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Play Dirty – The Rise and Fall of Poison

Long before the Apprentice, Miley Cyrus and a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, Bret Michaels was most known as the charismatic and hyperactive frontman of Poison. During the latter half of the 1980s they dominated the Los Angeles glam metal scene and scored major hits with classics like Talk Dirty to Me and Every Rose Has Its Thorn, before the subsequent grunge explosion in the wake of Nirvana‘s overnight success effectively brought an end to what has since been dubbed as hair metal. Yet the roots of what would become Poison could be traced back to a world far removed from the glamour of Hollywood.

Born Bret Michael Sychak on 15 March 1963, Michaels was raised in a quiet suburb near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania but at the age of six-years-old his life would change forever when he was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. ‘I was getting real sick, we didn’t know what it was and I was a real active kid,’ he would tell Ohio’s WBNS-10TV many years later. ‘What happened was back then, not having a lot of knowledge with being diabetic and diabetes, they had no clue what was wrong. I would be so dehydrated. What happens when you’re diabetic truthfully is that my blood sugar level was over a thousand, it was ridicuously high. And they knew at that point that I was in trouble.’

Despite his health issues Michaels enjoyed a relatively normal childhood and soon developed a passion for music, regularly attending concerts from such bands as Sweet and Foghat. At the age of sixteen he began performing in local groups and although not convinced of his musical ability, he was hired due to owning his own PA system. During this time Michaels became close friends with a drummer called Richard Ream, who had begun performing under the stage name Rikki Rockett. They soon recruited a young bassist called Robert Kuykendall – later known to fans as Bobby Dall – and guitarist Matt Smith and, after a short spell as the Spectres, became known as Paris. Inspired by many of the groups they had grown up with, such as AerosmithKISS and Alice Cooper, Paris soon adopted a glam rock image, wearing effeminate make-up and flamboyant outfits.

Over the next twelve months they began to perform around the Tri-State area, often to dumbfounded audiences who were unsure what to make of their outrageous image and music. ‘We were playing back in Pennsylvania, which as everyone knows is a sort of Bible Belt region and we would play under-21 shows and shows that were for people that weren’t of age to drink, where they were drinking and partying and having a great time,’ recalled Michaels in 1988 on the band’s early days. ‘And next thing you know religious groups are forming outside and they’re saying, ‘They’re poisoning the youth of America.’ Our band…changed the name to Poison because it fit, it stuck out.’

Eventually realising that the only way they could become rock stars was by relocating to either New York or Los Angeles they sold off as much as they could to raise money for the drive across country and, on 6 March 1984, left their family and friends behind in Harrisburg for the long journey across America to California. The West Coast music scene during the early 1980s were dominated by two types of metal: glam and trash. In the wake of Van Halen‘s popularity Mötley Crüe had become the stars of the Sunset Strip, even before signing a record contract but within a couple of years heavier groups like Metallica and Slayer had begun to gain attention. By the time that Poison arrived in the city Mötley Crüe had released two albums and were arguably the most successful band in the area, having gained loyal followings through their performances at venues such as the Roxy and the Troubadour.

‘I remember our first rehearsals, I remember moving to L.A. like it was yesterday. I remember sleeping in a sleeping bag on a cement floor behind a dry cleaner, literally right next to my gear,’ explained Michaels to Global News in 2018 on the street life the band endured when they first arrived in the City of Angels, one of hundreds of groups at any given time that were desperately searching for fame and fortune around Hollywood. ‘We were earning our keep and paying our dues. There were a lot of cockroaches, but I learned if you lay your speakers down you can hoist yourself up above the cockroach battlefield.’

With little money and a cheap apartment Poison tried to force their way onto the Los Angeles club scene with the assistance of a young promoter called Deb Rosner. But even as they began to make a name for themselves around Los Angeles personal reasons prompted Smith to return home to Pennsylvania. Over the next few months the remaining members auditioned dozens of potential guitarists, including a young musician who had performed in a local group called Hollywood Rose under the stage name Slash. ‘I ended up being one of two guitar players left that they were going to pick from,’ explained Slash to Classic Rock Revisited a quarter of a century later. ‘I remember kicking the shit out of the songs they had. There was no denying that I could play them but there was an issue about makeup and stuff. Bobby Dall asked me what kind of shoes I was going to wear.’ Unwilling to adopt the glam metal image, it soon became clear that Poison and Slash were not compatible and so the guitarist would instead join a new incarnation of Hollywood Rose called Guns N’ Roses.

One of the last to audition was Bruce Johannesson, a Broklyn-born guitarist who had been a regular patron of the legendary CBGB club in New York during the late 1970s. Despite being raised on such artists as Les Paul and Mary Ford, his introduction to the city’s rich musical heritage led to his discovery of punk acts like the New York Dolls and the Plasmatics. Arriving late to his audition and having refused to learn any of Poison‘s songs Michaels took an instant disliking to Johannesson – or C.C. DeVille, as he would become better known – and stormed out of the rehearsal room. ‘However, Rikki and Bobby kept jamming with C.C. anyway,’ described Michaels in the liner notes for 1996’s Greatest Hits. ‘Since I didn’t have a car and with nowhere to go I just sat on the street corner listening to the song over and over until eventually I fell in love with it.’

With the line-up finally complete Poison began to promote themselves by handing out flyers around the popular Hollywood hang-outs in the evening while practising during the day. Throughout 1985 they became one of the most popular live acts on the club circuit, rivalling the earlier success of Mötley Crüe. ‘Bobby shit in a cereal box once and sent it to a writer at LA Weekly but the other thing about Poison is that they were really good at working girls,’ reminiscent former manager Vicky Hamilton in an interview with Team Rock. ‘They would go, ‘Hey! Can I try that bracelet on?’ and then they’d casually walk away and the girl would say, ‘Give me my bracelet back’ and they’d respond, ‘Oh? You didn’t give this to me as a gift?’ They had bracelets up to their elbows and most of them they’d got from girls.’

The hard work would eventually pay off when they signed a contract with Enigma records and immediately commenced work on recording their debut album. Collaborating with producer Ric Browde, a veteran of Ted Nugent, at the Music Grinder Studios in Los Angeles the band compiled ten tracks for what would become Look What the Cat Dragged In. ‘ I’m not saying that Look What The Cat Dragged In wasn’t a real record but it almost felt like it was a glorified demo,’ Rockett later confessed to Icon vs. Icon. ‘There is something very cool and special about that because it’s immediate and raw…it was almost like ‘Ready set, go! Dazzle me! Okay, that’s good enough! We’ve got to move on!’ That’s where that record was going.’

Released in the summer of 1986 the album slowly began to gain momentum as Poison toured extensively in an effort to boost sales, sharing the bill alongside Quiet RiotRatt and fellow Pennsylvania natives Cinderella. Having recorded a promo video over two nights at the Palace in Hollywood, their first single Cry Tough was unleashed on 5 August 1986 but failed to chart. Following the modest performance of a follow-up I Want Action Poison finally gained exposure with their third release Talk Dirty to Me, which began to receive regular airplay on MTV and brought the band to the attention of rock magazines around the world. As their profile increased so did their tours and soon Poison found themselves performing with Whitesnake and Mötley Crüe.

As with many of their contemporaries Poison soon became notorious for their taste for sex and drugs, with members of the road crew wandering into the crowd and ‘auditioning’ potential groupies. Within a year of its release Look What the Cat Dragged In had sold over two million copies worldwide and Poison had become one of the most popular rock bands in the country. Their escapades soon brought them to the attention of documentary filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, who interviewed all four members for her analysis on the Los Angeles music scene, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.

‘We had a few reviews that said Poison is fake; we look good, we have hairspray, it’s all makeup, it’s a façade. There’s nothing real,’ DeVille told actress and chat show host Joan Rivers. ‘So what we said was, ‘Okay listen, let’s strip it down just to the soul of the music. Get off the makeup, take everything off.’ So we went on in boxer shorts, just boxer shorts and just played a great set. No makeup and we had four encores and you feel much better when that happens.’ Despite the pressures of touring and their excessive lifestyle taking its toll on the band Poison relocated to Conway Recording Studios in Los Angeles to record their sophomore album, Open Up and Say…Ahh!. This time sessions would be overseen by Tom Werman, a producer with prior experience of hair metal, having recently cut albums for both Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister.

‘It was a real budget and we had real pre-production days. We were like, ‘Wow, this is how it really does work. It’s not an independent record; everything is the real deal,” Rockett explained to Ultimate Classic Rock on how the experience of recording their major label debut differed to that of their low budget first effort. ‘We went in very trepidatious but we walked out very confident. We had people come down to the studio – people from the label, management, other artists – and they were rocking out and going, ‘Wow, this is really great. You’re going to do great with this record.’ I felt like it was part two of Look What the Cat Dragged In – all the things we didn’t get to do and more. We had so much more to say.’

Despite being advised not to include the song on the album, the acoustic ballad Every Rose Has Its Thorn became Poison‘s biggest hit to date. Written in the laundry mat of a Texan motel in 1986 after Michaels had discovered his girlfriend was seeing another man, the track has since become the band’s signature tune. The last single to be released from the album, a reworking of the 1972 Loggins and Messina track Your Mama Don’t Dance, had originally been performed by Michaels and Rockett during their time with the Spectres and would provide the band with yet another hit. By this point the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles of each member had begun to cause issues for the band; DeVille’s cocaine addiction was affecting both his performance and commitments, while Michaels’ diabetes led to him going into an insulin shock during a high profile performance at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1989, where the group were opening for Ratt.

Yet despite the overnight success that Every Rose Has Its Thorn brought the erratic behaviour of the band, particularly that of DeVille, threatened to bring their stardom to a premature end. ‘The reason I had a problem is because I really enjoyed being fucked up. If I didn’t like it then I never would have done it a second time,’ admitted DeVille to Classic Rock Revisited regarding the well-documented problems he had with substance and alcohol abuse. ‘All of a sudden it becomes something completely different and it is not partying. I called it partying but that was only the first twenty minutes of the night. After that I would be hiding in the corner hearing noises – that is not partying, it’s insanity.’

Following his work with Bon Jovi on their hit albums Slippery When Wet and New Jersey, as well as Aerosmith‘s Permanent Vacation and Pump, Poison decided to relocate to Vancouver to record with producer Bruce Fairbairn at Little Mountain Sound Studios, where Mötley Crüe had recently completed work on their latest Dr. Feelgood. The resulting album Flesh & Blood would become another Platinum-selling release and would yield several hit singles; Unskinny Bop, Life Goes On and the Elton John-esque Something to Believe In, the latter dedicated to the memory of the band’s security guard and Michaels’ close friend James Kimo Maano.

Poison also appeared in England at the legendary Monsters of Rock festival at Donington Park on 18 August 1990, sharing the bill with WhitesnakeAerosmith and rising UK groups Thunder and the Quireboys. By this point, DeVille had become unpredictable and would often come to blows with Michaels, with one after-show fight in New Orleans prompting the band to kick DeVille off their tour bus, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere. ‘Me and him were having a few words, having a good time, next thing you know, maybe a couple drinks, a little substance here, next thing you know a few words and we are beating the living crap out of each other,’ recalled Michaels on the incident.

But the final straw came during a televised performance at the MTV Music Awards on 5 September 1991 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Unable to perform adequately DeVille stumbled through renditions of Unskinny Bop and Talk Dirty to Me, forcing Michaels to end the set by stating, ‘It ain’t perfect but it’s rock ‘n’ roll.’ As DeVille would later recall, ‘I was addicted to drugs and I was addicted to that whole lifestyle. I really didn’t get to enjoy how fun and wonderful going on tour is — going and meeting new people and actually seeing the towns you’re in…You get this rage and this chip on your shoulder and you tend to alienate everyone who loves you. It’s awful.’

DeVille was dismissed soon afterwards, although his final single with the band, So Tell Me Why, was released following his departure as one of four studio tracks included on the double album Swallow This Live. Despite still struggling with his addiction, DeVille collaborated with Spike of the Quireboys on a rendition of the Hank Williams classic Hey Good Lookin’. Meanwhile, Poison had decided to soldier on without DeVille and began searching for a suitable replacement. ‘The Poison thing came so out of left field,’ recalled acclaimed blues musician Richie Kotzen in an interview with Guitar.com. ‘So I went out and I met with Bret at his house in Calabasas and immediately hit it off. Personally I loved the guy. He was awesome. I was never really a Poison fan and it was kind of comical because at one point he asked me, ‘Well, are you a fan of our band?’ And of course I was being polite, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, totally.’ Now the truth is that I had a cover band when I was a teenager and I refused to play Poison songs…And now all of a sudden I’m in the dude’s house!’

Working alongside producer Richie Zito, whose most recent work had included Heart and Cher, Poison commenced work on their first album without DeVille at A&M Studios in Hollywood. While both Open Up and Say…Ahh! and Flesh & Blood had demonstrated Michaels’ love of blues and the band’s desire to distance themselves from the fledging hair metal scene, the inclusion of Kotzen as both guitarist and songwriter gave the band a style that would sound almost alien to fans of Look What the Cat Dragged In. Released in February 1993, Native Tongue failed to match the success of its predecessor as the youth of America patiently waited for the next album from Nirvana. ‘New guitarist Richie Kotzen is passably whiz-like and drummer Rikki Rockett establishes himself on every track as one of the genre’s heavy hitters,’ stated Deborah Frost’s largely negative review for Rolling Stone. ‘But Poison may have to dream up sharper material than Native Tongue’s if it wants to keep talking, dirty or otherwise, to the hordes.’

‘Being in Poison helped me grow my bank account for a year, but grow as a musician? Are you serious? Being in Poison helped me forget I was a musician,’ declared Kotzen to Metal-Rules. ‘Well when I was in Poison I was the only one making any music so yes, I fit musically. I’m not really sure if those guys even played on their own records before I got there, I know C.C. did. I know I played the bass on a few songs on Native Tongue. When I went on tour with them did I fit musically? Fuck no. I think if Rikki could have counted to four without getting confused it would have been easier to fit in. It was nothing personal…I think my mind was starting to rot away…g, c, d, over and fucking over. The best thing about being in Poison was fucking. A lot of fucking. I couldn’t stop fucking. At first it was fun but then I started to get so weak.’ Much like DeVille, Kotzen would be abruptly fired from the band when rumours began to circulate that the guitarist had started a relationship with Rockett’s fiancée Deanna Eve.

Having performed on the tracks Sexual Thing and Lay Your Body Down, both of which were included on the retrospective Greatest Hits in 1996, Kotzen’s replacement Blues Saraceno and Poison entered the studio to work on their next album, Crack a Smile. Around this time Michaels embarked on a high profile relationship with Baywatch star and Playboy model Pamela Anderson, whom would eventually marry Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. The album would ultimately be shelved for the next few years and Michaels instead turned his attention to filmmaking; writing, co-directing and starring as a convicted murderer in the thriller A Letter from Death Row. ‘I really loved working with Blues,’ Rockett would recall to Sleaze Roxx two decades later. ‘We became very good friends…I think Blues’ style fit Poison better than Richie’s playing did. Native Tongue was such a departure but I think it was good for us. I think we needed to do that.’

By this point DeVille had conquered his cocaine addiction and, after eight years of animosity, finally reunited with Poison for a reunion tour in the summer of 1999. ‘We would fight but the fans were always there for us,’ he told Carlson Daly. ‘I’ve been a haemorrhoid to everyone in this band but the fans have always been gracious enough to say, ‘Okay, let C.C. back because who else would take him?’ The following year their unreleased album saw the light of the day under the title Crack a Smile…and More!, which also included tracks from their MTV Unplugged appearance several years earlier. While DeVille worked on his own project Samantha 7 he recorded his first studio album with Poison in a decade and, in June 2000, they released Power to the People. 2002’s Hollyweird saw conflicts once again rise to the surface, this time between Michaels and Rockett, who would repeatedly disagree over the direction that the album was taking.

Michaels instead focused on his solo career and released the album Songs of Life through his own label Poor Boy Records. Following the mediocre performance of his next album, Freedom of Sound, Poison embarked on the 20 Years of Rock tour in 2006. Both DeVille and Michaels would then enjoy new exposure through reality TV, with DeVille starring in The Surreal Life and Michaels hosting the dating game show Rock of Love. But in April 2010 Michaels suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage in his brain that almost cost the singer his life. ‘I’m a believer it’s a combination of will and good faith,’ he stated at the time. ‘It just wasn’t my time yet. I really believe that. If I had stayed on the couch for another hour that probably would’ve done me in. In a weird way, God intervened: The appendicitis forced me to come home for a couple of days.’

In the years following his near-death experience Michaels has continued to record as a solo artist, yet while Poison have toured extensively with the likes of Def Leppard their last studio offering was more than a decade ago. Despite this, the band have regularly teased at the promise of new material. ‘I’m not going to bullshit you and say there’s any new music in the process of being made,’ said Michaels at the end of 2018. ‘Would I like there to be? Yes. But, it’s a matter of everyone having the time. Everybody in the band has other commitments. Some members have younger children than others. So between those two issues, it’s difficult, and, you know, there are health issues as we get older. Should we be making a new record? Yes, definitely. But will it happen? I don’t know.’

Rockett has been more upfront regarding the reasons why Poison have not returned to the studio since recording Poison’d! in 2007. ‘We could write the second coming of Talk Dirty to Me and I don’t know if people wanna hear it or not and that’s a frustrating thing; it really is,’ he admitted. And there is some truth to this: while Mötley Crüe, L.A. Guns and Def Leppard have continued to record new material over the years it has never been as well-received as the earlier hits and are often omitted from their set-lists. ‘Aerosmith was able to do it, but not everybody is. I mean, even the Rolling Stones have had problems with that in the last few years. So I don’t know. But I do think it’s important to stay viable. For the über fans, it’s always a really, really good thing. And that’s what you do it for, you do it for you, you do it for the real fans, the real true fans.’


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