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Rikki Rockett knows he's in a band that has become the Rodney Dangerfield of rock. Poison gets no respect. Although the much-maligned “hair-metal” movement of the mid to late Eighties suffered near extinction at the beginning of the following decade, when Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the grunge elite rolled into town, Poison is once again packing them in. Maybe not in the huge arena sort of way, but 16,000 screaming fans in St. Louis coming out to see the remains of Cinderella, Dokken, Slaughter, and Poison ain't exactly chump change.
Rockett is, as you might expect from anyone who can read reviews, a mite defensive about his stature in rock history. Had the band been less successful, he believes, it would have benefited its critical standing, Instead he'll take the money and girls that fame sent his way and try to leave the bitterness behind.
“Anytime a band does too well and they're a band that isn't saying they're suffering, the critics are going to say, “They're having too much fun, so fuck them,'” says Rockett. “But what good are critics, honestly? First [the critics] embraced us. We were a band on an independent label, and we kind of looked like the New York Dolls, and it was like they never got their due and maybe we won't either. So how did we sell out? It was the same record.”
The record in question, Look What the Cat Dragged In, originally was released by Enigma Records in 1986 and sold a more than respectable 40,000 copies before being picked up by Capitol Records, which put real promotional muscle behind it. Catchy metal anthems and flashy MTV videos, such as “Talk Dirty to Me” and “I Want Action,” connected to the tune of four million copies. The band's live show -- starring the brazen boy theatrics of singer Bret Michaels and guitarist C.C. DeVille -- recalled the ambisexual splash of Seventies glam rock with the derivative power of the day's heavy metal. “What separates us from glitter bands of the Seventies is we're fuel injected versions,” says Rockett.
Critics called it simplistic, formulaic, and lots of other nastier terms. Poison responded with a second album, 1988's Open Up and Say ... Ahh!, which went platinum within two weeks and spawned the singles “Nothin' but a Good Time,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and a cover of Loggins and Messina's “Your Mama Don't Dance.” Rockett describes their material in different terms: “A lot of our stuff was right on that cusp where it could've been played at CBGB as well as on Top 40 radio, and whether we'll ever get accolades for that, probably not. But I thought it was kind of revolutionary.”
Rock and roll is a funny thing this way. Emotions sway and revisionism holds plenty of the cards. Besides, one man's revolution is another man's tuneless dreck. Plenty of folks prefer the Eagles to the MC5. Go figure. To its credit Poison doesn't pretend to be something it's not. “Rock and roll is supposed to be accessible music,” explains Rockett. “The person has to feel they could be involved. I've had so many people come up to me and tell me that they're starting a band, and it could be horrible, but at least they're getting involved. [With] rock and roll, you can have a voice of your own almost immediately. It's liberating. Poison is there to liberate people, to break down barriers.”
Breaking down barriers is all fine and well. When your guitar player and lead singer are trying to break each other's jaw after an appearance at the MTV Video Awards, well, that's not a good sign. A band is about chemistry. Poison learned this the hard way with a series of ill-fitting guitarists who provided little excitement and left the band for dead. But this was the mid-Nineties, and their brand of rock was in serious decline anyhow; the blessing was mixed.
“I actually embraced Nirvana,” says Rockett, sounding suspiciously like Spi&numl;nal Tap guitarist David St. Hubbins praising the virtues of a more “selective” audience. “I'm not that turned on by their music, but I like that it's reckless. It had to happen, it was getting out of hand. Some of these bands were making me sick. Poison needed to stop whether they existed or not.”
He didn't take Nirvana's disdain for his type of image and music to heart. In fact he's not sure Poison was at the center of Kurt Cobain's ire. “Nirvana, I think, was there to kill the dinosaur bands more than bands like Poison,” he says. “We just got sucked up into it, which is fine.”
Rockett sees it philosophically. “Unfortunately rock and roll is a battlefield, but at the same time, it's kinda cool. I kinda dig it when bands hate Poison. It makes us the underdogs and everyone loves an underdog. And when someone gets so passionate about hating us, at least they're being passionate. When someone's completely middle of the road, how boring is that?”
To this we're in complete agreement. If “Unskinny Bop” or “Something to Believe In” give you the uncontrollable urge to heave a bottle in the air and scream, whether in disgust or delight, it's a damn sight more fun either way than sitting back with a Deadhead nod or an alternarock chinstroke. I say, bring on the party. Even if you yourself need earplugs.