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By Brian Palmer
Here was the future of rock 'n' roll. Here was the fabulous C.C. DeVille--would-be guitar hero, flat on his stomach and platinum hair askew--dreaming rock-star dreams on the nearly bare floor of Poison headquarters, circa 1985. Just a quiet moment for the self-proclaimed Glam Slam Kings of Noise, four young dudes who weren't exactly living large in this abandoned dry cleaner's and who were still reeling from their first whiff of Sunset Strip and the L.A. metal scene.
They were, by now, thousands of miles from home (New York for C.C., small-town Pennsylvania for the others) and spending their days either rehearsing or asleep on the floor, their nights hunting for gigs or handing out neon-pink-yellow-orange-green fliers announcing some upcoming Poison show.
What mattered most on Sunset Strip in 1985 was show biz, and the more of it the better. Poison thrived in that atmosphere. "We're a good-looking band," singer Bret Michaels insisted then, speaking excitedly at the dry cleaner's with his bandmates. C.C. and bassist Bobby Dall nodded knowingly. And drummer Rikki Rockett complained bitterly of other bands stealing their idea of wearing hats onstage. Their tone, like that of a thousand other bands haunting the metal scene, was one of absolute certainty about their inevitable success. Two years later, the members of Poison were MTV royalty and heading toward their first No. 1 song (the weepy acoustic thriller "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"), in the process becoming a hated symbol of everything that was wrong with a particularly vapid strain of pop metal clogging the airwaves.
The fallout now, in this era of Cobain and Snoop, is that Poison is hopelessly adrift, cast off into pop-star oblivion, its once-giddy members reduced to fading relics of a laughable decade. "There are a lot of bands that just really died in that landslide," Rockett says now of pop metal's collapse at the beginning of the 1990s. In that way, Poison is no different from Ratt, Warrant, Extreme, Dokken, Whitesnake and a few dozen other multiplatinum has-beens--except that Poison is planning a comeback, starting with an upcoming "greatest hits" release.
"Poison's still together," Michaels says today. "We're still going strong."
The band's most hard-core fans would agree, even if Poison hasn't released an album since 1993, the disappointingly received Native Tongue. The Poison message board on America Online is crowded with impatient and tearful and still-excited discussion of the band, analyzing every clue to the band's long-delayed next move ("Rikki's hair is awesome!!" rants SlautrKid; "What ever happened to music that was fun. Music that you could party or get laid to. Poison is all about a good time," raves Dew71).
The problem is that not even its own label, Capitol Records, seems much interested in Poison anymore. The band's perpetually postponed Crack a Smile album of new songs is now permanently off the Capitol schedule. And the greatest-hits package will likely be Poison's final appearance on Capitol, now that band and label have agreed to sever all ties.
"They didn't want to make us a priority, and we were used to being a priority," Rockett says. "We don't want to be on a label that doesn't care about us. That's ridiculous. That's like your best whore deciding she doesn't want to fuck you anymore! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! They lost the faith."
Just a few weekends ago, Michaels was talking up the good old days as host of MTV's latest weird nostalgia trip, spinning old videos and reminiscing via It Came From the '80s: Metal Goes Pop. There on the small screen was C.C. himself, looking slightly haggard on the beach in a straw hat, reminiscing fondly with an MTV interviewer. His days with Poison had ended abruptly during the 1991 Flesh & Blood tour, when the guitarist was so bombed that he was regularly blowing his parts. On the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards show, DeVille actually began playing "Talk Dirty to Me" right in the middle of "Unskinny Bop," then accidentally unplugged his guitar. But he'd still seen Poison go all the way. "In retrospect, it seems shallow, but we had a lot of fun," DeVille said.
On the phone a few days later, neither Michaels nor Rockett admits to having any regrets. "There were a lot of guys who were bitter, a lot of guys who were embarrassed about what they had done," Rockett says of the '80s metal scene. "And I thought that was sad. I'm very proud of Poison, to this day. I wouldn't change anything. I like the big hair and the whole thing."
Michaels insists he has no resentment against the present generation of rock stars ("I can't be mad at Nirvana for making great music; God bless 'em") but sounds genuinely irritated, confused and hurt over the refusal of the rock-crit literati to consider Poison seriously. Why do Michael Stipe and Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain earn critical respect while Poison gets the cheap shots?
"Why is it that if you hate what you do, and hate the music that you play, and hate your record company, and hate everyone around you, that it's critically acclaimed?" Michaels wonders.
Michaels and his bandmates see some hope, particularly now that a metal resurgence seems to be in full swing, with last summer's Lollapalooza fest headlined by Metallica. And DeVille is now back fresh from drug rehab. "This is my career," Michaels says. "This is what I do, no matter how high or low the popularity goes. And you know what? I don't have any choice in the matter. I continue on to do the best I can."
That means Poison remains an ongoing concern, whether it's back in front of tens of thousands on an arena-rock tour ("Hello, Oakland!") or "Unskinny Bop" three times nightly for the old folks in Laughlin, Nevada. The future is less certain than it was back at the dry cleaner's, when a rehearsal meant no makeup, no jewelry, no fireworks, just four young dudes jamming ecstatically through a simple rock tune.
This time, though, Poison is undecided about makeup. Rockett is inclined to put his back on. "People want the cool cliches," Rockett says. "But I don't think they want the cheesy ones.