By: Kirsten Rosenberg, Managing Editor
Oct. 15, 1999
How could Rikki Rockett, drummer for Poison a multi-platinum pop metal band that's sold more than 21 million records, scored 15 Top Ten singles, and played to sold-out arenas around the world be an "unsung hero"? Because although millions have seen and heard him play live or on MTV, most people don't know that this rocker is a committed and very active animal rights advocate.
I caught up with Rikki in July as Poison's summer tour visited Virginia. Sitting in his dressing room, discussing such topics as the Animal Liberation Front, "pet" theft, and his vegan lifestyle (down to his nonleather shoes), I could have been talking to any seasoned activist except for the steady flow of band members, roadies, and a few groupies passing through. Whether he's arranging for animal groups to set up information tables at Poison's concerts, marching at protests, speaking at events, or designing groups' web sites (such as Last Chance for Animals' www.AnimalCruelty.com), Rikki's commitment to the cause comes through as loudly as the pounding of his bass drum.
How long have you been involved in animal rights?
When I was in eighth grade there was a movie called Willard, about a rat, and I fell in love with rats. I wanted one and there were no pet stores where you could buy rats, so one guy suggested that I call Hershey Medical Center 'cause they use rats and maybe I could get one of those. So I called and they said, "What kind of rat?", and I said, "I don't know, a white one would do just fine." And they said, "Okay, what experiment is it for?" I said, "I don't wanna experiment on it, I just want it for a pet!" And they said, "Well, we can't do that. You have to have a note from your teacher that explains what the experiment's gonna be or we can't sell you the rat."
So, it was weird how things come full circle. About two weeks later, I go out to the mailbox, and there's this thing from the [American Anti-Vivisection Society]. Lo and behold, I'm looking through all these different experiments and I see a rat there, spread wide open, and it said some of the experiments [were] done at Hershey med center. So boom! I put two and two together, and I decided to do a report in school about it. I took advanced bio and you had to dissect cats, and I started [asking] questions, "Where'd the cat come from?", and that really ruffled some feathers. "I'm not gonna do this, you know." So basically I got thrown out of advanced bio. From that point on I became an antivivisectionist.
But I never put two and two together with anything else. I never put vegetarianism or any of that stuff together. I'm from Pennsylvania, "meat and potatoes" part of the country. That's how I grew up, that's how it was. I didn't think about leather, I didn't think about any of that kind of stuff. And then when we moved out to California in 1984, I met a girl [who] wanted me to do a benefit [show] for the animal stuff this was probably '87 or something like that, after we'd had our first record come out. And we started talking about all this stuff and she goes, "Is there a good vegetarian restaurant around here we could go to?" And I looked at her, "I don't know! I'm just a vivisection guy." "Oh really! Well how could you..." we got into it. I told her she was crazy for all this other stuff. I hit her with every question in the book, and she never, ever once got mad at me. And the next day, everything hit me. So I was this insensitive asshole about everything except the vivisection issue, which I think makes me a better activist because there isn't an argument you can throw at me that I haven't thrown somewhere along the line.
At what point did you actually become "active"?
Well, I would write [Gillette] letters all the time, you know. I'd say stuff like, "We're gonna be touring this year and I'm gonna be sticking it to you guys [in the press]!" So I would write this mean stuff like I was this violent person, which wasn't really the right way to say it. And my girlfriend kept saying, "Well, you should meet Chris from [Last Chance for Animals]." Chris didn't want to meet me because he hates celebrities I shouldn't say that, he's suspicious of celebrities. And I'm suspicious of people who run animal rights groups, you know what I mean! [laughs] I said, "No, I don't wanna meet the guy." I'm envisioning this wacky person. And then I was at the Pegasus horse foundation dinner, and I walk outside to smoke a cigarette and Chris was standing outside, and we're just talking about stuff. At the end of the conversation he goes, "I'm Chris DeRose." And I said, "You're Chris DeRose?" And he goes, "You're Rikki Rockett? They're right about you, you're okay." I was, like, "Yeah, you're all right, too." So he said, why don't you come down to the office some day, and so I did.
Okay, now for a dumb question: I know the drummer plays the "skins," but drumheads aren't really made of skins, right?
No, they're [synthetic]. There haven't been calfskins used for years. There is a company that makes calfskins for vintage drums. On some of the vintage drums the newer heads don't fit, so they make calfskin for the people that wanna collect or whatever.
Is it difficult being vegan when you're on tour?
I've had a couple problems getting food at certain gigs. Usually if I yell enough I get something, but I horde stuff on good days. I get the Phony Baloney and all that stuff. [Things] are changing. When I went vegetarian it was really hard on the road, and that was just eight years ago. And I see people doing it 20, 25 years, traveling, and it's like, wow! Like the guy in Lynyrd Skynyrd, he was vegetarian way back; on the cover of the Nuthin' Fancy album, there's a shirt that says "vegetarian." There's quite a few people that you don't know [are vegetarian]. Joan Jett, I just discovered. I went to see Joan [perform] in North Dakota and afterwards we hung out and had veggie burgers together. She's not vegan but she's vegetarian. I was tickled to death when I found that out.
Do you feel your beliefs are respected by the band and the crew?
I've taken issue with very few people on this tour. Part of the reason is I don't want to get fired [laughs], but as far as the band, they've been great. There was even one day where some of the road crew had, I think, some Burger King and Bret [Michaels (lead singer)] said and I'm sitting there "Can you please move that stuff out of respect for Rikki," which I thought was really cool. Bobby [Dall (bassist)] has been great about it. C.C. [DeVille, guitarist] is learning more and more all the time. But I'm the only one right now.
When is Poison going to do an animal rights song?
As a general rule, we haven't been a political band. There's some messages in there from time to time, like in "Something to Believe In" and stuff like that, but if you can't get into feeling the same way, you're not going to write a song together. And that's just one issue I haven't been able to get everyone to feel the same way.
How was it personally between you and Ted Nugent when you toured with Damn Yankees?
We went at it a few times. We didn't fight, but what he does is give his long string of soundbites and walk away, and I went, okay, I can play that game, too. He'd go, "If you really want to sit down and talk, I'll change your mind." I said, "If you wanna sit down and talk, I'll change your mind." Well, neither of us are gonna change our minds so what's the point of us sitting down?! [laughs]
Then one day when we were off tour he was in L.A for some reason. I went into Jerry's Deli and he goes, "Hey, Rikki," and I look over and it's him and his family, and he's eating some roast beef or something. And he goes, "I told you if you ever want to talk about some stuff..." I said, "Ted, I've been there, I know, I was in the hunter safety course, I went out and shot guns. I'm from Pennsylvania. We have three days allowed off from school to go hunting! I didn't grow up in the city, I grew up in the country. I've been there and I've made my decision." I don't hate Ted. I hate his politics. As a person, he's actually been relatively respectful towards me, to tell you the truth. Even after the tour was over and he didn't have to watch himself, because they were in an opening slot I just need to shove that in [laughs] he was still cool.
Is your family supportive?
Yes. I learned a lot of compassion from my mother. My parents are not vegetarian; it drives me crazy because I know they'd be healthier. But, yeah, they're very supportive. I've shown them videos, I've shown them all kinds of stuff.
How do you think the movement could be more effective in reaching people?
I'd love to have more men in the movement. There's a lot of women in the movement I love that they're in the movement, don't get me wrong but I'd like to have more men in the movement because they're more convincing to other men. It's very difficult to get a woman to convince a man a lot of times if the guy has this macho problem. So get a guy with a macho problem that supports this to talk to another guy with a macho problem.
When [groups] were doing the tabling [during a Poison tour], just as a goof, I went out with a hat on and the people who were tabling had no idea who I was. I went up to the person standing in the front and I go, "I want to talk to you about bowhunting," to just piss 'em off. This guy walked over to me and goes, "If you're gonna talk to anybody you talk to me. I was a prisoner of war and I know what the fuck it feels like to be in a cage, so if you got something to say, you say it to me!" I was like, "Let me order one million of you guys!" [laughs] I don't have a bitter view of people. I think on a very basic level people wanna do the right thing. And if we continue to focus on that part of them that wants to do the right thing, we can win maybe at the next generation or the one after that.