Unlike other Metal bands whose tectonic rumblings conjure Satan's spawn up from the pits of Hell to snatch your mortal soul, Poison, with its macho-femme brand of Arena Rock, don't need nothing but a good time. As Bret Michaels, Poison's frontman and über-sex-symbol who single-handedly bridged the gender gap years before SNL's "Pat," points out without a hint of wryness, "We're not trying to own your soul when you leave our show. We just want to make sure you had a great time."
Such is the life of a balls-out '80s band that looked into the eyes of the Rock God in the early '90s and saw the coming onslaught of alternative culture, anti-Head Bangers and the fall of stroking-the-monster guitar solos.
From 1985 to 1990, Michaels and his motley crew from Harrisburg, Pa., were the kings of Glam Rock, booty-knocking groupies everywhere, selling more than six million copies of Open Up and Say ... Ahh! in 1988, headlining their own global tours and being compared to such costumed giants as KISS.
But the changing landscape of Rock and various struggles within the band soon shot down their ascent, and by 1991, Michaels and Poison's lead guitarist, C.C. Deville, who joined the band in L.A. in 1985, did some shirts-off, bare-knuckle boxing seconds after their performance on the MTV Music Video Awards, which precipitated Deville's long-term absence from the band and marked Poison's descent into pop culture obscurity.
But after years of drug rehab, near-death experiences, solo projects, babies (Michaels became a father last year), attempted album releases and a barrage of media attention surrounding Michaels' scandalous home video featuring the mammary-enhanced Pamela Anderson, all four original members of Poison — Michaels, DeVille, Rikki Rocket and Bobby Dall — have regrouped and are coming at audiences around the country with a flurry of old-school cuts (sans Aqua Net and Esteé Lauder), and their touring success has been phenomenal.
Averaging nearly 10,000 screaming mullets per show and drawing 5 million viewers for their VH-1 Behind the Music series in 1999, Poison is slowly amassing a cult-following of Rock show-hungry youngsters, while maintaining their perennials who've been loyal disciples since Look What the Cat Dragged In dropped the bomb on the scene and opened the Glam gates for other power ballad kinks — Ratt, Motley Crue, Winger, White Lion, Twisted Sister, ad nauseam — for years, until Kurt Cobain officially closed the chapter on '80s-style Hard Rock with Nirvana's magnum opus, Nevermind.
Headlining the Glam Slam Metal Jam, Poison is gonna party like it's 1989 at Riverbend on Tuesday.
CityBeat caught up with Michaels and learned more about the dude who used to look like a lady: Over the past 16 years, Michaels has learned how to crank the PR machine, jubilantly promoting his four-part posse, boosting their few achievements and doing so without a trace of irony. Take his New Age thoughts in the liner notes of Poison's 2000 set, Power to the People, for example: "A very special thanks to the Poison-haters. Without Poison, you'd have to hate yourselves. Glad we could help. Thanks!"
CityBeat: I was looking at your list of tour dates. That's quite a list.
Bret Michaels: Let me put it this way: Time magazine voted Metallica and Poison the longest-touring bands in history two years in a row. We had both been out like a year and four months, playing four or five shows a week.
It's a hectic schedule, and it can wear at you. But you just try to keep that energy up. And the fact that I'm diabetic forces me to go down to the gym and keep in good health, so that I can continue to party and be great on stage.
I need to be excited about what I'm doing. That's why Poison has, for 16 years, through good and bad times, been able to exist for that long. And it's a great feeling when you play places again. Cincinnati is a great show, especially these last few years at Riverbend. They've been absolutely insane.
CB: There is a big craving for Poison and that Metal flavor of the late '80s in Cincinnati.
BM: One thing Poison has done is that we bridge generations. In other words, you have your hardcore old-school fans who will always be loyal. They're coming and telling everyone, "You've got to see this show." Now this whole new generation is saying, "I want to see a Rock show. I've heard about them, but I haven't seen one." We went through the mid-'90s where (Rock shows) really didn't happen. Now people come out and go, "Damn! Poison!" SFX (the promotion company that books nearly 70 Poison concerts a year) said it best: "Poison has become the Grateful Dead of Hard Rock." We've got this cult following that's become Hard Rock, underground hip.
CB: Back in the mid-'80, Poison was put in the Glam Metal slot. Do you think that hinders or fuels the cult following?
BM: I think it definitely has helped us as well as hindered us. Some love us and some just fucking downright hate us. But there's a beauty behind that that we didn't understand before. We couldn't understand in the past why people would hate us, but it was the best blessing for us, because if everyone likes you, then nobody likes you. If everyone all of a sudden just loved us, loved us, loved us, then after two years, no one would love us.
CB: You were the biggest sex symbol when I was growing up.
BM: That must have been a while ago.
CB: Well, I'm talking about right at the peak of your popularity.
BM: Right, you mean in '99. Or 2000 and 2001.
CB: No, I'm actually talking about when you were wearing all that make-up and drag in the '80s. So my question is how do you reconcile being a father and a sex symbol?
BM: I say the best thing to do is to be as straight honest as you can until they ask you a question you can't answer. Then you say, "Excuse me, I've got to go." I say shuck and jive. Answer truthfully the questions you can answer and then say no comment to the ones you can't.
CB: That's a good strategy. So is touring still in the future?
BM: For as long as possible. Until my knees give out. Until my sex-symbol knees blow out. When these sexy knees give out, it's all over.
CB: How about the hair? Are you guys done with the hair now?
BM: Um, no. We all still have a good head of hair.
CB: That's good, but it's lower now, right?
BM: I'm the only one that's still old-school. I still got long, stringy straight hair. I've stuck to my old-school tradition. But C.C. has that big mop punk 'do. As far as Rikki, his hair is a different color every day. And Bobby's hair is kind of shaved and spiked up, kind of a Sid Vicious look.
CB: A little conservative.
BM: I don't know if I'd call it conservative, but it looks kind of wild right now. I'm the only one that's stuck to my old-school roots and kept it long.
CB: That's good. Keep it in you.
POISON performs Tuesday at Riverbend with Warrant, Quiet Riot and Enuff Z'Nuff.