Poison – All the Controversy, Hits and Mishaps

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Poison are a band that have had their fair share of mishaps over the years – both individually and collectively. Lawsuits. Illnesses and injury. Internal tension and arguments. Booze and Drugs. You name it.

In spite of which, they’ve churned out a stream of music that, especially in the 80s and early 90s gets them a free pass into any discussion on Classic Heavy Metal from that era. Question the quality all you want (and don’t worry, The Hawk is champing at the bit to do just that), but you can’t deny them a seat at the table. Here, we look at some of those mishaps, interspersed with the big records that made up two sides of the Poison coin.

Early Battles

It was somewhat of a battle from the outset. Those health problems mentioned I the intro? All started way before Poison was even a glint in singer Bret Michaels’ eye. He was diagnosed with diabetes even as a 6 year old kid, having collapsed and been carted off to the emergency room.

At that point, I was severely going into ketoacidosis, which… your body at that point is starting to shut down.

Bret Michaels

Daily insulin shots kicked in immediately as he learned how to handle the disease. It taught him resilience from an early age. But managing the disease is never easy. Here’s Michaels as late as 2018 managing a severe reaction to his diabetes.

So that was always there. Bret donated close to half a million bucks prize money to the American Diabetes Association after he won the reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice – finishing ahead of none other than famously ruthless rock manager Sharon Osbourne of all people.

New Kind of Poison

So when Michaels formed Poison as a 20 year old in 1983, you might say that the later struggles they’d face had been foretold. Not that it held them back to begin with. Knowing which way the Glam wind was blowing, early Poison quickly decamped from their native Pennsylvania to the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. They faced stiff competition in the Glam capital of the US (no, the world), but nailed down gigs at famous rock clubs like The Troubadour, based on their outrageous stage shows.

No Guns N Roses??

In an early ‘sliding doors’ moment, original guitarist (and chief music writer) Matt Smith quit and went back home to embrace impending fatherhood, leaving the band – after a few auditions – pondering whether to offer that gig to New Yorker C.C. Deville, or Slash. Yes, that Slash.

Can you imagine – what if he’d joined Poison there and then? Would Guns n Roses ever have been what they were?

Lucky for us, that’s a nightmare being experiences in a parallel universe. Poison preferred to hire an East Coast guitar player if they could, and so chose in-your-face New Yorker DeVille, even though they should probably have known better. DeVille had argued with them over the choice of audition songs, and openly dissed some of the Poison early material he’d been asked to learn. Michaels and bassist Bobby Dall took an immediate personal dislike.

East Coast Rocks

But, the ties that bind and all that. They felt some connection to him as a fellow east-coaster, saw that he could play and contribute to the song writing, so they took the plunge, even amid those personal battles which started there and then, and would plague them for years.

But at least there was a bit of commercial progress. The signed to a small label, Enigma Records in 1986 – albeit for what they saw as a pittance of $30,000. Not even enough to properly record their first album, ‘Look What the Cat Dragged in,’ the band had to chip in funds themselves. But it paid off – the record smashed expectations, became Enigma’s biggest selling release of all time, supplied 3 hit singles, and catapulted them instantly into Glam royalty, with gigs alongside the likes of Ratt and Quiet Riot.

Commercial Success

Here’s a couple the singles, ‘Talk Dirty to Me’ and ‘I Want Action’, both complete with the usual picking-up-the-chicks videos. Reckon you can handle both at once? Here…

Imagine buying both those singles one after the other. The Hawk cannot. Pretty much either one does it, if you’re into that kind of thing. CC’s guitar melodies provide the occasional lift, but it’s pretty thin gruel musically and lyrically.

Commercially was a different matter though. Album number 2, 1988’s ‘Open Up And Say Ahhh’ did even better (#2 on the Billboard album charts), and supplied a #1 hit single in the legendary philosophical number ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’. Philosophical and profound enough to get Bill and Ted past St Peter and into heaven during their Bogus Journey.

‘Fallen Angel’ is the better single from that album musically, though the subject matter hasn’t really moved on.

They Fought The Law…

What about those infernal problems mounting up alongside the successes? Yep, we’re coming right to them. Bret Michaels had a penchant for brawling when out on tour, racking up lawsuits in at least 3 cities. Some record company PR suit sued them for over a million bucks for emotional trauma after they drenched her with drinks and an ice bucket at an industry shindig. (I know, right – no sense of humor at all).

A former management company trumped that with a $45 million suit for breach of contract. Little known Swedish rockers Easy Action sued them for ripping off the chorus of ‘We go Rocking’ for the above single ‘We Want Action’.

Judge for yourself. Nether are exactly memorable, but Poison for sufficiently concerned to settle that particular suit for $25,000.

That wasn’t the only plagiarism lawsuit Poison ever faced either – in 2011, they were sued again for ripping off songs that went onto that debut album. On this occasion, the judge found in their favor, though only on the technicality that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file suit.

Unskinny What Now?

Anyway. The good times continued to roll, commercially at least, with multi-platinum album #3, ‘Flesh and Blood’ in 1990. That in turn spawned the top 10 single ‘Unskinny Bop’, proving that the facile song writing that prevented pretty much any critics from warming to the band was going nowhere. (In case you were wondering, about hidden depths, ‘Unskinny Bop’ doesn’t actually mean anything at all. Deville used it as a temporary piece of gibberish that fit well with some music he was writing.

But the band were so delighted with the phrasing, they kept the lyric. What’s that you ask? Does the video feature the band heading out to pull the chicks? Why yes, it does. But in a fresh twist, Michaels also dances with some neon chicks in bikinis. Classy.

Internal Conflict…

A triumphant appearance at Monsters of Rock in Donnington, England followed that year. But after much touring, brawling, boozing and arguing, the long standing ambivalence between DeVille and the rest of the band came to a head. A drunken Deville and Michaels came to blows backstage at the MTV music awards in 1991, Deville screwed his performance on stage, and he was fired without further ado.

The talented Richie Kotzen came in as replacement, and played on the next album, ‘Native Tongue’ in 1993. Were there problems though? Oh yeah. Kotzen was given considerable freedom to input into song writing, and lead the band into a somewhat more sophisticated direction. That finally harvested a bit of credit from the critics, but in an ironic quid pro quo, the older fans hated it. Sales were disappointing, as were ticket sales for the subsequent tour.

…And Infidelity

Things went from bad to worse when the band found at that new axe man Kotzen had been sleeping with drummer Rikki Rockett’s fiancé. Furious, they fired him on the spot, bringing in yet another guitarist, this time Blues Saraceno, who finished the tour.

By this time, Poison couldn’t buy a break for any amount of money. Returning to the studio in 1994 for another album, the process ground to a shuddering halt when Michaels crashed his Ferrari, emerging from the wreck with a broken nose, ribs, jaw, fingers and four missing teeth. Tough break.

Michaels recovered and went on to finish the album (entitled ‘Crack a Smile’) in 1995, only to be told by their record label that it was being shelved in favor of a Greatest Hits release.

THAT Sex Tape

It eventually saw the light of day in 2000, but not before Michaels had been embroiled in the infamous Pamela Anderson sex tape saga. Quick recap: Michaels had been seeing Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, and the two of them starred in a home made sex tape (not intended for public distribution). Someone got hold of a copy, and in spite of Michaels’ best efforts in court, a cut-down copy leaked out onto the internet, from where, of course, it can never be called back.

At least by this time, Michaels and CC DeVille had patched things up, paving the way for the ‘classic’ lineup to come back together in 1996.

And they stagger on to this day – there have been a few decent tour appearances to roll back the years, notably a guest slot with Motley Crue and Def Leppard on the US leg of the 2022 stadium tour. But there hasn’t been an album of any note since the glory days. In fact, there hasn’t been a studio album of an kind since 2007’s ‘Poison’d’, and even that only consisted of covers.

There’s More…

To be honest, in writing up this combination of Poison’s interwoven triumphs and tragedies, The Hawk has realized that he hasn’t covered the half of it. We’re running out of space here, but briefly, a few of the downs that never made the cut:

  • In 2009, the jukebox musical stage show ‘Rock of Ages’ told the story of LA’s Sunset Strip rock clubs, where so many bands like Poison first made their names. It featured a couple of Poison numbers, and so Poison agreed to perform at the 2009 Tony awards, where the show would be honored. As Bret Michaels was winding up, a stage backdrop fell on him, resulting in stitches and a broken nose. Michaels sued and settled out of court.
  • Preparing for a show in 2010, Michaels had to be rushed to hospital with severe abdominal pain – a ruptured appendix was diagnosed, requiring emergency surgery. Recuperating at home, he heard a ‘pop’ in his head. Unable to speak, he was rushed back to the emergency room, where a brain hemorrhage was discovered. After treatment, he recovered from both scares.
  • Shortly after that, a hole in Michaels’ heart was discovered – more surgery needed to fix.
  • In 2006, CC DeVille crashed into 4 parked cars while heavily under the influence of booze. The cops arrested him a couple of blocks away, trying to make his escape, resulting in convictions for DUI and hit & run. But at least the incident motivated him to quite drinking.
  • In 2015, Rikki Rockett discussed his ordeal batting throat cancer, (coincidentally, the same disease that affected Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson). Many rounds of painful radio- and chemotherapy followed.
  • Bassist Bobby Dall had his own issues with the booze. In the video for ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’, he’s so wasted in one scene that he can’t even stand up. In 1993, he checked into rehab, and is still recovering.

Credit Where It’s Due

Phew – that’s quite enough of that. Talk about hits and mishaps. But, for all that since the release of their first album in 1986, Poison have sold over 15 million records, had a total of 10 Top 40 US singles, and sold out many international tours. For the most part, they’ve been despised by critics and many metal peers, yet continue to gamely churn out the shows. That at least deserves plenty of credit, and even if they’re not your cup of tea, nobody can deny they made their mark.

So let’s play out with the song that can get you entry into the Kingdom of Heaven itself – ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn.’ Keep your eyes open for that Bobby Dall drunk scene?

What do you reckon when it comes to Poison? Over-rated Glam? Musical nobodies? Guilty pleasure? Or even part of the backbone of Classic Heavy Metal? Let us know in the comments.

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