“Twenty two years of mental tears
Cries a suicidal Vietnam vet
Who fought a losing war on a foreign shore
To find his country didn’t want him back”
From “Something to Believe In” by Poison
Some of us are “dreamers.” We have a gift for thinking beyond our own lives and delving into a fantasy land of what could be. And those fantasies can have an opiate-like effect, allowing us to take a break from the drudgery of our daily lives.
Source: Photo by Mark Weiss
Others of us are “realists.” We are firmly planted in the here and now, working hard to make our lives better. We do not indulge in those fantasies, but rather learn how to deal with the mundane tasks of life.
Bret Michaels has always had one foot firmly planted in the world of dreamers and one in the world of realism, thus, making him what he calls a “drealist.”
“I’m a self-proclaimed drealist. I’m a dreamer and a realist. And that’s the toughest thing to do,” he told me. “Because as a dreamer you want things to be perfect … you want them to be creative. And as a realist, it takes a lot of hard work to do that.”
Drealism has worked out well for Michaels. As the singer-songwriter of the band Poison (along with C.C. Deville, Bobby Dall and Rikki Rockett), Michaels came to prominence during the era of 1980’s “glam metal” (also known as “hair metal”). This genre started with bands such as Kiss and The New York Dolls in the 1970’s and was known for its musicians who wore make-up and lived a decadent sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. Poison went on to sell over 45 million records, with Rolling Stone eventually labeling Poison’s albums Look What the Cat Dragged In and Open Up and Say … Ahh! as two of the best “hair metal” albums of all time.
So, how did Michaels become a drealist?
The origin of Michaels journey into drealism could be traced to his family background as a child of a military family. For Michaels, having family members who are or were in the military was a source of great pride, but also one in which he regularly faced the reality of death and loss.
“I am the son of a military vet – of a Navy vet. And my whole family is veterans. And that includes my cousin Bobby who is a Vietnam vet – a purple heart. That includes my nephew; he is on a Seal Team right now – I won’t go into details. My sister is at an Air Force base. I’ve had family members wounded and KIA – my Uncle Nick in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II before I was born. I come from a family that sacrificed – some of them everything. So there is a true love and admiration and respect,” Michaels explained. “It’s not just them – when you’re in a family that’s serving, you serve with them. You are guided by where you go to live, what they’re doing, if they’re in harm’s way.”
Michaels was not only facing the potential and actual death of family members, but also facing his own significant health issues which brought him face to face with his own mortality. Michaels was diagnosed with type I diabetes, a chronic health condition in which an individual cannot produce insulin. Because insulin is not available to break down sugar, if type I diabetes is not managed properly through diet and insulin injections, complications can include neuropathy, blindness and even death due to cardiovascular disease, as well as the anxiety and depression that can occur from managing a chronic disease.
“I have been a type I diabetic – a T1D – since I was six years old. And I’m up to five injections a day. It’s a game changer,” he said. “As a diabetic you have to find your groove – what works for you, what keeps your blood sugar right, what manages it until we find a cure for this horrific disease … Your blood sugar is going to fluctuate. People get really worried and depressed – you’re going to have your highs and lows – that’s what comes with it.”
So, Michaels had very little choice but to be grounded in reality. However, he was determined not to let these stressors keep him down but, rather, to be a starting point to develop a passionate approach to life in which he would dream big.
“I’m passionate … I don’t have to fake that passion. That is one of my biggest blessings. I don’t have to fake my passion,” Michaels described. “I was born with an absolute competitive fighting spirit and a humble soul. I was named after Bret Maverick the cowboy … and my middle name I was named after St. Michael the archangel … who is the fiercest fighting angel there is but was a musician and loved to have a great time.”
But for Michaels, the dreaming big was not an escape, but an action plan backed by hard work – the cornerstone of Michaels’ drealism. “I didn’t win the lottery. I didn’t win an inheritance and I suck at gambling. So, mine was going to come literally from hard work and betting on myself,” he said. “When I say hard work, that’s a generic term. But you’ve got to break it down … sweating the details makes things work. If you’re shooting a movie, a couple of frames can be the difference between a hit movie and a shit movie. There’s no sin in enjoying yourself. But you’ve got to put your work in. You’ve got to earn it.
“The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Michaels described how this work ethic ran counter to the stereotype that life in an 80’s glam metal band was one big party. “Our work ethic was as strong then as it is now. And that’s all four of us … We flyered everywhere. We would not worry about renting a limo to pull up and play for five people. We worried about spending midnight until six in the morning flyering – posting flyers everywhere so there were 1000 people at the Troubadour. And we pulled up in our Chevette and windowless van,” Michaels recalled. “In other words, we were the exact opposite of what people thought was happening … No doubt, there was sex, there was drugs, there was rock and roll … But when it was work time it was 2000% work time. I would go to the Troubadour to hand flyers out. A band would pull up in a limo. They’d get out of the limo like man these guys have to be huge and there’d be six people at the club.
“So they spent the money on the limo and their ego.”
Part of the hard work was anticipating and managing the various difficulties that can arise as a working musician. After years of dealing with the adversity that came from being in a military family and coping with diabetes, Michaels was well trained to anticipate and handle these challenges.
“I’m using a quote here. ‘There is many a slip between a cup and a lip’ right? That adage my dad would say when I was a kid – I understood as I got older. You’re going to go onstage right and play your show,” he explained. “And all of a sudden there are a million things that could go wrong. There’s a million things that could twist your attitude that day. You could be having the worst day ever. But you don’t want to go onstage like that. You can go onstage and some of the rigging came loose. The front of the house blew out one side of the PA system. Rather than go out there and tell the world all of the problems, my ideal is find a way to f*cking fix it.”
Managing the business aspect of his career is one side of the coin for managing adversity. On an emotional level, songwriting is one of Michaels’ core coping strategies. Interestingly, despite having written a series of party anthems such as “Talk Dirty to Me” and “Unskinny Bop,” Michaels actually finds it easier in some ways to write songs about darker topics such as “Something to Believe In.”
“The hardest song to write is a good time party song. Because when I’m in the middle of partying, having a great time, I’m not sitting down and trying to reflect and write lyrics. I’m enjoying the moment,” Michaels described. “The easiest song to write comes from the toughest moments in your life. It produces an exact emotion. When my best friend died, I wrote ‘Something to Believe In’ – by and large my guitar and my music are therapeutic to me.
“That guitar and that piano have been lifesaving to me.”
To be sure, being able to escape into a good party is also therapeutic for Michaels. But in many ways he approaches a party as he does his work, in which he is looking to make sure the crowd is entertained.
“I find time to enjoy myself and then get back to the grind and make things work. I’ve never – not once – wanted someone to have a bad time,” he said. “If I throw a party, I want to be the best f*cking host there is. I want people to leave my party having had a great time. I never had a party to celebrate me.
“I had a party to celebrate them.”
Over time, Michaels has had to figure out how to balance the public image of himself as a partying rocker with what he feels is the more reality-based nature of his life. He described how he was approached to star in the VH-1 show Rock of Love with Bret Michaels, a show in which female contestants competed to win Bret’s affection. Michaels described how the show was pitched as a “party” show, lampooning his ‘80’s lifestyle. Michaels insisted the show portray him as flawed and vulnerable.
“When they first came to me … they painted me as a throwback novelty item. They were throwing me back to 1986 and I had to turn it down first time around,” he explained. “If you let me live who and what I am right now … They originally planned it the other way – the mega rock star no one can get to you. And I said, wait a minute, this has got to be real. And this is in real life how I would deal with it.”
This realistic approach included an incident at the end of Season 1 in which Michaels experienced a scary bout of low blood sugar and was helped by one of the contestants, Jessica Kinni. “When we had that moment with Jess – and I had that humongous awful bad super low blood sugar, she was great. She was wonderful. She was genuinely concerned,” he said.
As time has gone on, Michaels has found that he has had to apply his drealism to other areas of his life – including the raising of his daughters. He describes the balance he must have between having fun and putting in the hard work to deal with the issues that arise as a parent, including helping his daughters make smart choices.
“I hands down love being a dad. I’m a fun dad … But the other side of that coin is I’ve learned my negotiating skills with a lot of teenage angst and drama. I call it push through the cloud of smoke. If I’m like OK stop, what’s the real problem? Because there’s a lot of smoke surrounding the actual problem and I’ve learned to negotiate through that,” Michaels explained. “My oldest daughter is getting ready to graduate. And all the parties around her and I say these things worked and these things didn’t. I was dumb enough to get in the car one time with people that were partying and it went real bad – don’t do this. Then you hope and pray that it sticks and you leave something great behind.”
Michaels described one time in which he had to negotiate a conflict between one of his daughters and her friend. “There is a new age of technology and I love it. But when I am sitting in a car with my daughter and her friends and they’re texting snapchatting double click chat ghost chatting – and one of them is in the car with the other saying they don’t like the way the other one’s dressed, I’m like all of you stop, give me your phones,” he recalled. “We’re actually going to get out of this car and do some stuff. We’re going to walk on the beach. You’ve been taking photos of the beach – you’re going to actually stand in the sand. I said I’m f*cking done. Give me the phones, set them in the car. You’ve taken 4,000 photos but not one of you has walked in the sand yet. It was like they had an angle so it looked like they were on the beach. I’m like you’re feet aren’t in the sand yet. It went back to being real best friend besties for the day.
“It turned out good.”
Through it all, Michaels grounds himself in the issues in which his approach to life was forged – diabetes and issues facing veterans. Michaels formed the Life Rocks Foundation, which raises money for charitable causes, including diabetes and veterans issues. He describes how he encourages fans to unite around common causes such as the care of veterans and their families.
“I would be lying to tell you I understand the politics of war … The politics, the lobbying – that’s something I don’t get to see or I’m not privy to. All I know is our men and women like my dad, my cousin and my nephew that’s over there now – they’re fighting for our freedom. There’s no kickback to them. They’re not lobbying for anything,” Michaels said. “I’ve got three generations of fans on both sides of the agenda – and every night they all light up the arena with their phones and lighters … It’s just a big thank you to our men and women and our first responders for the ability to have the freedom of opinion and choice that we get in this country. This is about our men and women and their families, who sacrifice so much and put in so much to give us the freedom of opinion to be able to dress the way we want, look the way we want, have the ability to do the things we want. … Our men and women fight and come back knowing that some people don’t love them for it. And that’s where my admiration for them goes higher.
“And I will never think differently than that.”
Three decades later, he is still going strong, starting a tour in which he will perform as a solo artist and then with Poison. Michaels encourages fellow aspiring drealists to dream big and work hard to make it happen.
“I’m grateful for the fans. I’m grateful I’m sitting here thirty years later doing this … And hopefully people feel that when I hit the stage. There are huge ups and downs in your career,” Michaels said. “But you cannot be bitter. If you end up being bitter, you’ve lost. And I won’t allow that to happen – even when I get kicked in the teeth.
“My dream is nothing like I thought it would be and everything I’ve made it to be.”