In this week’s edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman and Associate Editor Sarah Grant look back on 20 years of listening to Aerosmith’s Get a Grip. The two not only share wistful memories, but also try to dig deep and explain why it went on to become the Boston veterans’ best-selling studio album worldwide. So, grab a Fresca, blast the album below, then shut up and dance.
Michael Roffman: True story: This was the first album I ever bought with my own money. In other words, I actually walked into a store — the now-defunct Incredible Universe, which at the time was an apropos name — and went straight to the As in Pop/Rock to snatch it up. To date, I still have this great debate in my head as to whether or not I should have asked my pops for an advance on my allowance to buy the super deluxe furry version. I don’t think it had extra tracks or anything special (maybe a poster?), but its cover came brandished with a unique cow imprint that felt ultra real. Stupid, sure, but I’ve always been a sucker for pointless merchandise and stuffed animals; I blame Disney.
Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure my family dragged me to this old Jewish cemetery right after to visit a few of our dead relatives, which no doubt shed a weird light on tracks like “Eat the Rich” or “Boogie Man”.
Sarah Grant: Mike, that’s the best and also the only anecdote I’ve ever heard about Get A Grip. Spotify is good, but it’ll never give you a CD with five man nipples printed on the front.
The funny thing about this album for me is that it’s Aerosmith’s most successful and most embarrassing record. What I mean is: if you don’t like Aerosmith, you only know Get A Grip (the one with all the Alicia Silverstone videos). If you do like Aerosmith, you never admit you like Get A Grip. If this is a debate scenario, you swiftly move beyond the Daffy Duck noises and burp intros of Grip and to the badass 70s drug anthems or anything from Rocks.
Not being totally strung out all the time was a major hurdle for Aerosmith’s song-crafting during the 1990s. When Steven Tyler finally got sober, he moved onto a different addiction — the ladies — which wasn’t a problem for the band until lyrics like “I’d rather be OD’in’ on the crack of her ass” trickled into album singles. Let’s just say, Aerosmith was between a rock and a hard place … again.
Be that as it may, that lyric happens to come from my favorite song from the album, “Fever”. I love the runaway train harmonization when Tyler sings: “As long as I’m in Heaven / Honey, I don’t care”. It lasts all of five seconds, but I always rewound that part on my Walkman — the harmonica squawks like a cat in heat.
“Fever”, “Flesh”, and “Eat the Rich” are the three best songs here. They’re so goofily poetic they make Pump (the record with two cars humping each other on the front) seem like an art album. I always feel bad for people who can’t hear the fun on these tracks. Elsewhere, “Shut Up And Dance” has a killer slide solo by Perry and “Line Up” was co-penned by Lenny Kravitz. But if you want blood? Go to the other three. To me, they have the quintessential Aero-gallop: Joey Kramer’s titan touch on drums, Brad Whitford and Perry tangling on guitars, and Tyler’s snarling, slapdash commentary that even borrows line from the Bible.
However, Grip was the album that transformed Aerosmith into country icons without ever going full-blown country (unlike other big-ticket, old-dog rock bands like Bon Jovi or Kid Rock). Read any interview with a contemporary country star and you’d swear Aerosmith used to tour with Shania Twain. Recently, Taylor Swift tweeted:
“I feel like I’d be more understood if people knew ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ by Aerosmith is how most of my emotions sound in my head.”
Another pop/country singer, Carrie Underwood, who contributed vocals on Aerosmith’s latest album, cited “Cryin'” and other ballads as personal and professional touchstones. Those artists, like Aerosmith, harnessed the lucrative country market with sky-high choruses and epic instrumentation. In the ’90s, Aerosmith toyed with soaring electric guitar solos, bombastic percussion, singers, orchestras, Diane Warren — whatever was left in the budget. But they never affected country personas, and therefore never disillusioned the global pop sphere. They let the music do the talking.
What was your favorite song, Mike? I’m guessing, “Boogie Man”?
MR: I actually adore “Fever”. For some reason, it reminds me of all those ’90s movies like My Cousin Vinny or Tommy Boy. I think it’s that road trippin’ vibe you mentioned, as if Tyler’s driving through some hick Southern town and delivering his ballsy Boston swagger. That “crack of her ass” line is hilarious, too, and seems like a leftover from the ballistic Guns N’ Roses era. In hindsight, it’s almost like it was Tyler’s way of keeping young because, to be fair, they were 15-20 years older than most of the hotter MTV acts at the time.
It’s sort of hard to pick a favorite, though. Get a Grip is so awash in nostalgia for me. Its opener “Eat the Rich” swept me off my feet as a pre-teen, not only because of its foul language (!) and that Babe Ruth line, but later on with Aerosmith’s ridiculous Generation-X shoot ‘em up video game. Do you remember that? It littered arcades everywhere. (Boy does that statement age me.) If you’ve never played it, please do. It was such a sensationalized vision of the band’s bad boy attitude; hell, you used CDs to shoot down terrorists and each member reminded you that: “Music is the weapon!”
By the way, if you’re really looking to waste your life away, pore through this rare, uncovered behind-the-scenes footage on the making of the game. Or, just watch this asinine commercial:
Actually, to answer your question (finally), I think their strongest track on Grip is “Cryin'”, if only for Tyler’s vocal performance and Joe Perry’s fretwork. It’s also so well produced, especially for a time when rock ‘n’ roll albums could be well produced and not sound so pasteurized. Multiple layers support this track: that harmonica again, the organ, and, of course, their horn section. It’s a full-on rock single that deserves to be attributed to the word, “lush.”
SG: “Cryin’” is a great song, Mike. Let’s just get that out of way. Critics have called it every bad name in the book, from overly sentimental to mundane. The fact remains that it has one of the most recognizable intros in recent pop history, and if you disagree, you can take your Grey Poupon my friend and shove it up your ass [repeat chorus].
If the “Mama Kin” riff was the prelude to the band’s first act, then the guitar/brass strut of “Cryin’” was the prelude to their second. As you pointed out, the gut is Perry’s blues serenading the brusque saxophones and driving Tyler into a twitchy, harmonica-biting craze. Their bad romance is a fire I can’t resist.
MR: That wild persona, or edge if you wanna give ‘em that, was something they never were able to muster up again. (I blame Liv’s budding movie career — more specifically, the unjustified FM radio success 1998’s Armageddon garnered.) Here’s a wild question: Do you remember another album having this much lasting power? I mean, Aerosmith didn’t follow it up until 1997’s Nine Lives. That was four years later, amidst a decade that saw a library of changes in rock ‘n’ roll — and music for that matter.
SG: You bring up an interesting point. After Get A Grip, Aerosmith essentially lost its grip on contemporary music. “New sound” is a phrase you will never hear Tyler or Perry utter, because the first and only rule of being in Aerosmith is to be more Aerosmith. That is, when Aerosmith go into the studio to record, they aren’t concerned about beating their personal best. Are you kidding? These guys are obsessed with themselves. The only goal is to make a record that sounds more Aerosmith than the last. Sounds like a vicious cycle, but when it works, it’s ‘amazing’.
Love it or hate hit, Get A Grip is why Aerosmith are still selling out stadiums. None of their subsequent records latched onto the 90s zeitgeist quite like Grip, thanks to Liv, Alicia, and an enfilade of roller-blading Catholic school girls. The videos for “Cryin”, “Crazy”, and “Livin’ On The Edge” (but mostly the former two), crystallized a past that had absolutely nothing to do with Aerosmith.
MR: Fun fact: Lost‘s Sawyer is the hunk at the end of “Crazy”. So great.
SG: The videos were miniature Empire Records and Cluelesses – about wayward suburban kids, lunchroom brawls and belly piercings – it’s not “Rats In The Cellar”, it’s hardly “Sweet Emotion”. But this strategy allowed a new, young, CD-stacking generation to partake in Aero-history without preconceptions. Grip gave the band tabula rasa.
I always felt like “Crazy” was a more dragging version of “Cryin’” but over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Tyler’s Mae West via Mick Jagger warbling: “C’mere baby.” I’ve always thought of it as a seedier, sadder “Girl With Faraway Eyes” and it would be dreadful if sung by anyone other than Steven Tyler. The song is one word. One single-syllable word, that’s not even a particularly interesting word, sung over and over and over and over in a drooping, downward scale. Yet it blazed on the charts. It’s still a smash hit. How on EARTH does that happen?
MR: That’s so true about ” Cryin'” and “Crazy”. I’ve confused the two over the years and on several occasions. In fact, having mentioned the album to my fiance just now, she expressed the same confusion over the two songs — though, she then suggested they could be seen as bookends. I think I’d endorse that piece of insight.
Yet she also brought up a good point that jives with your digression. So much of our generation’s memories with songs are visual — and Aerosmith capitalized on that big time. When we think of half the songs on here, they’re tied to big facets of the ’90s: Alicia and Liv, Wayne’s World 2 (which was like one big commercial for Get a Grip, much like The Wizard was for Super Mario Bros. 3), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, etc. They embedded themselves in the culture and, as a result, this album became a sluggish phenomenon.
But I don’t think it’s just that. The album’s songs are catchy through and through and today define that last gasp of sleazy rock ‘n’ roll that wasn’t just successful but worshipped by millions. Basically, that boozy era when the term “rock star” was still agreeable and something worth dreaming about. That’s why, believe it or not, I’ll still place this next to my other diamond rock releases a la Appetite for Destruction, or Jailbreak, or Destroyer – real rock ‘n’ roll records without any whiff of pretension.
SG: Here’s my confession: I turn to ’90s Aerosmith like other people turn to St. Augustine. Get A Grip is my ultimate go-to for a redemption tale.
For me, no song hits the Aero-Bible harder than “Amazing”. Jesus Christ. The lyrics read as if Tyler wrote them while snacking on fortune cookies and just said “screw it, I’ve got nothing else to say.” But when I was in 10th grade, I thought “How high can you fly with broken wings?” was revelatory. I’ve cried to this song. And! The first time I heard it was when I first read Hamlet. What can I say, Mike? Me and Aerosmith: a case study of letting the right ones out and the wrong ones in.
So, we know Get A Grip influenced Aerosmith — but how has it influenced other musical artists in the last 20 years?
MR: Probably not for the best, to be honest. Still, that hasn’t stopped us from listening, or the album attracting new listeners. A few years back, I suggested Get a Grip to a friend looking for albums to spin on a long, desolate road trip. I didn’t hear from him for months — at one point, I even thought he might have pulled a Christopher McCandless — but sure enough, we ended up connecting and he randomly thanked me for the suggestion. I don’t know what that says other than that its impact didn’t stop in the ’90s. It also means we’re not alone in our admiration.
Not that I needed any reassurance.
What about you? We’d love to hear.