By the end of 1986, the members of Poison were, by all accounts, living the dream. The scrappy glam metal foursome from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, were relentlessly zigzagging across the United States in a mini Winnebago in support of their indie-label debut album, Look What the Cat Dragged In, opening for fellow big-haired rockers Ratt and Cinderella. One night in Dallas, Poison frontman Bret Michaels stopped at a laundromat after the band played a small, impromptu gig at the Ritz, which he describes as a “honky-tonk” bar. He found a payphone and rang his girlfriend in Los Angeles—and heard another man’s voice on the other end.
If the scenario—road-worn rocker gets his heart broken by a woman back home just as his star begins to rise—sounds cliché by now, that’s because a shattered Michaels sat down at the laundromat and channeled his heartache into arguably the defining power ballad of the glam metal era, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” The song didn’t see the light of day until Poison’s second album, Open Up and Say… Ahh!, hit shelves in May of 1988. Even then, Capitol Records was reluctant to release the mostly acoustic, country-tinged weeper as a single after the adrenalized pop-metal anthems “Nothin’ But a Good Time” and “Fallen Angel” had already propelled the album to multiplatinum status. Nevertheless, Poison released “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” as a single on Oct. 12, 1988; by Christmas, it had topped the Billboard Hot 100, granting the group its only Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit to date and eventually pushing Open Up and Say… Ahh! 5x platinum.
Revisiting one’s own heartache onstage night after night for 30 years is no small feat, but Michaels says he has no hard feelings about performing “Every Rose” regularly. On a phone call shortly before the song’s 30th anniversary, the singer reflects on his expectations for the chart-topping smash, urging Capitol Records to give it a push and its enduring legacy. Michaels says that through it all, “Every Rose” continues to resonate with him 30 years after its release. “When I say my life is roses and thorns… this song isn’t just about this moment in my life,” he says. “It encompasses my entire life.”
Did you really sit down at the laundromat and write all the lyrics to “Every Rose” in one sitting?
No, it wasn’t just one sitting. It was a period of a couple days. You go through a gamut of emotion, because—and I want to say a very strong statement—when you’re going through that, you’re not thinking of it being a hit. I wrote it because music was therapeutic to me. In other words, it helped me to get out my broken heart. It helped me to deal with what I was going through. And so, what happens over a period of a couple days, I remember sitting out in the mini Winnebago, just sitting out there for hours and hours on the guitar, and I wrote a ton of lyrics. And then I narrowed it down to what I felt kind of encapsulated, what I felt within a three- to four-minute song was gonna capture the feeling. It’s like [Poison’s 1990 Flesh & Blood hit] “Something to Believe In.” I’ve probably got 10 pages of lyrics, but I tried to then go back and capture the story so that it didn’t become a 28-minute song.
It’s pretty impressive that a song you didn’t even think would be a hit has come to define a certain era of American music altogether.
The toughest songs to write are good-time party songs. And let me explain that. People are always like, “Oh man, ‘Nothin’ But a Good Time,’ that must have been an easy song to write.” It’s not an easy song, because when you’re partying and having a good time, there’s no emotion in you that says, “Let’s sit down right now and write a song.” But you have something break your heart, you have a best friend like “Something to Believe In,” one of your best friends that you saw their face every day for years and years and years, die instantly over Christmas… what I’m saying to you is those moments are the toughest moments in your life, but oddly enough, the most defined songs and easier songs to write because you have an exact emotion.
How did the band react when you showed them the song?
You know what, it was strange. The reaction was, “Hey, great, you know, we’re friends, we grew up together.” They’re like, “Yeah, it’s a good song. It’s a really good song. It’s an emotional song.” And there was no bad reaction. I don’t know that a couple of them were… they’re like, “Well, it’s kind of a ballad and we’ll see.” But honestly, they were supportive. No one fought it, and they knew that me—as writing the lyrics and a good percentage of the music on all of our songs, but especially that one top to bottom—they were very supportive knowing what I was going through. I’d like to give you a dramatic statement, but no one was against it, if you know what I mean. They were like, “Okay, if you’re feeling it.” But I don’t think they ever thought that it was coming out as a single.
It’s interesting that even though “Every Rose” became your biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit, Poison wasn’t really known as a ballad band before its release.
There was not a lot of love for the song, because it was very different sounding from what was happening at that moment. We had hits with [Look What the Cat Dragged In singles] “Talk Dirty to Me,” “I Want Action,” and although “I Won’t Forget You” from Cat Dragged In did good, that wasn’t… if the label had its… when I say label, Capitol/EMI pushed [“Every Rose”] back till the third single on Open Up and Say… Ahh! and I’m not even sure they were gonna do that, because the first two exploded the record to over like 3 million, and then in their eyes, they’re like, “That’s a success.” And I’m like, “No, this song means the world to me.”
Did you notice a shift in Poison’s fan base when “Every Rose” took off?
Well, you feel it for this reason. When it exploded like that, it crossed over into top 40 country; it crossed over into top 40 pop. You know what I mean? Like real pop radio at the time, which at those times was Madonna, George Michael, Prince. That’s who you were going up against. And all of a sudden, it was a No. 1 song at pop radio, and at rock radio, and it crossed over into top 40 country. And so you definitely felt—it wasn’t a shift, let’s call it an addition to the fan base. There was a massive addition of people who became interested in Poison, interested in going to see the concert.
Did you ever hear from your ex after you released the song? Do you know how she reacted to it?
Although I have seen the person since and now we’re able to look back and laugh, I never had a sit-down and discussed the song with them. I think they obviously had some feeling when the… remember, when I wrote it, it never saw the light of day for probably two years by the time it actually got released, and I believe that was late ’88. … But the answer is, years and years later when it finally saw the light of day, I think they knew. But it wasn’t even till many years after that that we spoke about it, ‘cause both of our lives moved on, and we had kids, and you know what I’m getting at. And I think we had a few laughs about it at one point. But it wasn’t very laughable at the moment.
How does it feel to play such a personal, painful song every night on tour, not only then, but now?
To be honest with you, different musicians have different opinions of songs that are hits. I honestly love playing it live. It’s still, to me, it’s not just good for me, but it’s—the fans love singing it. If you go back and look even now, you go back to the arenas or amphitheaters and listen, everyone’s singing the song. And for each person it’s probably meant something different. But for me, to be able to go out there and sing it and still do it this many years later is an amazing feeling. I still get chill-bumps on my arms doing that and knowing it’s withstood the test of time.