A Shift in Poison's Pen : Metal Band Has Not Only Toughened Up Its Look, but Smartened Up Its Lyrics

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Strutting purveyors of Hollywood candy metal, or hard rock heavyweights with a message? Name your Poison.

Since the band's debut album in 1986, Poison--which will be at Irvine Meadows tonight, on a bill with Damn Yankees and Firehouse--has undergone a conspicuous stylistic and musical metamorphosis. Once upon a time, its lavish use of hair spray could be held directly accountable for depleted ozone levels; the group was exceeded only by Kiss in its use of garish makeup. The music was typically loud and mindless, predictably popular among the mid-'80s "glam" crowd. Early song titles included "Talk Dirty to Me" and "Nothin' but a Good Time."

But since its "Flesh and Blood" album in 1990, this once-frivolous band has toughened up its image with such modern metal accouterments as biker garb, biker tattoos, black leather and bulging biceps. More significantly, the group has been composing more sober-minded, socially conscious material.

"Something to Believe In," a downcast if obvious ballad from "Flesh and Blood" (which was heavily rotated on MTV and rose to No. 4 on the charts), signaled that Poison was beginning to look beyond the starry-eyed limits of Hollywood life.

"Native Tongue," the group's latest album, is chock-full of allusions to contemporary issues, with relatively sophisticated lyrics; just a few years ago, one would have doubted that these people were capable of or even interested in writing such things. Singer/lyricist Bret Michaels still may never be compared to Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs, but he has come a long way from "Talk Dirty to Me."

A verdict heard by the jury's word . . . they're lying.

I watch as the victims of our slave ships

battle with the demons inside . . .

I pray from the ashes of ruins, the answer will rise.

--"The Scream"

"The change has been a natural thing," Michaels said during a recent phone interview. "When I moved to Los Angeles, I was 19 years old and I came from a small town outside of Pittsburgh. We lived in a warehouse in Hollywood, and I got to see stuff I thought you'd only see in movies. So we wanted to be very shocking.

"We took a lot of criticism for the makeup, but I never thought we were candy metal. I thought that rock 'n' roll was supposed to be outrageous and outspoken.

"But the more I've seen and the more I've done, the more I have to write about, so we've become better with each record. It's just been a process of learning more. It's not so much that we're trying to deliver a political message as that we've seen a lot of things--we get to go around the world. Since I write the lyrics, I get to express some of this stuff."

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Another element of Poison's updated approach is a bluesier edge to the music. This has come largely from the influence of the new guitarist, Richie Kotzen, who last year replaced long-time Poison axeman C.C. DeVille.

Michaels said that he and DeVille had gone "album/tour, album/tour, album/tour, album/tour . . . C.C. and I had just stayed on the road too long together. We didn't communicate enough, so it basically came down between me and him. He wanted to do a solo thing, and I think when you're in a band, everybody's got to do it together."

He says he thinks Kotzen, an award-winning guitarist with a handful of his own albums under his belt, is the ideal replacement for DeVille.

"We needed to find a guy who wanted to be in a band, to be a team player. We needed someone who would add to the band rather than pull away from it. And the fact that Richie's a very, very talented guitar player opened a lot of doors for us to do different things, things we've done on 'Native Tongue' that we hadn't done in the past."

The wear and stress of life on the road, difficult for most musicians to endure, can be especially hard on Michaels. You'd never know it from looking at the 30-year-old singer's pumped-up frame, but he suffers from diabetes.

"Last night," he said, "we had a rare night off, and we went out and partied real late. At 4 this morning, I ended up with a blood sugar count of 32, which is very bad. I go through these ups and downs. I've had (diabetes) for 24 years. So I try to do my best to stay in shape."

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Health concerns haven't put a damper on his sense of fun, though. For Poison's current tour, Michaels came up with the idea of the "Backstage Party Cage," wherein a local DJ randomly selects fans at each show, throws them in a rolling cage and wheels them backstage to meet the band.

"There's a lot of fans who, unless they win a radio contest or know somebody, never get to come backstage," Michaels noted. "So this is a chance for rowdy fans to get in, crawl on top or climb on until the cage is full, and get backstage. It's a thank-you to our fans."

* Poison, Damn Yankees and Firehouse play tonight at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Show time: 7:30. $27.25 and $22.25. (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster).

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