A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Fifth album by Boston-based hard-rock band. Recorded in a former convent in Armonk, New York. Released December 1977. Widely (and correctly) regarded as a druggy, unfocused disappointment following the excellent Toys In The Attic and Rocks albums. Reached No. 11 on the U.S. album charts, with no Top 40 singles.
And here’s why I like it:
1. Honoring the Lost Cause. You know that point on the battlefield at Gettysburg that represents the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” — the last best attacking moment of the Confederate Army?
Well, the high-water mark of Aerosmith can be found about 20 seconds into the Draw the Line album. (Seventies Aerosmith is at least as grand a Lost Cause as anything Robert E. Lee ever fought for.)
A single sludgy guitar chord rings out. Some Big Drums make an entrance. Joe Perry and Brad Whitford start beating the tar out of another filthy riff. And Steven Tyler tops it off with a burst of attytood: “Checkmate, honey / Beat you at your own damn game.”
Imagine you’re a teenage Aero fan; it’s December of 1977; and you’re curled up in front of your stereo with a joint, a bag of cheese puffs and the new album your favorite band has helpfully ralphed out just in time for the Christmas season. As soon as you hit the first line, you close your eyes and think, “Awwww, yeah. They’re back. It’s gonna be another great album.”
Of course, just as defeat awaited Johnny Reb after Gettysburg, our teenage metalhead didn’t have much to look forward to after the opening salvo of “Draw The Line.”
In the short term, he’d end up with a disappointing record full of forgettable, half-cooked songs.
Coming years would bring him the equally uneven Night In The Ruts; a dreadful cover of “Cry Me A River,” and beyond that, the unabashed horror of “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” “Janie’s Got A Gun” and “Cryin’.”
For a little while there, though, it was OK to think the rock might go on forever.
2. Disco-metal rules. With its swishing high-hat pattern and funky strut, “Sight For Sore Eyes” gives every evidence of having been born from a rehearsal-room jam where everyone was goofing on disco.
Wherever it came from, I’m glad it ended up on the record, because it’s an irresistible combination of funk and slop-metal that out-swaggers everything else on the LP except maybe the title track.
Tyler is at his most incoherent — mumbling something about titties and underwear and ground round and nitty-gritties and going downtown — and Perry matches him with a loopy, irrational solo that dips and dives like a Phil Niekro knuckleball.
It ain’t high art; and I wouldn’t want to ingest the diet of pharmaceuticals that made it happen; but on an album full of misfires, this one catches the spark, just a little bit.
3. Kings and queens and guillotines. Besides the title track, the tune from Draw the Line that most casual fans would recognize is “Kings and Queens.”
The song — included on Aero’s original Greatest Hits album, despite not actually ever being a hit — is a lengthy dramatic rumination by Tyler in which he daydreams about being the reincarnation of a medieval knight.
It’s a little cruel to call it Aerosmith’s “Stonehenge,” especially for a band that had a literal Stonehenge.
But hearing Tyler sing about Vikings and maidens fair and sailing ships and “dreams of swords in hand” isn’t any more convincing than seeing Nigel Tufnel step to the mic in a monk’s cowl and intone, “And oh, how they danced, the little children of Stone’enge … beneath the haunted moon.”
Sound like delightfully cheesy self-parody? Yeah, pretty much. And I enjoy it as such, just as I enjoy seeing Nigel Tufnel break into his mandolin solo and turn to see a Stonehenge monument that is in danger of being trod upon by a dwarf.
What we are hearing is clearly and pitiably a drug-singed rock star, probably waiting to board his next flight, trying to come up with words for the session later that week, and letting his mind wander to any other place he’d rather be.
It’s a postcard with a picture of a Renaissance Faire on the front, and the exclamation “Wish I were here” on the back.
4. NINA was here. Three times. And with all that absurdly long Seventies hair, it’ll take you a good five minutes to find her.
I have long suspected that the album title is some sort of drug reference … though I don’t think you draw a line of cocaine; I think you chop it or slice it or something. I wouldn’t know.
I do think it’s droll, though — at least by rock-star standards — that the cover of Draw the Line consists of a whole bunch of drawn lines. Three-and-a-half points for that, anyway.
(Aero would go down the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-drug-reference path again on 1986’s Done With Mirrors. I never actually knew anyone who owned a copy of that one, though I used to go to school with a kid who had one of those long-sleeved softball-jersey shirts with the Done With Mirrors logo on it. I suspect he was a time traveler sent by 1977 to spy on 1990.)
5. It only looks easy. Have you ever thought a producer’s job was easy? It seems like one of those jobs where you wear an aloha shirt every day, sit next to the mixing desk, indulge in your drug of choice, and say things like: “That sounds real nice. Why don’t you take another pass and double it with the Rickenbacker?”
Try telling that to Aerosmith’s producer, Jack Douglas, who appears to have worked his arse off making Draw the Line.
Douglas gets c0-writing credit — which is unusual for a producer, at least in the arena-rock world — on half of the album’s eight originals. And he’s credited with playing mandolin on “Kings and Queens,” to boot.
Why do I suspect Jack Douglas picked this record up by the scruff of its neck and dragged it to completion while the guys in the band were busy seeing triple?