There’s a flea market in Elmvale, Ontario, which is near Collingwood, which is also near Wasaga Beach, where my friend’s family has a lovely cottage on the shores of Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. The cottage is stocked with old vinyl– mostly LPs rather than 45s– that were once played on an old tabletop four-in-one until the four-in-one broke. Most of the records came from my friends’ childhood, but some came from Elmvale: that famous Ronnie Hawkins groupie record with the purple cover; a bit of rare, and unrare, jazz; a Sir Douglas Quintet best-of; and the obligatory Tom Connors, Band and Lightfoot. Before last year, the flea market produced LPs dug out of cardboard boxes on popsicle stand stalls, but, recently, some 45s have appeared. When I asked the sunglassed, bare-armed minder of one of the stalls what he wanted for a stack, he told me: “Fifty cents a pop.” I told him this was good news; they were charging four bucks for scratched singles in Toronto. “Pfffft, Toronto,” he said, laughing.
It was a good stack: some weird old Downchild 45s; McCartney double A-sides; a few Hoyt Axtons; “Walk like an Egyptian”; and a strange, early Island print of an Augustus Pablo song, “Baby I Love You So.” There were also two CBS Aerosmith A-sides: “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion,” both of them backed by “Uncle Salty.” “Walk This Way” is one of the first songs I ever tried learning on the guitar– I failed– and surely one of the band’s greatest, a signpost track from “Toys in the Attic.” But, listening to both songs now, “Sweet Emotion”– despite having given a name to a handful of strippers searching for a persona– is clearly a better record. There’s phasing, talkbox, cool bass licks, percussion, tape manipulation, and a murky, slow Latinesque groove; sort of “Sympathy for the Devil” without panic or hurry. “Sweet Emotion” is the closest Aerosmith came to reaching for a higher art, and, on their own terms, it’s exactly what they did.
The beginning of the piece– percussion and bass and talkbox before the band joins– is Aerosmith’s most theatrical, as much of a curtain raiser as “Dream On,” if less sepulchral. There’s vibra-slap, shaker, guica, and glass tapping until Joey Kramer jumps the gun: landing his cymbal crash on the 4, rather than the one, and coming in like an angry Sly Dunbar. The drums are loud and marauding, stamping over the textures established in the beginning, yet carrying the vocals– “Sweet Emotion” repeated twice– high on its hump. Joe Perry and Brad Whitford’s hammer ons (or are they pull offs? I can never tell) at the back end of their riff are like a kind of quaalude country– you can imagine the pattern racing into bluegrass if the band didn’t sound so heavy and stoned– and set against the continued deep woods tableau created by the percussion, the song is like a creepy aural “Deliverance.” It slithers when it moves, winding greasy across the A/B and C part, the latter’s tape manipulation (the shhhhhzips that happen on the 2/4) working like a tongue reeled in and out.
Steven Tyler sings about pants being set on fire and how the dude dude’s out and is born to be wild and all of that, but it’s a vintage vocal turn: chewy and under-stated and hitting hard on the last consonant of every word: “lieD” and “dieD” and “understanD.” In this stage of their career– before they were very nearly ruined by drink– Aerosmith were hands-in-denim-pocket cool, and because they were from Boston, not New York, they were scrappy-charming and musically good: getting by on chops and performance rather than mere pose. “Sweet Emotion” has all of this, and its has one more thing: a piece de resistance tag; a D to the song’s A/B/C. It gives way to a searing Joe Perry guitar solo and some neat tandem talkboxing: value added at the end of a terrific song. With this last figure, you can hear a band with ideas trying to be better, reaching for, and landing in, place that almost everyone struggles to find. That they didn’t stay for long is almost beside the point.