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The Last Hair-Metal Band: Inside Poison’s Never-Ending Party

How Bret Michaels & Co. turned a string of Eighties hits into 30-plus years of debauched good times.

Inside a room inside an arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, the guys from the ancient Eighties hair band Poison are going about the rigours of the traditional meet-and-greet with fans, all of them putting on a good, enthusiastic show but only one of them really flinging his heart and soul into it. That would be Bret Michaels, 54, Poison’s lead singer and star attraction, a frazzled upbeat guy who loves nothing more than plumping the crowd on behalf of his band, which, against all odds (cocaine addiction, backstage fistfights among band members, Michaels’ Ferrari wrapped around a telephone pole, the usual), has never broken up and is now touring the country once again, in the company of Def Leppard, with the boys about to give a pretty good indication of what it’s like to be the sole survivors of an epoch better known for men wearing lipstick and leg warmers than for its music, especially now that Vince Neil and Mötley Crüe have, at long last, disappeared from the scene.

“Yeah, man,” Michaels is saying. “I mean, the other day, I said to Vince, ‘Vince, you guys, just get together again and go out again in three months.’ He’s like, ‘No, we’re fucking done, man. We’re done.’ So, you know, I really didn’t think about it until just now, but from that time period, yeah, we really are the last band standing.”

Along the way, of course, they’ve had any number of touch-and-go moments. In the early days, after they hit it big with their first album, 1986’s Look What the Cat Dragged In, which spun off three hit singles, it was all about the perils of excess. In more recent years, it’s basically revolved around Michaels’ desire to tour solo, leaving guitarist C.C. DeVille, bass player Bobby Dall and drummer Rikki Rockett scratching their heads and not knowing what’s what. Then, two years ago, Rockett developed oral cancer, which he has successfully battled. And for the past decade or so, Michaels himself has gone from one health scare to another, the biggest of which was a 2010 brain hemorrhage that nearly put him down for good.

He’s looking pretty peppy today, though, his trademark super-duper long hair (half his own these days, the rest “the finest European extensions that money can buy”) held in place by his customary bandanna and cowboy hat, as he bounces around the meet-and-greet room two hours before the tour’s first show, full of hyperactive ADD energy and big smiles, him and his boys shaking hands with fans and striking rock-god poses for group pictures.

“Hey, how’s it going!” Michaels says to a dowdy woman. “Hey, we’re gonna put on a great show tonight!” he says to a peach-fuzzed kid. “Hi, hotness!” he says to a buxom bustier-wearing young woman, sliding his arm over her shoulder. And then an older woman, pleasant-looking but rail-thin and grey, arrives in front of the guys, laughing and saying, “I’m from New Orleans. We used to hang out.”

Michaels leans back and kind of squints, like he’s trying to match the face with the place and how it might have gone way back then, when Poison were known for nothing if not debauchery, lots of sex, lots of drugs, basically just lots of everything at a time when blow jobs on tour buses were the most common of currencies. His eyes look a little glazed but then he snaps back to the present after DeVille says, “Oh, I bet you we did, and I bet there were piles of cocaine, too,” which gets a big laugh, because no one is doing cocaine anymore, especially not DeVille, whose addiction issues got him fired from the band for a five-year stretch in the early Nineties.

After the meet-and-greet, Michaels repairs to his dressing room, where a shot of Jameson in a red cup awaits him. Down the hatch it goes. He always likes to take a shot or two before a show. “It’s my thing,” he says. “It gets me fired up. Makes me feel rock & roll and good.”

He slips his feet into a pair of custom-made leopard-skin sneakers (“Gotta have some leopard skin in rock & roll”), tugs on a sleeveless T-shirt, runs to the bathroom to apply some eyeliner (the last vestige of the early glam days), then gathers DeVille (55, crazy-eyed, rabbity), Dall (53, laid-back, hipsterish) and Rockett (55, friendly, the coolest of dudes) together into a huddle.

“Listen,” he says, “I just wanna say: Dear Lord, let’s have an amazing, amazing show, and thanks for giving us Rikki’s health, and all the great harmonies, and God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. . . . Amen. Let’s rock. OK, now I gotta get another shot of Jameson before I go on.”

A few moments later, the boys are onstage, together, as Poison, for the first time in five years, thrashing into the opening chords of “Look What the Cat Dragged In.”

Michaels, the cat himself, is standing back, offstage, waiting for the right moment to pounce, bouncing off his heels and jabbing his fists into the air.

“All ready,” he says. “Get jacked up! I can be it! I feel it! OK, here we go! Here we go!”

He’s been doing this for more than 30 years now, getting jacked up, being it, feeling it. It’s all he knows and all he can know. He’s Bret Michaels, and he’s the lead singer for Poison.

Of all the hair bands to come out of hair-band central on the Sunset Strip, in Hollywood, back in the 1980s – among them Ratt, Dokken, Stryper, Mötley Crüe, Warrant and a thousand more – none was more hated and reviled than Poison. A representative early Rolling Stone one-star review trashed their music as a compendium of “limp three-chord clichés,” with lyrics that amounted to “a guided tour of rock-catchphrase hell.” Still, the band carried on, bravely, taking the glam look of the day and pushing it way past even parody levels, to make Poison, as DeVille once noted, “the L.A. joke band [that] even other bands didn’t like.” Capitalising on Rockett’s early career as a hairdresser, they teased and back-combed their hair to nosebleed heights (“The higher the hair, the closer to stardom, don’t you know that?” Rockett says), girlied themselves up with mascara, lipstick, eye shadow and rouge, outfitted themselves with spandex, chains, leather chaps and mesh half-gloves, and carried on in such a fashion as to allow Exodus guitarist Gary Holt to call guys like them “sissy Nancy boys” and Michaels to shrug off such criticisms, since they were the first gang of born-to-lose guys from small-town Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, to make it big, no matter what it took.

“It’s showbiz,” Michaels said in 1987. “We want people to remember us. They remember guys in makeup.” And today he says, “In the beginning, when we spent three years sleeping in sleeping bags behind a dry cleaners in L.A., I said, ‘We gotta figure out a way to stand out from the crowd.’ So we found a way to do that. But, yeah, we’ve never quite fit in.” It certainly didn’t help that during their shows, they would introduce themselves in true cornball fashion: “Hi, I’m Bobby!” “Hi, I’m Rikki!” In fact, at one point, Slash was offered the guitarist slot that eventually went to DeVille and reportedly snarled, “Yeah, I’ll take the job, but I’m not gonna wear all the fucking makeup. And I’m not gonna say, ‘Hi, my name is Slash.’ . . . I’m not doing that. Sorry.”

And then there are Poison’s songs, all of which revolve around the usual rock tropes, lust, horniness, love gone sour and bad behaviour, propelled by a sound that could only be called milquetoast metal at best. In 1986, MTV took a shine to Look What the Cat Dragged In, flinging the single “Talk Dirty to Me” into heavy rotation. Poison suddenly took off, which led to the 1988 sophomore-effort album, Open Up and Say . . . Ahh! (featuring the band’s only Number One single, the legitimately great power ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”), to 1990’s Flesh & Blood (with two Top 10 singles, “Unskinny Bop” and “Something to Believe In,” yet another power ballad), and to 25 million copies of their first three records sold. But then flannel and grunge supplanted glam and glitter, and with it, Poison’s time at the top.

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Poison at their peak, 1988. “The higher the hair, the closer to stardom,” Rockett, a former hairdresser, says today.

During the years that followed, the band toned down the glam and released four more studio albums – the last one with original material was 2002’s Hollyweird – but sales were lacklustre. Then Michaels started going on the road with a different backing band and playing Poison’s songs, which upset the rest of the guys. “Yeah, if I’m being honest,” says Dall, “I think it’d bother anybody. And if anybody in the band tells you otherwise, I’d think they’re lying.” Says DeVille, “I would like to be out there as well, but, no, it does not piss me off. Bret just loves to work. He likes to have 10 things going at once.” For his part, Michaels says, “There’s no malicious reason I do it. It’s just in addition to what I do with Poison.” How long Poison continue to tour, however, may be in some kind of doubt. “If it takes me four years to get Bret to agree to play a tour,” says Dall, “you never know if there’s going to be another one. It’s gotten so hard to just get it done.” But they’re here now, about to play to the same fans who all along have found solace and joy in Michaels’ unapologetically and relentlessly upbeat attitude toward his music.

“You don’t get to stay here for 30 years by accident,” he says. “I’m comfortable in my own skin. And you’ve got to be true to who you are. When you see a Poison show, we’re starting out with ‘Cat Dragged In’ and ‘Talk Dirty to Me,’ and since the beginning until today, I just want everyone to have a great time. My speech is always the same: ‘Be rocking, be real but be relevant.’ See, good, bad or indifferent, I’m not a glory-days guy. This is my glory day right here!”

It’s hard not to like a guy who says this kind of thing and seems to mean it, although it could all be an act and he’s really some kind of huckster businessman supreme – just the kind of sharp-eyed, savvy guy who would sign up to star in a cheesy reality dating TV show called Rock of Love With Bret Michaels, which ran for three seasons starting in 2007, and who in 2010 would actually win Celebrity Apprentice 3 and who today takes a very diplomatic view of his Celebrity Apprentice boss and current president of the United States, Donald Trump: “I have no idea what his political agenda is. I just hope he’s going to do a good job.” Plus, Michaels has his own line of luggage, his own cologne, his own line of pet clothing and so forth. In this regard, he’s a self-capitalising machine, as well as, according to press materials, “a rock-star brand that brings the party big-time.” 

In the beginning, growing up in Mechanicsburg, he was the son of a career Navy man and a mom who worked for the local prison system. Played for his high school football team, was in fact the star quarterback, until he started listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith, Kiss and Led Zeppelin, and decided that becoming a musician would get him more women and be a lot less painful and maybe offer him a better future than his job as a Bob’s Big Boy fry cook. He started cobbling together bands with pals Rikki Rockett and Bobby Dall, mostly playing covers and traveling to gigs in a beat-up Ford Econoline ambulance that eventually, in 1984, became their transportation to L.A. Once there, and once Slash announced no way was he going to wear makeup, DeVille, a transplant from Brooklyn who had no such compunctions, came on board, and the lineup was set. They spent the next few years trying to get a record deal. “We were one of 10 billion bands trying to make it,” Michaels says. They were more indefatigable than most, however, eating TV dinners to save money, spending what they had on fliers to hand out on the Strip and staring down constant rejection, despite a growing reputation as the best party band around. “We were the event to go to,” Michaels once said. “If you loved us, you showed up. If you hated us, you showed up even earlier. . . . Eventually, people realised that it didn’t matter if they liked us or not, it was always a huge party, because even on the smallest stages we made a big event out of it.”

The Poison lovers here in New Hampshire are right now getting an eyeful of DeVille, who is the only original member of the group to ever have gotten the boot. It happened in 1991, following a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, during which he played the wrong song, leading to a wild backstage brawl. He rejoined the band in 1996 and has been sober since 2006. “And it’s not a Hollywood sober,” he says. “It’s a real clean-and-sober. I’d hit rock bottom and had to stop. Oh, man, I was a real piece of work in the early days.”

At the moment, he’s sealing off the band’s cover of “Your Mama Don’t Dance” with an extended flying-V guitar solo that allows Michaels to hustle offstage into a room where, as he does twice during any performance, he pricks his finger, squeezes a single drop of blood onto a blood-glucose tester, and waits to get his blood-sugar-level reading. He’s had diabetes since he was six, is constantly checking his levels – too high, he injects himself with insulin; too low, he downs liquid glucose, which is what he does now. Then he grabs an eyeliner pencil and re-darkens the lines under his eyes, spritzes himself with some Roses and Thorns by Bret Michaels cologne, returns to the mirror to check out the lay of the bandanna, and runs back out as DeVille slashes into the opening power riff of “Fallen Angel” and 20 minutes later ends the evening with “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” after which he bangs around the perimeter of the stage, slapping hands with fans, signing autographs and blowing kisses to girls.

In 2010, when the brain hemorrhage struck Michaels down, and he was wheeled into the emergency room, and he heard a doctor say that if he had children (he has two, Raine Elizabeth, 17, and Jorja Bleu, 12, with on-again, off-again girlfriend Kristi Lynn Gibson) they should be brought in now, death apparently not that far off – even then, and throughout the rest of his stay at the hospital, he says, that headband remained right on his head. It’s a little weird. Why would he do that? Later, speaking to Oprah Winfrey, he explained its constant presence this way: “I said, ‘If I’m going out, I want to go out rocking.’ ” So, there’s that. But there’s also what Dall says about Michaels: “Over the years, I’ve stayed who I was, but he became the rock star. I mean, he is a rock star. He is the rock star.” And who but a rock star would wear the trademark for which he is best known throughout a long hospital stay and will probably continue to wear it when he’s finally lowered into the grave? It’s actually kind of wonderful and displays nothing if not commitment to the cause.

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Rockett, Michaels and DeVille (from left) rehearsing backstage in Connecticut before one of their first shows in five years.

A few days later, midway through a show at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, Michaels storms off the stage and begins bellowing at anyone who will listen, “I can fucking hear my shoes out there! We need to bring the fucking volume up! People are paying money for this! The only thing you can hear is fucking feet moving around! This makes me fucking infuriated, man! Then I get handed a guitar that’s fucking out of tune and I’m fucking tuning it while we’re playing! I’m sorry, but fuck! This stuff matters!”

In the old days, this might have led to some kind of knock-down-drag-out with the various personnel at fault, because Michaels has historically had no problem putting up his fists. He and DeVille used to go at it, with a tooth chipped here and a nose busted there. “Look, we’ve all knocked the shit out of each other, but a day later, we’re in the same room, working this shit out,” Michaels says. “Our arguments were never about whose bus is closer to backstage. They were always over songs in the set and stuff like that, except for one big one with C.C., where we were belligerent drunk and I was smelling of whiskey and bad decisions.”

After the show, Michaels and the boys mill around the dressing room, wiping off sweat and giving their take on how it went, although DeVille can be heard out in a hallway, yelling about how “Santa is Satan. Both have red outfits, you never see them in the same picture, they use the same letters, they are the same person.”

Pretty soon, Rockett is telling a story about Michaels from the band’s pre-glory days, when they all lived in a warehouse where “you could hear the other guy fucking and farting and everything else” and where one night he and Michaels brought back two girls and started going at it. “So, I’m with this girl and after three or four minutes, she says to me, ‘Is something wrong with your singer?’ Because Bret’s over on the other side of the room with his girl and she’s whimpering. I walk over and he’d completely passed out. His pants were down, and he’d fallen asleep on top of her, so I grabbed his pants and the top of his shirt and pulled him off. It was like pulling two dogs apart. Know what I mean?”

Just in time to get the gist of the tale, Michaels wanders over and says, “See, this is how it starts. Now we’re going to beat the shit out of each other. But, yeah, I literally passed out on her.”

Rockett says, “I just heard the whimpering, and she was just a petite little thing, maybe of the Asian persuasion, I can’t remember, but Bret’s not this huge guy. . . .”

Michaels cuts in loudly.

“Hey, hey, wait, wait,” he barks. “Watch your wording here. But, OK, I’m stepping out of this. This is going to go bad.” And he does leave. But he can only stay away for so long before he sidles back to say, “I just want to let you know I didn’t pass out on every fucking groupie, OK? This one time I passed out” – after which it seems like his ego leaves him no choice but to add, “And, then, well, I came to and finished.”

For the most part, he says he prefers to call Poison’s groupies, past and present, “superawesome female rock fans, and it takes two to tango, two to party and two to fuck. I mean, early in my career, it was a fucking megaparty, but I was single and I was with women that were single. You know what I’m getting at?”

“I’m the kind of guy who always says, ‘I can do this.’ Like, I’ll throw up in a bucket and just keep on singing.” –Bret Michaels

Not really, but it hardly matters. In a post-show excitable state, he’s on to the time he gave Tom Cruise advice on how to behave like a Bret Michaels-type star for the 2012 movie Rock of Ages. “Tom goes, ‘Bret, what I want to use is your image, the cowboy hat, the bandanna and the energy.’ He goes, ‘No one has your energy onstage.’ He goes, ‘I need to capture it.’ And I go, ‘When you’re out there, just fucking own it, man, and have a great time. Let your passion pour out.’ See, I’m the kind of guy who always says, ‘I can do this.’ Like, I’ll throw up in a bucket and just keep on singing. Because of this, we have unbelievably loyal fans who’ve lived through all the critics putting us down. Have some of the reviews been unfair? Abso-fucking-lutely.”

Rockett pipes up. “We’re still getting judged on what we looked like on a 1986 record cover. I mean, my God!”

“Rats, wolves, Poison all got a bad rap,” says Michaels. “Wolves can be unbelievably docile. Rats? You dirty rat? Rats are the cleanest animals I’ve ever seen. They cuddle with you, hug you.” (As it turns out, Michaels has two pet rats.) “I’m like, ‘Man, you guys got a bad rap. I know the feeling, bro.’ ”

Rockett is walking around with a towel over his shoulders. Well-wishers and other band members are hogging the room, while it seems like he just wants everyone to leave so he can take a shower in peace and quiet. No one picks up the hint, forcing him to say at last, “Hey, anybody want to see my cock?”

And just like that the room clears, with only Michaels left behind, him saying, “I mean, this band should be dead multiple times over, but it’s not. We’re a hardcore American rock & roll band, sweaty, down and dirty, and we’re thriving and surviving.” And on he goes, paying no attention to Rockett’s threatened display, because he’s the last of the hair-band-era rock stars and without him no one would care one way or another about Rockett’s cock at all.

From issue #789 (August 2017), available now.