"We came out on stage and beat the living crap out of each other": The day Poison's career imploded at the MTV Awards

Bret Michaels and CC DeVille at the 1991 MTV Music Awards in Los Angeles
Bret Michaels and CC DeVille at the 1991 MTV Music Awards in Los Angeles (Image credit: Getty ImagBrett Michaels: Ron Galella | CC DeVille: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagices)

It's 1991. MTV are at their peak, and the annual Video Music Awards show is the hottest ticket in Los Angeles. Joining host Arsenio Hall at the Universal Amphitheatre in Hollywood are a stellar cast of live performers, including Van Halen, Metallica and Guns N' Roses.

And then there's Poison. The previous year's Flesh & Blood album had shifted more than seven million copies and spawned two Top 10 hits in the US, so they were on a high. They were also fighting, as success and substance abuse took their inevitable toll. Indeed, frontman Bret Michaels and guitarist C.C. DevIlle had already come to blows at a sports bar in New Orleans belonging to NFL legend Archie Manning.

"Me and him were having a few words, having a good time," Michaels told Fox Sport Radio. "Next thing you know, maybe a couple drinks, a little substance here, next thing you know a few words, and we are beating the living crap out of each other. And then it continued. They broke us apart.

"We went back to the hotel, right, and all of a sudden the elevator door opens and we just happened to be going down to our buses, they were trying to separate us, and it started again. Old C.C. came at me and we went at it again. And it was like an old Army/Navy bam, boom, boom, we got some punches in. It was good…"

So the scene was set for an evening where the band's victory lap could only be marred by internal volatility, and that's exactly what happened. During a short promotional segment with MTV's Julie Brown prior to the band's performance, DeVille already looks enlivened, extolling viewers to vote ("If you’re lazy and you’re sitting down, you better do it now!") and pointing wildly at the camera as he struggles to read his cues.   

While it's not entirely clear what precisely went wrong – and the full footage isn't currently on YouTube – the performance was a mess. The band take to the stage during a commercial break, and DeVille starts playing the riff to the previous year's hit Unskinny Bop before the show returns to air. The band join in, and the song is well underway by the time the broadcast resumes. Realising what's happened, they stop, causing a few seconds of dead air and prompting Arsenio Hall to swiftly improvise an introduction.

It would get worse. Determined to re-ignite the puzzled audience, Michaels asks if they're "ready to talk dirty to me", triggering DeVille to start playing the band's 1987 hit Talk Dirty To Me rather than returning to the scheduled Unskinny Bop. The rest of the band follow suit, but it's a sloppy, chaotic mess. Or, as Michaels says at the song's climax, "It ain’t perfect, but it’s rock'n'roll.”

Backstage, the two men get into another fistfight, which leads to DeVille's departure from the band. He is eventually replaced by Ritchie Kotzen.  

"I broke his nose" Michaels told Fox Sports, recalling the earlier sports bar incident and bringing the story up to date. "He chipped one of my teeth. We went and played the next day in Georgia and it was great. Then we did it at the MTV Awards. We came out on stage and beat the living crap out of each other."

Five years later, DeVille would be back in the band, where he's remained ever since. And it was the singer who brought his old sparring partner back into the fold.  

"He had been abandoned by a lot of his friends, and I knew he was in trouble," Michaels told People magazine. "He had this amazingly beautiful house up in the Hollywood Hills, and I went up there, kicked in his front door and helped him get healthy. I just said, 'This is going to be tough love, brother, but whether we're in a band again together or not, I'm your friend.'"

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.