One of the most popular and reductive theories in rock history is that grunge singlehandedly destroyed glam metal overnight after the release of Nirvana‘s Nevermind. While Nirvana’s seminal major-label debut did mark a zeitgeist shift when it came out on Sept. 24, 1991, the death blow to glam metal could have just as well come from one of its own — namely, Poison, who delivered a disastrous performance at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards less than three weeks before the release of Nevermind, on Sept. 5, 1991.
Despite the impending grunge revolution, Poison were still hard-rock kingpins in 1991, having earned a triple platinum certification from the RIAA for 1990’s Flesh & Blood, which spawned the Top 10 singles “Unskinny Bop” and “Something to Believe In.” But tensions between frontman Bret Michaels and guitarist C.C. DeVille had been steadily mounting for months, compounded by a grueling touring schedule and DeVille’s escalating drug use. The two came to blows at a New Orleans sports bar one night on tour, foreshadowing the backstage brawl that would unfold at the VMAs.
Even before they hit the stage, Poison — particularly DeVille – looked rough. One clip from the ceremony shows a pink-haired DeVille dancing haphazardly in the crowd and slurring his words as he shouts to the at-home audience. Rumors of DeVille’s intoxication abounded but were not confirmed, though it doesn’t take a health expert or guitar wizard to figure out the six-stringer was off his game that night.
What went down before Poison hit the stage remains subject to debate. One version of the story says DeVille didn’t want to play their recent single “Unskinny Bop” and instead wanted to play their breakthrough hit “Talk Dirty to Me.” Another version says the guitarist was confused by something Michaels said on stage, prompting DeVille to begin playing the wrong song.
Whatever the truth is, the result was the same: a trainwreck of a performance that still elicits equal parts amusement, shame, anger and secondhand embarrassment.
Watch Poison’s Disastrous 1991 VMAs Performance
DeVille was clearly on another planet from the start, careening across the stage and bashing sloppy riffs from his out-of-tune guitar. The band made it to the chorus of “Unskinny Bop” before DeVille abruptly stopped playing, bringing the performance to an awkward halt. Host Arsenio Hall valiantly tried to salvage the debacle by reintroducing Poison, but they had already passed the point of no return.
The band rebooted with the a cappella intro to Flesh & Blood‘s “Let it Play,” then vamped as Michaels asked the audience if they were ready to talk dirty to him. What followed was one of the most laughably unhinged performances in the annals of rock guitar. DeVille fumbled the elementary riffs to “Talk Dirty to Me,” crammed atonal fills into nearly every measure and even unplugged his guitar during the second chorus. It’s a marvel he squawked out anything resembling a solo, while Michaels and bassist Bobby Dall hitched across the stage in unison to distract viewers.
“It ain’t perfect, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll,” Michaels told viewers as Poison finished the song.
He and DeVille proceeded to clobber each other backstage, and the guitarist was fired shortly thereafter. Poison replaced DeVille with 21-year-old hotshot Richie Kotzen, and the new quartet released Native Tongue in 1993 to little fanfare.
DeVille reunited with his ex-bandmates in 1996, and the classic Poison lineup has toured dutifully since then. But they didn’t immediately unlearn their tendency to settle disputes with their fists. Michaels and Dall nearly came to blows onstage in Atlanta in 2006, and Michaels hinted that fans had just seen the last Poison show ever.
They eventually made up, but Michaels’ words from that night still ring true: “We are like brothers, and sometimes brothers want to knock the fuck out of each other.”
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There’s nothing guilty about these pleasures.