Roses and Thorns: Western Pennsylvania’s Bret Michaels is telling his story his way

By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor

Bret Michaels isn’t screwing around with Coronavirus. 

“As soon as I realized that I was at high-risk to catch the virus, I took it absolutely seriously,” says Michaels, the 57-year-old rocker who was born right here in Western Pennsylvania and grew up near Harrisburg. “You have to mentally stay positive. I avoid self-pity and feeling like a victim and I work hard to make things that are a negative, a positive.”

A lot of people hearing that would be quick to say, ‘Oh Yeah, easier said than done.’ But for Michaels it has been a legitimate tool of survival. Consider for a moment the health challenges the former Poison frontman has dealt with in his life.

At age 6, Michaels was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and has been in treatment his whole life.

In 1994, Michaels crashed his Ferrari into a telephone pole busting his nose, ribs, fingers and teeth.

In 2009, Poison was performing at the Tony Awards when Michaels was hit in the face by a falling prop as he exited the stage.

In 2010, during an emergency procedure to remove his appendix, doctors found a severe, nearly life-ending brain bleed. 

A bit later in 2010, Michaels has a stroke caused by a hole in his heart that he’d apparently had since birth.

And that’s not all. With the recent release of his new book, “Bret Michaels: Auto-Scrap-Ography,” Michaels tells his life story through a series of pictures and anecdotes from his life. It turns out he had even more brushes with death, including nearly drowning on tour in Venezuela and being held at gunpoint with his friends at 16 years-old. Add to that Michaels’ legendary party-lifestyle during the heyday of Poison, it’s a bit surprising that he’s survived long enough to have a career spanning nearly four decades. Like the near-drowning incident, Michaels doesn’t just tell you the story, there’s a photo of him puking up water on the beach.

Even if the health challenges didn’t get him, it’s a bit surprising that simply dealing with all of these issues hasn’t caused the guy to hide away. Well, until COVID-19.

“The main thing that you have to have, the thing that supersedes everything else, is willpower,” Michaels said. “I’m not going to lie to you, it’s almost like a placebo. I may have gotten the pill that did nothing, but my willpower made me believe I was going to get better and oddly enough I did.

“I go as long as I can for as much quality as I can. And I want  to be clear, it’s not easy. I don’t want people to think, ‘oh la-dee-da, I’ve got cancer, I’ve got diabetes, it’s no big deal.’ It’s a very big deal, but the secret is, you take that card you’ve been dealt and you deal with it but you don’t let it supersede the quality time you have left. Find what rocks your world and do it for as long as you can” 

Quality of life has always been important to Michaels and that life is on display in Auto-Scrap-Ography. Being his first book, Michaels wanted the project to be the type of book that he always wants to read. A big fan of biographies, he always felt the photos were an afterthought and that there weren’t enough of them. 

“You read these things, and I love reading people’s life stories, but there are usually 400 pages and like 12 pictures,” Michaels says. “If you’re telling me in your book for three chapters about how you started out in a crappy garage or basement, I want to see a picture of that basement. I don’t need 50. But give me one. That’s the idea with this book. Every story has a picture and every picture tells a story.”

The book, which is Volume I (with Volume II coming out later this year) documents Michaels’ life growing up in Central Pa. with a dream of becoming a Rock God. He remembers those times fondly and while maybe not glamorous, they are his beginnings and even at the start, Michael was confident rock stardom would happen.

“When we started out playing the Pine Grove Inn in Central Pennsylvania, I never bitched about, I made the most of it,” Michels says. “This was a place where in order to play, we had to move the pool table out of the way so we could set up. I remember we would bring these coffee cans full of this stuff and when we lit it, it looked like we had pyro. We even painted the cans black so they’d look professional, even though they were so dangerous.”

In 1984, Michaels decided to “bet on myself” and the band packed up a “broken-down van, an old pickup and a Chevette to move to Los Angeles.” He and his bandmates lived in the back of a dry cleaners while they tried to make it playing gigs on Sunset Boulevard. But that was easier said than done.

“There were 10,000 bands all trying to make it in this 10-block area,” Michaels laughs. So to stand out, the band would go to Sir Speedy, a print shop and they negotiated to have their show flyers printed on the green paper that was in large supply because nobody wanted to use it. “We took it because it was cheap and later on it actually becomes a merchandise color, Poison-green, that everyone eventually used. But back then, they’d see the green flyers, know it was us and come to the shows. 

“The other thing I’ve always had is gratitude. And I have that because I come from Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and the work ethic that lives here. I never thought I deserved it, but I knew that if I worked hard enough, I could get it.”

Beyond the hard work though, another thing that helped the band in the long run, was Michaels’ need as a “control extremist” to make sure that he would make it his own way. Poison was long an independent band that held on to its publishing rights. Michaels didn’t fall into the “stardom trap” that a lot of young bands did.

“A lot of artists mean well. They’re talented but they buy into a bad contract,” Michaels says. “They would give it all away to a record company for a limo ride and a leather jacket. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to get into that situation.

“I’ve alway been hands on, I have to be. Who else is going to do it and care about it as much as I will. There’s no shame in an artist getting what they deserve. You can live your passion and still take care of your business.”

One Comment

  • Nope says:

    Male version of the fictional Rachel Berry at it again. Ughh Try being the front man of Poison and acknowledging your best friends not just bandmates names and work with them not against them. And shave that nasty ass goatee, it’s just creepy.

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