Aerosmith * Full Circle.
Chapter 1 * New York City, November 1996
Steven Tyler entered the studio like a whirlwind, walking low on his sinewy haunches, somewhat resembling the deranged cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil, with a tornado in his wake stirred up by a long leather cape and a huge smile stolen from the pages of Alice in Wonderland, which had left the usually cheesy toothed Cheshire Cat with a vacant furry moon face for the day. Atop his rubbery visage framed by those famous fantastic elastic jowls was a tall, red and white striped Cat-in-the-hat hat, and his demeanor was telegraphed in advance by the raucous witch-like cackle of his good humored laugh. We never knew what mood he’d be in, during the tension filled recording sessions with him, but it looked like we were in for a beauty of a day. The previous evening’s session had ended in a very loud and aggressive shouting match, umpired by road manager Jimmy Ayers, and it seemed as if this was a Steven kiss-and-make-up moment, as he jumped into my lap and threw his arms about my neck as I sat behind the old Neve recording console in the woody log cabin like interior of the control room of Avatar Studio A. A Kind of Star Trek country house, situated on West 53rd street in the grimy Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, Avatar studio was pretty quiet that day, as it was a wintry Saturday and the studio was empty. We were in the middle of the recording sessions for what would become the Aerosmith Nine Lives album, and I had asked Steven to come in on the Saturday, which was outside our normal recording routine of weekends off during the project, but I wanted to finish the chorus for a new song for the album called Full Circle. It’s a shanty of a song, and you could just as easily visualize drunken pirates or returning Nantucket whalers on heaving sailing ships sloshing mugs of beer and singing along (the original rock ‘n roll on the high seas), as you could preppy Boston kids, jammed into a bursting Cambridge Sports bar after a college football game, and I wanted to have some of that drunken flavor in the song - and who better to do it, than the no alcohol drinking Steven Tyler? But only because he’s a Boston boy!
One of the studio techniques we employ, is the overdubbing of many voices in one part of a song to create a group vocal effect. The difficulty with this technique, is that when all the nuances and vocal timbres of only one person are combined, the effect is not really group-like, but is more a stadium sing-along feel, and is the effect used by Def Leppard and Bon Jovi on their big rock hits; and this wasn’t the feel I thought we should apply to the chorus of Circle. So Steven went into his vocal booth to ready himself to sing. The vocal booth is a smaller isolated studio situated across from the control room, and is separated from the control room by the big main studio, and then glass so that everyone working can still see each other, and his vocal booth had been transformed from a drab and brightly lit work space into an incense steeped magical, mystical candlelit booth, with exotic cloths lining the walls and all manner of indigenous or exotic musical instruments lying about, making it look like a yard sale from The Lord Of The Rings! Steven warmed up his voice with a few vocal exercises and we began stacking voices onto the song’s chorus.
Don't let it slip away
Raise yo' drinkin' glass
Here's to yesterday
We're all gonna trip away
Don't piss Heaven off
We got Hell to pay
Come Full Circle"
In order to achieve the aforementioned desired drunken sing-along effect, I kept throwing character ideas to him, which he would impersonate. “Do Bob Dylan,.... do Tom Waits, .... do a little old lady avoiding being run over on a highway, .... do Joni Mitchell, .. a choir boy, .. a throaty cigarette whore ....”. It was so funny, and probably the most enjoyable day of my dream experience of producing an Aerosmith album, and to isolate and listen to those voices off the multitrack would be as sidesplitting as any stand-up comedy album. Once we’d got the choruses done, and I was winding back the tape, Steven sat down and started nonchalantly fiddling with one of his instruments, a red and gold wind-up box of some sorts that his wife, Theresa, had found at some flea market, and bought for him. It sounded strangely like the chorus to the song, but was in a different key. So I used a technique called varispeed to change the speed of the tape machine, and thus the base key of the recorded music, until they were in tune, and at the end of the song I recorded Steven winding the plaintiff drone of the box , and that’s the sound you can hear right at the end of the song. After I’d been through all the character vocals, balanced them and transferred them to a stereo track of group vocals, Steven sang the lead vocal, and if you listen to the song carefully, the good-naturedness of the session is evident in a chorus, sung by Steven with a little lyric change:
We're all gonna trip away
Don't piss Kevin off
We got Hell to pay
Come Full Circle"
After Steven had finished singing four or five lead vocal takes, I was sitting at the recording desk and compiling the best of them for the final vocal performance for the record, and Steven went for a walk into the chilly November air of a subdued New York City. About an hour later, he returned and burst into the control room, and brushed by me like a highwayman galloping down some moonlit track, yellow taxi fume dust kicking off his heels; and pulled up at the Compact Disc player in the corner of the room. With his caped back presented to me so I couldn’t see what he was doing, he tore the cellophane wrapping off a newly purchased CD like a lion on a New York strip steak, and slid the silver disc into the machine - pressed play - and strode over to the recording console where he leaned over me and pushed the button to hear the CD, and out of my cranked up KRK6000 speakers, a choir punched me between the eyes. It was a loud African choir singing in the richest coffee tones, the South African anthem, “Nkosi Sikele Afrika” (God Bless Africa) - it was banned from being sung or played for my entire life I’d spent growing up and living in South Africa. I had heard it, and had even recorded it - clandestinely -while working in Cape Town, but the force of it on that New York day was a heart-stopping blow to my stomach, and as I sat in the chair with Steven leaning over me, I burst into floods of tears - crying so deeply from the pit of my stomach. All my heartbreak, tension, drive and ambition; and a huge sadness and disappointment - in everything from the racial distortions of my birth country in my upbringing , to the desertion of my family who left me behind - and the flood gates tore open and the dam walls exploded. I couldn’t control my sobbing as Steven had my head cradled in his arms, and was rocking me gently and we were both apologizing profusely and totally unnecessarily. I felt I had indeed, come full circle.
Aerosmith - Avatar Studios
Working on string arrangements for Nine Lives.
A&R guru John Kalodner, Steven Tyler, David Campbell and me.