Two summers ago, I went to a reading that the poet Paul Muldoon was giving in a black box theater on the third floor of a nondescript building in Hell’s Kitchen. He read from a galley of his 2010 collection of poems, Maggot, and marked copy errors with a pen as he went along. John Ashbery joined him, reading handwritten translations of Rimbaud scrawled out on a yellow legal pad. There were mice scurrying around and about 20 people in the room, who were polite and subdued. A month later I interviewed Mr. Muldoon, who has been The New Yorker‘s poetry editor since 2007, over the course of two days, at Robert Frost’s farm in Ripton, Vt., where he summers. On the second night, we attended a bluegrass festival at the foot of a mountain, which attracted the kinds of backwoods crowds that drive to concerts in beat-up RVs and all-terrain vehicles. We must have heard four renditions of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Mr. Muldoon heckled the bands by shouting, “Go electric!”
I was only vaguely taken aback, then, when I received an email from him in June that read: “I think we need to continue our tradition of going to cheesy shows. Aerosmith and Cheap Trick on July 24? P.”
I was aware of Mr. Muldoon’s penchant for what he calls “schlock rock.” After we’d parted ways in Vermont, he had driven to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to attend a Bon Jovi concert. His poems are filled with as many allusions to pop culture as they are with memories of his native County Armagh in Northern Ireland. In “On,” for instance, a poem from Moy Sand and Gravel, his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection from 2003, he writes about sitting in a theater just before the curtain rises, a moment that makes a section from a Gaelic eulogy pop into the narrator’s head:
I make my way alone through the hand-to-hand fighting
to A3 and A5. Red velvet. Brass and oak.
The special effects will include strobe lighting
and artificial smoke.
A glance to A5. Patrons are reminded, mar bheadh,
that the management accepts no responsibility in the case of theft.
“Sleeve Notes,” probably his most famous poem, is explicitly about rock and roll, each stanza arranged like liner notes for a canonical classic rock album. Aerosmith does not figure in it, but Mr. Muldoon does address the sort of leveling that takes place at a stadium show, where the experience of seeing one band at its peak is not so different from seeing another one far past its prime:
U2: The Joshua Tree
“When I went to hear them in Giants Stadium
a year or two ago, the whiff
brought back the night we drove all night from Palm
Springs to Blythe. No Irish lad and his lass
were so happy as we who roared and soared through yucca-scented air. Dawn brought a sense of loss…”
ROLLING STONES:Voodoo Lounge
“Giants Stadium again …Again the scent of drugs.”
Aerosmith has sold tens of millions of records worldwide and has been making music for more than 40 years. I can’t say I’ve ever thought much of the band beyond believing “Love in an Elevator,” “Living on the Edge,” “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and a variety of other “hits” were indefensibly stupid songs.
That said, the back-to-back albums Toys in the Attic (1975) and especially Rocks (1976) are underrated American rock albums, at least among those who were not yet born when they were released and have probably had no occasion to revisit them. Unlike a lot of what came before and after, neither album sounds like feathery versions of the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Released several years before Van Halen’s debut, and a solid decade before Guns N’ Roses, they nevertheless carry the black mark of having influenced a generation of terrible hair metal. By mere coincidence, those albums, along with their first album in 10 years, forthcoming this November, were produced by my editor’s father, Jack Douglas, who left Mr. Muldoon and me two backstage passes.
UNLIKE IN AEROSMITH’S younger days, the backstage experience now happens before the show rather than after it because they get tired. Around 7 p.m., we found ourselves in a narrow, white brick-walled, fluorescent-lighted hallway somewhere in the bowels of the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J. We were introduced as “a reporter who works with Jack’s daughter” and “a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet,” a label the very humble Mr. Muldoon continuously blushed at. “It’s hard to explain to people that the Pulitzer doesn’t really matter,” he whispered to me. Mr. Muldoon is almost absurdly low key about his accomplishments—later in the night he told the guy sitting next to us that he does “a lot of things—I teach, I write some,” which seems to be roughly equivalent, at least in this scenario, to Steven Tyler saying, “I sing from time to time.”
Rick Nielsen, the guitarist from Cheap Trick, was wearing a black-and-white checkered bow tie and matching cap and handed us some guitar picks, which is his signature move at concerts; he throws handfuls of them out into the crowd. He also had sunglasses on, which, despite the hallway’s soft lighting, somehow felt necessary and appropriate. We were rushed to the catering room, where we ran into Darryl McDaniels—“D.M.C.” from Run D.M.C. He was so casual and friendly that we both felt comfortable right away.It felt oddly natural when he went right into talking very personally about how at age 35 he found out he was adopted. He had tracked down his birth mother—whom he praised for “getting me out into the world” (he said that with a forward thrust of both his hands)—but that his adoptive parents taught him everything he knows. He was wearing a t-shirt with Jim Morrison on it and looked much younger than a man approaching 50, and he seemed to register some level of disbelief that he was the same man responsible for “Tricky” and “My Adidas,” not to mention raising Aerosmith’s clout considerably by covering “Walk This Way,” a song he would join in on, onstage later in the night. When Mr. Muldoon’s Pulitzer was mentioned, Mr. McDaniels nodded solemnly and said, “Keep up the good work.” He grabbed Mr. Muldoon’s hand and told him “I need some of that poetic energy.”
Down the hallway toward the exit, Steven Tyler was standing near a doorway. He had on a sheer white blouse unbuttoned about halfway and low-waisted jeans that, when you followed the skinny length of his leg down to the floor, frayed out at the bottom revealing a pair of studded flip-flop sandals with socks underneath. The jewelry hanging from his neck jingled and clanged whenever he moved. This was his casual look.
When I was introduced (“This is a reporter who works with Jack’s daughter”), he said “Oh, cool!” with an enthusiasm that was either genuine or so perfectly rehearsed that I couldn’t tell the difference. He shook my hand and I noticed his nails were painted black. “Jack’s in Paris right now. You know, it was nice of our producer to tell us he was leaving the country while we’re in the middle of doing a record.” He smiled. For Steven Tyler, this meant that the bottom half of his face turned into a dark crescent shape.
“And this,” said the publicist who’d been introducing us, “is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.” I registered a slight grimace on Mr. Muldoon’s end.
“A poet, huh?” Mr. Tyler said, walking closer to him. “You’re kidding.”
As if on cue, the lead singer of Aerosmith began reciting the opening stanza of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky:”
“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the—”
He pointed at Mr. Muldoon to finish the line.
“Well,” Mr. Muldoon exhaled, “it’s: ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe, or something to that effect.”
Mr. Tyler told Mr. Muldoon that he wished he had become a poet because he would have remembered more. “I don’t remember anything, man,” he said. But, he countered, he would have gotten laid a lot less.
“Not so sure about that,” Mr. Muldoon said. The two exchanged a look of intense—albeit brief—disagreement.
Someone further down the hallway shouted, “Steven, I want to introduce you to my friend”—and the person paused here for effect—“John Varvatos.”
“Excuse me,” Mr. Tyler said cordially and disappeared down the hall.
A ROCK CONCERT at a stadium is by its very nature populist, in the kind of accidental way that a poetry reading—even if its participants are two of the greatest living poets—is exclusive. All sports stadiums look more or less the same and there’s always the inevitable smell of a lit joint and cheap beer. What happens onstage is different each time, but the experience of watching does not change much. Everyone knows when to stand up and when to sit down, when to pull out a Zippo or a cell phone to wave in the air slowly to the rhythm of a ballad, when to stomp one’s feet for the encore, when to leave just early enough to beat the traffic.
Mr. Muldoon and I watched about five songs of Cheap Trick before retreating to get food from a lady who coughed wetly into her hand before serving us.
“So why Aerosmith?” I asked before biting into my room-temperature hot dog.
“I go to concerts instead of watching television,” Mr. Muldoon said. “I’ve always found stadium concerts to be fascinating.”
We heard the opening chords of “I Want You to Want Me” and ran to an entrance to listen, sang the words of the chorus along with everyone else, stamped our feet in unison with the crowd and then went back to talking. Next year, Mr. Muldoon will publish a book called Word on the Street, a collection of rock lyrics that will also be available as recordings made by Wayside Shrines, a band Mr. Muldoon helped put together. He’s no stranger to the form, having penned the lyrics for “My Ride’s Here” with his friend Warren Zevon. The song is like a structurally restrained version of one of Mr. Muldoon’s poems:
The Houston sky was changeless
We galloped through bluebonnets
I was wrestling with an angel
You were working on a sonnet
You said, “I believe the seraphim
Will gather up my pinto
And carry us away, Jim
Across the San Jacinto
My ride’s here.”
Aerosmith started right on time. The lights went down and a spotlight hit the stage. Mr. Tyler and Joe Perry, the lead guitarist, who has a conspicuously perfect silver streak in his hair, rose on a platform from a hole in the floor, back to back, Mr. Perry clutching a guitar, Mr. Tyler holding a microphone stand like it was a guitar. Earlier, backstage, I’d asked Mr. Tyler if he was excited to be on tour again and he’d said, “The two hours before a concert, I’m the most excited. I get to do my hair, try on outfits, put on some makeup.” He’d changed into white bell bottoms, a sequined shirt and a long, white, glittering coat with a voluminous collar. He made approximations of the fluid motions you’d recognize from the band’s music videos, but his movements were slower and choppy. They played “Love in an Elevator” and he walked to each of his bandmates, bumping them in the hip with his ass, catching the band’s second guitarist, Brad Whitford, off guard and causing him to stumble slightly. They both laughed. Two young women and a keyboard player, half-obscured by amplifiers, sang along with Mr. Tyler, whose 64-year-old voice doesn’t quite hit the high notes like it used to. There were two large fans at the base of the stage positioned just so and at any given moment at least one band member’s hair was wind-blown.
“I bet you’re wondering what we’ve been doing the last 10 years,” Mr. Tyler said between songs. “Were we busy getting fucked up?” A pause. “Or were we busy making another record? I think the latter is true!” The air around where Mr. Muldoon and I stood smelled like beer and pot. The stadium was cheering.