Love of Rock 

Aided by recession, remembrance and reality TV, Poison packs ’em in once again

Over the past several years, America—slowly, gradually, perhaps not a little reluctantly—appears to have decided it liked Poison after all.

In the mid-1990s, Poison appeared quite doomed. The quartet had sold millions of records over the previous decade with a sound that combined glam rock with bubblegum pop and a visual flair notable even in those teased, made-up and spandexed times. But in the early ’90s, things had begun to fall apart: Founding guitarist C.C. DeVille left in a cloud of acrimony, and a rising alternative-rock movement made the group’s over-the-top ethos seem antiquated and silly.

Efforts to replace DeVille and update the band’s sound proved futile, and an act once capable of handily filling arenas found itself struggling to fill nightclubs. The final insult came in 1996 when Poison’s record label Capitol opted to shelve its new studio album, Crack a Smile, in favor of a greatest-hits package.

But over the past several years, America—slowly, gradually, perhaps not a little reluctantly—appears to have decided it liked Poison after all. Just a few years after hair metal’s apparent destruction by grunge and gangsta rap there was already renewed interest in Poison, predating the inevitable ’80s revival by a mile. DeVille rejoined the fold in 1999 for an amphitheater tour that proved a surprise hit, and by 2000 Poison were again popular enough for Capitol to eat crow and finally release Crack a Smile after all. The band has played to ever-increasing crowds since, and last year’s covers album Poisond! entered the Billboard 200 at No. 32—not quite the exalted heights of the ’80s, but its best placing on that chart in 14 years nonetheless.

So what the hell happened? There’s nostalgia, of course—a 17-year-old Poison fan from 1986 is now nearing 40 and just beginning to seriously long for his or her lost youth. (Meanwhile, the band members are all mid-40-somethings who have held up well enough not to suggest encroaching mortality on the horizon.) And at least a few of Poison’s hits hold up well—a trashy little beauty like “Talk Dirty to Me” or “I Want Action” will always have a place of honor in rock ’n’ roll, although dour balladry like “Something to Believe In” is hard to take seriously now without a little help from copious amounts of alcohol. The band has also gotten a boost over the past two years, since frontman Bret Michaels began his search for lasting love among the nation’s foremost skanks as the star of VH1’s top-rated Rock of Love. (DeVille also ventured into reality TV as a 2006 cast member on the same network’s The Surreal Life.)

But surely there’s more to Poison’s resurgence—after all, plenty of ’80s bands are blessed with a few durable hits and a willingness to debase themselves on national television. Perhaps in a time of such extreme unease in the American psyche—a mid-June Newsweek poll found a mere 14 percent of respondents are satisfied with “the way things are going in the United States at this time”—the need has never been greater for a band so absolutely committed to, as the title of one of its biggest hits announced, “Nothin’ But a Good Time.” Americans have historically turned to entertainment that emphasized escapism and guilt-free fun during times of national stress, so maybe this is a uniquely opportune moment for the resurgence of the guys who wrote “I Hate Every Bone in Your Body But Mine.” The Great Depression had the rise of big-band jazz and we have the return of Poison. (Similarly, the Great Depression had Franklin Roosevelt and we have George W. Bush.)

Poison began to re-establish its popularity around the time it dropped any notion of timeliness or relevance and dedicated itself anew to the sweet-toothed riff-rock of its halcyon days. Likewise, Dokken—set to open for Poison at the Sommet Center on Tuesday—also made their best chart showing in more than a decade recently with Lightning Strikes Again, a determined attempt to replicate the quartet’s 1980s sound down to frontman Don Dokken’s rawk-by-numbers lyrics (titles like “Point of No Return” and “Judgment Day” tell the tale) and the way new guitarist Jon Levin’s spiky guitar riffs echo original guitarist George Lynch’s classic style. No other original members are in the current touring lineup, making Dokken something uncomfortably close to a tribute act to itself at this point.

Given the two top acts on this backward-looking bill, it’s somewhat surprising to see the name of former Skid Row lead singer Sebastian Bach appended to it as well. Bach’s old band was rightly slapped with the dreaded “hair metal” label for their cheesy 1989 self-titled debut, but developed into a convincingly ferocious hard-rock outfit on subsequent efforts. Since being booted from Skid Row in 1996, Bach has pushed himself into new pursuits with stints in Broadway productions like Jesus Christ Superstar and a supporting role on TV’s brainy Gilmore Girls. He’ll stretch himself again—er, sort of—this summer as a cast member on CMT’s reality show Gone Country 2. Angel Down, his solo album from last year, has garnered glowing reviews for its mixture of modernity and classicism. Bach has always resisted hair-band nostalgia quite literally kicking and screaming (“Skid Row fans are not Poison fans,” he flatly declared a few years ago), so why attach himself to this particular tour at this particular time?

Maybe it’s because his music, like the music of the acts further up the bill, inevitably sounds its best with an arena full of people ready to escape their worries by head-banging along. If Bach has the chance to sing to arena rafters once again, which is what a power yowler like himself does best, it’s difficult to begrudge him. In fact, it’s difficult to begrudge any of these guys the audience they’ve been persistently pleasing for several decades now—and even harder to begrudge the fans who want to forget for a few hours just how truly poisoned the real world outside has become.


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