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June 21, 2012

B-SIDES: After 37 years, Aerosmith still rockin’ his world

TERRE HAUTE — The improbability reminded me of George Carlin playing a conductor on the 1990s kids show “Shining Time Station.”

Teenagers who only recognize Tyler as the long-haired, edgy judge to the right of Jennifer Lopez have no clue how many car speakers he and his Aerosmith bandmates were responsible for blowing up in the 1970s. Their “Toys in the Attic” and “Rocks” albums helped shatter my Panasonics.

Yes, I’ve always considered myself an Aerosmith “fan,” but now I’m questioning whether I’m worthy of that label.

There are loyal fans. There are diehard fans. And then there’s Johnathan Gasser.

Thirty-seven years ago, a bunch of his Vincennes Lincoln High School buddies asked if he wanted to ride up to Terre Haute to watch an Aerosmith concert. Gasser didn’t know a lot about that rising, young rock band from Boston, but he said, “Sure.”

A momentous decision, indeed. A total of 7,508 people heard singer Steven Tyler, guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer rattle the brand-new walls of Hulman Center that night — March 21, 1975. Nobody enjoyed the show more than Gasser. Since then, he’s seen Aerosmith perform live 58 times, from Terre Haute to Indianapolis; Evansville; Chicago; Peoria, Ill.; St. Louis; Cincinnati; Nashville, Tenn.; Memphis, Tenn.; Washington, D.C.; Hartford, Conn., Boston; New York’s Madison Square Garden; Toronto; and, last Saturday night, Minneapolis, Minn.

When it comes to Aerosmith, clearly, Gasser doesn’t want to miss a thing. He’s stuck by the band through peaks and valleys of popularity, platinum albums, personal and health struggles, and internal disagreements. The original five members are still together, and Gasser still enjoys their live performances.

“If I liked it as a youth, why wouldn’t I like it now?” he said.

Gasser is now 54 years old. The ages of the guys in the band range from 64 to 60. (Today is Kramer’s 62nd birthday.)

Those are just numbers, though. The enthusiasm remains intact, nearly four decades after that gig in ’75 at Hulman Center. Gasser remembers it well, even among all the others he’s witnessed.

“I was completely blown away,” he said, during a short break at the Terre Haute UPS Store, which he owns and operates. “I’d never heard any of their music before, and they were so intense, and they still are.”

His 58th Aerosmith concert validated that opinion. Gasser and his girlfriend, Laurie Van Horn of Terre Haute, joined a sellout crowd of 14,000 inside Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. The concert kicked off the group’s 18-city Global Warming Tour, and St. Paul Pioneer Press critic Ross Raihala wrote that “Saturday night’s raucous, entertaining show proved the guys still have some fire left in them.”

They impressed Gasser, too. Along with their hits everybody knows, Aerosmith treated savvy fans at Minneapolis with rarely heard album cuts like “Mama Kin” from 1973, “S.O.S.” from ’74, and “Combination” from ’75. “I was like, ‘Wow, they really dug in,’” Gasser said. This time, the set list didn’t include his favorite song, “Back in the Saddle,” from his favorite album, “Rocks.”

Still, of course, Tyler, Perry and Co. did play their stadium anthems: “Walk This Way,” “Sweet Emotion,” “Dream On” and “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.”

“If they don’t play those songs, they won’t get out of the arena alive,” Gasser said, laughing.

The roster of songs, though, is never the same, he explained. Each show is a little, or a lot, different. Some moments stand out in Gasser’s memories. That includes Aerosmith’s 1975 concert at Roberts Stadium in Evansville. Gasser and his friends decided to celebrate their high school graduation by journeying from Vincennes to the Pocket City to catch the band again, just months after the Hulman Center stop. Gasser and the others stopped in at the Executive Inn restaurant for lunch, and moments later Aerosmith’s tour bus pulled up and unloaded.

Gasser's friend Tony Turan snapped some pictures, as the band prepared to eat. Gasser kept copies of the photos, just as he does his ticket stubs and other memorabilia.

Twenty-two years later, Gasser — through his longtime membership in the official fan club, AeroForceOne — met the musicians backstage at a concert in Hartford, Conn., and showed them a photo from their 1975 visit to Executive Inn. One by one, Tyler and the others instantly recognized a deceased roadie in the corner of the picture, who caught their attention.

Last Saturday, Gasser again got to chat with three band members — Hamilton, Whitford and Kramer — backstage at Minneapolis. They talked and played a few riffs on their instruments for the lucky fans. “They’re just normal guys who love to play music, and they still blow me away, just like that first time I saw them here in March 1975,” Gasser said.

The meet-and-greet opportunity at Minneapolis came through Gasser’s AeroForceOne membership, which a few years ago was the second-longest of any member, he was told. That connection also allows him to get concert seats in the first five rows. His girlfriend, Laurie, loved the pre-concert experience and the show. She called it “the fastest two hours of my life” and photographed the highlights. “It made me feel like I was 20 again,” said Van Horn, who’s 51. “We were just as silly as the kids.”

Like many of those kids in that crowd, last Saturday was Van Horn’s first chance to see Aerosmith. As manager of two Starbucks outlets in Terre Haute, she met Gasser, “a once-a-day latte drinker,” when he came into those coffee shops on breaks from his UPS Store, which he opened upon moving to Terre Haute 10 years ago. Her rock ’n’ roll history isn’t as extensive as his, but Van Horn is the first-cousin of Motley Crue guitarist Mick Mars.

Gasser plans to accommodate Van Horn’s musical tastes by taking her to see one of her favorites at this summer’s Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis.

“It’ll be his first Barry Manilow concert,” she said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com

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