May , 2011
By Laura Hill
After 25 Years, The Rock Still Rolls For Poison
An Exclusive JAM Magazine Interview With Percussionist Rikki Rockett
Let's face it, Poison wasn't supposed to hang around after their album debuted in 1986. The press hated the very image this group had created. It had absolutely no problem telling the masses just how bad this band really was. If video had killed the radio star, then Poison had surely destroyed the post glitter, post punk, post hard rock world known as glam. But here we are, a quarter of a century later, still talking about the band the press absolutely loved to hate. Over the decades, drug rehab facilities have seen their fair share of rock stars seeking treatment help from them.
I will freely admit to being a proud member of the Fourth Estate that couldn't wait to see Poison fail miserably. First time I ever interviewed the band, Bobby Dall broke my tape recorder in half. He had grown so weary of the press attacks on Poison, my questioning the band's pretty boy teased hair persona was the final straw. Sitting inside their rented mobile home (no bus here), the bass player popped out the cassette tape, cracked it in half with two hands, then proceeded to create two halves of a tape recorder with a quick slam across the knee. The band didn't know at the time of this very impromptu interview, that I was reviewing the concert (Loudness, Cinderella, Poison) for the London based Kerrang! Magazine. I got the last laugh. Or did I?
Over the past 25 years, I've marveled at Poison's ability to come back from the dead. Logically speaking, there's no possible way the four original members should still be together. Their drug problems and internal bickering reached legendary heights during 1990's Flesh & Blood tour. Yet here they are preparing to have nothing but a good time, again. Bret Michael, Rikki Rockett, Bobby Dall and C.C. DeVille are about to celebrate a generation's worth of Poison fanfare on a summer long glam crusade, alongside the original Motley Crue and the legendary New York Dolls. So, without much ado, it's time to take a really hard look at what the cat actually dragged in. Open up and say ah! Yeah, it's time to take a really hard look at what the cat dragged in. Seriously, who would have ever thought this time would ever come to pass?
JAM: When the media attacked Poison back in the '80s, it was pretty relentless. There was just something about the band journalists really hated. If there was ever a band the press was waiting to fail, it was Poison. They're still waiting 25 years later.
Rikki Rockett - Honestly, I don't know if that period of our life can be summed up in one interview. We were the kings of excess back then. We always walked the fine line between being too excessive and just plain pompous. There's no doubt we caught a lot of shit on our first album. We were a party band, blah, blah, and the lyrics are meaningless. The makeup didn't help either. But you know what, that's what made us tick back then. In a sense, it still does today. Glam is being punk enough to be reckless, and polished enough to have all the pizzazz without it all seeming pompous.
JAM: Yet you still were magnets for controversy.
We were never a group that tried to take advantage of anything, yet we were constantly being accused of being a rip-off band. Poison got killed for all types of ridiculous reasons by the press that to this day is hard to explain. We wanted to make it on the merit of our music, not on being glam slam trash kings who dress up, tease their hair and wear make-up. The first couple of tours, we were always defending ourselves. We didn't want to sell records on controversy, yet it followed us wherever we went. I can't complain though. In hindsight, we did phenomenally well when the world was against us.
JAM: You did phenomenally well when you four were fighting amongst yourselves too!
I don't think there's ever been a band with more drug problems, and been in more fist fights between members over the years, than Poison. This band is totally weird. I can't even begin to explain the complicated personalities that make up this group. If you get all four of us in a room to take a photo, that would be history happening. It's literally impossible to get us together to do anything. But when it comes to performing on stage, not a problem - it literally happens. I'm not being overly dramatic when I say that either.
JAM: Do you know how bizarre that last comment sounds?
I'll try to get more specific. It doesn't matter how close a band is when you start out together. In any relationship, you have to keep reestablishing those ties constantly. You can't just have one wonderful night of communication, and respect for each other, then have that moment carry you through the next ten years. It doesn't work that way. You have to have an ongoing respect for each other, because if you don't, then your band declines. I'm not trying to paint the business of Poison as horrible, because I've done really well with it. At the same time, however, it has beaten the shit out of me, if you know what I mean. Any job does that to people. I'm happy being a musician, but you really can get torn apart in this business no matter how successful you become. It is one thing to quote 'make it,' it's another to stay there. It's like being a body builder that reaches a certain level in their profession. You have to keep training, or you don't maintain your standing.
JAM: If you four have trouble getting into the same room to just take a photo, why are you still together to this day?
As strange as it may seem, the four of us never lost sight as to why we are here. With the type of emotional assholes we are, if we didn't want to play music anymore, we wouldn't do it. Seriously, we would not do it! We could all be smart, invest our money and not do anything ever again. It's not about that. When I was growing up, and Bret and I have talked about this on numerous occasions, I didn't envision a Mercedes and a cool house. I envisioned great lighting and a lot of speaker cabinets. Like David Lee Roth once said, "All I want out of life is a big P.A." Well, that's where we're at. All these years later, this business doesn't mean material things. It means the lights, the P.A., the show.
JAM: You are on a very interesting bill with Motley Crue and the New York Dolls. Can you break down how this came about? Initial reports from the Crue camp were they wanted nothing to do with Poison.
I know. Bret mentioned something about the two of us touring together late last year, and it just blew up from there. Fans got excited by the thought, but I don't think Motley was that in to it. All the sudden, earlier this year, we have a real offer on the table. I thought this would be a great bill, and it was Nikki Sixx's idea to bring on the New York Dolls. I'm a big fan of that particular era of music the Dolls came out of, the glam punk scene. For this to all come together has been really exciting.
JAM: Opening for Motley has Poison in a very challenging position. Has the band considered maybe playing one complete album, then coming back with hits from your other discs to complete the set?
Personally, I would love to do the entire Look What the Cat Dragged In album, and follow that with some other hits as the encore. I like doing that kind of stuff. I know it has a nostalgia feel to it, and that may turn some people off, but I don't care.
JAM: Have you all sat down to discuss how you are going to approach your middle slot performance between literally, two icons in the music business?
We'll play the hits people want to hear, and also the songs that flow with those hits. We've been playing long enough to know which combinations work well in concert. You just can't take songs and stick them on a set list and play them. It doesn't work that way. When you're playing live, there's an ebb and flow to your show. With the time Poison has allotted, we have to make sure the music keeps the people interested in us from the opening number to the last. It's always tough to pick music for a show, and this tour especially, has more pressure built into it than if we were going out on our own.
JAM: What defined Poison as a band was the fact you four were a true manifestation of the post glitter, post punk scene that was neatly summed up in the word glam. Do you see a yearning for that kind of recklessness, which Poison still possesses, in today's music market?
I don't know if a 28-year old who likes Poison would understand what you just said. It actually takes someone a little bit older, who has seen all these incarnations of rock, to comprehend what you're saying. But you're right in what you said. Poison was an edgy, controversial band from the very beginning, but at the same time commercial enough for the public to swallow it.
JAM: I was fortunate enough to chronicle the music of the '80s. Like many people today, I fondly recall those days. Poison not only survived it all, but thrived, creating music that has sustained you to this day.
We were very lucky to be a part of that era. It's an honor to still be in a position where people happily recall those days when they hear your name. That time period was bigger than I am, bigger than Poison, and I'm humbled to have played a role in it. The thing we created, and set into motion, took on a life of its own. The legacy of the '80s is bigger than all of us who lived through it. I remember meeting one of my favorite rock photographer's back then, and I said to him, "Oh my God, you were taking pictures in the best years of music, the '70s!" He looked at me and said, "No, this is the best era right now." That was in 1988. I thought to myself, "Wow, I'm living the dream and I don't even know it." All these years later we're still in that dream. Is Poison changing anything in the world with its presence? No! Today we have people that follow us all over when we tour. They dress up, hang out in parking lots and party before and after the show. It's like we have become the Grateful Dead of glam.
JAM: Poison has not released a new album in almost ten years. Is this band afraid to tinker with its legacy by releasing a new album that may not go over well with the public?
We should be recording a new album right now! That's exactly what we should be touring on for the 25th Anniversary. I don't care if one of our guys does solo stuff here and there. As much as I wish Bret would do more with the band, at the same time, a lot of the things he does keeps Poison in the press. Younger people who weren't familiar with Poison back in the day are now in the loop. That's not a problem, but again, I do feel Bret spends too much time doing other things. He needs to concentrate his activities more on this band than his own projects. That's how I feel and he knows it. I'm saying this to you; I will say it to his face. I don't mind Bret doing a gig here and there with someone else. That's fine, they are fun. But damn it, Poison needs a new record.
JAM: Ten years ago, Poison was drawing numbers on the road that would have made Bon Jovi envious. However, Jon and his band got down to business and started to write and release new music. Today they are on top of the world. Poison, on the other hand, went the opposite way. One original album, one record of cover tunes and constant re-releases of your old hits. Where did the wires get crossed with you four?
You know what? It's not that this band thinks it's done and we're going to live off our past. There's still music in us I believe the public wants to hear.
JAM: You haven't released a new album since 2002's Hollyweird. That album was heavily criticized by journalists and fans for poor production quality and an unimpressive new sound. If the stage is the only place you four can get together, a recording studio would be out of the question.
No, you don't understand. The members of Poison, as strange as this is going to sound, literally have a problem working together. We are an extremely volatile band - way more than people realize. It feels like we could implode at any minute. Even in the beginning, we were explosive with one another. None of us were singing kumbaya with one another after each successful album. We lived together and fought constantly. The thing is, that tension always fueled a lot of very interesting songs in our past. If you got a therapist, and sat us all down in a room, he would say we are all co-dependent on one another and that's the source of our problems. The four of us would agree, tell the therapist we need each other and move on. I swear that's what it is. There's every reason in the world we should have broken up a long time ago, and we don't. We just keep on keeping on.
JAM: Here's something about Poison I'll never understand. In the beginning, the world outside beats up on the band constantly, so you four band together and turn that rage against you into fuel to write music. Your first three records sell in the millions and proves this band belongs. Finally, when you're grudgingly accepted by the press and given your dues, the first thing this band does is turn against yourselves.
The hardest thing dealing with success is not the success part - it's how to act when you're not in front of a crowd. How do I deal with life when I'm not behind the drum kit? The first time it ever hit me was the Texxas Jam. We came off the stage, after playing for the largest crowd in our life, and the first thing I was wondering was, "Where's the party?" At the time, money really wasn't coming to the band. It took awhile because we had such an awful contract. There were guys who had only a hit single that were able to spend way more money than the four of us. When we had two hit albums under out belt, we were still broke because of the way our contract was structured. That was also another very frustrating thing for us to deal with at the time. People kept telling us we should have all this money, but we didn't. Instead of our original philosophy of "Hey, we're just glad to get a foot in the door!" - we started getting really fucking bitter. It was like "Dammit! I should have this. Why can't I go out and buy this car? I'm in all these music magazines, and this guy who's a hired gun in another band has a Corvette and I can't get one." That kind of shit was frustrating and really started to wear on this band. It caused a lot of fights between us.
JAM: You aren't the only band that made a bad deal for themselves to get the proverbial 'foot in the door.' I just don't get the concept of turning on one another to write great music.
Poison is the total opposite of everything that seems normal in this business. We put those volatile emotions into the songs, or we talked about stuff we didn't have, and put it into music. "Nothing But a Good Time" came as a result of a lot of problems we were going through with C.C. on the second album. Now we figure that we're lucky to have Tom Werman producing our record, right. Suddenly C.C. is no where to be found. He's in rehab. His parents want to blame us for him going in. Then we discover our management is ripping us off and we fire them. So here we are in the middle of our second album, no manager, no guitar player at the moment, and somehow Bret comes up with the lyrics to "Nothing But a Good Time". We finished it after C.C. got out. That particular record took an extra six weeks to produce because of all the down time we had. Most bands would have done something drastic when confronted with that type of situation, like fire the guitar player. We turned it into a positive by writing a song.
JAM: Is there such a thing as a definitive Poison song?
No there is not. We don't have a formula. If you look at the hits we've had, there's no pattern to them what so ever. This band has never gotten too heavy with any song and backed away from it. Bret brought us lyrics to a sad song, and we wrote music to "Every Rose Has a Thorn." We let the whole damn thing be sad instead of rock it out, which would have ruined it. That's the answer to our success with a song; being able to focus and go all the way with it. You can always steer a song, but you can't have it where one tune makes a left, and another one is making a right. "Every Rose" was that way. There really wasn't these acoustic power ballads happening that much when we wrote the song. It almost sits in the saddle like a country song. At first we were scared to death of it. It was like, "What's coming out of us" when the song was being written. We tried to make it different a couple of ways, but it just didn't work.
JAM: So Poison music is totally undefined?
If you think about it, all recorded music is captured moments in time. For instance, I had this girl in Texas come up to me after a show with her high school year book to sign. In her senior class part, it had the entire words to "Cry Tough" scrawled throughout the section. Those lyrics meant a lot to her class of '87. So yeah, we have written songs that meant something. It wasn't just "I Want Action." When we commit ourselves to a song, we go all the way with it. For heavy songs, we made 'em heavy. For party songs, we went that route as well.
JAM: Playing the blame game seemed to be a regular occurrence with this band back in the day. After awhile, even that has to be a heavy burden to constantly carry.
Being a man isn't how much you can drink, how much you can screw, or whether you can press 350 pounds. Being a man is somebody who can deal with problems, deal with situations, and move forward. Over the years, we all became men from that standpoint. Open Up and Look at the Cat reflected what we were going through. If you listen to the songs, quite honestly, it tells you what Poison was actually thinking at the time.
JAM: The first album and tour, Poison stands out from other bands because of the glam image and party hearty songs on the record. Your second effort softens up your image somewhat because of the mega success of the power ballad, "Every Rose Has a Thorn." When you released the third album in 1990, the music had raw emotion and an introspective feel to it. Was Flesh & Blood an example of what Poison's true potential could be if you could keep the band's internal politics in check?
To answer your question, yes. We had reached our apex with C.C. on that record. If he was straight and focused, we could have done another great album with him. But, the way things were going, it wasn't going to happen. After that tour, there was no way the four of us could make another record together. If by some miracle we had gone into the studio and made an album, it would have not been released. C.C.'s insecurities, by this time, had gotten the best of him. Listen, the guy is actually a very intelligent person. He's a real sweetheart, but he's got this toxic, switchblade personality that wants to cut you up if he gets any whiff of a perceived slight towards him. Now you throw alcohol, drugs and fame into the equation, and it becomes a highly emotional, dramatic and volatile situation that can explode without notice. Instead of dealing with the issues head on to clear them up, C.C. went the other way. The bottom line, he always thought Bret had it in for him, and it ate away at him that entire tour.
JAM: In most bands, the lead singer and guitarist both need each other to spark ideas. In this instance, the only spark C.C. and Bret sparked where fights, especially during that Flesh & Blood tour. What went so wrong that it totally sidetracked the tremendous momentum the band was riding?
Bret was getting more attention than C.C. as we started to get big, and it bothered him a lot. It made absolutely no sense. Bret Michael is the lead singer of Poison. He's the focal point of band when he's on stage. Of course he's going to emerge as the leader of the group. He writes the lyrics, so naturally he tells the stories about them to the audience. That really bothered C.C. so he stopped being a team player and began acting up. It was the only way he could get attention focused on himself. Personally, I could care less if Brett gave his perspective on the lyrics he wrote for songs. For C.C. however, it bothered him so much that his animosity t5oward Bret just snowballed and snowballed. Even when he was straight, he seemed like he was eaten up with jealousy.
JAM: You three covered up his behavior pretty well.
Bret had protected C.C. and his behavior for years. It finally started creating friction between the two. Finally Bret got tired of making excuses for him. Now I'm not saying Bobby and I didn't have to do it as well, because we did, but not as much as Bret. That tension between them grew to the point Bret would go, "C.C., why are you doing this? I'm tired of answering for you!" It turns out C.C. thought Bret had the ego problem and it just escalated from there.
JAM: I would say C.C.'s purple hair at the 1992 MTV Awards had a chilling affect on the band. I just happened to be backstage when he and Bret got into it.
It's one thing if you change the color of your hair because you're making a style statement. It's another when you are doing it for shock value. Poison was always creative with its image, all the way down the line. It was a reflection of our attitude and what we grew up with. However, when C.C. did the purple thing, it was strictly to piss us off. There was no creativity in dumping a crazy color on his hair. That was saying something else, and the three of us knew it. The audience saw right through him as well. Afterwards, C.C. decided to leave the band on his own. Honestly, we were willing to have these meetings with psychologists and work things out, but we knew that wasn't going to be possible unless he got straight first.
JAM: But you still stuck with him after that even with him out of the band. Why?
Listen, I can't dis the guy outright for his behavior. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't be where we are today. For some reason, the mixture worked the first three albums. When the flame was hot, it was scalding hot. Then it cooled considerably.
JAM: Over the years before C.C. got himself cleaned up, were you expecting a phone call in the middle of the night saying he had been found dead from a drug overdose?
I was always afraid that I would be attending C.C.'s funeral at some point. The scary thing is there's nothing you can do about it. You can try and give support, you can try to get through to them, but inevitably they make the decision whether they want to live or die. The three of us made numerous trips to visit C.C. during those dark times for him. It wasn't about him rejoining Poison; it was about supporting a friend who was battling for his life. Bobby saw him a lot because C.C. trusted him. He had successfully fought the same demons that were now plaguing him.
JAM: Who opened up the lines of communication with C.C. to come back?
Bobby kept the lines of communication with C.C. open for years. We never turned our backs on him completely. We had been through so much together as a band, it forged a bond of steel between us that none of us could break. I wanted to see C.C. alive and happy whether or not he ever rejoined Poison. I was never going to hate the guy. How could I possibly dislike a person who helped make my dreams, our shared dreams, come true? The first order of business was always to make sure he was okay and could stand on his own two feet. That was a slow process. It's not like a person recovers from drugs and a week later you say, "Okay, let's go into the studio and record." C.C. was that far under water it took him awhile to get his priorities straightened out. He had to deal with weight issues and other problems that made him turn to drugs in the first place. You know what's weird - in some ways, it's like C.C. never left the band. Technically, on paper he did, but spirit wise, he was always there.
JAM: Was it sobering being featured as a band on VH1's Behind the Music in the summer of '99?
It was sobering and cool at the same time. Personally, I thought going on the show would set the record straight about Poison. At the time, we hadn't toured in five years. They filmed us right when we were about to go on a greatest hits tour. It was almost like VH1 was going to put the final nail in our coffin. Part of the deal for us agreeing to be in the show was VH1 had to come out on the road, videotape one of our current shows, and include the footage in the segment. At the time, seriously, we didn't know whether or not we'd be welcomed back by the public. On one hand, going on VH1 was a ballsy move. On the other it was like, well, how much more damage can be done to Poison? They agreed to our request. They filmed one of our biggest shows on the road and aired it with the piece.
JAM: From 1994 thru 1999, Poison sort of disappeared.
There was a point in time there where me, Bobby and Bret asked ourselves if it was over. It scared the hell out of us when we were confronted by that question. That's a tough thing to have to ask yourself. Musically and spiritually, the three of us realized Poison had a lot to live for as a band. There's a beginning and an end to everything, but it usually takes you forever to get there. From 1996 to '98, I had left music to concentrate on my comic book company. I didn't want to have anything to do with Poison until it could come back with conviction. I didn't want to be a part of band with half-ass convictions on any level. I'm not stupid. I knew exactly where we were at that point in our career. You know what was really sobering back then? Bret and I were on the phone for four straight hours the night our first show in five years went on sale. We were nervous as hell. The next morning the call came in that we'd sold 5000 tickets. That's when I realized it wasn't over for Poison.
JAM: It would have been a terrible shame if fist fights, drug problems and Bret's directorial debut with Pam Anderson in a sex tape was THE defining legacy of Poison instead of its music. At any point in your career, did you think that would be the lasting perception of this band?
To be truthful with you, yeah, absolutely I was afraid that was going to happen. Obviously I didn't want that to be the case, but it was always in the back of my mind. Over the years, I had worn everything that has happened with Poison - our image, every critic that has every cut us down - I've worn it all with a badge of honor. You really want to know what's defining about Poison, I'll tell you! We're still here 25 years later and our music has stood the test of time.
JAM: The band has toured steadily the past ten years. Is it still hard to maintain relationships on a continuous basis with your fans and the press, or do you really care any more?
Yes and no, and I'm not trying to be spineless. You're either comfortable with Poison or your not. There are still people who aren't convinced we were worth a shit in the first place. You know what, that's okay. Honestly, it doesn't bother us in the least. I really don't mind people hating us. I used to think, "Oh my God. I wear my heart on my sleeve and these guys are taking potshots at me." I finally learned not to be so thin- skinned and to look at the big picture. All bands that ever mattered, to a certain extent, have taken both slugs, both combinations, and survived. I remember when speed metal was popular at one point, and a journalist would say, "Uh, this band says you suck. What do you think?" I would say it's cool they think we suck. We have sold over 50 million albums worldwide in our career. When you sit back and think about it, that's not too bad for a band that everyone was supposed to hate.
Poison will be joining Motely Crue and the New York Dolls at Gexa Energy Pavillion June 7th to kick off the tour. Don't miss out and get your tickets today. LiveNation Ticket Window »