Bret Michaels of Poison talks 35 years in rock, and how he managed to survive

Bret Michaels of Poison performs during the Nothin' But a Good Time Tour 2018 at DTE Energy Music Theater on June 8, 2018, in Clarkston, Mich. Scott Legato/Getty Images

After a lifetime in rock and much success on reality TV, you’d think Poison lead singer Bret Michaels would have an impenetrable, massive ego. Surprisingly, it’s the exact opposite.

Michaels is down-to-earth, friendly, funny and humble about his decades in the spotlight, and he says he still experiences the thrill of performing onstage. He still feels the rush as he walks out to a roaring crowd, even though he’s not a young buck anymore (he’s in his mid-50s).

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Currently on tour with Cheap Trick and Pop Evil, Michaels and the rest of Poison are making a stop at the Budweiser Stage in Toronto on June 19. Global News spoke with Michaels over the phone, and we talked about the evolution of music, dealing with bitterness and his unquenchable passion for rock despite his diabetes and other life-threatening health problems.

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Global News: Poison formed 35 years ago, which is pretty crazy. How does it feel to still be in the biz after all this time, going strong?
Bret Michaels: I feel grateful, that is the key word. The philosophy of my life is the harder I worked, the luckier I got. Combine that with sincerity, passion, and thankfulness. I’m still as passionate today as when I started. I get up and immediately think, “What can I do to make the show better?” And when I hit that stage, I’m truly excited to be playing music. Even though it’s a big show, I have to run out. I get down there, start smacking hands, get the place rockin’.

I want to say to the now three generations of fans: I am extremely grateful.

Courtesy of Michaels Entertainment Group
Does it ever feel like a blur? Does it feel like yesterday that you guys started up?
I remember our first rehearsals, I remember moving to L.A. like it was yesterday. I remember sleeping in a sleeping bag on a cement floor behind a dry cleaner, literally right next to my gear. We were earning our keep and paying our dues. There were a lot of cockroaches, but I learned if you lay your speakers down you can hoist yourself up above the cockroach battlefield. That’s my life! Roses and thorns! [Laughs]
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You started playing guitar as a teen. Did you ever imagine you’d end up here?
I never envisioned being a rock star. I envisioned the stage. I would draw and draw and draw the stage, or the tour bus. It was much simpler. This life has been everything that I’ve made it to be, but nothing like I dreamed it would be. I know that seems strange, but people would be shocked at the reality of rock star life.

Poison is one of the first, if not the first, truly independent bands to sell 3 million copies of our first record. It was before we were with a big company. You know how rock bands always go on about their “signing day?” I know exactly where I was on that day: I was sitting on a cement floor in El Segundo, California, packing my own albums into boxes. That was my signing day. [Laughs]

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Not quite what we all picture.
[Laughs] Exactly. Our genre — and I’m talking about Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, Poison — paid our dues. I remember standing with Axl [Rose, lead singer of Guns N’ Roses] back-to-back handing flyers out in a parking lot for our shows. Our genre had more of a street-level, punk vibe, where we had to learn to survive.
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Other music artists have had a very similar experience trying to make it in L.A.
Oh yes. A lot of people don’t talk about this, either. The one magic you have to have … your career can go up, down and sideways, but don’t trap yourself in your own character. What I mean by that is don’t trap yourself in your own box. The second thing you have to do is don’t become bitter. You’re going to take criticism, you’re going to take beatings; you have to go out there and be grateful for what you’re able to achieve.

I’ve never bought into the hype and I never fell for the criticism. You see them when they’re up there [on stage]. They’re either still going, they’re up there and they’re just angry, or they don’t want to be there, or they’re embittered because of a bad review. Listen, I’ve taken as much criticism as anybody can take, I’ve heard it all. It’s about finding that balance, knowing that you love what you do. That’s really what matters.

Obviously, music now is vastly different from the music scene in the ’80s and ’90s. How do you feel about the changed landscape?
The digital age has done amazing things. Some of the artists from my genre don’t agree. My daughters, I’m talking 18 and 13, they listen to everything from Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj to Poison, Guns N’ Roses and Skynyrd. My point is I feel like it’s opened up minds more than closed them. I say this to every musician: you still have to tour and do the hard work that goes with it.

With the internet, you can be easily exposed and disposed. You can create some viral video, the biggest thing ever, and then four weeks later no one remembers your name. The attention span has lowered tremendously. Back in my day, we had “in-stores.” You went to the music store, you had records, you met people, you shook hands and you formed a community. Now, one of the only ways to meet Poison is to go see us in concert. Now three generations of fans get together to party, sing, and enjoy.

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Truly, that’s when you know you’ve had a good night, when you hear the “whoooo” as people file to the parking lot. I used to go out there sometimes just to listen for it, it’s the gauge of a good show. [Laughs]

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I’ll be sure not to tell Lars Ulrich [of Metallica] about your thoughts on the digital age.
[Laughs] There is always a but! And my “but” is I always pay for music. I don’t let my daughters illegally download anything. We pay.
Switching gears for a moment, you do a ton of work for diabetes causes, and have had a lot of health scares of your own. It seems like nothing is strong enough to tear you away from music.
Not once have I ever reconsidered being in music. If anything, it has made me work harder. Remember [in 2010] it all started with an emergency appendectomy at the arena in San Antonio, and then I had a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage that almost killed me. Then, after surviving that, I had a stroke because I decided to throw one of my daughters in the pool after doctors told me not to do anything. Two hours after I got home. I didn’t even think about it, it was a natural dad reaction.
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So, back to the hospital, where they discovered a hole in my heart. I had to wait a few months for that surgery. It was quite a ride. And then, that same year, I won Celebrity Apprentice!

That is quite the year, wow.
And you know I love to party. I didn’t know whether I was going to win or not, because [then-host Donald] Trump loved Holly [Robinson Peete]. He was also tough on me, he beat me up verbally. I’m like, “Focus. Finish. Focus. Finish. Don’t get sidetracked.” That night when I won, they threw a humongous party, everybody is there. I didn’t go to my own party. That’s when you know I’m really sick. [Laughs] My dad got hammered and said it was great.

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You do an insane amount of charity and philanthropic work. What’s the motivation behind your drive?
Here’s what it is for me: I got my entrepreneurial, freestyle spirit from my parents. (My dad is a veteran, and I have massive respect for all vets, past and currently serving.) Anyway, I was the only diabetic kid in my entire elementary school, and they started a diabetic camp, and that’s where my philanthropy came from. I would go there every year, at camp or as a counsellor.

Once I established my career in music, I would send kids to diabetic camp, then it was Make-A-Wish Foundation, then it became Life Rocks Foundation. At my Canadian concerts, I’ll just donate with my own money. Life Rocks is dollar in, dollar out, there’s zero administration. Whatever’s in there goes to whatever charity we’re sending it to. We’ll do the same thing in Toronto; maybe we’ll find a kid who needs to go to diabetic camp. Maybe they’re devastated, maybe they think their life is over. At camp, it really shows them they can manage and survive their disease.

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It’s the right thing to do. It adds to my passion, and gives me a further purpose to do what I do.

Poison, along with Cheap Trick and Pop Evil, hit the Budweiser Stage on June 19. Bret Michaels joins Cyndi Lauper for Rock the Park in London, Ont. on July 12.

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