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The record sleeve shows a pensive man with dark stubble, muscular tattooed biceps, a guitar and a cigarette. Confusingly, this otherwise macho rocker also has lustrous blonde hair falling below his shoulders, gold jewellery and voluptuous lips reddened with lipstick. To quote Aerosmith, dude looks like a lady.
He is Poison’s singer Bret Michaels, brooding over the break-up that inspired the Los Angeles band’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”. Taken from their 1988 album Open Up and Say . . . Ahh!, the power ballad was Poison’s biggest hit. Number one in the US for three weeks, it marked the high-water point of LA’s glam metal scene. Dudes who looked like ladies would never rock out with such gusto again.
Glam metal, mocked as “hair metal”, was a pumped-up Reagan-era mutation of 1970s glam rock and punk, headquartered in the fleshpots of West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Embraced by MTV and fuelled by the decade of excess, it was hugely popular. Poison came late to the scene, since they released their debut album in 1986, but rapidly rose to become one of its biggest names.
“Every Rose Has Its Thorn” was written while they were touring their first album, Look What the Cat Dragged In. Late one night after a Dallas show, a homesick Michaels rang his girlfriend, an exotic dancer in LA. The rocker was horrified to hear a male voice answer the phone. “Now, a female voice, that I could’ve lived with, you know what I’m saying?” he recalled. “Hell, I may have even welcomed it! But another guy . . . It broke my heart.” All the pain was poured into “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”. The song opens with a plaintive sigh and strummed acoustic chords. “We both lie silently still in the dead of the night,” Michaels sings ponderously. But when guitarist CC DeVille makes a swaggering entrance with a brooding solo, the mood shifts. The drums kick in, the music swells up and Michaels’ voice acquires a certain lip-smacking relish for the infidelity he is supposedly lamenting.
Lyrical contraries recur. Roses have thorns, nights have dawns, a couple lie close but “feel miles apart inside”. To have these juxtapositions sung by a man in lipstick and make-up adds a weird gravity to Michaels’ doggerel.
Somewhere in the depths of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” lie Shakespeare’s sonnets. Number 35, to be precise — the one in which the poet forgives the “master-mistress of my passion” for a “trespass” against his love. “No more be grieved at that which thou hast done”, he tells the androgynous youth. “Roses have thorns . . . ”
“Every Rose Has Its Thorn” was LA glam metal’s most abiding memento, its “Stairway to Heaven” — an association suggested by the 1991 film Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in which the bodacious duo Bill and Ted are confronted by St Peter at the gates of heaven asking, “What is the meaning of life?” They respond by reciting lines from “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”.
That was the start of the song’s fruitful afterlife. It is a film and television soundtrack staple, from Glee to The Simpsons, has been belted out by contestants on American Idol and no doubt is being slaughtered right now by a karaoke caterwauler. Miley Cyrus reinterpreted it as a big pop number in 2009.
The shameless Michaels — who went on to star in a reality television show, Rock of Love, in which women competed to be his girlfriend — remakes it at regular intervals, including a kids’ version sung by his young daughters and a seniors’ version with country veteran Loretta Lynn.
The shape-shifting is apt. Poison’s mighty power ballad marks the last popular flourish of transvestism in rock, a tradition stretching back from the New York Dolls to David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Since LA glam metal was consigned to history by grunge, its scruffy Pacific Coast nemesis, male rockers have adopted a duller mode of dress. The days of stubble and lip gloss are over. “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” is a break-up song in more ways than one.
For podcasts with clips from the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song