In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Bret Michaels isn’t wearing makeup — or, at least, he isn’t ostentatiously wearing makeup. This is a departure. When they broke out a few years earlier, Michaels’ band Poison had been the most made-up band on the makeup-heavy Sunset Strip scene. On the cover of their 1986 debut album Look What The Cat Dragged In, Poison were so painted and sprayed and teased-out that plenty of people were wondering who these hot chicks on this album cover wore. But that was then.
On this day, Bret Michaels has a silvery necklace and painted-on jeans and a black tank top that shows off his extremely basic tattoos. There’s a whole lot of scruff on Michaels’ face, and his beautifully backlit blonde hair fans out underneath big sunglasses and a black cowboy hat. Michaels holds an acoustic guitar, and he doesn’t look too unnatural doing it. Today, we are getting Serious Bret Michaels. It’s our first time seeing Serious Bret Michaels. He looks good.
As we pan in on Michaels’ face, we see scenes playing out in slow motion, on corroded film-stock — flashbacks from Michaels memory. Michaels and his bandmates whoop and mug and stunt in front of massive crowds. Drinks are spilled. Guitars are destroyed. Poison are having fun. This is the Poison we knew. This is what they did. But right now, Bret Michaels does not feel like that guy. Instead, he’s here to reflect on the wages of that life and on the one who got away. The party will pick up again in a minute, but Michaels just has to take a moment to collect himself.
This is the textbook rocker-dude move. You establish yourself as the king of the party, the debaucherous demon among debaucherous demons. Then, when you’ve got people on your side, you pull out the acoustic guitar and you get sensitive. You let everyone know that you’re a person with deep feelings, who feels things deeply. For so many of the bands from the high glam-metal era, the biggest hits weren’t the party-time rockers that established the bands. They’re the weepy-eyed lighters-up ballads that followed. For Poison, it’s more true than it is for anyone else. Poison were one of the definitive party bands of their era, and yet their biggest hit is “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
Poison were not cowboys singing sad, sad songs, but they did come from the sticks. Three quarters of the band grew up in the hinterlands outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a place not particularly known for rock ‘n’ roll decadence. (When Michaels was born, the #1 song in America was the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like A Man.”) As a teenager, Michaels played in local cover bands with friends like bassist Bobby Dall and drummer Rikki Rockett. In the early ’80s, those three, along with guitarist Matt Smith, started up a glam-rock act called Paris. From the very beginning, when they were playing bars out in the boonies, the guys in Paris were wearing the makeup. From the very beginning, they wanted to move to Los Angeles.
Really, Paris weren’t much of a bar band, since the guys were too young to get into many bars. Sometimes, they’d travel down to Maryland, where the drinking age was 18 and where they could open for Kix, one of the three or four greatest glam metal bands of all time. (Kix’s highest-charting single, the 1989 power ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” peaked at #11.) At one point, Paris lost a battle of the bands to a new wave act called the Sharks, and they figured they finally had to make the move to LA if they were ever going to get anywhere. The band made the big move in 1984, and on the way, they picked a new name: Poison, after a Kix song.
For their first couple of years in LA, Poison lived the broke-dirtbag life — crashing in a scummy apartment together, hustling for club bookings, borrowing makeup from girlfriends. The band built up a reputation as a live act, locked in a regular gig at the Troubadour, and found itself a new guitarist. Matt Smith, about to become a father, decided that he needed to move back to Pennsylvania and become an adult. The remaining band members auditioned new guitarists, and they almost landed on future Guns N’ Roses icon Slash before choosing the New York-born wildman CC DeVille. My pet theory is that DeVille got the job because Michaels figured out that he could rhyme “CC” with “pick up that guitar and, uh, tawk to me!”
Poison couldn’t land a major-label contract, so they signed on with Enigma Records, the indie that had released the debuts from glam metal acts like Mötley Crüe and Stryper. Look What The Cat Dragged In, recorded quickly and cheaply, is a beautifully trashy minor masterpiece, an album where the sleaze is so joyous that it’s almost wholesome. Most of the LP is about wanting action tonight and satisfaction all night, but it opens with the “Be My Baby” drum-cracks and a song all about how you gotta cry tough on the streets to make your dreams happen. It’s purposeful and sincere and driven bubblegum, which is the best kind of bubblegum.
Look What The Cat Dragged In makes it clear that Bret Michaels doesn’t have much of a voice, but he gets over on pure David Lee Roth-style strutting showmanship, with tiny slivers of sensitivity showing through all the lipstick and rouge. He and the band have hooks and energy to burn, to the point where the whole thing is sort of undeniable. Eventually, it couldn’t be denied. Look What The Cat Dragged In went platinum after almost a year, driven by the cartoonish tawdriness of breakout hit “Talk Dirty To Me,” which peaked at #8. (It’s an 8.)
By the time Poison released their follow-up, Look What The Cat Dragged In was double platinum, on its way to triple, and the band moved from Enigma to Capitol. They recorded the 1988 follow-up Open Up and Say… Ahh! with Tom Werman, the former high-powered ’70s-rock A&R guy who’d become the producer who cleaned and polished the sounds of many of the dominant glam metal acts. Open Up isn’t quite as inspired as Cat, but it’s sleek and sharp, and almost every song sounds like a hit. I’m pretty sure it’s the first hard rock album I ever bought. I thought the demon lady with the tongue on the cover looked cool.
Open Up and Say… Ahh! did business out of the gate. The anthemically cheesed-out lead single “Nothin’ But A Good Time” became the band’s biggest hit yet, peaking at #6. (It’s an 8.) The follow-up “Fallen Angel” just missed the top 10, peaking at #12. With those first two singles, Poison stuck with the formula: Sticky riffs, chant-along choruses, cartoonish videos full of hijinks and horny plotlines. Poison offered no indication that they were into depth at all. The band has said that Capitol was reluctant to release a song as divergent as “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” as a single, even though bands just like Poison were all having huge success with power ballads. But you can’t argue with a hit, and “Every Rose” is a big, fat, obvious hit.
“Every Rose Has Its Thorn” stands out immediately within the context of Open Up and Say… Ahh! The song opens with an acoustic guitar, a sound that wasn’t exactly commonplace on Poison records. On the first verse, Michaels gets contemplative about a relationship that’s gone off the rails somewhere: “Was it something I said or something I did? Did my words not come out right?” As he hits the chorus, an ethereal synth-chime comes in — a much cooler choice than the melodramatic strings that too many producers would’ve used on a song like that. Instead, the melodrama all belongs to the band. The scream-whine riffage, the ooh-ing backup vocals, the tortured metaphors — it’s all Poison.
Michaels says that he started to write “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” one night in the laundry room of a seedy Dallas hotel. Poison were on tour in a mini-Winnebago, opening for Ratt and Cinderella. Michaels had called his girlfriend back in LA, and a man’s voice answered the phone. Michaels worked on the song for a while, and when he brought it to the rest of the band, they were into it. In the end, all four members of Poison got writing credits.
Poison weren’t exactly known for their progressive views on gender roles, so it’s a little striking that, given its backstory, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” isn’t a sneering, snarling woman-done-me-wrong song. Instead, Michaels simply tries to make sense of where things went wrong and of what he could’ve done differently. It mostly seems to be a song about bad communication, about saying the wrong things at the wrong time: “I know that you’d be here right now if I could have let you know somehow.” But Michaels knows he can’t fix it, so he waits around, hoping it’ll all feel better someday. He’s not sure it will. Even as the breakup fades into the background, the whole memory feels “like a knife that cuts you — the wound heals, but the scar! That scar remains!” While Michaels lingers on the word “remains,” the wailing CC DeVille guitar solo kicks in. As it must.
I love the “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” chorus. Michaels’ metaphors don’t really track, but they’re fun to think about. “Every rose has its thorn”: Sure. The rose is pretty, but you could get stuck on the thorn. It’s good, but it’s also bad. “Every night has its dawn”: Maybe? Usually, people talk about the dawn as the good thing that’s coming. As in: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” But Michaels’ line makes sense once you remember that he’s in Poison. If you’re in Poison, the nights are probably great, and the dawn probably sucks ass. “Every cowboy sings a sad, sad song.” Yeah, see, this is where things fall apart. Obviously, Michaels loves cowboys. All the glam-metal guys loved cowboys; it was a whole thing. (See: Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” which peaked at #7 in 1987 and which is a 10.) But is anyone like, “I love this cowboy, but I hate that he keeps singing a sad, sad song?” No. Cowboys are good things, and the sad, sad songs they sing are also good things. Bret Michaels is clearly just looking for an excuse to jam the word “cowboy” into the chorus so that he can get away with wearing a cowboy hat in the video. But fair enough, you know? It’s stupid, but it’s the awesome kind of stupid.
Really, just about everything about “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” is awesome. Every little part of the song works as a hook. The part that really kills me comes near the end, where the whole band joins in behind Michaels: “And now I hear you found somebody new/ And that I never meant that much to you.” In that brief little instant, a real heavy bitterness creeps into Michaels’ voice. Most of the time, Michaels isn’t a strong enough singer to get the song’s emotion across; he relies on the near-perfect arrangement to do that for him. Instead, Michaels depends on his own charisma, the same thing that worked so well on so many Poison party songs. It works here, too.
By the time “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” fell from the #1 spot, Open Up and Say… Ahh! had sold four million copies. (The album eventually made it to five.) Poison followed “Every Rose” with their cover of Loggins And Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” and that one made it up to #10. (It’s a 7. Loggins And Messina’s original 1972 version of “Your Mama Don’t Dance” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) In 1990, Poison came back with their Flesh And Blood album, which went to triple platinum and which sent two more singles into the top 10. (“Unskinny Bop” peaked at #3. It’s a 6. “Something To Believe In” peaked at #4. It’s a 7.) Then glam metal fell out of fashion, and Poison never got back into the top 10.
In the grunge era, things went left for Poison. The members of the band, especially CC DeVille, were all partied out. Poison fired DeVille in 1991. The band tried to steer into blues-rock, to limited success, on their 1993 album Native Tongue. Bret Michaels got into a bad car accident and a bunch of legal battles. Michaels also started up a film production company with Charlie Sheen, and he wrote, directed, and starred in a couple of Sheen movies that came out in 1998. But Michaels’ most successful cinematic endeavor was probably his sex tape with Pamela Anderson, which came out on DVD after it had leaked on the internet.
CC DeVille rejoined Poison in 1999, around the same time the band’s episode of Behind The Music aired. Since then, Poison have done well for themselves on the nostalgic metal circuit, which is bigger than you might imagine. Michaels has also had a second life as a TV personality. He starred in three seasons of the VH1 series Rock Of Love, quite possibly the most ratchet television program in history. I loved it.
Bret Michaels has released a bunch of solo records over the years, and there have also been a few post-peak Poison albums, too. But people don’t go to Poison shows to hear those songs. They go to hear stuff like “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” A few years ago, I saw Poison open for Def Leppard at my local college basketball arena. Def Lep were amazing, and Poison sounded like ass. Michaels’ voice, never exactly a perfect instrument, was just gone. But when Poison were on, I still had fun.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the street-punk cover of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” that the Unseen released in 1997:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Miley Cyrus’ 2010 version of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”:
And here’s Cyrus and Bret Michaels singing the song together on Good Morning America:
(Miley Cyrus will eventually appear in this column with a power ballad of her own.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Bret Michaels and his two daughters recorded a version of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” for a 2011 Kidz Bop album. (For reasons that I’ll never understand, they did not change the name to Unskinny Kidz Bop in celebration.) Here’s that take on the song:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: During one of the many montages in the deeply deranged 2012 Rock Of Ages movie, Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, and Mary J. Blige all sing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” When Cruise plays the guitar solo, I just about fall out. Here’s that bit of film history:
(Julianne Hough’s highest-charting single, 2008’s “That Song In My Head,” peaked at #88. Mary J. Blige will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a 2013 Bret Michaels solo album, Michaels sings “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” as a duet with, swear to god, Loretta Lynn. Here’s that one:
(Loretta Lynn has plenty of #1 country hits, but her highest-charting Hot 100 single is the 1971 Conway Twitty duet “After The Fire Is Gone,” which peaked at #56.)
THE 10S: Gun N’ Roses’ howling, euphoric death-disco sleaze-blast “Welcome To The Jungle” peaked at #7 behind “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” I’m a very sexy critic who’s very hard to please, but it’s a 10.