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.

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