Bret Michaels of Poison is turning the big five-oh... but his head scarf doesn't look a day over 40!
In honor of his 50th birthday on March 15, we take a look back at what he'll be most remembered for the rest of his decades. And no, it's not the most inexplicable reality show of all time, Rock of Love, although that's a close second, but the most celebrated metal power ballad ever to come down the pike, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."
The tune was Poison's lone No. 1 single, reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the final week of 1988 and carrying over into the first two weeks of '89. But for a song that's nearly half as old as Michaels himself, it's inescapable. For that, you can thank or blame classic rock radio, Glee, Miley Cyrus, the Broadway and film versions of Rock of Ages, Regis Philbin, pop culture shout-outs in everything from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey to The Simpsons... and the fact that Michaels himself seems to re-record it about every other year.
Back in 2009, there was minor controversy over the fact that Michaels was dueting with Ms. Cyrus, who was then deemed by some to be a little too young to be sharing romantic or sexual chemistry on record. So perhaps he thought he should even out the median age of his duet partners, because he's about to release yet another new version of "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," this time featuring him trading verses with country legend Loretta Lynn, who has a good three decades on him.
But wait—maybe we have to lower that median age back down again, come to think of it. Because Michaels has also released a special Kidz Bop version of the ballad sung by his two young daughters, with him accompanying them on guitar. In the kiddie version, the lyrics were sanitized so the estranged lovers were "sitting" together at the end of the night instead of sleeping together.
All this historic endurance for a song about a stripper. Not just any stripper, mind you, but the exotic dancer who was the love of Michaels' life for a few years in the mid-'80s, as Poison rose to glory at the peak of MTV's love affair with follicular lacquer.
In 1987, Michaels and band were touring behind their debut album, Look What the Cat Dragged In, and had a stop in Dallas to play at the Ritz. (Michaels frequently refers to the club as a country venue in interviews, explaining that as the rationale for including "cowboys" in the chorus, but actual Texans like to correct him on that, since the Ritz played host to far more hair-metal bands than cowpokes.) Come 3 a.m. or so, he decided to place a call back to L.A. to talk with his girlfriend.
"She answered the phone, but she sounded a little odd,” Michaels told Classic Rock magazine. “Immediately she gave me that ‘I’m really sleepy’ line, which was not something she would normally say. And then I heard it – the whispering in the background. It was obviously a guy’s voice. Now, a female voice, that I could’ve lived with, you know what I’m saying? Hell, I may have even welcomed it! But another guy... It broke my heart.”
It's worth mentioning that Michaels was a bit of a thorny rose himself in those oversexed days, and there are two sides to every story. His then-girlfriend, Tracy Lewis, gave her version in a VH1 Behind the Music special on Poison, which includes a notable discrepancy.
"There was infidelity," Lewis said on-camera, tracked down decades later. "There were two people in the relationship and somebody cheated and it wasn’t me. You do the math.” Okay, give us a little time to work this out on our fingers, because all that peroxide all those years ago did a number on some of our brains. Anyway... "It wasn't until actually I heard it on the album [Poison's sophomore effort, 1988's Open Up and Say... Ahh!] that I realized, oh my gosh, that’s a day out of my life," Lewis continued. "Everybody’s peeking in on our heartbreak. So it’s always been kind of hard for me because it just never goes away."
Nonetheless, Michaels thought he heard what he thought he heard, so he headed down to the motel laundromat and began composing a middle-of-the-night lament. "I began singing: ‘We both lie silently still in the dead of the night,’ just thinking about how cold and lonely it was going to be trying to work everything out with this girl,” Michaels said. “I was trying to capture being at that point in your relationship where it’s not officially over, but it’s over... There I was, out on the road, getting to play music for a living, which was the rose. But then there was my exotic dancer back in L.A. who I was positive would never cheat on me. Or so I thought. That was the thorn.”
Michaels and Lewis have stayed friendly over the years. Maybe. "Now, I’m actually friends with the girl again," he told Exclusive magazine, "and she now knows it’s about her obviously, and she’s obviously moved on to six or eight other husbands by now! So they’ve all been through it now! I’m not kidding! I’m like, ‘Hey, I warned you guys with my song that it was coming,' but having said that, it was also my best way of getting even.” No word on whether they're still pals after he gave that quote.
Poison's second album had already generated two singles before Capitol got around to releasing "Every Thorn" as the third. To hear Michaels tell it (and bear in mind that the subject of the song has already declared he is not a reliable narrator), everyone on the business side of their affairs thought releasing a ballad would be poison for their career, in a non-capital-P sense.
"When we played 'Every Rose'... for our label and management they told us it would end our career,” he said. “They were like: ‘This song is not Poison. It starts with an acoustic guitar, and you’ve got this cowboy thing going on and it’s just sad.’”
But there was even in-fighting among the band about it, according to some other historical accounts. During one of the band's many splits, Michaels said, "I totally thought this would help us move forward, you know, push the envelope, sonically, but the others were just not into it, you know? I mean, C.C. (DeVille, Poison's guitarist)has always been the metal rawk one in the group, and he thought I was a f---ing sell-out. He hated playing 'Every Rose'; the song is one of the reasons he refuses to speak to me anymore. Although I think me sleeping with his girlfriend of six years didn't help either." In the Poison biography Sex, Drugs & Rock'n'Roll ... & Sex & Drugs Some More, DeVille retorted, "Well, that's Bret's take, okay? And you know what, he's a [expletive deleted]. That's all I have to say about that." (Cooler, reunion-prone heads have since prevailed.)
The song has certainly bloomed and bloomed again.
On The Simpsons, Otto used the song to propose to his girlfriend. The fact that it's a breakup song never occurred to him. Nor did it initially on One Tree Hill, when it was quoted at a wedding between two of the characters till someone pointed out its inappropriateness for the occasion.
In Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, the two leads perish and arrive at the pearly gates, at which point the guardian challenges them to reveal the meaning of life. Naturally, they begin quoting from the chorus of "Every Rose," as well (with the grim reaper joining in).
Eventually Tom Cruise mimed playing the guitar solo in Rock of Ages while Julianne Hough and Mary J. Blige, of all people, covered it. Miley Cyrus' 2009 cover, which she called "a rad collaboration" with Michaels, raised some hackles among Poison fans who considered his participation a sell-out too far.
"I wrote that song with no intention of it ever being a hit," Michaels said on Behind the Music. "It was just for me." It's turned out to be the career gift that keeps on giving: Besides the many cover versions, Poison collectively or Michaels solo have re-recorded it countless times, and he even did a twanged-up version years before he ever got around to getting Miss Loretta to sing a duet with him. Every rose has its royalty checks.