Celebrity rock star Bret Michaels chases soul-stirring adventures.
STORY BY JIM HANNAFORD
When Bret Michaels says something touches his soul, that’s a good indication that it’s especially meaningful to him. One of those things is simply hitting the highways and traveling around the country. Sometimes it’s with a particular destination in mind, and sometimes it’s not. It’s safe to say he’s logged a lot more miles on private jets and custom tour buses than most people, but he finds a different kind of comfort behind the wheel of his truck.
“I like to drive, and I always have,” says the celebrity rock star. “It’s good for my soul.” His passion for staying on the move and discovering new places is something he’s happy to trace back to his parents. Growing up in central Pennsylvania, his late father loved to load up the family and go off on what he called “adventures.” His mom enjoys it to this day, as an avid RVer. Michaels followed suit when he was raising his own two daughters, sometimes spontaneously heading off course just to see what’s out there.
“I call them ‘explores,’” Michaels says. It’s nothing for him to hop in his truck and go to Florida and back to visit some friends or maybe go miles out of his way in Arizona to see some meteor craters he’s been curious about. “Sometimes I think my whole life has been a road trip.”
Michaels, 58, is known around the world as the flamboyant frontman of the massively popular rock band Poison. Their astounding run of success started in 1986, but he’s by no means living in the past. He continues to make new music and perform, sometimes with Poison but mostly under his own name as a solo artist, and typically does around 200 shows a year. His lively and varied career includes some memorable TV appearances over the years. His VH1 reality dating show Rock of Love with Bret Michaels captivated viewers for three seasons starting in 2007. Later, he and his family were the subjects of Bret Michaels: Life As I Know It, also on VH1. He was the big winner on Celebrity Apprentice 11 years ago, and he turned up again on the small screen last year inside a banana costume on The Masked Singer.
It’s no stretch to call Michaels a creative and innovative entrepreneur. He has a real estate concern that develops and sells high-end properties, and there’s also a namesake diet soft drink from Snapple (“Bret Michaels’ Trop-A-Rocka Tea”). With his Pets Rock collection at PetSmart, he even markets rock ‘n’ roll-oriented toys and accessories for dogs and cats.
Through his Life Rocks Foundation, Michaels supports many (often medical-related) causes and has given handsomely to charity. He is also an active supporter of veterans support organizations like Operation Homefront. When hurricanes hit the Bahamas and Puerto Rico in 2019, he loaded his own plane with relief supplies and children’s toys and personally delivered them. These kind-hearted efforts led to Michaels receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award at the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade in Los Angeles late that year.
His new book, Auto-Scrap-Ography, uses a scrapbook format to tell many of the adventurous tales from his life so far. After a series of medical emergencies, starting with being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a kid, the biggest story is the fact that he’s still here to tell them. “It’s by the grace of God, good medical attention, and having a strong spirit,” he says. “I like to say that in spite of myself, I’ve managed to survive.”
Life As a ‘Rock Jock’
A big part of Michaels’ life story takes place outdoors. Calling himself a “rock jock,” he says he’s always been active and athletic. Being diabetic made him health conscious from an early age, and outdoor pursuits were also just a way of life for his family. “I never knew whether it was hip or a trend or not, it’s just what we did,” he says. “We camped, we fished, and we enjoyed it. It was great. I’ve been blessed with the camping gene since I was a kid.”
He’s also drawn to motorsports and has a Baja-style racing track for his dirt bikes and go-karts at his spread in northern Arizona. But he says that’s just scratching the surface. “The best thing about the great outdoors is it means so many different things to so many different people,” Michaels says. “It is an open range for it to be what rocks your soul. For me it could mean simply just being in the outdoors hiking, fishing, jogging, mountain biking, riding motocross, skiing, archery, marksmanship, or boating, but it gives me a sense of true primal freedom. I like the feeling of dirt under my shoes, and the fact that something can go so right and possibly so wrong all at the same time keeps my adrenaline pumping.”
The Road to Stardom
It was one of those adventures—a cross-country trip—that changed his life forever. He’s played in bands since he was a teenager. There was a succession of them, with names like Spectres, the Kidz, Paris, and Dark Star. Eventually they got good enough—and confident enough—to head out to Los Angeles, some 2,500 miles from their hometown of Mechanicsburg. With snow still falling back home, the four young rockers took a southern route as they headed west in March of 1984. Their scraggly caravan included Michaels’ war-torn Ford van that had been an ambulance, along with an old green pickup truck and a Chevy Chevette with most of its windows missing.
When the van broke down around Phoenix, Michaels had an opportunity to stop and look around, and he liked what he saw in the Arizona desert. He has a place in Los Angeles, of course, but he also has called Scottsdale home for many years. “I just love the wide-open space,” he says. The weather suits him, too. He is usually on concert tours in the spring and summer. When the shows wind down later in the year, it’s still warm enough in Arizona for outside activities.
Hitting the Big Time
They struggled in L.A. at first, bunking down in the back of a dry cleaners, at times sleeping on their speakers to keep the cockroaches at bay. “It was cheap, but also we could set all of our gear up and practice,” he recalls. Poison got their record deal after taking the clubs on Sunset Strip by storm. Suddenly they were part of a wave of image-conscious bands that rocked (and partied) hard, had a melodic pop sensibility, and looked great in videos. Their early albums went gold, then platinum, several times over. To date they’ve sold somewhere around 50 million records. “I just looked at it as rock ‘n’ roll,” says Michaels. The visual elements were important then, and they still are. “We want to give the fans great music and a great show, and we marry the two, and that’s just rock ‘n’ roll to me. It’s good rock and good songs.”
Facing Health Challenges
Michaels’ day starts with a drop of blood. It’s not some weird ritual. It’s to see whether he needs a shot of insulin. It’s a necessary health precaution that is second nature to him after dealing with diabetes for going on 52 years. Then it’s a workout of some kind, hopefully some mountain biking. “And I also have a constant glucose monitor. It’s just a needle that sits in your arm. It looks like a white disc. It gives you information that you can react to quickly.”
His grandmother had diabetes, but his two sisters didn’t, and he knew very little about it when he was diagnosed at age six. “Without a doubt, there are absolute struggles that go with being a diabetic,” he says, “but I decided early on that, rather than being upset by it, I would refuse to be a victim.”
He’s had bigger health challenges to overcome. He has some harrowing stories to relate, and he even laughs a bit as he recounts them because he knows it sounds like a ridiculous string of endless calamities. He almost drowned once in Venezuela when a riptide swept him out to sea, and on another occasion he slammed a Ferrari into a telephone pole, losing some teeth and breaking several bones.
More recently, there was the time his brain stem was bleeding back in 2010, a few days after he had to have an emergency appendectomy. Surgery repaired the hemorrhage, but then he suffered a minor stroke. After a few months of physical therapy and blood thinners, doctors made a horrifying discovery: “It turned out I had a hole in my heart,” says Michaels. “It’s a genetic birth defect, and that’s where the blood clots were getting through.”
Awaiting surgery to repair his heart, he realized his life could have been over in an instant at any time along the way. “With all of the crazy stuff that I’ve done, I thought maybe I should just be thankful I was able to make it through this far.”
A Songwriter’s Legacy
A career in music is ultimately about the songs. Michaels says it’s hard to pick favorites, but he points to a few that he’s proud are part of his musical legacy.
First up is the upbeat “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” from Poison’s second album Open Up and Say Ahh! “It’s the party anthem,” he says. “It’s everything I think of when I’ve opened up my KISS Alive II record, and everyone’s hands are in the air, and the confetti is falling.”
The next one he lists is the classic heartbreak power ballad “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” which hit number one in 1988. It has enough country flavor to it that he later recorded it as a duet with Nashville queen Loretta Lynn. “It brings out my absolute love of both rock and country music as well as songwriter music. By that, I mean people like James Taylor and Jim Croce.”
From his solo albums, he singles out “All I Ever Needed,” which spent 16 weeks on the country charts in 2004, as well as “Unbroken,” a powerful ode to perseverance. He co-wrote it with his younger daughter, Jorja, who also sang with him on it.
Another from his canon started out as very personal but took on a universal meaning, and it continues to inspire others. He wrote the lyrics to “Something to Believe In” after the sudden and shocking death of his friend and security guard, James “Kimo” Maan. At a dramatic point in his shows, Michaels opens his stage to some special guests—people who have worked to make a difference in other people’s lives. “I bring them onstage to show love and respect to our military, our veterans, first responders, our front line workers, our teachers,” he says.
And in private encounters with fans, such as backstage after a show, it’s the song they want to talk about most often, Michaels says. They can’t wait to tell him how it’s touched their hearts and their souls.
“That song was written in a place of pain and literally finding something to believe in to keep me positive. I had lost my best friend instantly. It was overnight. I wonder about him every day. I think he’s smiling ear to ear knowing how much that song means to people.”