With Bret Michaels finally speaking and in stable condition after a brain hemorrhage, wayward Poison fan Peter Lauria looks back with appreciation on his adolescent obsession.
Bret Michaels meant more to me growing up than Michael Jackson did. It sounds stupid to say that now, obviously, but back then I was just a dumb white kid from an upper-middle class suburban background—many of us succumbed to the allure of the glam rock lifestyle without recognizing until much later the music's lack of substance or the damage it inflicted on pop culture.
But behind the cheesy lyrics and layers of caked-on mascara and lip gloss, Michaels had an endearing quality that separated him from others of his ilk—tougher guys like like Motley Crue's Vince Neil, Ratt's Stephen Percy, or Axl Rose from Guns N' Roses. His androgyny wasn't dangerous in the same way Lou Reed's was in the early '70s, or as comical as Warrant's Janie Lane. And it was more accessible than David Bowie's. There was always this sense that if Michaels, 47, weren't a rock star, he'd be an EMT worker.
I don't remember the name of the girlfriend who dumped me at the time, but I remember crying as "I Won't Forget You" played on a loop for several days afterward.
"The thing that always appealed to me about Bret was that even though he comes from this raunchy milieu, he has a kind of innocence about him," said Michael Hirschorn, who, when he was the head of programming for VH1, was responsible for reviving Michaels' career and introducing him to a whole new generation of kids with the wildly successful Rock of Love series, in which metal chicks competed for his affection.
"Some of the guys from that era were just dirty, but Bret has this wide-eyed quality," added Hirschorn. "He made the show charming in spite of itself."
Michaels is now laying in a hospital in stable condition suffering from a brain hemorrhage. According to a statement posted on his website yesterday, the singer remains in intensive care under 24-hour surveillance, though Us Weekly reported Tuesday that Michaels had begun speaking and moving his arms. More tests are scheduled for this week to help locate the source of the bleeding in his brain, and an official medical report is expected at some point this week.
"Once again, we can't thank everyone enough for all the well wishes and prayers being sent Bret's way," read the post. "Please remember Bret is, and always has been, a fighter and survivor and is under the best medical care possible."
It has been years since I listened to a Poison album, having shunned the hair-metal genre, out of both a misplaced sense of cool and a feeling of embarrassment for being so thoroughly exploited by the major record labels' marketing machine (I suspect Justin Bieber fans of today will end up feeling the same way). But after learning of Michaels' aneurysm on Friday, I went home, pulled out my Look What the Cat Dragged In CD—which I have yet to upload to my iTunes, to give you a sense of how long it's been since I last listened to that record—cracked open a few beers, and remembered what it was like to be a naïve kid hooked on songs about dirty talk and wanting action.
I was 11 years old when that album, Poison's first, was released, a sixth-grader just discovering the link between girls and rock 'n' roll. Cutting school, my friend Chris Petruno and I woke up early and got to the Music Country record store in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, before it opened the morning of the album's release. We each bought a copy and went back to Chris' house and listened to the entire thing over and over again until it was eventually time for me to go home, where I proceeded to listen to it by myself some more.
I don't remember the name of the girlfriend who dumped me at the time, but I remember crying as "I Won't Forget You" played on a loop for several days afterward. In the video for the song, there's a scene where drummer Rikki Rockett is wearing white sweatpants with the Poison logo written down the side of one leg in green cursive as he pushes Michaels on a luggage rack into the pool. I became convinced that the only way to be happy again was to get my hands on a pair of those sweatpants. Part of my hunt included going to see Poison open for Ratt, though I had to settle for a concert tee in lieu of the sweatpants.
Poison reached its peak two years later with the release of Open Up and Say... Ahh! But it wasn't long after the release of the band's third album, Flesh and Blood, that a gentleman by the name of Kurt Cobain came on the scene and made glam metal irrelevant.
Poison would have faded into obscurity like Cinderella, Warrant, Whitesnake, and others had it not been for Michaels' television resurgence. At its height, Rock of Love averaged more than 5 million total viewers, becoming one of VH1's most popular shows, as Michaels' childlike quips—"Me Likey" and "Check, please"—made you forget that he was clearly doing the unskinny bop with every woman on a show that was ostensibly about finding his one true love. Audiences never seemed to begrudge Michaels his good time. Michaels attained the ultimate in pop-cultural resonance when his show provided the basis for a Saturday Night Live skit.
Eerily, during his hospitalization for this serious illness, he's also on the current season of Celebrity Apprentice, shot months ago.
"He was as surprised about what was happening to him as anyone else was," said Hirschorn of Michaels' second career as a reality-TV star.
And now, as doctors desperately try to plug the leak in his bleeding brain, Michaels' fans like myself are hoping that his good times don't come to a premature end.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.