Steven Tyler’s voice has died, and I’m in mourning.
For me, rock ‘n’ roll began with Steven’s voice. In particular, it began with the world-eating scream that begins the song “Nine Lives,” the first track on the 1997 record of the same name. I was 14 when I saw Aerosmith on the Nine Lives tour, and not interested in music. I had to be dragged to see Aerosmith by a hip auntie, who told me: “You’ll never be cool if you don’t start liking rock ‘n’ roll.” I was sure I’d be bored. But then! Huge kabuki curtains descended across the stage of the Coral Sky Amphitheatre; the air filled with the yowls of a thousand angry cats; monster harmonic-minor chords squealed from an unseen guitar; Steven’s 50-foot silhouette appeared at center-stage, and –
I was doomed. Grinning, drooling, dancing. I felt as though a vast, non-verbal secret whose existence I’d never suspected was being revealed to me bar-by-bar; something that would rejigger all the fundaments of my hormone-soaked adolescent universe. And I was right. After the show I took up drums and guitar, slept with somebody for the first time, grew my hair, and eventually went to college to study music, chasing the primal thing I’d felt when Steven screamed at me.
I loved that scream, and I loved the strange, mercurial voice propelling it. Even when my listening tastes matured and I recognized the awesome breadth of dumbness exhibited by the Aerosmith catalog, the sound of Steven’s voice remained my favorite pure noise in all of rockdom. Now, careful listening to Aerosmith’s new single “Legendary Child” has convinced me that voice is gone forever. This essay is a eulogy.
Steven Tyler was never a naturally compelling vocalist. His true singing voice was arid and thin, neither pretty nor powerful. Throughout his career, he covered for his unlovely timbre with a series of increasingly clever affectations and tricks, the first of which he deployed on Aerosmith’s eponymous debut album in 1973. On Aerosmith, Steven centered his voice way back and way up in his throat, almost in his sinus cavity, to affect a gurbling noise that was probably supposed to approximate blackness. It didn’t work. Steven sounded like a young caucasian Muppet badly impersonating Louis Armstrong. Nevertheless, the sound could infuse a song with a compelling, rootsy otherwordliness. Listening today to “Movin’ Out,” the first song Steven wrote with guitarist Joe Perry, you hear a witchy beauty in the vocal that doesn’t exist anywhere else in rock; the whole performance sounds like a field recording of a 1940s proto-metal-folk outfit, imported from some bizarro universe where such things exist. The only song on Aerosmith on which Steven utilizes his true voice is “Dream On,” and there Steven sounds untrained and uncertain. In the crescendo, when Steven reaches for the famous octave jump, he’s hesitant and a little frightened, unsure the note is in reach.
Steven dispensed with the Satchmo nonsense for 1974′s Get Your Wings, and began searching for a voice to replace it. In the absence of one, he sounded underpowered. He also sounded sexy, knowing, puckish, and a little dangerous. He had swagger, and that made up for a lot of indifferent singing. Steven sounded much the same on 1975′s Toys In The Attic, and on the song “Adam’s Apple,” when Steven shoots the moon to hit the third-highest note he’d ever record, he doesn’t sound frightened at all. He knew his range by then. What he didn’t know was that he had a scream. Steven didn’t make that happy discovery until Rocks, in 1976, and then he went a little crazy with it. Rocks‘s very first song, “Back In The Saddle,” begins with an inhuman Tylerian blast, and Stevensings half-in, half-out of his screaming voice on most of the record’s songs. He continues to do so throughout Aerosmith’s next two studio records, and on a great many songs thereafter.
That half-screaming voice is the one you hear on “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” and “Janie’s Got A Gun.” It’s the sound of a not-very-large man propelling a tremendous amount of air through his throat; the aural impression is of explosive outward pressure. The pressure makes the voice seem unstable, as though it’s about to dissolve into coughs or cracks, or perhaps break upwards into falsetto. (Steven never coughs and seldom cracks, but he does sometimes blast directly from belt to falsetto. Usually at the very ends of words, and especially words ending in a long “e” sound.) The voice sounds unstable, but it’s not – it goes wherever Steven wants it to, with a twitchy agility that belies the force required to keep its timbre consistent. Even singing full-force, Steven swoops, glides, and glissandos; half strongman and half acrobat. No one had ever sung that way before. No one has sung that way since.
And even Steven could never sing that way for long; say, through an entire concert. This was ably demonstrated by Aerosmith’s first live record, Live Bootleg!, in 1978. The whole band sounds worse-for-wear – they were, at the time, at least as interested in binge-drinking, heroin, and cocaine as they were in tuning their guitars – but Steven sounds unsurvivably ragged. Attitudinal and exciting, but his vocal cords are bleeding.
Steven developed a more sustainable vocal attack on 1979′s Night In The Ruts. Though he explores the melodic limits of scream-singing on a cover of the Shangri-La’s “Remember (Walking In The Sand),” most of the album is given over to a croakier, bluesier kind of singing that Steven had never before attempted. The new voice is most clearly present on “Reefer Headed Woman.” It’s an acidic sound, world-weary and wry; the voice of an over-sexed, over-aged adolescent who feels most relaxed in scary bars. It’s a casual voice, but surprisingly rangy. Singing in it, Steven can go high, low, loud, or soft, and sound fully at ease.
Steven stuck with that voice on most of his recordings until this year. It’s the voice you hear on “Angel,” “Rag Doll,” “Cryin’,” “Crazy,” “Pink,” “Jaded,” “Baby (Please Don’t Go),” and pretty much everywhere else. Steven spent the 80′s workshopping it, and by Get A Grip, in ’93, when Joe Perry’s hook-writing ability was on the wane, Steven had learned to combine it with his full-scream, half-scream, and Satchmo voice in a manic synthesis. Guitars are benched on Get A Grip, and songs’ whole skeletons are assembled by armies of overdubbed Stevens. The best singing of Steven’s career can be found there, and on Nine Lives. On that record, and especially on the songs “Kiss Your Past Goodbye” and “Ain’t That a Bitch,” Steven’s voice is a hurricane.
Steven turned 50 on the Nine Lives tour, and on the live record from the era, A Little South of Sanity, his many voices are full and ferocious. They are the first voices I heard when I discovered rock’n'roll, and from 1997 through 2002 I dragged a dozen friends and family members to Aerosmith concerts to hear them. By 2002, I was a collegiate music major and my guests were musicians. Among them was a voice major named Emily. After a show in Tampa that year, she was both awed and appalled. “He’s singing so wrong!” she told me. ”His voice should have given out two decades ago!”
It was true. Singing is generally the very worst thing one can do to a voice. To preserve the vocal cords, classically trained singers seldom stray far from a safe and limited range. Basso-buffos never sing basso-profundo; contraltos never sing alto; lyric sopranos seldom attempt music for coloratura or spinto sopranos. These safety-minded singers are left with two octaves, more-or-less, and a similarly limited dynamic range. Those singers who wander beyond their ranges tend not to last long. Maria Callas and Natalie Dessay, two wandering classical singers with otherwise fine technique, lost their voices by 40. Even more cautious singers tend to whither quickly. Half the polish was gone from Pavarotti’s voice by 1980. In rock’n'roll, where singers are more careless, voices have an even more limited shelf-life. Mick Jagger sounded tired at 35; Paul McCartney was frayed by Let It Be. And Robert Plant, the only singer of the “classic rock” era to sing as unsafely, as screamily, and as rangily as Steven Tyler, was voiceless by 25.
But Steven was a monster. The vastness of his various voices overwhelms Aerosmith’s late-90s music, in a way so singular that music critics have never thought to compare it to anything else. In the public imagination, Steven had become less a singer than a cartoon: an inhuman noisemaker, an ersatz bluesman, an improbable sex-machine, and a pioneer of cool fashions too idiosyncratic to imitate. (Though at age 15 did imitate them. The photographic evidence has been destroyed.) The fact that there was an actual person beneath Steven’s hats, an actual body beneath his rags, and a human throat producing his strange music, was lost.
The throat didn’t wish to remain lost. For the first time since 1975, Steven committed his actual voice to record on 1998′s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” It still sounded arid and thin. And when it made subsequent appearances on Aerosmith’s records – such as on the fantastically stupid “Avant Garden,” the last song on 2001′s Just Push Play - this listener, at least, cringed. But it was nice, too. The uber-confidence Steven had seemed to possess all his career now extended to his singing, and why not? No one complained, and “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” is now some kind of classic.
Steven’s voice wasn’t noticeably in decline on 2004′s Honkin’ On Bobo, an album of blues covers. Perhaps the falsetto wasn’t quite as high as it had been, nor as pure, but it was a near thing. Steven sounded fine in various concerts and special appearances during his band’s long recording hiatus, right through the beginning of 2011. That year, he performed a truncated version of “Dream On” during the season finale of American Idol, and he was perfect. He could have been singing in 2001, 1991, or 1981. The vocal cords were ageless. And then they weren’t.
In bootlegs of Aerosmith concerts recorded during the fall of 2011, there’s a new gruffness in Steven’s voice. He had often sounded like he was shouting in his middle range before, but that was an affectation: now he really was shouting, and he could barely make it through 10- and 11-song sets. By the ends of concerts he was dodging his own melodies. He had long sought to preserve his voice in concert by ceding certain high harmonies to backing vocalists; now he was avoiding even the low harmonies, speak-singing whenever possible, and sometimes just mouthing the words. In January of this year, when Steven sang the National Anthem at a football game, he sounded pained – not just in the high notes, but in all the notes; grainy and nodular and wounded.
On “Legendary Child,” he sounds even worse. The vocal cords are too raw for screaming; now, for those cords, to sing is to scream. The production of music requires too much effort for Steven to summon up his wry bluesman’s voice, the appeal of which always had to do with how unforced it sounded. For the same reason, Steven’s natural timbre is probably out of reach, as is his fake Satchmo. What’s left to Steven now is his swagger and quirkiness; his willingness to make funny noises, to laugh and bark and wink with his voice. His attitude. That will probably be enough to carry his band’s forthcoming album, Music From Another Dimension (to be released in August), and it might even be enough to carry him through their Global Warming tour, which kicked off in Minneapolis on Saturday. But probably not. People show up at Rolling Stones’ concerts to see Mick Jagger, but go to Aerosmith concerts to hear Steven Tyler. This year, fans won’t. The noise that was Steven has passed from the stage forever, and no one will hear its like again. Truly, it is a sad time to be 14.