This was about 1994-95, and me and Pamela [Anderson] were dating. I was really out of control…I felt invincible.
story by Melanie Falina
photo by Nitin Vadukal
When talking to Bret Michaels, it’s easy at first to think this “Nothin’ But a Good Time” rocker embodies the attitude of that classic ’80s Poison tune as his own personal ideology. And it’s true that he does – but not without a keen awareness of the importance of life.
Having celebrated his fortieth birthday this year, Michaels has spent almost half his life as vocalist of the hard rock/glam rock band Poison. But even longer than that, Michaels has suffered from juvenile diabetes for the past 34 years.
“I got it when I was six, and when you’re that age you don’t have much of a choice,” Michaels tells Chicago Innerview. “You either take three or four injections a day or you don’t live a whole lot longer. In the old days doctors used scare tactics, you know, ‘If you don’t do this your going to lose your feet, lose your vision, your kidneys are going to shut down’.In some sick ways, those tactics worked. It made me want to go out and prove that I could go have fun, but at the same time I get up in the morning and I work out. And I kick box, and I’m driven.”
He considers living with diabetes as much as a blessing as a curse. “You know,” Michaels hastens to add, “it made it pretty simple for me that I wanted to live. I’m like, ‘Hey, what have I got to lose? Let’s go for it!’ I want to put as much into my time here as I can.”
That drive led Michaels away from busing tables in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to forming one of the biggest groups of the “hair-band” era alongside the likes of Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. Originally labeled a “glam band” in their fledgling years because of their make-up and stage theatrics, Poison’s release Talk Dirty To Me erupted onto the airwaves and music video stations in 1988, creating a distinctive niche for the band. Now, after 18 years together, 10 albums on Capitol Records, 10 Top 40 singles, and having been credited by Time magazine as one of the largest grossing touring acts of the 1980s, Poison has proven to be a force worth reckoning with.
But Poison hasn’t been Michaels’ only creative fix. He remains the first musician ever to successfully write, direct, produce, star in, write the soundtrack for, and even perform his own stunts in an independent film. The psychological thriller, A Letter From Death Row, also stars both Martin and Charlie Sheen, as well as Kristi Gibson.
“I wanted people to know I made an attempt not to make a bad rock movie,” Michaels says. “I wanted to make a movie that was completely outside of my element, not me on a tour bus – and there are the groupies!”
In addition to more Poison and more acting, Michaels’ got his solo career happening as well. Other than his recent solo album, fans can look forward to a country music album that is in the works. This idea might seem a little strange at first to some metal-heads or hard-core country fans, but Michaels explains that it’s really not all that unusual. “I think country and, what I call classic rock, have kind of mixed together a little bit. Country isn’t as old school as it used to be.
“Remember,” Michaels interjects, “I grew up on Johnny Cash, Hank Williams senior, and Merle Haggard – all the songs that my dad loved. And then I also grew up on the Beatles and the [Rolling] Stones that my mom loved. But I’ve probably got more traditional country in me than some of the new country artists,” Michaels chuckles. “But I’m not going to do it until I have an album that’s respectable. I don’t want to just chuck something out there and say, ‘Hey, this is my shot at a contemporary country record.’ I want to make it so that I feel pretty proud of it.”
Presently though, despite the fact that Poison has just wrapped up their Summer 2003 tour, Michaels isn’t exactly vacationing under a palm tree and sipping some tropical drink right now. Just two weeks after the close of the Poison tour, Michaels commenced his first official solo concert series in support of his autobiographical album, Songs of Life, released this past May.
“This album captured some very interesting and personal moments in my life, both good and bad,” Michaels said. “From the tragedy of September 11, to the birth of my daughter Raine, to the divorce of my parents.”
Michaels wrote the lyrics to the opening cut, “Menace to Society”, when he was just 17 years old. While visions of rock and roll stardom danced in his head, he’d take his guitar to work with him and play music on his breaks – much to the dismay of an overly critical boss.
“He was one of those middle-management pricks,” Michaels laughs. “He reminded me pretty constantly that I was never going to make it. I was a kid then, but looking back now I think he lived a miserable existence himself and so it was easier to take it out on me – a guy who was young and excited about life, making music and playing in a local band, and he had let his life be over.”
Though the song’s feel is brash and rebellious, Michaels realizes in retrospect how he turned this experience into motivation. “It made me angry but here’s the good thing about me: I’m a fighter. So instead of feeling put down, I just worked harder on my music.”
The verses in the album’s title cut, “Songs of Life” flow in almost a Lou Reed “street poetry” kind of way. This is another song that taps into the sensitive vein of the one-time struggling kid trying to make his dreams come true.
“I grew up in a small borough of Pennsylvania. There weren’t a lot of big time musicians that made it out of [there]. Musicianship was looked down upon, you either got a job at Kinney Shoes or UPS.and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just tough for a guy like me who had a different ambition.”
“It all came down to ambition and drive, and that’s what ‘Songs of Life’ is about.”
Moving forward on Bret’s timeline is the song, “It’s My Party”. “This song was about me looking at myself, and this was about 1994-95, and me and Pamela [Anderson] were dating. I was really out of control.I felt invincible.
I fell into a party mode,” he explains earnestly. “That’s when me and [Poison lead guitarist] C.C. [DeVille] got into a fist fight at the MTV awards. We had both been partying and we were both stoned – literally.”
Though Michaels will be performing much of the music off of the album on his Songs of Life tour, he insists that they’ll be mixed in with several Poison songs as well. “I’m out there to play music not just shove my solo stuff down their throats. I don’t want to be out there like a bad salesman,” Michaels insists. “I just want to go out there and play great music and if they like the solo stuff, buy the record.”
A couple of the sneak previews Michaels gave to look forward to in the live show are a half-acoustic version of “Something To Believe In”, and a rendering of the Poison song “Good Love” which hasn’t been performed live in over 10 years. “When people see the show, they’re going to be blown away!
“It just seems to be getting better.the more I play music, the more I learn to love playing music.” Wrapping things up, Michaels muses, “You have to love it because it’s a tough life otherwise.”