as «artists»? Four minutes is hardly enough time to fish that faith out from the depths of the well in which it has been dropping for the previous fourty. What is the point of the hedonistic title track — to confirm that the band are having a braindead competition with Mötley Crüe, even though it was already obvious from the first two songs? And let's not even get started on 'Angel', the first in a series of deadly biological weapons commonly known as «The Aerosmith Power Ballad» (fortunately, these particularly scary death-bringers were still in the testing stage; real mass production would not start until Get A Grip).
My personal two favourites are in the middle; 'St. John' sort of breaks up the pop-metal formula in favor of something sincerely darker and more bizarre in the blues-rock vein, and 'Hangman Jury' is sort of what it would be like to have Leadbelly produced by Bruce Fairbairn — crass, but fun and, at least, entirely unpredictable. If anything, these two songs show that the band were still not above searching for new sounds and experiences, something that the record industry would completely forbid by the time of Pump.
But these itty-bitty experiments get hopelessly lost in the sea of sludge and filth, with Steve Tyler, formerly one of the shiveriest nasty young men in existence, now jumping into the role of one of the ugliest dirty old sleazebags in the industry. Just like in the good old days, more than half of the songs are about getting some; but where the frenzied screams of "doctor, doctor, doctor, get your sweet ass off the floor" once sounded authentic, all this new stuff like "somebody better call a doctor or wake me up with a shove" ('Magic Touch') is no longer convincing at all — a fourtyyear old Tyler is, of course, still decades away from being a Viagra patient (at least, I hope he was), but he is no longer able to sustain or justify his sex drive all through the album. Granted, again, there are not as many cringeworthy moments here as there are on Pump ('Love In An Elevator' — GOD!), but they're there all right, and I really don't want to hear song after song about dirty old men from dirty old men, be they Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones or Frank Sinatra.
Sometimes I feel genuinely envious of people who have no problem enjoying Permanent Vacation with the same happy abandon that they enjoy Rocks or Toys In The Attic, i. e. with the ideology of «these guys rocked in the Seventies, now they rock in the Eighties and Nineties! — sure they rock in a different way, but times change, you know?» Try as we might, I and those with similar feelings will never be able to experience similar emotions from 'Rats In The Cellar' and '(Dude) Looks Like A Lady' — but maybe this is just our problem? Maybe we are overintellectualizing things instead of just letting go?
Then again, if we just let go, pretty much every rock song with a mid-tempo 4/4 beat may be able to rock our socks off, and where's the fun in that? Nah. I freely admit there are some good vocal hooks on the album, and a few creative ideas, but no sober Aerosmith album deserves anything higher than a rigid thumbs down. Back to drugs, boys; back to drugs — the only way to save the music. (Then again, maybe not. Dirty old men are bad enough, but dirty old junkies would make Requiem For A Dream look like an innocent joyride).