Thirty-five years ago, hair-metal hitmakers Poison released their debut album Look What the Cat Dragged In on the scrappy Enigma Records, after they’d been “flat turned down by everybody” at every major label in Hollywood despite being a top Sunset Strip draw. The band had been struggling and hustling nonstop since moving from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles in 1983, engaging in “flier wars” with peers like Guns N’ Roses, and as tough as it sometimes was, frontman Bret Michaels recalls those days as “some of the best times in my life.”
Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment, Michaels laughs, “We lived behind a dry cleaner! When I say this, I'm not kidding you — they only used half of it and they said, ‘You guys can sleep in the back of the dry cleaner.’ … But we survived. Any way we could find to work, any kind of job, whatever. And a lot of fans, they'd come down, and if they brought us a pizza, we would make that pizza last for literally close to a week. We'd ration out pieces and I'd lower my insulin!” (Michaels is a type 1 diabetic.)
But the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle-on-a-budget became too much for original Poison guitarist Matt Smith, who eventually returned home to Mechanicsburg to start a family a year before Poison landed their record deal. “His girlfriend was pregnant, and we had nothing. We were living on the floor. He did the right thing. He went home. He got a job and is still to this day a great family man,” says Michaels. That’s when the band held auditions and eventually solidified their classic lineup with guitarist C.C. DeVille, the flamboyant showman namechecked in Poison’s breakthrough single “Talk Dirty to Me.” But that line could very well have been “Slash, pick up that guitar and-uh, talk to me!” — because it turns out Michaels actually wanted to hire GNR’s Slash, who surprisingly also auditioned, but he was outvoted by his bandmates.
Over the years, Michaels and DeVille’s relationship was notoriously tumultuous, with tensions finally coming to a head during a backstage fistfight after Poison’s disastrous 1991 MTV Video Music Awards performance (which would end up being the mercurial guitarist’s last appearance with the group for eight years). Nowadays, all is simpatico between the two, but Michaels jokes that DeVille still remembers, and slightly resents, that he wasn’t Michaels’s first choice.
“So, we interviewed guitar players and it came down to C.C., it was Slash, and I believe it was Steve Silva from the Joe Perry Project,” Michaels explains. “All of them were amazing. So one of C.C. and me's biggest arguments was I thought C.C. was an amazing songwriter and player, and so were Slash and Steve, but when we sat down as a band — we laugh about this to this day — I said, ‘Well, I choose Slash!’ And then one guy was like, ‘I choose Steve!’ And then the other guy, he's like, ‘No, no, no, we want C.C.!’ It went on and on. So me and C.C., to this day still, he's like, ‘You didn't choose me!’ But it was a great time. And everything happens for a reason. … C.C. was meant to be with Poison, and Slash with Guns N' Roses, and Steve then went to the Joe Perry Project. It all worked out to where it was supposed to go. ... You have to have ‘C.C., pick up that guitar and talk to me!’ It's the only way it works.”
Poison continued to work as hard as they partied, eventually moving from “way, way, way downtown” to Hollywood’s infamous Yucca Avenue (“where there was, like 92 of us living in a one-bedroom apartment”). And eventually Poison and GNR became rivals — a supposed feud that the media played up when both bands later became MTV superstars. “I'd say we were frenemies, never enemies,” Michaels clarifies. “Just like everything, it made controversy and sold magazines. I'd be down at [recording studio] the Record Plant, hanging with Axl [Rose], talking about life and being on the road. We'd be here with Slash, we'd see each other. But there's no doubt we were both mega-competitive. Mötley [Crüe] broke out of the scene, then Poison broke out of the scene, then GNR was right behind us. I think without a doubt there was a competitiveness in all of us. All of us wanted to sell the records and stuff. But then you realize music is for the ears of the beholder. … I'm not a bitter guy. I don't put people down. It's not my thing. If people like you, they're going to like you, and they'll realize quickly they can also like GNR, Metallica, Nirvana. It all fits. It all works.”
Michaels remembers how Poison even got an unexpected competitive edge during the “flier wars” of their hard-luck pre-Enigma era — when they were so broke that they had to use to cheapest, more garish paper for their gig fliers, but somehow that became part of their unlikely success story. “One of my fondest memories is standing out in front of [famous Sunset Strip watering hole] the Rainbow, because I had no money to get in and I wasn't big enough yet or known enough yet to be let in for free,” says Michaels. “To be let into the Rainbow was the dream, but I didn't have the money to go in, so I'd stay in the parking lot with Axl and Slash and C.C., and we'd all hand fliers out.
“And here's another blessing. It's now a merchandise color called ‘Poison green.’ This is a true story,” Michaels continues with a chuckle. “We went to [copy store] Sir Speedy, and we had no money. We had very little money. They said, ‘We can't give you white [paper]. All these bands come in and pay top dollar for white. They pay top dollar for yellow. … We have a whole lot of this ugly green, fluorescent green, back here.’ And we looked at it, and we're like, ‘Yes!’ The actual Poison green [fliers] we would post up, everyone would notice them because they stuck out from every single other flier. So by pure accident, we ended up with ‘Poison green,’ and then it became our shirts, our merchandise, everything.”
Eventually Poison were signed by Enigma’s Bill and Wes Hein not from a Hollywood gig, but after a show at the Country Club in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Reseda. “We would live in that [Country Club] parking lot, sometimes, in our van. We had two vans and when we were done, if we had two shows there, we would just sleep out in the van, get up the next day, go in — and hopefully the kitchen was open,” Michaels admits. And it turned out that being passed over by the majors was yet another blessing for Poison, whose debut album alone sold 4 million copies worldwide.
“[The Hein brothers] said, ‘Look, you'd have to be your own label, distributed through us, and we're going to do this deal together with Enigma Records,’ and we'd have Cyanide Music,” Michaels explains. “And so we put it together, and the beauty that happened to us is they gave us a great, then-unbelievable superstar royalty rate — because they only thought we were going to sell 10 or 12,000 records, so there was not that much money to divide up. The thought in my brain was, ‘Hell no, I'm going for platinum!’ But the other side of it was, we kept our publishing. ... And anyone who knows the amount now — what, 40, 50 million records, digital downloads, DVDs, all that stuff? It's turned out to be an amazing day.”
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee