At his lakeside New Hampshire retreat, the legendary rocker and American Idol judge opens up about 40 wild years on the road, the highs and lows of getting sober, and the beauty of losing—and finding—himself in the woods.
When I arrive at Steven Tyler's country hideaway on Lake Sunapee, in New Hampshire—the laid-back spot where he spent the summers of his youth—I'm hardly out of my car before he's springing up the driveway to offer me a tour. "I jump right into this water in the morning," he says as he ushers me along a balcony overlooking the placid lake, its peacefulness a contrast to my host's boundless energy.
Aerosmith's front man—real name, Steven Victor Tallarico—was born in 1948 in New York City. When Steven was a toddler, his father, a Juilliard-trained classical musician, and mother began bringing their son to Trow-Rico, a rustic vacation camp the family owned near Lake Sunapee. There, Steven got his first taste of entertaining. "On Sunday nights, Dad would give recitals," he writes in his 2011 best-selling memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? "People from miles around would come over to hear him, and my grandma, my mother, and my sister would play duets. All the families that came up had kids, and Aunt Phyllis would holler, 'C'mon Steven, let's put on a show for them!'... I was a serious ham." By 16, Steven had formed a rock band called the Strangers. A few years later, he met a young guitarist named Joe Perry, and in 1970, the whole crew moved to Boston and christened themselves Aerosmith. The first single from their first album was a modest little hit called "Dream On."
Yet as the band recorded one multiplatinum album after another, Steven's personal life was a wreck. He'd first experimented with drinking and drugs as a teen, and as the years passed, he devoted himself to a substance-fueled existence on the road, leaving behind wives, girlfriends, and kids along the way. (One of his four children, the actress Liv Tyler, was 8 before she even knew that Steven was her father.) It wasn't until a 1986 trip to rehab that he was able to get clean; he stayed that way for 12 years but relapsed after getting hooked on prescription painkillers.
Two years ago, at the urging of his longtime girlfriend, Erin Brady, Steven completed his eighth—and, he hopes, final—stint in rehab. When he got out, he started a new gig unlike any he'd ever done before: He took Simon Cowell's place on American Idol. In the process he helped boost the show's ratings, introduced some playfulness to the judges' panel, and gained a whole new generation of fans. But while millions of us know Steven as the iconic rocker whose raspy voice tells the tale of a hard-lived life, he's also thoughtful, introspective, and—what strikes me most—a nature boy at heart. Throughout our talk, he speaks with deep feeling about the "magical" quality of our surroundings: the lake, the pine trees, the hidden paths and moss-covered stones. Eagerly, he asks if I see the magic, too. And in his presence, I really do.
Next:Start reading the full interviewOprah: I have to tell you, I love this place. It is so un-rock-star-like.
Steven: It's a little nook. It's a place that you can grab on to. There's so much God here. And so much life.
Oprah: It's really special when somebody lets you inside a space that truly is private and belongs to them. When you were growing up around here, was there a part of you that sensed this would be a place to come home to?
Steven: Definitely. I grew up with the smell of the lake and the feeling of the woods. This place is the true Steven. Then I left at 18, 19, to rock 'n' roll out. I wound up doing so many drugs that I thought I was taking this place with me, because every time I smoked a joint I felt like I was up on Mount Sunapee or underwater here, looking at the fish. I was trying to re-create it.
Oprah: May I say, after reading your book, I am surprised you're still alive. I don't know of another person who has taken more drugs than you.
Steven: It used to be cool to hear that. Now it kind of hurts.
Oprah: Are you surprised you're alive?
Steven: Yeah, I am. In a world of doing Madison Square Garden, coming off stage and getting pecked to death by chickens, it's a comfort to go sniff a little something. And so I just rode that beast. But this last run, two years ago, when I was falling asleep here in the pit—
Oprah: The pit being over there? [Points to a sunken sitting area in Steven's living room.] Steven: The pit being right there. I was on Lunesta, which is a sleeping pill, and drugs for the pain in my feet because of some operations I had. And people would say, "You're gonna kill yourself; you're gonna be dead tomorrow."
Oprah: Weren't you snorting the Lunesta?
Oprah: Who snorts Lunesta?
Steven: One who is a snorter. If I'm going to do the drug...
Oprah: You want to get it into your system and get it in fast.
Oprah: What did drugs do for you that fame and money and adoration couldn't?
Steven: They made me feel like a rock star before I was one. Because I thought that's what rock stars did—fake it till you make it.
Oprah: You're two years sober now?
Steven: Yeah. I had 12 years before.
Oprah: And until you get back to that point—until you safely make it to 12 years again—is there always a fear that you might slip?
Steven: You know, I just have to keep it honest and open. 'Cause I do feel like doing things I used to do. It's called euphoric recall. I've got to be careful with that. But I'm so locked and loaded right now in AA and my 12-step program that I'm good.
Oprah: When you say, "I know I won't," you mean you believe you won't, you think you won't, you don't want to?
Steven: I mean I've set myself up with a sponsor I talk to every night. I've got a bunch of great people in my life who are sober as well. They've been to the dark side of the moon. I love them. And I go to meetings.
Oprah: But after eight times in rehab, you still don't think drugs are all bad.
Steven: Well, no. They can't be. I'm on Neurontin now for my feet. If I wasn't, I would be losing it 'cause they're so painful.
Oprah: And why are your feet so bad?
Steven: From dancing around onstage.
Oprah: All those years.
Steven: My toes are all squished. During an operation, they had to take nerves out. This was in 2002, 2003. I was on so many drugs, and I didn't give them to someone else to hold. I'm in bed, and I start snorting. I got really bummed out and ashamed.
Oprah: What was it like for you to sit down and write your book?
Steven: I did it in a tent out there. [Points to the yard.]
Oprah: Was it cathartic?
Steven: Oh my God, yeah. I've always said, "Of all the things I ever lost, I miss my mind the most." I mean, I do so much in any given day now. I just got back from L.A. last night, and now I'm here with you, and I'm back in L.A. tomorrow. It's like, "What did we do today? Where did I wake up this morning?" It's mind-altering.
Oprah: It is a rock-star life. Do you wake up sometimes not knowing where you are?
Steven: Oh, yeah. I walk into the wall thinking it's the bathroom.
Oprah: That happened to me the other day. I woke up and wasn't sure what city I was in or what day it was.
Steven: Was that the first time? Oprah: No—and I'm not on any kind of medication, not even Ambien! So I can't imagine how it is for you.
Steven: Everybody said, "You won't be able to handle it if you get sober." But I spent 12 years loving it. When you take drugs a lot, you think being on them all the time is where it's at. It's not. It's about feeling experiences—like going out in the morning and watching the sunrise.
Next:How sobriety has changed his experiences onstageOprah: So what's the difference between walking onstage in front of 30,000 people on drugs and off drugs?
Steven: When I got sober, I asked myself, "Why did I even take them onstage?" Because being onstage is already like being on drugs. It's another world. But the drugs—it was just a way of life. If you didn't take LSD in high school, you weren't cool. So we took acid and walked up to the top of Mount Sunapee. Tasted the wind when it blew. I would sit at night with my dog, Cricket, and stare at him for so long my shirt would be soaking wet. I didn't want to miss a movement he made.
Oprah: Well, that sounds crazy to me.
Steven: Yeah, but I can get that same experience now from a song. I can get so inside a song.
Oprah: Where do the songs come from?
Steven: "Sweet Emotion" just came. Sometimes it just comes to you as a gift.
Oprah: And "Dream On"—you wrote that here?
Steven: Yeah, on a pump organ.
Oprah: Are the songs always there, waiting to be uncovered?
Steven: I think Michelangelo would say that the sculpture was always there. The rock was in the way, and he just chiseled the rock away to reveal it.
Oprah: That's what I meant.
Steven: The melody's there, just waiting. I learned that from my dad.
Oprah: You know, this month in the magazine, we're talking about expressing yourself. You've never had a problem with that.
Oprah: I think every human being yearns to get to the highest expression of themselves. What's yours?
Steven: That's pretty much it—when I'm onstage in the throes of emotion, singing. And they're singing every word and nuance back to me. It's like making love. It's a complete sentence. It's a lifetime in a song, if the melody's just right.
Oprah: Tell me this: How do you do what you do, night after night for 40 years, and not be completely controlled by your ego? How do you live a life where you are an American idol and still hold on to yourself?
Steven: I have a big ego, but I don't buy into it. I can't live off the ego. It's an honor that I get to be that guy onstage. It's not something I earned.
Next:Why performing is about so much more than talentOprah: What happened when you got the call for American Idol?
Steven: I'm actually the one who put it out there. Before I went to Betty Ford [in 2009], I said to my manager, "Get me something to do when I come out. If I'm going in there, I want something to do when I get out." I'd been talking to Marti Frederiksen, who I write songs with, and it turned out he was writing songs with Kara [DioGuardi], who was one of the show's judges. And I went and wrote a song with them as soon as I got out of rehab. And they said, "You gotta do American Idol. You'd be a perfect judge."
Oprah: Is it true that when they called, you said, "Is it still getting good ratings?"
Steven: I did. I also thought, "Am I going to take over for this grump who likes to put people down?"
Oprah: You mean Simon Cowell?
Steven: Yes. The last thing I heard Simon say [on the show] was, "I don't like you, and I don't like country and western." I thought, "How dare you?" That's not what music's about. Not liking a genre? That's really not nice.
Oprah: So you were worried about replacing Simon—or not worried?
Steven: America is a crazy place, Oprah. I thought maybe they might like someone who went, "You suck, get outta here." They might be used to that particular character on the show. But then I thought, "You know, there's something about me that's enamoring." I thought I'd take a chance with compassion and love....
Oprah: And playfulness.
Steven: And maybe fun—you know, not too stupid—could be the new black. I'm constantly weighing that, because I can get stupid out there.
Oprah: The last time I interviewed Simon, he said he was running out of things to say to contestants. Sometimes when people are really bad—so bad that those of us at home think, "God, is this a plant?"—are you thinking, "What am I going to say?" Steven: Yeah. I keep a few things in my top pocket. One of them is something my friend Mark Hudson said: "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?" And "Did you bump your head on the way here?" Because believe me, some of them come in and I go, "You don't really think you can sing, do you?" And they'll look at me and go, "What? My grandfather told me I could sing, Mom told me I can sing. Are you saying I can't sing?" That's when my heart breaks.
Oprah: Is it hard for you to hurt people's feelings?
Steven: Yeah. And I'll tell you why. How many children have been sung to by their mothers when they're 3 years old? Even though their mother can't sing. They sing to them anyway—You are the angel of my life. I don't want to tell someone they can't sing and they go home and now they'll never sing to their baby.
Oprah: So when Rolling Stone ran that great review about you bringing Idol back, how did you feel?
Steven: I felt so good. You know, half the people we send home are twice as good as Janis Joplin was when she sang her first note. Or as I was. I look at these kids and I go, "Oh my God, I really sucked. I would have gotten thrown off the show."
Oprah: In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours the Beatles put in before we even heard them. Ten thousand hours is what makes people worthy of idolizing. Do you feel that for a lot of these kids, more experience would make a difference?
Steven: Sure. All these kids need is two or three years of clubs. I see a glimmer in all of them. But remember, we're looking for the American Idol.
Oprah: You've been performing more than 40 years. What did it do for you when you realized that a whole new world had embraced you? Everyone from grandmothers to 7-year-olds.
Steven: It just gave me a whole bunch of confidence. More than I had before. I knew I had some sort of magic.
Next:Steven on forgiveness
Steven and I went on to talk about forgiveness ("It's the answer to every problem anyone has," he says), transformation ("You can only change yourself, but when you do, isn't it funny how everybody around you changes, too?"), and regret ("I don't want to hurt another human being"), and then he asked if I wanted to go outside. We drove off in his vintage Ford Phaeton, passing through the tiny town of Sunapee on our way to the woods where, as a boy, he spent hours wandering and exploring.
Oprah: So we're going into the woods. I love the woods.
Steven: I love the woods even more than the ocean. I think it's about where you're brought up. As a 9-year-old kid, I thought this place was fairy central. I thought the children of the woods had to have lived in here.
Oprah: And you felt like you were a child of the woods. I'm from the woods, too. I used to have a house in Florida looking out at the ocean, and I remember standing there one day saying, "God, I really need trees." I don't feel grounded without them. How do you feel coming into the woods—does it feel like coming home?
Steven: This is where I found my spirituality when I was a kid.
Oprah: What do you mean by spirituality? When I use the word, people are thrown by it.
Steven: In the silence I heard something. At first I was scared by it. It was so quiet, and I was so alone.
Oprah: Alone in the woods.
Steven: But it wasn't a noise. It was the stillness. Listen.
Oprah: The stillness.
Steven: There it is. There's the magic. I just put together, you know, the beauty of Mother Nature and music and somewhere in that, I felt a presence of God.
Oprah: I think God's not just in the music—I think God is the music. Wait, I'm going to do a Steven look. [Purses lips and nods.] I think God is the music.
Steven: Ooh, that's good. I've seen whales calving in the waters off Maui, and I've watched my children being born. But music is the most beautiful thing of all.