It Don’t Get Better Than This
By Jay S. Jacobs
Ready to feel old? It’s been 30 years since Poison released their second album, Open Up and Say… Ahh!, which featured the hit singles “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” “Fallen Angel” and a cover of Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance.”
In honor of this anniversary, the band, which features all four original members – Bret Michaels (vocals), CC DeVille (lead guitars), Rikki Rockett (drums) and Bobby Dall (bass) – are hitting the road with Cheap Trick to celebrate. The closest stops to the Philly area include a June 23 show in Holmdel, NJ and June 24 in Allentown.
You know who else the anniversary makes feel old? The members of Poison themselves.
“It scares me. It doesn’t feel like that long ago. And if we fast forward thirty years, I’m not so sure I’ll be here,” laughs Rockett.
It’s a joke, but there is a note of seriousness to it as well. Both Rockett and Michaels have survived health scares in recent years – Rockett had cancer and Michaels had a brain hemorrhage. (Both appear to be completely recovered now). But these brushes with death just make the opportunity to do what they love even sweeter.
Though they are considered one of the shining names of the late 80s Sunset Boulevard rock scene, three out of four Poison members are actually from Pennsylvania. (DeVille grew up in Brooklyn.) Rockett grew up in Mechanicsville, as did Dahl. Michaels is from Butler.
“I always knew that I’d play music,” Rockett says. “Music, for me it’s life. I started it at 12 years old. My dad played trumpet. I just always loved music and loved playing it and creating it. But I didn’t know that I’d be able to do it for a living. Who knows? I wasn’t sure where I’d be at my age.”
It’s rare that a band can last all these years with the same lineup. However, with the exception of a few years in the 90s when DeVille was battling some substance-abuse demons, Poison has had the same four players for all this time. And DeVille has been back on board for over 20 years now.
Asked about the longevity of the group’s lineup, Rockett can’t help but laugh.
“It’s love-hate, you know? Nobody will put up with us, except us.”
All four band members ended up in Los Angeles in the early 80s, in middle of the glam highpoint of a wild music scene in which places like the Roxy, the Whisky-a-Go-Go, The Rainbow Room and Gazzarri’s were birthing superstars. It was a wild life of liquor, drugs, women, and record contracts.
“It was all of the things you’ve heard about, and more,” Rockett says. “But it wasn’t all a party for us at that time because we didn’t have any money. So, the struggle was real.”
Among the many, many bands which flourished in that scene were Mötley Crüe, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Twisted Sister, Kix, LA Guns, Ratt, WASP, Faster Pussycat… and Poison.
Of course, like Rockett said, the fact that the band had no money made the scene a bit more difficult for them. There were some lean years before the band first exploded with their 1986 breakout album Look What the Cat Dragged In. It’s hard to worry about sex, drugs and rock & roll when you’re not sure what you will be able to eat.
“Oh, God. I’ll tell you one story,” Rockett says. “There was a punk rock club called The Cathay de Grande, which is now gone. There was a security guy there. Now, they hung up baseball bats for the security – kind of like [the 1979 film] The Warriors, the Baseball Furies – that’s how they did security at this place. The guy told us, ‘Look, if you clean the club up in the morning, I’ll give you a couple of hours to rehearse there.’ So, that’s what we did. We rehearsed at Cathay de Grande.”
This worked well for all concerned, until…
“We got in there late one day, and everybody started pouring in,” Rockett continues. “So, we became like an opening act. We were [wearing] just like crappy clothes and shorts and mops and shit. Like janitors, you know what I mean? We just went and played. We did a half an hour for this punk rock club. No one to this day probably ever knew that was Poison who played.”
After being a little band playing these tiny club gigs – even when they weren’t actually supposed to or hired to – it was quite a shock when their debut album Look What the Cat Dragged In took off. Suddenly their singles “Talk Dirty to Me,” “I Won’t Forget You” and “I Want Action” were all over the radio and MTV. It was a lot to process.
“It was surreal,” Rockett admits. “We had gone into our management office and they gave us these pictures of an airplane that’s pulling a banner. The banner says, ‘One million sold, and counting.’ I was like: wow!”
Yet, in other ways, things didn’t feel all that different. They were too busy gigging and writing new music to take advantage – or even notice – of their newfound fame.
“Our life had not changed yet in any way,” Rockett says. “More people started to come to the shows, but it wasn’t like all the sudden: bam, everything has changed. There was no more money, nothing like that right away. It took quite a while. Fame comes before fortune. Not always, but almost always.”
Look What the Cat Dragged In was recorded in 12 days on a shoestring budget. By the time they were making Open Up and Say… Ahh! the band was established and had a lot more money and time to devote to the recording. And the high expectations of their record label.
“We had a lot of pressure,” Rockett said. “They always say that it takes your whole life to write your first album and two months to write your second record. But the thing is, since we did have a budget, we did have more time in pre-production. We were able to hang out with the producer, Tom Werman [who also produced Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, Cheap Trick and many more], and work through the songs. When we went in, we had a better snapshot of getting what we wanted on tape. And it was tape at the time, by the way.”
After rushing through the recording of the debut album, this kind of preparation was a new sensation.
“It was just a completely new experience for us to work in that environment. We didn’t know what that was like. We were like, ‘Holy shit!’ You know? We thought we had to like git-r-done, you know? ‘We get three takes, right?’ ‘No, we’re going to work on this until we get it right.’ Oh…” He laughs.
The album exploded, becoming even a bigger hit than its predecessor. Suddenly Poison was at the top of the charts, at the apex of the rock scene of the time. It was a wild time for rock music, with lots of glam fashions, hard beats, makeup and smoke machines. The music of the era is still huge – there is a Sirius XM station for it, many bands continue to tour successfully, they even made a Broadway musical (Rock of Ages) about the scene.
Just don’t call it “hair metal.”
“They made fun of The Beatles because of their bangs. It was all about the hair, and all that kind of stuff.” Rockett laughs, “And they did okay, right? So, no, I don’t like that ‘hair metal’ [term]. It’s stupid sounding. It sounds dumb. It’s a way to put that era down, I think. Like it’s goofy and schlocky and all that sort of stuff.
“Granted, there were some bands that were kind of goofy and schlocky,” Rockett continues. “I don’t think we were. I think we fucking delivered. I think we melted faces. We came out with makeup on, but we kicked your fucking ass. That was what Twisted Sister did, and Mötley Crüe did that, too. Europe? Probably not.”
He pauses and laughs again. “Should we be in the same category as them? I’m not saying anything bad about them. That guy is a fucking amazing singer. I’m just trying to sort it out. Everything got thrown into one category. It was like ‘we’re just going to flush them out. We have this other thing [grunge music] now that’s real, bro.’ That’s a little frustrating.”
In fact, Rockett is not sure he even buys in to the metal description when it comes to his band.
“I don’t think we’re a metal band,” Rockett says. “I think we’re a rock and roll band. Most of our influences are rock and roll. Sure, I’m influenced by Judas Priest and Black Sabbath and things like that, but I’m also influenced by The Rolling Stones, Foghat, Badfinger and all sorts of shit. I just feel like we’re more of a rock and roll band. Metal is different. It seems like there’s a guideline these days. And then to throw hair into it, it’s like… what does that describe, really?”
In fact, Poison always stood out in the scene because they were always willing to experiment with styles, from the bluesy stomp of “Unskinny Bop” and “Good Love” to the plaintive acoustic country feel of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
“We’re influenced by many things,” Rockett says. “I personally am, I know that. I grew up with everything from my dad’s James Brown and Santana records, my sister’s Beatle records, my mom’s Elvis records, all the way to KISS and Lynyrd Skynyrd. There’s all sorts of influences.”
It all goes back to the early days when they were trying to make it.
“If you’re playing in a band and you want to make any money, you play top 40,” Rockett continues. “You have to do cover songs and things like that. You get quite a library filled up over time. That’s exactly what we did. You start to draw different influences during the writing process. That sounds like a Foghat thing, and you just automatically play it a little bit like that. It’s not always a conscious decision.”
And though they were often compared to the 70s glam bands, Rockett is not sure he buys that, either.
“We looked like a glam band in the beginning, but I don’t think we really sounded like one,” Rockett says. “It was on some things, but it was never that signature Gary Glitter (hums a backbeat) kind of thing, really. I love all that stuff, don’t get me wrong. There’s aspects of that in there. It’s like CC said in an interview one time, ‘I know what glam rock looks like, but I don’t know what it sounds like.’”
True, glam rock went in so many directions that there was never exactly a signature sound. Like Rockett said there was Gary Glitter, but there was also diverse stuff like The Sweet, T-Rex, New York Dolls and Slade.
“Those people were just dressing,” Rockett explains. “They’d have been playing the same thing if they wore overalls. There was an attitude there, don’t get me wrong. David Bowie epitomized that, because he was coming from an artistic standpoint. That whole era missed a little bit. If everybody followed his suit, his line of thinking, it would have been a very creative period of time, rather than a commercialized period of time. At first it was very creative, but then of course managers and other bands emulated it and created a very commercial version of it. Unfortunately, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, as historically we’ve seen in rock and roll many times.”
As Rockett mentioned earlier, Poison was also always known for their way with a cover version. In fact, their last studio album Poison’d was made up of all covers. On Open Up and Say… Ahh! the band had their biggest hit with a cover, a remake of the old Loggins and Messina hit “Your Mama Don’t Dance.”
Years ago, when Loggins and Messina reunited, I did an interview with Kenny Loggins and Jimmy Messina. During the interview Poison’s version of the song came up. Messina admitted he didn’t quite get the band’s take on the song when he first heard it. Messina told me at the time, “Then I went, oh, that’s their sound. That’s the way they do it. That’s their fans. I began to applaud the fact that this is about an artist’s interpretation and began to see it differently.”
Rockett agrees all musicians bring different things to a song.
“I was just in Nashville and I probably played like ten covers in a row,” Rockett says. “On an off night, we were able to hang out. It depends on who you’re playing with. Everybody’s style starts to affect what you’re doing. One guy follows the other guy. That’s what we do. We don’t consciously go, ‘Let’s rock this out, dude.’ We don’t do that. That’s how CC plays. That’s how I play. Of course, it’s going to sound like us. So that’s where we go with that.”
Still, Rockett is happy to hear that Messina appreciated their take on the song.
“That’s really cool that he said that, because hearing anything from… Kenny Loggins and Messina… either person, I mean come on man, they are legendary,” Rockett says. “That’s like so cool. I know Kenny Loggins said something really nice about it, too, which I thought was cool.”
It used to be that bands would make an album so that they could tour. Nowadays it’s more like you have to tour to be able to afford to make an album. Poison hasn’t released a new album in about a decade. Any chance the guys will get back in the studio anytime soon?
“I hope so,” Rockett says. “I don’t have an announcement about that right now, but I definitely do hope that we do that. I’m up for it. I think we should do that. We have been talking about that. I don’t have an announcement, but we are talking about that.”
The music industry has changed so much since Poison were coming up, with the label system dying, streaming and downloads, piracy, EDM and hip-hop becoming more common than rock. Does Rockett think a band like Poison could make it in this environment?
“Yes, I do,” Rockett says. “I think we’d figure it out. Look, everything has changed. Journalism has changed, you know this. If somebody wants to say something on social media, they say it. The only outlet used to be if you did an interview, you know? Everything has changed. Everything is instantaneous. I really do think that the secret to new music coming out is not access.
“What’s going to change that? Is it going to be a new delivery system? Something like that? Probably,” Rockett continues. “You cannot separate technology from music anymore…. Music has become an ancillary product. There was a recent poll that talked about kids 15 years old; would they rather have their iPod or Snapchat? 65% said Snapchat. That wakes you up a little bit because we can’t imagine it any other way. But, I do see some positive changes on the horizon, as far as organic music.”
Another way that Rockett is embracing technology is by creating a personal Vlog on YouTube.
“I love doing it,” Rockett states. “It isn’t just about our fans. It isn’t a fan-generated Vlog. It’s a Rikki-generated Vlog. I’m talking about the things that I’m very interested in. Hopefully, other people are interested in it. Most of the stuff comes from a motorcycle standpoint. Where am I going on my motorcycle today? I’m frustrated and I’m going to take a ride. This is what happens when you put this on a bike.”
He laughs, “A lot of it just wound up becoming more and more about the bike, and one of my bikes. I love all aspects of motorcycling, so I cover those things. My cameras and that sort of stuff. It’s become a little bit like that. But, being a YouTuber is really fun. I would like to collaborate with other YouTubers, but my channel isn’t big enough yet.”
Another side project that Rockett took on was the supergroup Devil City Angels. Together with Cheap Thrill singer Brandon Gibbs, LA Guns guitarist Tracii Guns and Cinderella bassist Eric Brittingham, who was eventually replaced by Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarvo, Rockett formed the band and released a debut album in 2014.
“I love Devil City Angels,” Rockett says. “I’m very proud of that record. I love that record. Tracii Guns is back with LA Guns. And Eric [Brittingham] is actually playing with Bret [in the side-project Bret Michaels Band]. When I went through the cancer stuff, just when we were getting traction, it just all evaporated because of that, which was very frustrating.”
The band is back, although with replacement players for the departed members.
“We just did a single and a video,” Rockett says excitedly. “The video, we’re editing it right now. It will be out in a few weeks. I’m trying not to convolute it during the Poison tour. I wanted to launch right after the Poison tour. It’s called ‘Testify.’ Joel Kosche is in the band. He was the guitarist for Collective Soul. We had done some shows with him. Brandon had worked with a bass player named Topher Nolan. He had worked with John Corabi. We put that band together and that’s what the group is right now. We’ll probably keep it that way. We really like playing with each other. It’s a killer song. We’re getting ready to relaunch.”
It’s not surprising. Over the years, particularly in the last 10-20 years, all of the members of Poison have juggled the band with solo and outside group work. Rockett feels the outside projects help to keep the band fresh.
“Absolutely,” Rockett says. “Somebody said, ‘Hey, aren’t you guys brothers? Aren’t you all in the same bus, connected at the hip? In the same hotels?’ Well, we are in the same hotels, just not in the same room. It’s like, I don’t have a brother, I have a sister. I love her. I don’t want to live with her.” He laughs. “She’s got her own life. I’ve got my own life. We get together and we love hanging out. That’s the way it is with a band. We love to get together and do what we do. Then we like to retreat and do other things. We aren’t connected at the hip. That’s the bottom line.”
But now, they are together, on the road, in the same hotels, celebrating over three decades of Poison. Rockett is excited to be sharing the tour with a band that has been doing it for even longer, Cheap Trick. Actually, it is the 40th Anniversary of that band’s breakthrough live album Cheap Trick at Budokan.
“It’s great, for so many reasons,” Rockett says. “Number one, they are just an inspiring band. They’ve blended hard rock and pop arguably better than anyone. It’s great to see them work, be around them, talk to them, and get in their heads a little bit. They’re almost a decade ahead of us, so it’s like, there you go. It can be done. They are showing no signs of slowing down at all.”
And what about the crowds? Has the Poison audience changed over the years?
“I’m seeing a couple of generations, which is crazy,” Rockett admits. “I never thought I’d get to that place. I remember going to see The Rolling Stones and seeing like three generations. I was like, how amazing would that be? That was on the Voodoo Lounge Tour. Now, looking at it, we’re at that place that they were back then, roughly. It’s like; wow! I’m not saying we’re The Rolling Stones, but I’m saying we’re getting that longevity. It’s pretty bitchin’. It’s something I embrace.”
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 16, 2018.
Photo by Mark Weiss © 2018. Courtesy of ABC Public Relations.