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Hero worship
Aerosmith and Eric Clapton dig deep into the blues and rock vaults

Letís say youíve asked two kindergartners to draw pictures of their heroes. One turns in an illustration with well-defined lines, carefully colored in, using the right shades of crayon for a gray suit, brown shoes, and Caucasian skin. The other creates a jumble of circles and planes that resembles a pudgy human form but is awash in a blaze of swirling reds, yellows, and blues similar to the tornado that swirls around the Tasmanian Devil.

And letís say, improbable as it may be, that the first kidís hero is George W. Bush. After all, small children donít know any better, and in this case, a neat, dignified representation is appropriate, since anything else could be interpreted as a violation of the Patriot Act. Now, the second kidís hero is Sam Kinison. Donít blame me. Itís the parentsí fault. But if anyone was a walking blur of explosive colors, it was Kinison.

The point is, both portraits of these famous comedians are equally valid interpretations. However, one seems wilder, crazier, more expressive. More fun.

So it is with Aerosmithís Honkiní on Bobo (Columbia) and Eric Claptonís Me and Mr. Johnson (Reprise), which appear in stores this Tuesday, March 30. The Aerosmith disc is a swaggering, raucous, feedback-tagged scramble through the catalogues of some of the bandís early rock and blues heroes. Clapton pays tribute to the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, whose songs seem to be a key to his own brooding psyche. Yet the British guitar legend does so in a tidy, buttoned-down manner, and thatís odd given that Johnson rode freight cars, wrote lyrics that promised violence (often to women), and died drinking bootleg whiskey poisoned by a jealous husband. Hell, when you listen to Honkiní on Bobo, it sounds as if Steven Tyler could go that way tomorrow, whereas Johnson lines like "Iím gonna beat my woman until Iím satisfied" seem as incongruous in Claptonís English-accented diction as does his use of Ebonics.

Iím not out to bury Clapton in some lonely grave at a cotton-patch crossroads. Me and Mr. Johnson is beautifully played, and Clapton himself is among the figures rightly honored in Honkiní on Bobo. I also think that Aerosmith have recorded plenty of crap over the last decade. Shameful crap for a big-balled rock-and-roll band. Itís just that itís almost impossible to do anything but pay attention when Honkiní on Bobo is shakiní its chassis like a Tallahassee lassie, whereas Me and Mr. Johnson is good company for working on the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Even though Iím pissed at Aerosmith for committing crimes like "Amazing" and "I Donít Want To Miss a Thing" and stiffing me on an interview I was supposed to do for a big magazine, I love Honkiní on Bobo. Sure, Tyler opens the album with a motormouth carny-barker routine thatís pure corn, but itís hard to hold a grudge when a moment later heís caterwauling through a riff-mad version of "Roadrunner" thatís hornier than Bo Diddleyís original. With its focus on the Chess Records roster, stray blues bloodhounds like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Big Joe Williams, and early rockís mad genius Little Richard, the album quickly becomes an act of karmic balance for Aerosmithís í90s atrocities.

Much of Honkiní on Bobo ó whose title is, I expect, one of those cutesy inside references to wanking off that male bands tend to build into their clubhouse vocabulary ó was recorded in Joe Perryís basement, which seems more a fancy studio in a rock starís home than the place where the Perrys store the Lawn Food and their mountain bikes. Aerosmith have worked there before, but not as extensively. And since this disc was recorded with the entire group playing live, the cramped conditions and small amplifiers turned up to barking volumes helped provide its garage-band energy and tones. Guitarists Perry and Brad Whitford havenít sounded this raw and fired on an album in years; they trade solos and licks they way Hell-bound gunfighters swap bullets. Think Johnny Depp at the end of Once upon a Time in Mexico: blind, yes, but still smooth and deadly as a gaboon viper. And though Perry provided the thrust for the project, Tyler seems to have climbed aboard whooping like a big-city cowboy on a mechanical bull. Whether heís tearing up Big Joe Williamsís "Baby Please Donít Go" or pouring on the soul to shout back at Aretha Franklin in "Never Loved a Girl," Bobo is his hottest studio performance since 1976ís classic Rocks (Columbia).

Tyler also gets to show how bad-ass he is on harmonica for the first time. Sure, he plays the thing live, and on some of Aerosmithís chestnuts with zeal, but throughout this album he makes like Sonny Boy Williamson and Junior Wells rolled into one little white-boy meteor ó blasting like a firehorn, playing fine and mellow, and on Little Walterís "Temperature" even singing through his Green Bullet microphone and amp, one of the oldest but coolest tricks in the blues-harp textbook.

Although the group make mad drunken love to the legacies of such first-generation rock godfathers as Chuck Berry (whose pianist Johnny Johnson helps dig into "Shame, Shame, Shame") and Muddy Waters, Perry makes it a point to honor the torchbearers who passed the spark of guitar inspiration to him. Thereís shades of Jimmy Page in the hammering riffs of "Baby Please Donít Go" and the grinding tone of Truth-era (Epic) Jeff Beck in "Iím Ready." Best of all of these six-stringed nods is "Stop Messiní Round," where Perry and Whitford trade solos until the tune starts to sound like a great lost track by Brit blues maven John Mayallís Clapton-era band.

Perry delivers a rare lead vocal on "Back Back Train," one of a pair of spirituals drawn from Fred McDowell; heís accompanied by alterna-pop singer Tracy Bonham, who provides the exhortations over Perryís deadpan charisma that make the cut churchy. Perry also takes the lead on "Jesus Is on the Main Line," using his acoustic resonator guitar as a baton to direct a chorus including Bonham, drummer Joey Kramer, and bassist Tom Hamilton down the gospel road over the loose-tuned thump of a parade bass drum. The track sounds as Mississippi traditional as these Bad Boys from Boston via New Hampshire ever will.

Oh yeah, there is a new Aerosmith song called "The Grind" that ainít half bad, with its thumping lock-step cadence and Tylerís tortured declarations of devotion to a manipulative "hip-shake woman." Next to the American music cornerstones that make up the rest of Honkiní on Bobo, its blood runs a bit thin, but at least itís got a circulatory system. Maybe even a soul.

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Issue Date: March 26 - April 1, 2004
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