By Michael Nova
Part I: Rikki’s Music Industry Careers
We spent a lot of time with the longtime drummer of the rock band Poison, Rikki Rockett. Rikki has not only a great rock ‘n roll story, but also has a great comeback story. He was diagnosed with oral cancer last year, went through nine rounds of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation to eliminate the disease, but then it came back. Finally, his doctors were able to destroy the tumor through experimental immunotherapy.
While in the band Poison, some of his bandmates became addicted to drugs, physically fought with each other, and were hit with lawsuits numerous times, yet they survived each time, ultimately selling 50 million records worldwide. The band’s motto was “work hard, play hard,” and it certainly fit. They were profiled in VH1’s “Behind the Music” series where their tumultuous story was told in detail.
In this in-depth candid interview, Rikki discusses all of that with us, including sharing an important health advisory for everyone, regarding HPV. It’s a revelation that anyone can get oral cancer from what many consider a relatively harmless virus.
At the end of the interview, we get into the”meat” of the discussion. Even for a vegan like Rikki, it’s “meaty,” as we talk about the meaning of “fall down seven times, rise up eight.” We think you’ll find that our talk applies more to your own life than you might think.
Here is our interview, in three parts…
So you are originally from Pennsylvania, and you and Bret Michaels formed the band under the name “Paris” and changed the name to Poison when you moved to LA in 1980. Can you talk about the challenge of moving to a new city for the first time, away from your family, with no money, zero following and starting from nothing? How were you able to overcome that challenge?
We knew we could do it. we always knew we had something special. We had a following in the Tri-State area. That’s just how we work. Intense work ethics! So, we know we could take the West Coast too, and we did!
When Poison was in the early days, we were young and we couldn’t play bars all the time because we were youn,g and most of the bands were a little bit older than us and playing a little bit different music than we were, so we found it hard to work.
So we started to rent skating rinks and halls and put on our own concerts, and that’s a huge risk. We were borrowing money and everything else. We were total do-it-yourself guys. It was never ever ever handed to us, and when I hear that, it infuriates me that we were, like, “generated” by a record company. We had done everything independently–everything–because we just liked that. It gave us a reason to wake up in the morning. When you have that, you can accomplish anything.
Now is it true that you first met Bret Michaels when you were cutting his sister’s hair?
Yes, I cut hair; I was a lifeguard; I worked in fast food and sales; I was an emergency medical technician…
There were other things that I went, “What if this doesn’t work out where I can play for a living? I’m always going to play, but then I’ll just do this too, and you know, one of those things was when I was an EMT.”
I learned how to do that and I thought helping people in emergency situations would be interesting, and I found that really satisfying in a lot of ways, but then cutting hair was great. That was a lot of fun because I could work inside; I could dress nicely. I always liked fashion, so I thought that was cool, and I would be around other people that like fashion that didn’t necessarily label you as gay if like fashion, so I liked being around more progressive-thinking people, especially in central Pennsylvania. That’s a good thing, because not a lot of people think in those ways. Like, if you’re not fixing cars, there is something wrong with you. I can fix a car, by the way! : )
So what was the turning point for you when your career really took a big step forward?
Nov. 12th, 1985. We sold out the Troubadour! We knew we had started something special. We knew it was more far reaching than PA, Jersey and Maryland. We knew it was more than just the Strip in Hollywood. It was a musical movement and a cultural movement. It should have happened, and it did!
OK, so now you are a successful band, and you’re touring all over the world, and then come the drug problems, and your bandmates have fistfights with each other, but still you and the band persist and continue to tour and release albums. How were you able to overcome all of those challenges with the drugs and the fights?
We fell many, many times. We dodged bullets and caught a lot of them. We fought, we loved, we entertained, and above all, we inspired!
So then in 2003, you released your first solo album, Glitter 4 Your Soul. Did you find it more difficult releasing and promoting your own album versus releasing a Poison album?
100%! Outside of Poison, it is a tough world. I also did a band called “The Devil City Angels” and released a record and toured with that. Great record and great bunch of guys, but it ain’t Poison.
How were you able to overcome that challenge of putting out your own album?
Just being the bullheaded guy that I am and thinking the impossible can happen!
It was a hassle to get the publishing squared away and all that sort of stuff. I’m not really clerical. I had somebody working for me at the time. She worked for my business manager for a long time, and she would help me out with some side projects, and she did a lot of the clerical work for me; the administration and that stuff, and that took a huge amount of the pressure off of me, because it’s just not something I’m good at, you know? Sitting on the phone for a good long time and on and on so, but she was great.
There was no support team that follows up. Everything is pieced out, and that’s the way that it’s going for most people these days, by the way. Even these management companies that do 360 deals, they still have an out-of-house publicist and publishing, and they just go and secure deals pretty much. Nobody’s in the same place, and that’s how it is, and and that’s how we did it with that record.
People like us were kind of ahead of the game, so I have a pretty good grasp of what it would take to do that again and how to compete in today’s market. Although records and sales and things like that have changed…how that operates.
I didn’t independently promote the record. Those songs were cover songs. There were no singles really on it. Maybe you could have picked something, but I never really went after it because they were all cover songs. It was a fun cover song record.
So then in 2006, you formed Rockett Drum Works. Can you tell us about the company and what made you decide to run with it?
I have been making American drums since then, because I felt there was a need for custom, US made drums by a guy who has been customizing everyone else’s brands for years! I have learned a thing or two about building drums over the years, and I wanted to bring that to market.
I have recently partnered with Pork Pie Percussion for a limited time, as I lost much of my business during my cancer battle. This new endeavor is super fun!!!
And your lifestyle brand, Fallen Angel Customs?
I started a motorcycle/travel/jiu-jitsu-inspired line called, “Fallen Angel Customs.” It’s clothes, tools, camping gear, and all kinds of great stuff! I love design and well-made products. It’s what I will always promote.
What’s the current status of the original Poison group? Will you be touring together anytime soon?
I have been told that we have some offers coming in soon. We shall see!
Part II- Beating Cancer:
So you were diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015. How did you find out about that? Did you have any symptoms?
I had a sore throat for about a month and a very pronounced lymph node on my neck.
How did you react upon hearing the news?
I was scoped by my ENT, thought I just had another infection and would leave with antibiotics. I left with an appointment for a biopsy on my tongue base! I was mortified!
So then what did you do to get treatment? Did you consider alternative therapies, or did you just go straight for the chemotherapy?
I went straight to Erbitux (a targeted therapy type of chemo) and radiation. Nine rounds of the chemo and seven weeks of radiation, five days a week. I knew people that did this and came out really well. My other alternative was surgery, and it was pretty invasive. An alternative approach can be good when you have time, but my tumors, by the time we got a conclusive diagnosis, had grown. If I did alternative and it didn’t work, I would have been terminal.
And then you were pronounced free of the disease? When did you find out that it came back?
I wasn’t pronounced free after my first treatment. One has to wait for three months until the radiation sweeping has gone down to have any idea if the treatment has worked. All indicators looked as if I had done well during treatment. However, when I did the PET scan in January, it showed a decrease in the primary, but it was still there and new lymph node involvement on both sides and tumors on the side of the tongue near the tip. My options were total removal or chemo. Chemo rarely works for more than a few months. Removal, of course, would render me a mute.
So then what made you visit Moore’s Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health?
My chemo doctor, Dr. Nieva at USC, told me about immunotherapy. He had a trial there, but it was a randomized, three-arm trial. I needed more assurance than that if I was to risk a new approach. I asked him to reach out to anyone who might have a more secure trial, and he reached out to Dr. Cohen at UCSD Moore’s.
And what was the treatment like? How long did that last?
It is an infusion every three weeks and two pills a day (morning and night). They are both checkpoint inhibitors that work on different pathways. The trial is a two-year trial, and I started the last week of March.
So then the cancer was completely eradicated?
The patient on this trial is scanned with a PET/CT/MRI every nine weeks. The doctors told me that the first scan most of the time shows what they call pseudo-progression. The tumors look bigger, but may not contain as much cancer. It’s not possible to determine at that point if it’s working or not, because tumors may grow or they may pseudo-grow. Scary shit! I was told that they pay attention to the second set of scans to determine if there is response. Well, the first scan showed 90% eradication of all tumors! The second scan showed a complete response (July, 13th). (No tumors, no lights on the PET scan, and no circulating cells). The third scan (last week, showed still complete remission and less swelling (Radiation swelling can last a very long time).
That’s great, congratulations on that, and then what made you turn to veganism?
Well most of the time I’m vegan, but I’m not perfect. I was on a vegan liquid diet during my cancer. But the real reason is I don’t contribute to the slaughter of animals and that whole industry and everything that goes along with it and the mental effects that it has and all that stuff. My conscience is clear in that way. I mean, do we leave a foot print as human beings? Of course we do, no matter what we do, but it is greatly minimized when you don’t eat animal products, and I just feel better about that. I feel better health-wise, and you could argue and say, “well, why did you get cancer, then”? But my cancer was from a virus–HPV. Not because I was not living a healthy lifestyle in terms of food and exercise, and that’s actually what I think saved me. Because I was strong enough to fight. I’m an animal advocate. I can’t eat them and try to save them at the same time. That doesn’t make sense.
That’s food for thought, Rikki! I’ve been to several animal sanctuaries myself, so I completely understand where you’re coming from.
But let’s back up a moment. You got oral cancer from HPV? I think it’s commonly thought that HPV only affects women negatively, but is benign in men, even if they have it. I remember having some difficulty raising awareness of this issue to men in my community because they thought it didn’t affect them. I think this is pretty big news that it can cause cancer in men as well, because I’ll bet 95% of all men think this will never touch them, and so they spread the virus not even realizing that it can come back to haunt them.
Yes, HPV is a virus that is usually, but not always, sexually transmitted. You can test it in women, but you can’t test it in men. So if a man has the HPV virus, he will not know it. There are many strains of HPV, and about 10% of them can cause cancer. None of those produce a wart which you will usually see in HPV viruses, but the kind that causes cancer can’t be seen.
You can have this virus for 15 years before it shows any damage. It can create a mutation and leave your body and that’s the end of it, but then sometimes not. There is a vaccine for young women and I think young men as well. If we can stop HPV, we can stop more than half of oral cancer.
It used to be that it was just the people that smoked and chewed tobacco that were getting oral cancer, or people that would drink heavily, and there are some of those cases still. But the vast majority these days are from HPV. They can be very healthy people otherwise, so that shocked a lot of doctors in the beginning, but they finally figured out that it was coming from HPV.
You can also get penile cancer from this, which is on the rise ( no pun intended). But it’s a serious thing, really it is right now, but at this point in time there’s really nothing you can do. There is no routine screening for this. And it’s really easy to get. They used to think that it was transmitted only by sex, but now they are finding out that it can be transmitted mouth-to-mouth just from kissing.
The HPV vaccine is important; I’m going to have my kid vaccinated, I promise you that. Everyone is at risk for HPV cancer, and that’s a very scary thing to have in your head.
Most of the time your body can get rid of it. It’s still relatively rare for someone to get this and get cancer from it. I was just one of the unlucky ones. But no one is safe. It can be up to 20 years ago that you got HPV and got a mutation.
I’ve had three DNA circulating cell tests to determine if I have any mutations, and I don’t have any mutations of any kind, which is a great relief. I can’t tell you how happy I am to know that. It did show the mutations that I had because I had cancer, and when it went away, the mutations went away and stayed away.
But this test costs about $5000 each time, and the only way I was able to get it was because I was on a clinical trial, but hopefully they will be able to get the price down to where most people can afford it on a routine physical exam once a year.
So what are you up to now?
I am gradually returning to my life. More quality time with my kids, more focus on drums, drum building. More focus on Jiu-Jitsu, looking for a new home, settling in with my new girlfriend and helping others with cancer.
Part III: Fall Down Seven Times, Rise Up Eight
Yes I know you’re really into jiu-jitsu. How did you get started with that, and why is it important to you?
It’s a lifestyle. I lived the quintessential rock ’n’ roll lifestyle for years. However, I didn’t really care much for drugs. Back in the day, it was late nights and women, mostly. I smoked cigarettes (was not the cause of the cancer, by the way), and I never really was addicted to any drugs or alcohol. I just never cared about that stuff. Saw too much to want to be a part of it. I really have always loved martial arts. I love the competition. The challenge. Trying to stay healthy for the fight. My job is rock ’n’ roll. My soul is rock ’n’ roll. My lifestyle is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
So to sum it all up, as you know, our website is based around the phrase, “fall down seven times, rise up eight.” When you look back on those times that you had “fallen down” and RISEN UP after each setback, how were you able to do so? Is there something that you would tell yourself or some kind of plan or ritual that you follow to get yourself to keep going, regardless of what happens?
I have always thought that I am stupid enough to think I can do anything and smart enough to actually figure it out once in a while. Whatever it is!
Sometimes just falling down once, people don’t want to get back up. I have young children, and I could pamper them and when they fall down not tell them to get back up, but I do, no matter what it is, and I hope that that translates throughout the rest of their lives, because it did for me, and I have my parents to thank for giving me the intestinal fortitude to march forward with the things that I’ve been through.
I am a stubborn SOB. Just trying to make it in music the odds were stacked against me. Being a teenage kid from Central Pennsylvania, what are the odds of me getting to where I am at? Slim to none, you know what I mean? But I’m here, but you have to set yourself up so that when your ship comes in, you’re in the water swimming with your life preserver on, ready to get on that boat, and if you’re not, it might just pass you by.
How about in music?
Well, I’ve seen a lot of people at 21 years of age who want to make it in music, have car payments and house payments and married and children and all sorts of things at that age, yet they think that they’re going to get a gig playing music that’s going to pay them enough to be able to sustain all of that, but you can’t. You’re going to have to give certain things up.
I didn’t have the family or any of that stuff for a long time until I was firmly established. A lot of people might argue with me about it but fine, argue with me about it, that’s my personal belief, to lighten your load until you get to where you need to be. Keep yourself mobile as much as possible, keep it minimal. Keep your life simple and live for the music.
If you have a little apartment and everything fits into a couple of suitcases, you’re good to go. But if everything is a couple of moving vans and a wife and a kid and a mortgage, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re going to be a deadbeat dad trying to make that happen.
If I started a band at this level, I don’t know if I could take four other guys, with the kind of wage they would need and just stick with just me, and be able to support them money wise.
And when you are asked by young people for advice about how to break into the industry, what advice do you give them?
Geez! It has changed so much. Back in the day in the biz you had to be a triple threat. Sing, dance, and act. Now you have to be multimedia. So, be multimedia!!!
So what is your belief about this thing called “the human condition”?
I’ve been investigating this thing called “the work,” and when I review it, what the philosophy is there, I realize but some of it I’ve incorporated without realizing it, but I was never able to put it into words. And now I’m having to take my own advice with certain things I’ve been through, because when you go through cancer, the cornerstone of any disease like this is fear, so I had that constant fear of it coming back. And a couple of things you go to through, and is that true? Is that absolutely positively true, the thing that you tell yourself? And if it isn’t true, then you go to the next step. Now what do I do with that information? I know that it’s not necessarily true, so what is true about it? Let me look at it and then find the other part about it, and then turn it around and fix it.
So in other words, I look at that and I think that’s not true that it’s going to come back. So what do I do with that? Then I have an interview with a guy like you, and I tell everybody not to worry about things like that, that there’s always this upside to it, maybe that’s the other reason for it, that’s the other way to look at it. I get to stand here today or another day and talk to more people about this thing that I’ve been through and help them through it. It’s just awesome stuff, this is what it’s about, right?
And these are the kind of things that I go through in my life and not realize it, someone would say to me, “Well, you can’t make it in music because of blah blah blah, so yeah? Well, what about this? What if I know we only got offered a Tuesday night at a bar that only has 10 freaking people, but how can I make that work for me? I’m going to make Tuesday night the night to be there. Not say, “I’m only going to do a Friday and not doing this Tuesday.”
I’m getting paid 200 bucks, and I’m going to take 100 bucks out and buy drinks for everybody, so they show up and they have free drinks and I make 100 bucks, and the next time there will be 300 people and I will still make 200 bucks, because I’m only spending 100 bucks of the 300 now.
This is how I think; this is how Bret thought. This is how Bobby Dahl thought; this is how we were able to figure things out. We always have this philosophy where if we all worked at a restaurant, within a couple of years, we’d own the damn thing. Just figuring out how to get around things, and believe me I’ve been challenged many many times, even right now is a matter of fact with my divorce and moving, and I had some scares health-wise, making sure I was cancer free, and what if the cancer came back during my divorce, but I did have cancer during my divorce, and I got through it anyway. Now I can get through the divorce part because I don’t have cancer, you know?
But I still have all these challenges. Moving is stressful; health issues are stressful; divorce is stressful. I’ve got it all flying at me. But by this time next year, I will have done a tour, I think.
I like that, Rikki! You know, as I interview all these people like yourself, we are beginning to understand how things work and why we fall. Each of us has a puzzle piece that is beginning to fit together. What’s your puzzle piece? What’s your belief about this?
Well, we can make mountains out of molehills about what’s wrong with something. If we make a mountain out of a molehill about what might work, pretty soon that starts to become the focus, and that starts to become bigger than anything.
I’ve always said that I’m smart enough to figure it out but dumb enough to not think about it too hard.
No matter what it is in life that you trying to do, trying to accomplish, or trying to get through, everybody’s path is a little bit different, and so you have to think for yourself and think on your feet, and you watch things like The Walking Dead ,where they have these constant issues between people, between the zombies, between trying to survive, all of those things are kind of like real life.
There are people that want to help you; there are people that want to hurt you or take what you have, and then there’s just the out-and-out evil in the world, so how can I be a warrior and get through these things? It kind of empowers you a little bit if you think of yourself that way.
So I think this is good for the Rise Up Eight headspace, because it is a headspace when you think about it. I mean let’s face it, all of these things are where you put your head. There are very few things that are not a gray area, very few things are black and white. We live in the gray area most of the time. Could it be, maybe it could be, maybe it should be, maybe it shouldn’t be, so I said, “Just go after it.”
I had a therapist one time tell me something. He said, “Go out into the world today and don’t make light of anything, but don’t make it into anything more than what it is, either.” In other words, do your best to see things for how they are, look at them, and then if it’s an object that’s in your way, move around the object. Go around it to the right, go around it to the left, go over the top of it, whatever it is. Figure your way around it and move on to what you really need to do and how you need to be, and I try to remember those words.
Don’t make too much of stuff and don’t make too light of stuff. Look at it for what it is. And I need to remind myself of that, because I’m generally a very dramatic person. I have anxiety, and I’m a very dramatic person. I have a high fight-or-flight thing that I’ve had to work on over the years. Somebody calls me a name, and 15 years ago, they are getting hit. If you’re calling me a name, I’m hitting you. That’s how it was. I guess I was raised that way. But I’ve had to work on that.
I have kids now, I can’t be that person anymore. I have to go, you know what? Let me look at how you are saying that, and why you are saying that, and do I really care if you are saying that? Do I want to hurt my hand hitting you over something that I know isn’t true anyway? It’s hard to get to those places in life, you know. I mean, I’ve been in a rock band most of my adult life. I was able to get away with a lot of things that most people shouldn’t be allowed to get away with, and all of a sudden at some point, it all starts to pour in, and you start to say, “Guess what? I can’t get away with those things anymore.” Why? Because I have kids, I need to grow up fast. I’m not the kid anymore.
As we go further and further along with health science, we have to realize that part of that is emotional brain science to the needs to go right along with it. There are a lots of things that we are learning about the human mind and the human condition and all that kind of stuff.
It’s about having a balance. What if we can find every cancer mutation and stifle it before it happens? We just wiped out the largest disease-producing killers that one out of seven people get in their lifetime, so now what? Now we’ve got this legion of people that may or may not be supposed to be around–who knows?
So there are other challenges, and we have to think about those as well. That there are always going to be challenges is what it comes down to. That’s the bottom line.
Rikki, Thanks for spending time with us and sharing your story. And how can people follow you?
Rikki was very forthcoming with us during this interview, and it’s interesting to see how his attitudes have changed now that he has gone through so much, matured and become a father. But we can all learn from this interview is that everyone can have serious life challenges, even rock stars, but by sharing their stories, it helps us realize that we are all in this together, to learn from each other, and we’d like to thank Rikki for sharing.
What are your thoughts? Please discuss below…