Insulin Shock Wave 

Poison's Bret Michaels talks about the band's new disc and his battle with disease.

Bret (right) refrains from flexing his incredible pecs.
  • Bret (right) refrains from flexing his incredible pecs.
If the New York Dolls had recorded "Talk Dirty to Me" in 1974, critics would be hailing the jam as a trashy garage-rock classic. But it was recorded in 1986 by Poison. And consequently, its all-American awesomeness is never gonna be appreciated.

Frontman Bret Michaels obviously agrees. "Poison takes a critical beating from all angles, and the fact that we've survived it must be a testament to the fact that somewhere along the line, we've written some good songs," he says via cell phone from the road. "We're the epitome of the garage band, and 'Talk Dirty to Me' is a garage-rock song."

One thing that garage bands do well are covers. Poison'd, the group's latest, finds them putting their stamp on a swath of chestnuts from the '70s and '80s. Some are well-known: Bowie's "Suffragette City," the Cars' "Just What I Needed." But others are just damn good songs, like Tom Petty's "I Need to Know." This mix of the familiar and the simply rockin' adds up to a killer disc, and the surprising thing is that the new recordings -- the first eight tracks -- are stronger than the older covers tacked to the end -- for example, Poison's version of Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite." Originally appearing on 1987's Less Than Zero soundtrack, the cover was always a little too smiley-faced, while the Cars cover is a true reinvention. The band abandons the original's new-wave snap for a sludgy throb that should have been a model for the ungodly Stooges album we were all subjected to a few months back.

There's even some country-rock. "'Dead Flowers' was a pretty deep cut off Sticky Fingers, but it was a fun song for us to do," explains Michaels. "One of my favorite songs to sing and play . . . before we go onstage is 'Can't You See,' the Marshall Tucker song. So we arranged it and just did it. And [Sweet's] 'Little Willie' -- my first concert ever was Sweet opening for Foghat at the Hershey Park Arena in Hershey, PA. It was my first concert inside a real arena."

Poison'd reveals some immortal truths about rock and roll. A song with handclaps ("Little Willie," the Romantics' "What I Like About You") is almost always better than a song without ("Can't You See," "Dead Flowers"). More importantly, Poison'd makes the prospect of a new Poison album of original material something to look forward to. Michaels, however, claims that's a tough sell in this day and age.

"I don't care whether it hits or doesn't. I like writing original music. But EMI/Capitol, I don't think they're as crazy about doing original stuff as what I want to do," he says. "I can bullshit around and give you a million excuses, but that's where their heads are at, which is why I'm always doing solo records. Whether it's in an arena or Blossom, or I come through and play Peabody's on my own, I don't care."

In addition to Poison and his solo career (oh, and the upcoming VH-1 game show Rock of Love, in which a herd of skanks and gold diggers will try to win his affection), Michaels is a strong public advocate for a cause close to his own heart. Born in 1963, he's been an insulin-dependent diabetic since the age of six and uses his money and celebrity to help similarly afflicted children.

"One of the best things that ever happened to me was, I went to juvenile-diabetic camps when I was a kid," he says. "I realized there were other people out there with this disease, and it almost made me feel much more normal. 'Cause when you're six or seven years old, and you have to take a shot, which means going to the nurse or the principal's office . . . it was pretty strange for me."

In addition to donating his money to charitable organizations, Michaels takes a more hands-on approach. "Each year I send kids off. I just sent two kids in Arizona to a camp. I do it with individual kids, so I know the money actually goes somewhere . . . I raise a lot of money. We sell a shirt at bretmichaels.com, and all the proceeds go to sending kids to camp. But I pitch in anyway."

After talking to Michaels for a little while, it's impossible to miss the fact that his disease has made him a survivor -- and not just in rock 'n' roll, where he's forever branded a hair-metal singer, but in life. "I had to go 100 yards to get 50, and that's the way I've lived my life," he says. "Back then it was two or three shots a day, and you tested your urine. They didn't even have a blood-testing kit. It was extremely tough for me as a child, but I had great parents. They taught me, 'Listen -- you wanna play football? Every time the other kids are dicking around on the side, you're gonna be over in the bathroom of some locker room, peeing in this chemistry test kit.'"

Diabetes, whether Type I like what Michaels has or Type II (like what this writer has), can really bum you out if you let it. But surprisingly, living with the disease since childhood seems to have given Michaels even more enthusiasm for life than most healthy people. "It forces me to get up in the morning, no matter when I go to sleep," he says. "I get up, I take my insulin, I check my blood, I eat, I do my stuff, and if I'm still tired I go back to sleep. It's forced me to stay in decent shape. I don't want to lose a foot. I surely don't want to lose my eyesight. I've got two beautiful daughters. I wanna be around to see everything."

Non-diabetic rockers of Michaels' era -- bloated plastic-surgery disaster Vince Neil comes immediately to mind -- sure could take a page from this guy's book. More power to him.

More by Phil Freeman


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