… is another man’s Poison

Look what the cat dragged back in. Even if you abandoned Poison a decade ago at the first sight of Seattle grunge or hated the anything-to-get-signed Los Angeles group from day one, there is something eerily refreshing about a loud, obnoxious arena act that revels in its sexuality rather than downplays it. Considering the alarming rate of boy band/schoolgirl divas clogging up pop culture, it’s becoming easier to admire a throwback glam band more concerned with applying lipstick than lip-syncing.

“Last year the best thing that could happen to Poison happened: We bridged the generation gap,” singer Bret Michaels says in a phone interview from his L.A. home. “You have the hardcore, old-school Poison fans who’ve been there from the beginning, and you have this new school of fans who want to rock…. They’re going, ‘If I’m paying $100 for a ticket to some of these shows where I’m watching a guy stare at his tennis shoes, this is awful. Let’s go check Poison out and see what that’s about. I heard these guys rock.’ We come on stage — and the best way I can say this is, I’m as passionate about playing music today as I was at 15 years old, loading my Peavey P.A. system into a club.”

Those days continued in 1983, when singer Bret Michael Sychak, bassist Robert Kuy Kendall, drummer Richard Ream, and guitarist Matt Smith formed a high school rock band in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, called Paris. A year later, the members carted all their possessions to California in a Chevette and a defunct ambulance. Changing the band’s name to Poison, the members also applied that strategy to themselves, coming up with the more colorful Bret Michaels, Bobby Dall, and Rikki Rockett. Smith eventually left, and Anthony Johannesson, who amended his name to C.C. DeVille, replaced him.

More than a decade — and 19 million records — later, Poison had fallen victim to the predictable highs and lows of those who made a career in the L.A. glam-rock scene of the ’80s. But unlike most of the group’s contemporaries, Poison is still thriving. A sixth studio album, Power to the People, was released last week on the band’s own Cyanide label. This comes just three months after Capitol Records, hopping back on the Poison bandwagon after a noticeable hiatus, completed its contract by delivering Crack a Smile…and More, a collection of B-sides, covers, and reissues.

But the studio has never been this band’s venue of choice. The focus has perpetually been on the live experience, whether it’s a club or a stadium, and it’s back to the latter for Poison’s current excursion. After some experimentation with guitarists Richie Kotzen and Blues Saraceno filling in for DeVille, who departed under sordid circumstances in the early ’90s, Poison has returned to its signature lineup for the first time in seven years for this album and tour.

“I like it that way, they (audiences) like it that way, and the chemistry just works,” Michaels says of this particular cast. “It’s like, I’ve seen Kiss in every facet of their band, but the most exciting to me is the original lineup. With Native Tongue (1993), people enjoyed us and were like, ‘Hey, musically Poison is growing.’ But with the original guys, they know we have a brotherhood and a bond of being through a lot together. Also, there’s this sort of love/hate thing between C.C. and I, so I think people are actually excited if we don’t fight on stage.”

This allusion is to a brutal brawl that occurred minutes after the group exited the stage at the MTV Video Awards in 1992, following a truly awful performance in which DeVille was playing a different song (in an unrelated tuning) than his cohorts. “It’s been awhile since our last altercation,” the 37-year-old Michaels says. “Now, I can’t say that’s been our last argument, but that was our last physical knock-down, drag-out altercation. It happened twice: Once, in ’91 in New Orleans, we had to take a couple days off. Then at the MTV awards, we had a good go at it. Everyone, including Cindy Crawford, got to view that.”

On paper, the battle might not seem much of a matchup. Michaels has an athletic build, while opponent DeVille appears sickly and scrawny. So did the singer unskinny bop his guitarist? “We both had a pretty good throw at each other, but if you had to judge, I probably got a little bit of the upper hand,” Michaels says with a laugh. “It’s a weird thing when you fight your friend, though. If you fight an enemy, you don’t care. You’re like, ‘I beat his ass. I hate ‘im.’ But when it’s your friend, that’s a strange feeling.”

Besides the draw of a reunited lineup, much of the resurgence in Poison’s popularity can be attributed to the current shortage of guitar-driven rock available on radio or MTV, which creates a perfect void for such a boisterous party band to step into. The group’s resurrection can also be traced to a compelling Behind the Music special recently broadcast on VH1.

“This thing came out after we’d already been on the road, so obviously people had been interested before it came out,” Michaels speculates. “But it gave people insight into how hard our band had worked. People thought, ‘Hey, these guys weren’t dickin’ around. They went out to L.A., they busted their asses, they lived like pigs, and nothing was ever handed to them.’ I think people appreciate that David and Goliath sort of thing.”

Poison’s story could serve as a linear blueprint for most big rock acts that came to prominence in the ’70s or ’80s: the initial struggle, then outrageous success, followed by the endless supply of women, the drug addiction, the near-fatal accident (a Ferrari crash involving Michaels), the fallout between original members, the new version that was not quite as triumphant, the fade from the public’s view, the members’ retreat back to their families, then the reunion with the original lineup.

“On a personal level, I’d say no, we didn’t lead the predictable ‘rock band story’ life,” Michaels says. “But when I step back away from it, I’m like, ‘Damn. We may have set the precedent.’ We’re the typical rags to riches to rags to riches — the fights, the alcohol abuse, the partying, the women. You don’t look at it like that, because you live day to day.”

Although the fighting and substance abuse have been tempered, not all of Poison’s vices are considered repealed. Michaels is experiencing the joys of parenthood for the first time (his daughter was born on May 20), but he is not shackled by the commitments of marriage. Thus, the rather infamous touring life of a famous rock vocalist has remained unthreatened. In other words, Poison groupies are still welcome — and now they’re allowed to bring their daughters too.

“We call it the Poison backstage party,” Michaels says, claiming he’s never been fond of the term “groupie.” “It’s infamous, and it’s never been bad.”

Unsurprisingly, Michaels does not recoil in mock horror when asked to reveal his strangest groupie experience. Rather, he divulges the tale with the same casual-but-professional tone as the rest of his answers, almost as if he is discussing the stock market.

“I’ll say this as gently as I can,” he says. “We called her ‘The Squirter.’ It was in Billings, Montana. She had skills that I had never experienced as a young lad — this was in ’86, and we were opening for Ratt. She could have hit a bull’s-eye from across the bus. It was things I’d never seen, and from that point on I believe I’d become a man.” Not surprisingly, Michaels confirms that The Squirter is currently employed in the adult entertainment industry.

Fortunately, that damp woman hasn’t remained Michaels’ only brush with the motion picture industry. The singer has appeared in four feature films, including A Letter From Death Row (which he wrote, directed, and produced, as well as starred in) with Martin Sheen. Michaels just finished co-directing the video to Poison’s new single, “Power to the People,” and in the fall, he will begin filming an action thriller called The Last Breath.

And of course there’s that pesky video — a notoriously graphic tape that caught Michaels and V.I.P. star Pamela Anderson in compromising positions. The home video was pilfered by an ex-roadie and sold to the Internet Entertainment Group. (Note: This is not to be confused with a similar tape involving Anderson with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee.) “At the end of our tour in September, I go to trial for that videotape of Pamela and myself,” Michaels says. “Hopefully, we’ll kick their butts. We’ve been in this thing since ’96, basically suing them for damages.”

Apparently, there is some line to be drawn in terms of career publicity.

When it comes to self-promotion, the members of Poison have rivaled Madonna in their proactive quest for fame and fortune. It’s been easy for critics to lambaste their music, but their work ethic is beyond reproach. While some musicians dedicate their lives to mastering an instrument, the Poison tribe has honed the skill of making people notice how entertaining they are — especially when a live audience is involved.

“It’s a weird combination for Poison,” he says. “We almost have this off-the-wall, nothing-matters kind of punk attitude, like The Sex Pistols, while we’re playing. Yet we still have the big visual because I like explosions and confetti and cannons and pyro and lasers. So you get the best of both worlds.

“When we hit the stage, there’s this explosive energy, but nothing is quite worked out. I love Kiss’ stage show, but I don’t have the discipline to know to walk over to an X, and then something lifts me up into the air. I’m too excited. Even if I wanted to, I’d probably be on the wrong side of the stage when this was happening.”

It’s hard to envision that would be the case; Michaels and his band have made a career out of being in the right place at the right time. But as the Poison frontman affirms, “You make your own luck.”

with Cinderella, Dokken, and Slaughter

Friday, June 23
at Sandstone Amphitheatre

Categories: Music