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(Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Music

The dark past of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler

Although we all know Steven Tyler for being the swaggering, eccentric frontman of rock titans Aerosmith, he’s actually one of the most complicated figures in rock. Aerosmith were well known for their hellraising ways, and it’s no coincidence that Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry were known as ‘The Toxic Twins’ due to their excessive behaviour. 

Noting that Aerosmith first broke through in the 1970s, we cannot shy away from the fact that they, and many of their other contemporaries from the classic rock era, got up to a lot of things that are not acceptable today. However, for Tyler, there was one notable period in his life where he crossed the line, a line that should never be crossed, yesterday, today or tomorrow. 

There exist many frankly disgraceful tales of the abuse and mistreatment of women and young girls by the music industry, involving everyone from The Runaways to Ted Nugent. When confronting this dark past in the wake of the MeToo movement, Tyler’s name is one that has kept cropping up. A revealing 2018 documentary, Look Away, took a deep dive into this era of excess and abuse, and gave the so-called ‘baby groupies’ a chance to finally tell their tales free of the pressures of an omnipotent music industry and the celebrities it holds dear. 

Famously, one of the tales told in Look Away, involved Steven Tyler. Per all accounts, after her 16th birthday in late 1975, Julia Holcomb met Tyler at a show in Portland, Oregon. As was the case with the majority of those disgustingly labelled the ‘baby groupies’ by rock stars, Holcomb’s family life was less than simple. Her father had walked out on the family when she was very young, which left her and her two siblings to live with their mother. Their lives had been wrecked by the large gambling debt he had accrued and his infidelities, leaving the family struggling.  

Tragically, things went bad to worse for Holcomb. An accident killed both her younger brother and grandfather, and on top of this, her mother divorced her stepfather who was a raging alcoholic. With too much going on for a child to cope with, Holcomb and her sister were sent to live with their aunt and uncle after the tragedy.  

For a time, things were looking up. When Julia and her sister returned home to their mother, they had a second stepfather, and their lives were much different. They were left alone, emotionally neglected, and then aged 16, her sister left home with her boyfriend.

Left to her own devices, at 15, Holcomb became friends with a woman in her twenties who said she’d teach her how to pull a rockstar. Later, Holcomb called this friendship one of the most dangerous she ever had. Feeling isolated at home, and like a third wheel to her mother and stepfather, the night Julia met Tyler backstage after an Aerosmith concert, she couldn’t believe her luck. Later, she said: “It was like the whole world came to a stop”. They spent the night together, and things moved quickly thereafter. Tyler was 26 at the time. 

They formed a relationship, and soon after, her mother signed her legal guardianship over to Tyler so he could cross state borders with Julia without being arrested. If you think this sounds very similar to a story you’ve heard about Ted Nugent, you’re right.

For Julia, the worst part about it was the fact that it wasn’t even her mother who had told her she’d signed guardianship over, it was Tyler who made the revelation. Felt abandoned by her mother, Tyler told her he had persuaded her mother to sign the documents by telling her, “I needed them for you to enrol in school.”

From then on, the young Holcomb was immersed in the excessive world of the music industry, taking drugs, drinking, riding around in limos and living the life of a rockstar. She was now in the company of one of the most notorious bands on the planet, who made a good claim for being harder partiers than The Rolling Stones. 

This wasn’t abuse in the ‘normal’ sense though. Tyler was deeply in love with Julia, and he told her wanted to have children with her after they’d cohabited for a while. Due to conflicting accounts, it’s unsure whether the pregnancy was planned or accidental, but either way, it happened. Holcomb had told Tyler that she wanted kids with him, and within a year the couple got the news, they were both delighted.

Some months later, Tyler proposed to Holcomb. He introduced her to family, but things didn’t go to plan. Tyler Sr. was seriously concerned about the marriage, and his sentiments were echoed by his grandmother who refused to hand over her wedding ring. After they left, Tyler and Holcomb rowed, and after that the writing was on the wall. The relationship was irreparably damaged. Holcomb recalled: “When we left the house that night, I could see that Steven had had a change of heart”.

Powerless personally and legally, she was left carrying the baby of her legal guardian who didn’t want her anymore.  

Tyler then went on tour with Aerosmith, and Holcomb stayed at their flat in Boston. She was without money, education, healthcare. She had nothing. This was only the beginning of a Biblical ordeal though. The apartment where the couple lived caught fire and unable to escape the flat, Holcomb narrowly escaped with her life by sheltering in the marble fireplace.

She awoke in the hospital, and the doctor told her that Tyler had said it was best she have an abortion. It is claimed that he was worried that the carbon monoxide from the smoke as well as the amount of narcotics that she’d taken would lead to birth defects. 

It was a sticky situation, as at five months along, a week later it would have been illegal for Julia to have had an abortion. It is also alleged that Tyler gave her the ultimatum that she could have the abortion there or return back to her mother’s and have the baby there. Shocked from her ordeal in the fire, emotionally drained and backed into a corner, Holcomb gave Tyler what he wanted, even though she wanted to keep the baby. Tyler stayed with her through the procedure, although he was apparently high on cocaine, and emotionally removed from the situation. Duly, the young Holcomb was utterly devastated.

It is critical to note that Tyler was also left devastated by the ordeal, as everyone close to him at the time maintains. He wrote in 2011: “It was a big crisis. It’s a major thing when you’re growing something with a woman, but they convinced us that it would never work out and would ruin our lives. You go to the doctor and they put the needle in her belly and they squeeze the stuff in and you watch. And it comes out dead. I was pretty devastated. In my mind, I’m going, ‘Jesus, what have I done?’”

By the early days of 1977, Holcomb finally left Tyler, who by that point was seeing another woman. After her days in the wilderness, she returned to her mother and stepfather, who by that point had a young son, who she loved dearly. The relationship between her and her family blossomed over time, and things started to change for the better. She went back to high school, got a diploma and went back to church. She found work and a husband and raised seven children; she’s now been married for nearly 35 years. 

Unsurprisingly, Holcomb hasn’t spoken to Tyler since they split. Afterwards, they would follow different paths. Holcomb became devout Christian thinking that God had saved her in the fire, and Tyler carried on being a rockstar and a celebrity. Tyler’s relationship with the model Bebe Buell delivered their child Liv Tyler in 1977, and initially, Buell claimed that Todd Rundgren was actually Liv’s father to protect her from the frontman’s all-encompassing drug addiction, but that’s a story for a different day. 

The story of Holcomb and Tyler is a tragic one, and we’re just glad that Holcomb was finally given the peace that she deserved, and props to her for managing to find her way out of the darkness. As for Tyler, it clearly had an effect on him, but it’s just another horrifying reflection of the things that rockstars were allowed to get away with back then.

May those bleak days of excess, enablement and sycophancy never return. We’d like to think that in the days after MeToo, we’ve moved forward. There are vital lessons to be learned in this story, and it needs to be told. 

Watch Tyler talk about his dark past below.