Fanfare for the Common Band
In 1986, I was in a band that played "Runaway." Not the late Del Shannon's early-Sixties teen-angst classic, with that crazy Musitron electric organ solo. No, this was the Bon Jovi song, their first hit, from the self-titled 1984 debut album. "Runaway" was a useful song for a band in the mid-Eighties to play, especially if the group included a keyboard player but didn't want to play flimsy synth-rock covers; it had a prominent keyboard part, yet it was unmistakably a loud rock and roll song. And even though at this point Bon Jovi had yet to release its breakthrough Slippery When Wet album and ascend to the top of the pop-metal food chain, the song was, by 1986, something of an East Coast cover-band standard.
The reasons for this were numerous. For one thing, it was an easy song to play. The verse and the chorus were pretty much the same, there was only one simple little riff to remember, and if played correctly the thing always tended to sound like okay -- if generic -- Big Rock, a crowd-pleasing fusion of indeterminate ingredients. For another, if you had a good singer he could seriously go to town on "Runaway." There's this part at the end where you climb an octave -- just barely -- and belt out the last chorus in a careening, unintelligible falsetto guaranteed to charm just the sort of anguished suburban teenage girls the song is about. If, of course, the singer can pull it off.
The former Jon Bongiovi could pull it off -- just barely -- and the girls went wild, and by the end of that year he and his sort-of-eponymous band were enormous, gamboling over MTV every few minutes with all the requisite spandex and studs and moussed-up 'dos of mid-Eighties metal infamy. "You Give Love a Bad Name" went to number one, and we dropped "Runaway" from the set list for good. Bon Jovi was on their way to being one of the biggest acts of the late Eighties, but they looked ridiculous.
"Kids come up to us now with posters and stuff from the Eighties, and we go, like, 'What were we thinking back then?'" says Richie Sambora, Bon Jovi's guitarist and co-songwriter. It's a gratifying admission, but Sambora makes no excuses for the band's eyeliner years.
"It's like you're basically growing up in public," he points out. "We were a bunch of kids -- we didn't know what the fuck we were doing. But, you know, it worked. In a major-league way."
On that there is little argument. Especially since the band has somehow clawed its way out of the hair-band purgatory that just about all of its contemporaries have been consigned to in this decade. Bon Jovi is, unbelievably, enormous again. A new album, These Days, is selling at a good clip and drawing eerily respectful reviews. More impressively, Bon Jovi has maintained its roadworthiness. Poison and Warrant and other power balladeers of the era may be working 500-seat clubs in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but Bon Jovi is packin' 'em in, vintage stadium style. They shared stages with the Rolling Stones in Europe and helped headline the recent big Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shindig in Cleveland. A 42-country world tour that began in Bombay and charged through 50 sold-out soccer venues from Jakarta to Paris has arrived stateside and is coming soon to an enormodome near you (well, at least the Miami Arena). At the moment, the Bon Jovi express has paused in St. Louis, from where Sambora reports and pronounces success better the second time around.
"It's great," he says. "The last time we had this kind of success was the late Eighties. The first time, the fame and everything came so quickly, it was quite blinding. We didn't really see much of it. This time we're a little more grounded as people."
A few years ago it looked as if Bon Jovi might not be long for this world. Jon scored a solo hit in 1990 with Blaze of Glory, the film soundtrack to the brat-pack Western sequel Young Guns II, and Sambora recorded his own solo album debut. The band reconvened for 1992's Keep the Faith, but the album quickly sank. Sambora calls it "an evolutionary record."
Meanwhile bassist Alec John Such quit -- "He was the guy who wasn't keeping up with the trip," Sambora notes. Then the call came for the inevitable greatest-hits package, usually a sure sign of impending palookahood. Instead, Bon Jovi landed another hit -- the power ballad "Always" -- and made another album.
An older, wiser Bon Jovi might not be just what the world is looking for today, but that's what These Days gives us. They scowl uncertainly from promo photos now, unshaven and suspicious-looking. And where once they sang fist-waving metal minidramas of rebel youth, their new songs are anthems of ambivalence and vague hopelessness, in keeping with the tenor of the times. The opening "Hey God" has a "little man [who's] two paychecks away from livin' on the street" take on divine indifference, while "Something to Believe in," for all its Springsteenian thunder, offers some uncharacteristic nihilism: "Though I know that I won't win/I'll take this one on the chin/We'll raise a toast and I'll pretend/I got something to believe in."
Even the celebrated Bon Jovi power ballad is looking a little more down and out than usual, as the lush but bleak "This Ain't a Love Song" proves. Why so glum? "In the Eighties, when we were writing songs like 'Livin' on a Prayer,' Reaganomics had us all bullshitted that everything was okay," Sambora explains. "So we were goin', like, 'Yeah, let's party!' Our songs back then were about being on the road, or girls, because that's all we knew. . . . We used to put it right in your face."
Now, Sambora notes, Bon Jovi is into "lyrical realism." "Hey God" came about from a limo encounter with a homeless guy, for instance. "But there's still that underlying optimism that Jon and I both share," Sambora says. "I don't think we could be totally angst-ridden, because of our positions in the world. We're pretty fortunate guys."
Ah, yes. Sambora, of course, is presently famed in nonrock circles as the Guy Who Married Heather Locklear. (For added proof of Bon Jovi's renewed rock legitimacy, note the well-documented Locklear Effect: the dissolution of the blond Melrose Place star's previous marriage to Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee neatly coincides with that band's tumble into the hair-band netherworld; her subsequent betrothal to Sambora lifts his band up from beyond.) He also followed in the disparate footsteps of Gregg Allman and Gene Simmons (not to mention Sonny) as one of Cher's rock and roll boyfriends. Through it all, though, Sambora remains resolutely regular guy-like. As is the case with all of Bon Jovi's members, he still lives in the band's native New Jersey (or at least maintains a house there -- "These days I'm on the West Coast a little more because, you know, my wife, her job is out there," he says) and retains a formidable Jersey accent. The Samboras, he insists, are just like everyone else, when you get down to it.
"We're just a couple," he shrugs. "She happens to be on a famous TV show and I'm in a rock and roll band."
There's that famous Bon Jovi populism again. Somehow, despite the usual perks of fame and fortune (drummer Tico Torres, for his part, is engaged to supermodel Eva Herzigova), Bon Jovi still retains just enough back-street swagger and blue-collar normality to rankle dubious critics and cheer their legions of just-folks fans. "We're just an old-school rock and roll band," Sambora contends.
Part of the band's knack for survival has been in its ability to package the working-class heroics of fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen in a shiny pop-metal wrapper, an approach at once bombastic and irresistible. These Days offers more of the same, but widens the palette to include a dead-on Mellencamp knockoff (the title track), a Stonesy bump-and-grind rocker ("Something for the Pain"), and plenty of the kind of bluesy Aerosmithian power ballads that are the modern meat and potatoes of maturing metal bands. "It's kinda retarded," admits Sambora, "but that's the only thing that gets on the radio these days."
Give the Bon Jovi crew due credit, though: For a good twelve years now, the band has always figured out a way to muscle its way on to the radio. Just about every one of These Days's dozen tunes possesses the ability to replay ad infinitum in the tape loop of your mind. Workmanlike though they may be, Bon Jovi does solid work; the band understands the craftsmanship of rock as well as anyone, and even if you dismiss the sentiment of the hokey "If That's What It Takes" or the weepy "Hearts Breaking Even," you must in the end give in to their suffocating hookiness. The closing "Diamond Ring," a dusty and comparatively spare piano and guitar dirge, is spookily, effortlessly pretty. And amidst all the swaying-lighter epics, "Hey God" works up a credible lather. It's a giddy one-riff melodrama as pile-driver dumb as "Runaway," and almost as infectious, right down to the final fade-out scream-o-rama. Cover bands of the future, take note.
Even the band's traditional critical tormentors finally may be giving some grudging respect to the band from Jersey that didn't give up, as These Days's oddly tolerant reviews show. Maybe there's a little Bon Jovi in us all, the regular guys who put in the hours, made it big, and still deliver the goods for the rest of the regular guys.
"Hard work," Sambora says, asked to name the keys to rock survival. "Everyone says to us, 'You guys work harder than anybody else.' Just the traveling by itself will kill you. Then on top of that we manage ourselves. And we do all that in 42 different countries around the world. It's actually quite tedious, but it's worth it. Because, you know, success is what it's all about."
Bon Jovi performs on Saturday night, September 9, at 8:00 at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave; 530-4444. Tickets cost $23.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.