ROCKIN’ THE JOINT
SAUGUS — With its low ceilings, blood-red walls, and slinky waitresses, Maddy’s Lounge is the sort of club where Aerosmith got its start in the early 1970s. Small-time bands own the stage on Fridays and Saturdays, but the joint has Keno and karaoke, too.
On a recent Friday, in a cramped room above the bar, the lead singer makes gargling sounds while a guitarist teases his hair and applies hairspray from an aerosol can. A few minutes before 10 p.m., a roadie says, “They’re ready,” and the five members of the band descend the stairs, make their way through the steamy kitchen, and into the dark, cavernous club.
On stage, the frontman grabs the microphone and yells, “How you doin’ TONIGHT?” drawing a huge roar from the crowd.
Hey, that dude looks like . . . Steven Tyler.
And yet, despite the throaty growl and bandana-draped mike stand, it isn’t the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: it’s 42-year-old Neill Byrnes and his Aerosmith tribute band, Draw the Line.
Byrnes looks a lot like Tyler — a healthier, more athletic version of the 64-year-old frontman. And each of his bandmates resembles an Aerosmith member. Sandy-haired Jim Dennis, 44, of Everett, portrays guitarist Brad Whitford. Patrick Benti, 37, of East Boston, has the lanky black hair and hot guitar licks of Joe Perry. And Brockton drummer Phil Cefalo, 39, and bass player Stephen Lyon from Worcester, the youngest of the group at 28, easily pass for Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton, respectively.
“In high school, people used to tease me: ‘You kind of look like Steven Tyler’,” says Byrnes, who grew up in Hingham.
Friends convinced him to enter a lookalike contest in 1990, a promotion for Aerosmith’s upcoming concert at Great Woods. Byrnes’s outfit was “part Halloween costume, part somebody else’s sister’s pants,” he says. “Basically, I dressed like a woman.”
With the help of a few drinks, the get-up worked.
“Hands down, I won the contest,” he says. He was to meet the band a few days later and again wore the outfit, which hadn’t been washed. The members of Aerosmith had gotten sober by then and Byrnes, who reeked of cigarettes and beer, recalled thinking, “It’s gonna put them back in rehab when they get a whiff of me.”
Before the show, Byrnes, in character, was invited backstage.
“Jaws dropped,” he recalls. “It got really awkward there for a second. I felt like crawling out of my skin.”
Hamilton nudged Tyler and said, “Hey, he looks more like you do than you do.”
Tyler “just gave me a look,” Byrnes says. It had recently become known that actress Liv Tyler was Steven’s daughter, and Byrnes speculates that Tyler might have been thinking, “Is this another kid I have?”
The relationship between Aerosmith and imitators has mellowed over the past 20 years, to the point where Brynes has made charitable appearances with Tyler and even warmed up with him before a show. Byrnes resemblance to Aerosmith’s frontman increases when he laughs, his shiny white teeth gleaming from ear to ear.
“And they both dye their hair,” says Byrnes’s wife, Tricia, 39, who manages Draw the Line.
Byrnes and his wife live in Hingham. They met at Draw the Line’s Christmas party in 1991 and got married in 1998. They each have a child from a previous relationship (Tricia has a 17-year-old son, Jacob, and Neill has a 23-year-old daughter, Kristi), and together have two sons, Noah, 11, and Harrison, 8. When he’s not leaping around stages, Byrnes works as a ski instructor at Nashoba Valley Ski Area, and seasonally for a friend’s landscaping business, which keeps him in shape and allows flexiblity for his music career.
Draw the Line covers more than 80 Aerosmith tunes, as well as other songs that Tyler and company like to do during their shows, including tracks by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Yardbirds. Dennis, who’s been with this incarnation of Draw the Line for 11 years, has a standard quip when someone approaches Brynes to say he looks like Steven Tyler.
“I just don’t see it,” Dennis says. “But he does bear a striking resemblance to Jack Klugman” of “The Odd Couple.”
Over the years, fan reaction to Byrnes’s portrayal of Tyler has ranged from mild amusement to semi-frightening adulation. “I come offstage sometimes and people think they’ve just seen Aerosmith,” he says. “Like, a guy will say, ‘I was at your first show in Ohio back in. . . ’ I get really uncomfortable with that. I don’t know if I should play along, like it’s a skit or something.”
One recent appearance as Tyler was especially poignant for Byrnes. Last November, he got a call that 48-year-old Kimberly Marsden, an elementary school teacher and longtime Tyler fan, was dying of cancer at the Leahy Clinic in Burlington.
“I was worried about Neill, because his own mother had just died from cancer,” says wife Tricia.
Byrnes came to the woman’s hospital room as “contemporary Tyler” — in funky jeans, a white sport coat, and lots of jewelry. More than 25 friends, family members, and staff members were standing around the bed.
“I didn’t want to say or do the wrong thing,” Byrnes says.
When Byrnes walked in, Marsden’s “eyes got really wide and she said, ‘Steven, you look good,’ ” says Kathy Flemings, 55, a family member who was there that day. “She smiled, and tried to fix her hair.”
Tyler sang “Walk This Way” as a duet with Marsden, chatting with her quietly and later posing for pictures with family members and staff. She died three days later.
“I think we made her last days happy,” says Flemings.
It occurred to Byrnes afterward, that “it’s bigger than Steven Tyler, this Aerosmith thing. It’s the music. And it’s my job to be a channel for the music.”
Back at Maddy’s Lounge, it’s close to midnight when Draw the Line launches into “Sweet Emotion,” the Aerosmith favorite from 1975. The boozy crowd of gyrating 40-somethings is right against the stage, singing along in hoarse voices, transported back to when they first heard these songs on Wollaston Beach, or in a car parked behind Revere High. On the chorus, Dennis sidles up to Byrnes and the two friends mug for the crowd.
“We take the gigs very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Dennis, after the show. “You try to keep things in perspective.”
Jay Atkinson’s seventh book, “Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man,’’ will be released April 24. He can be reached at jayatkinson.com.