The current state of our world has opened our eyes, shifted priorities, compelled us to action and leveled society’s playing field. Recent events call upon all of us to, both, embrace and acknowledge our vulnerabilities and muster our collective strength. Regardless of what race, religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic circumstances we hold, we are forever bound together by these extraordinary times we live in.
While our essential workers on the front lines keeping the nuts and bolts of society running and keeping us informed, elements like nature, family, friends, and the arts lift our spirits. Music has the power to inspire, heal, help us process our anger or heartbreak, prompt reflection, or make us grow nostalgic. Therefore, it should continue to be celebrated, even in the tensest of times. Some of my favorite interview subjects have been musicians, because of the philosophical and poetic nature many of them share.
Legendary Poison frontman, Bret Michaels, is one of those people for me. We first met in 2007 when I interviewed him about his then VH1 reality show, Rock of Love. I enjoyed Michael’s company then, and thirteen years later I still do. We resumed our conversation as it pertains to his now four-decade multi-platinum-selling music career, how some much-publicized health challenges have strengthened his spirit and resolve, his love of touring, and his inexhaustible energy for new projects.
On Monday, June 1st, Bret Michael’s band Poison, in a joint statement with Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, announced that their much anticipated 2020 tour would be postponed until 2021. In light of the challenges our nation is facing on several fronts, their official statement reads:
“We wanted to continue to communicate with our fans and update you with valid information as it becomes available. The official decision has been made to move all 2020 North American Stadium Tour dates into the summer of 2021,” and concludes with, “Stay tuned, be safe and we will see you next year.”
In the interim, Michaels is excited to discuss the recent release of his personal scrapbook memoir, titled, Auto-Scrap-Ography. The book is an amalgamation of Michael’s timestamped photographs, inspirational musings, landmark memories, and deep thoughts, penned by the singer, himself.
*Editor’s Note: This interview was completed prior to the tragic death of George Floyd.
Allison Kugel: This is the first interview I am releasing since the start of this pandemic. I have been reticent about putting anything entertainment-related out there. But if I am getting back into it, you are a good person to start back up with.
Bret Michaels: We use the words “tough times,” but these are also confusing times. Some people are saying “Don’t worry about it,” while others like me and you are saying, “Are you and your family safe?” I’m in the highest risk category for COVID-19, being a Type 1 diabetic since the age of six. So, my whole family have been really good about wearing masks and gloves and being safe until we get closer to the shore, if you know what I mean. I’ve also been trying to inject as much positivity into everything as I can without it sounding phony. I call myself a drealist. I dream and I dream big, but I’m also a realist.
Allison Kugel: I agree with you about injecting positivity into challenging situations. My son has been complaining that he hasn’t seen his friends, and he jokes that our lives have become like the movie Groundhog Day. He’ll say, “We take the same walk everyday mom!” I say to him, “Look how blue the sky is. Look at that beautiful tree. Try and find the simple things that you may have overlooked under more normal circumstances.”
Bret Michaels: One thousand percent! I went out and took pictures with my kids. And recently I got a bucket of paint out because our sports court has needed painting for ten years, and I’d been avoiding it. I’ve put myself into every project I could find. It keeps you positive and it keeps your hands busy. If you are taking a walk and looking at a tree, it keeps your mind on positive stuff. It works.
Allison Kugel: Would you say that some of the things you previously took for granted or overlooked, you are now noticing or rediscovering?
Bret Michaels: Completely. I have a ranch in Arizona, and I went through everything that I have hoarded. I de-hoarded it (laugh). Then I went and started painting stuff. I’m a motor sports, outdoor kind of guy, so I ripped apart engines, like Go-Kart engines. I also began noticing some furniture in need of a little love and TLC. I watch all these shows where they do it, and I finally decided to jump in and start restoring some furniture. And music, of course. I love listening to Bob Marley through these times. I listen to “Three Little Birds” and it just puts me right.
Allison Kugel: I can’t speak for other journalists, but for me this work has been a giant case study in the human experience. I’ve learned that everybody’s life has a master theme. Your Type 1 diabetes has been well documented, as was your brain hemorrhage some years back. You also had some big accidents that required rehabilitation. I feel that your master theme in this life is overcoming limitations of the physical body.
Bret Michaels: That makes sense. When people ask me, “How do you overcome?” I say this is the card I was dealt and rather then become a victim to it and have self-pity, I chose to take the path of being spiritually and mentally positive. I want to go on record and thank my parents for that. My dad was active and a have fun, get it done kind of guy. My mom is the same. She opened the first youth diabetic camp in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania because I was the only kid in my entire class growing up who had diabetes. I send so many kids to diabetic camp so they can see what I experienced. It literally saved and changed my life. I saw other kids with diabetes, and we all learned together, brick by brick, how to find a way to enjoy sports and make it all work. That experience has been used in every application of my life, and in some ways prepared me for the entertainment business.
Allison Kugel: And that is the power of a mom’s love. Your mom said, “I’m going to create a camp for my kid so he can have this positive experience.” I always say that where other people see problems, I see opportunities. It sounds like your mom is the same way.
Bret Michaels: One million percent, and I hear that in your voice. In our case, diabetes was a part of our lives. My sisters also had it. And even when it comes to work and being on the road, I always say, “Ok, we’ve established the problem. The guitars didn’t show up for our show in Lima, Peru (laugh). We can stand here and keep discussing it and yelling about it, but we have a stadium show in three hours. Let’s focus on what we are going to do to solve this.” I think you and me together can solve a lot of problems.
Allison Kugel: The right perspective makes all the difference in your life.
Bret Michaels: All the difference! With coronavirus, we don’t know the exact date it was created or where it came from, so rather than focus on that, why don’t we start focusing on the cities that are doing better, and what places like New York are doing to make it better. We have already established that it’s a horrific virus. Now, what do we do to help each other get through it? And the amount of anxiety and depression this has caused, and economic turmoil; we are going to have to keep an eye on each other. We have to have each other’s backs.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about your new book, Auto-Scrap-Ography. You are a ball of kinetic energy. How did you manage to sit down and write this book?
Bret Michaels: Writing a book is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, and it’s one of the most fulfilling. I wanted to do something unique. I grabbed some timestamped photos. I took blank pieces of paper and I would Scotch Tape an image to a piece of paper and start writing the story surrounding that image, kind of like a Chicken Soup for the Soul vibe. The reason I didn’t write a normal biography, and I love to read those, by the way, is because I could take a picture and write stream of consciousness about what my thoughts were in that moment, what I was going through and what happened. Every picture has a story and every story has multiple tentacles. This book is Volume 1. Over the next volumes I’m going to give you different tentacles of each story and really deep dive into it, so you are living the experience with me.\
Allison Kugel: That’s an interesting approach. When I wrote my book, I took a different approach. I streamlined passages to focus on one main aspect of a story for the sake of continuity. I’m curious to read your volumes to see how you went about this.
Bret Michaels: It’s why yours is unique to you and mine is unique to me. If I tried to write it that way, I would have lost focus. That’s why mine is written as a scrapbook. It’s an autobiographical scrapbook diary. Some of it are pages of inspirational stuff; some are intense and impactful moments from my life. For example, there are five pages talking about me almost drowning in Caracas, Venezuela. I share with people what was going through my mind when I knew I was in a rip current. I had that fight or flight that happens. I thought that was it. Everyone on the beach thought I was kidding around, because I wasn’t that far off the shore. I’m waving frantically and everyone on the beach is partying with their band and crew and they’re just waving back at me, and I’m drowning out there.
Allison Kugel: Your life experiences are such double-edged swords. Everything is the good and the bad, or the fun and the scary at the same time.
Bret Michaels: Yes, my life, ironically, has been roses and thorns (a reference to Poison’s number one hit ballad, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”). A rose is this beautiful thing that looks amazing, it brings people life and it means love. And if you grab it the wrong way, or slide your hand down it, you have a painful thorn in your hand. My life has been a perfect balance beam in that way. I remember playing Texas Stadium in front of 83,000 people. It was completely sold out and we shot the I Won’t Forget You video with Paul Stanley on stage, and Steven Tyler watching from the side. It was one of those, “This is the greatest!” moments. Life felt like a surreal dream. Two hours later we went from mega Texas Stadium rock star status to playing a small town in either in Texas or New Mexico where there weren’t four people in the whole place who knew or cared who or what we were. At the time, it was exactly what I needed to happen to realize this will keep me as grounded as the person that I am today.
Allison Kugel: I so get that. I’m not a public person, but I had gotten into this amazing groove where I was doing dream interview after dream interview, and I had just interviewed Gwen Stefani and was feeling pretty high about everything. Well, shortly thereafter, something happened, nothing terrible, but I got myself arrested and was thrown into a lockup. It was a traumatic experience. I remember being hysterical and I asked the woman if I could use the phone. I was freaking out and I started crying, and she goes, “Can you go cry over there, you’re getting on my nerves (laughs).
Bret Michaels: Oh, my goodness (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Yup! I was like, “No, you don’t understand I don’t belong here. You don’t know what I do and who I am.” Well, that just made it one hundred times worse!
Bret Michaels: I’m so sorry that happened to you, but truth is stranger than fiction. As I say in my book, I did not need to make stories up for shock value. Some stories I needed to pare down because you would think I’m making it up. I was arrested and went to Walton County Prison (Walton Correctional Institution in Walton County, Florida), with the real inmates. It wasn’t the nice holding cell.
Allison Kugel: (Laughs)
Bret Michaels: I had just got done playing what at the time was called Omni Basketball Arena. A guy claimed I ruined his car, that I jumped on his car and smashed his windows. All of it was false. But they didn’t ask questions. They just took me in. I had just come off stage and was in a state of shock. I spent two days in there and finally it came out that the guy made the story up. For two days I sat in the corner of that jail cell with about twenty other inmates all packed into a place that only should have held about four people. I sat in a corner with my head down and I didn’t say a word. Some people said, “Hey, are you who I think you are?” I was like, “Yeah, no big thing, man, thanks.”
Allison Kugel: A humbling experience…
Bret Michaels: A lot of the stories in Auto-Scrap-Ography are stories of how I overcame challenges, and true stories of inspiration. But a large part of my book is, of course, what I like to call a Rock ‘n’ Roll Thrill Ride. I’d like to think the overriding theme of the book is inspiration; it’s telling people that if I can do this you can do it, regardless of what your dream is.
Allison Kugel: Since touring is off the table right now, what other projects are you working on?
Bret Michaels: I am going to be the face of college radio. Each year they pick someone to be the face of it and this year it’s me. I also got the Humanitarian of The Year Award last year at the 2019 Hollywood Christmas Parade (Michaels ongoing philanthropic efforts have included delivering needed supplies to the people of the Bahamas and Puerto Rico). Way back when, when no one would touch our records, college radio spun our album. I wanted to do something to show my appreciation. I’ve also contributed to a lot of school programs, donating to their music, art and athletic programs.
Allison Kugel: One passage that really struck me in your book was when you wrote, “I went from barely being able to afford to feed myself and buy my insulin to touring stadiums.” What did you learn from poverty and what have you learned from wealth?
Bret Michaels: From the beginning I was always a guy who thinks positive. I find a way to get it done. When I would run out of insulin and my parents would have to help, or they couldn’t send it out in time, I would literally go down to the clinics in Hollywood and they’d give me insulin. It all made me resilient and determined, and most importantly, grateful when the second half came along. Poison and I, we are one of the few bands who were an independent band. My big signing day and signing party for Look What the Cat Dragged (Poison’s debut studio album, released August 2, 1986) was sitting on a floor in El Segundo, California shrink wrapping my own albums. You know those stories about private jets and limos? I’d love to tell you that happened, but none of that happened.
Allison Kugel: I think people just assume that any band that goes multiplatinum was signed to a major label. The fact that Poison was independent makes it all the more impressive.
Bret Michaels: I couldn’t have been prouder of what I was doing back then. And I didn’t know any better. I didn’t come from money. I was excited just shrink wrapping those albums I was grateful to have a record. The next thing was college radio played it. Nobody else wanted our music at the time. No one wanted Every Rose Has Its Thorn. No one was fighting to get Talk Dirty to Me or Something to Believe In, songs that eventually became number one songs. No one originally wanted our publishing at first, so we kept our own publishing with a ten percent administration deal with what’s now Universal Music Group. It ended up being a humongous blessing.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think you survived your 2010 brain hemorrhage and stroke? I’m sure you’ve thought about this a lot.
Bret Michaels: First of all, I’m grateful that I lived. Second, I say praise God! It wasn’t my time yet. I have more to do and this is where being a diabetic and my fighting spirit came in. Dr. Joseph Zabramski, one of my doctors, said, “I’ve never seen anybody work as hard in physical therapy to get better.” I hope the reason I survived is so I could show people what it means to fight and not give up. I’ve always been a grateful guy but that took my gratitude to an unbelievable level, and it also really upped my philanthropic work with my Life Rocks Foundation.
Allison Kugel: You also say in your book that you do have a few regrets. How do you determine a regret versus a lesson, versus something you’re proud of, in retrospect?
Bret Michaels: One regret is that I couldn’t be there for some of the events my children had at school. I’ve been to everything I could physically get to, but if it’s when you have to play a show and it’s also the night my kids are doing a recital, those are the things that I regret. I’ve never missed a birthday or a Christmas, but some of the other things you do miss. Another regret is a huge fist fight I had with C.C. [DeVille], my guitar player, and he’s one of my best friends. It was a lot of time on the road, a lot of heated discussions about what songs we wanted in the set, and little things that fester and turned into a knockdown, drag out, nose breaking, teeth missing fist fight. We are like brothers, and I regret the physical end of it. It didn’t need to go there, and it’s one of my biggest regrets, especially because it happened twice in the same week, once in New Orleans and once backstage at the MTV Awards.
Bret Michaels: I’m either an aging rocker or a dead rocker (laugh). We are aging from the moment we’re born. Aging gracefully, I’ll take that any day of the week because it’s better than the alternative. I’ve been aging since we put out Look What the Cat Dragged In. By the time we did Open Up and Say… Ahh! I’d already aged from the first record. As you go along things happen to you, medically. You will not find me being one of those guys saying, “This sucks.” I’m just glad I got the chance to age, because a lot of my buddies didn’t.
Allison Kugel: Here are the questions I ask everyone and my favorite part of the interview. What do you think you came into this life as Bret Michaels to learn? And what do you think you came here to teach?
Bret Michaels: To learn, I’m going to say something very bold here. I came here to learn as much as I can about everything. One of the things I teach my kids is, “Take it all in, and learn from everybody.” I’ve done that. I go out on my mountain bike and drive around while the road crew is setting stuff up, and I talk to them and find out what they are doing and learn from that. Whether or not I can apply that knowledge right then and there is one thing, but I learn a lot and I enjoy people. As far as teaching, I think if I was to have one other career, and I hope I can segue from what I’m doing now into this, I do these inspirational seminars where I talk about everything under the sun. I talk about what I’ve gone through and what I go through. With everything I have been through, that is the one thing I can give back and what I want to be able to do. It’s what I would have done had this music thing not worked out the way it has. If my life had gone another way and I was just playing music on the weekends, I would have been a teacher of some kind… or a truck driver. I know that sounds crazy, but I love the open road.
Allison Kugel: What do you think your spiritual mission is in this lifetime?
Bret Michaels: I think it’s to bring to people as much realistic positivity to people as possible. If you come to a party I’m hosting, as you have, when you come to my house to a party, I don’t want to be the life of the party. I want you to have the time of your life at my party. I think one of the reasons I’m a singer or frontman of a band is I’m a good host to people. I like when people feel good. It makes me feel good.
Bret Michael’s memoir, Bret Michaels: Auto-Scrap-Ography, is out now and available exclusively at ShopBretMichaels.com. Follow on Instagram: @bretmichaelsofficial. Information on Poison’s postponed tour dates.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist and author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
Photos by Raymond Ahner.