'American Pickers' Host Explains Finding Aerosmith's Pre-Fame Tour Van - And Saving It
Scouring the overgrown backyards and rusting warehouses of America for various collectibles, the hosts of American Pickers are used to digging up unexpected cultural gems (which often fetch a substantial resale price). But it's not every day you come across something wasting away in the woods that rightfully belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But that's what happened on the Monday (July 8) episode of History's American Pickers. Hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz might've been skeptical when they received a tip-off about Aerosmith's pre-fame van uncovered in the Massachusetts wilderness back in 2016, but after founding member Ray Tabano eventually confirmed its authenticity, they were able to manage a first for the long-running reality series: Reuniting an iconic rock act with a long-forgotten piece of their history.
Taking a break from their Deuces Are Wild Las Vegas residency, the Bad Boys From Boston proved they're actually pretty good dudes when it comes to honoring their legacy, showing some serious joy and vulnerability while sitting in a van that once served as their motel on wheels.
On a "hot as shit" Tennessee afternoon, Mike Wolfe spoke with Billboard about the experience of finding the rusted-out vehicle, preserving it without sanitizing it and how Aerosmith reacted when an old touring van rolled back into their lives.
I saw your talking head testimonial about Aerosmith in the montage at the top of their Deuces Are Wild Las Vegas residency, but I had no idea there was this much crossover with the band on your show.
I didn't know that! (Laughs) They must have got that (clip) from the network. What is it, like a cut from the show?
Yeah, it's you talking about how much they kick ass. Other fans are in the montage, too -- Mark Wahlberg did one.
Bad ass. Good to be in that company.
So when you got the tip on the van, did you believe it? Were you excited?
I was skeptical because a lot of that stuff is just stories handed down from generation to generation and a lot is local folklore. So when I heard that could be it, I was like, "Why would something like that exist in that condition and be sitting on a property for that long?" Those are the questions I ask myself right away. I always imagine what something is going to be like before I even get there; it's part of what I've done for the last 30 years. You hear about something and you're already painting a picture in your mind.
When we saw it, it was really rough, man. There were parts (of the van) you could poke your finger through. It was interesting to me, but I thought it must've belonged to a super fan or something because of the logo on the side. But when Ray (Tabano, original Aerosmith member) came and pushed the story forward, I was like, "Okay this is the real deal, so how do we wrap our arms around this thing and buy it?" When he told the property owner it was the real deal, he was very excited about it too. So I thought, "Okay, this will be something we can't buy." But for us, sometimes on the show it's not about buying and acquiring, it's about telling the story. So honestly, I thought that's where the story would end for us. He had a lot of time to think about it. I know on the show they cut it to where it looks immediate, but he had to think about it a little bit, and as soon as he said yes, I said to myself, "This will be a long road as far as preservation." Immediately, I was not thinking about restoring this van. That would've been ridiculous to do something like that to it. I'm always thinking okay, "Now that we own it, what's going to be the back end of it?"
As far as connecting with the band, that was obviously a pipe dream, because I didn't know they would care about it so much. That's the cool thing about this whole thing. Once they made contact with the band, they were very interested and excited.
The band remembered it right off?
We shared photographs and they knew the van right away. But just because this was their van at one point in their lives, doesn't mean they have a connection to it. The fact that they had such a strong connection to it says a lot about their character and honoring their past. Those guys have lived a thousand lives, ya know? That they all were interested in it was huge. It wasn't just one of them, it was all of them as a group fucking beyond excited about it.
And that was pre-fame era for them?
Total pre-fame era. Joe (Perry) off camera was an encyclopedia of the band. He remembered all the dates they traveled in it, all the venues, he remembered people that ran the venues, he remembered every single date of anything. When he was walking around the van he had a lot of different things to say. Every one of those guys had a moment with the van, but Joe was very detailed with those things.
I've interviewed him before, he's sharp.
He's a sharp, passionate guy.
So how did it leave their lives and sit on this guy's property for so long?
From what I was told, this guy that they all really love and consider a friend got into an argument with them, or one of them, about something. And one night he just left and took the van -- because it was his van -- and they never saw the van or ever heard from him again. And they didn't know what happened to him or the van. The gentleman we bought it from, it turns out he bought the property from the guy who used to own the van and hang out with the band. If you watch the show, they all speak very highly of him and they all, I think, would like to possibly make contact with him again. It's been years, and the van might be something that could bring them together. The van brought all of them together on that day, that's for damn sure, man. They were supposed to spend about 45 minutes with us and they ended up spending about two and a half hours with us.
What was it like driving the van down the Las Vegas Strip to them?
(Laughs.) To be honest with you, it drives like a fast tractor. It's rough as hell but it's so cool. We were driving it down the Strip and all the people are yelling at us and whistling, they saw the logo on the side of the van – since the residency is in Vegas, they got all these digital billboards over the Strip and people were like "Whoa no way!" People saw it on the road and were losing their minds. For me it was bittersweet in a way. We worked a long time on the van, made calculated decisions on how it should look and feel for everyone to see it in the future, so we got close to it too. I wanted to drive it on its maiden voyage, but who knows if it'll ever be driven again. It'll be rolled out of the hotel and then, probably, I think Joe mentioned maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So (some) guys might drive it off a ramp or into a building, but not drive it down the Vegas Strip.
Its last hurrah. So specifically with that cartoon painted on the side, how much clean-up did you have to do?
What was weird about that logo on the side was it was painted with some really thick pastel paint. So the rest of the paint on the vehicle had faded out, but those colors were still super bright. If you look at the front of the van, the grill is painted the same way, a pastel green, so whoever painted the grill painted the logo. The rest of the van, on the top, it's amazing the paint polished out as well as it did. That's original paint on the top of that van all the way across. So we matched the paint down below what they call the rub rail, a rail along the side, and anything below that was from the donor van and we had to match that paint. But we tried to match the rust as best as we could too. We understood the importance of the van. When the band decided to preserve the van, every detail was taken seriously, from using the original glass to the original tires to the original rims and the original interior. The seat leather is the same – we just had it fixed and repaired. I'm thinking this will be something people will appreciate for years to come, way beyond us. It's a true historical artifact.
The great thing that happened with the band is what happens on my show; we find something and that piece becomes a story from the person who owns it. So you've interviewed them before, but when are they so open and candid and vulnerable and detailed about their past? And the van was the vehicle for them to do that. That was really cool. I said to my friends before the show, "I guarantee you're going to hear these guys talk about stuff they've never talked about before." They might not even remember anything until they see something and then it triggers them. When Steven (Tyler) opens the door and it makes that sound and how he absolutely loved that, simple things like that. Joe laying across the dash, Steven talking about riding on top of the amps in that tiny space, like 14 inches tall. Just cramped in there. It was interesting to see the band in the back of that vehicle -- and (back then) all the equipment had to be there with them.
It must have been cramped, and not terribly safe.
Oh my God, beyond cramped. They gave us so much of their time and shared their stories; they're just all real fucking guys who obviously honor their past. I know that now about them because of the way they felt about that van and elevated it and wanted it preserved. Now you're telling me the van is in the beginning of their (Vegas montage)? For them to think that much of their past and history speaks volumes to where they are on their journey in life.
We were blessed to be able to document that. It's one thing to be sitting on a barstool next to a dude and he's telling a story, but when we've got four cameras on them and they're just spilling all these incredible stories, I was like, "wow, this is more than I ever could have imagined." Think about it. I pitched this show for five years; I'm just a guy from Iowa who had a good idea. And then 10 years into it, the band thought enough of my show to trust us to do the van. They could have said to me, "Hey man, we want the van, we're going to buy it, and we'll have someone handle it ourselves." But they trusted us from the beginning to the end, which is huge.
They don't know us. A lot of people would have restored it totally, but it was so important to Joe and Steven -- although Joe was driving the bus in terms of "I want this thing to look like it did when we drove it." To me, when he says that, he's not thinking about himself, he's thinking about the fans. He knows it's going to be on display, not parked in his garage. He wants people to see their life the way it was before and not have a clean slate of a restored van.
How did this compare to other music items you've had on the show?
We've had a lot of bad ass musicians on the show. We had Jack White do the show, Dan Auerbach, now Aerosmith. Me living in Nashville, I've sold a lot of musicians stuff over the years. But this to me was one of the most authentic pieces. Usually if I'm selling something to a musician it's because they collect guitars, or in Jack White's case taxidermy. Whatever it is, I'm selling them something they love but don't have a past with. This was something we were selling to them they had a past with, and we were able to build on that story. The van was seriously, seriously a piece of shit. The frame was rotted, it was like, anything and everything that could've been wrong with this van, was wrong with it.
Well, it's a lot of years.
Oh my God, 40 years in the woods through all those east coast winters. For us to be able to drive that thing on the Vegas Strip and look the way it did -- we recruited the right dudes to do it. Even the guy who stitched the leather on the seat, he was a huge fan of the band. Anybody who touched that thing, this is a story they're going to tell their grandkids.
What else is on your bucket list, music-wise, in terms of picking?
I'm really into vintage clothing. I think that's really personal and shows someone's stature and speaks to periods of different decades. So to me, anything clothing related through the early '60s and '70s rock n' roll years. Some of Hendrix's stuff, I'd love to find those clothing pieces. That to me is the most personal. A lot of people are into the instruments, but the clothing is more personal to me.
But this van is hard to beat.
Joe and his wife, and Steven and his girlfriend, sat in the back of that van for, dude, I bet an hour and a half talking. On the floor. They did not want to get out of that van. Seriously, they were in the back of the van forever. And everybody was letting them do their thing and be alone. I kept looking over there, the backdoor was open, and was like, "That's so fucking cool, man." To be able to facilitate and create that space for them is pretty cool because they created so much for all of us, so it was neat to give something back to them.