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Flashback: Bon Jovi, The Kids Are Alright

Bon Jovi talk taking their tailor-made image to the top of the charts in this 1987 Rolling Stone feature.

Jon Bon Jovi’s hair is about fourteen inches long. Its colour is somewhere between chestnut and auburn, and the frosty streaks in it give it a sizzling golden sheen. When Jon musses it or boosts it with a squirt of hair spray, it flares around his face like a nimbus, a halo – an aura of shiny fuzz. The hair has great body and good texture and a nice, natural wave, and the ends don’t look the least bit split. He calls it ratty, but that’s just a bluff. Truth is, it would be safe to say that Jon Bon Jovi has the most wonderful hair in rock & roll today.

As Jon tells it, the length of his hair is neither fashion nor fetish but instead a reaction to suffering, as a kid, years of punitive shear jobs by his father, a New Jersey hairdresser. Now twenty-five, Jon is considerably past the age when his father might yet come after him with snippers without invitation, but still the fourteen rebellious inches of wonderful hair remain. Sort of an ongoing separation therapy, maybe. Sort of Oedipal when you think about it.

And most assuredly a sort of talisman that reminds Jon that he has sold some 7 million albums precisely because he is so conscious of and reverent toward his days as a buzz-cut kid – and therefore, he figures, so attuned to kids around the world.

This wonderful hair is at present whipping around in a soggy Florida breeze. The breeze is funnelling through the van that is carrying Jon Bon Jovi and his four band mates to a charity softball game in St. Petersburg. At the moment, no one in the van is paying attention to Jon’s hair because the members of the band are listening to bass player Alec John Such, who is reading a newspaper article that touches on the one subject that matters to all of them: kids.

“Listen to this,” Alec says, rattling the paper for emphasis. He points to the article, which is headlined The Pace Of Puberty Varies. “It’s a letter,” he says, “from this kid.” The magic word thus invoked, everyone in the van is rapt. “This kid,” says Alec, “wants a peris transplant.”

“A penis transplant?” asks David Bryan, the keyboard player. “Where does he want it?” Guitarist Richie Sambora is chuckling. “Hey, Al,” he says, “are you volunteering?” The question is followed by a full round of seat thumping and hollering, incriminating comments and cackles. Even Jon, who hardly ever shucks and jives with his goofy, rambunctious band, is grinning.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Alec says, and he shuts everyone up by reading the advice columnist’s sober response: “A penis transplant is not the solution to your problem because it has not yet been successfully done.”

If it had been, though, you can bet Bon Jovi would write a song about it, or play a charity softball game for it, or at least consider it in the course of charting their career. In other words, if it matters to kids, it matters to Bon Jovi – and conversely, if it doesn’t matter to kids, Bon Jovi pays it no mind. This holds true for politics, bad news, weird ideas, strange sounds, unpopular positions: Bon Jovi has no truck with any of them, because kids, as far as the band can tell, don’t dig it. And kids are Bon Jovi’s compass.

The band is proud of the fact that no artistic or political goal steers it. “Why would we want to do an experimental album?” says David Bryan. “That’s just selfish.” And the boys in Bon Jovi respect kids so much, so to speak, that they even brought in local youngsters to pick the songs for their current album, Slippery When Wet. This is a band that, above all, utterly believes in its audience.

And its audience clearly believes in the band. Masters of melodic, welterweight, metal-edged rock, they are now on a full-house world tour and have the Number One single, LP and compact disc in the country. With 7 million copies of Slippery When Wet already sold – PolyGram expects it to continue into the double digits – they are on the way to having the best-selling hard-rock album in history. That they have been accused of making middling music that has neither the snap of heavy metal nor the crackle of more topical pop doesn’t matter to them. That they have become a popular joke – strutting rock stars with little butts and big hair – doesn’t bother them one bit. After all, they figure, as far as jokes go, they’ve got 7 million punch lines.

He started as John Bongiovi, and he started in Savreville, New Jersey, and he started a band as soon as he could balance a guitar. His parents – the aforementioned hairdresser father (who now, with Jon’s full cooperation, cuts and colours his son’s hair) and a mother who in her younger days was a Playboy bunny – passed through the usual stages of parental grief. (Why must our son go to high school in sunglasses? Why does he hang out in bars all the time? What is it about that damn Telecaster anyway?) In exasperation, they finally called a cousin for an opinion on whether or not Jon and his band were wasting their time.

This was a cousin in a position to know. Tony Bongiovi owns Power Station, the preeminent New York recording studio, and has produced albums for Talking Heads, the Ramones and Aerosmith, among others. At the time, Tony was looking for a young, unformed talent he could develop. He went to hear Jon and his band the Rest and recalls thinking, “There was a magic there.” The band disbanded, but in 1980, right out of high school, Jon came to the studio.

The terms of Jon’s stint at Power Station were eventually so excitedly debated that it took a lawsuit and the complete disintegration of Tony and Jon’s relationship to sort it out. Tony says he developed a sound for Jon, advanced him money and studio time, freely lent his expertise and “accelerated the process” of Jon’s success. Though the Bongiovis are a close Italian family whose members are used to helping one another out, Tony says his work with Jon was equivalent to a $200,000 advance, and he was entitled to a cut of Jon’s future earnings.

Jon says that he never even knew Tony before he came to hear the band. Jon also says that he was an “errand boy” who swept floors and was allowed to use the studio only at odd hours and was charged for the privilege. Tony’s influence on his career, Jon says, was “slim to none.” They parted company when Jon signed his record contract. Tony then initiated a lawsuit against Jon in 1984. The settlement gave Tony producer’s credit, a fee and royalties for the first album; a cash award and a one-percent royalty for the second and third albums.

At any rate, being at Power Station meant Jon got to hang around with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. “It was a great experience,” he says, “for teaching me now how to treat being a star.” He was also able to record nearly five LPs’ worth of material, some of it with regulars like Roy Bittan of the E Street Band. One of those sessions resulted in the song “Runaway.” Featured on a radio-station compilation album in 1983, the song, with its chiming keyboards and urgent beat, became a regional hit – and suddenly John Bongiovi found himself something of a star before he even had a band.

Jon recruited one from the scenic environs around Exit 11 of the New Jersey Turnpike. There was David Bryan Rashbaum, once a Juilliard-bound pianist, who had joined Jon in an earlier band (he later ditched Rashbaum for what he calls the “better showbiz name” of Bryan); Tico Torres, a steady veteran drummer who had toured with the Marvelettes, Lesley Gore and Lou Christie; and Alec John Such, who was playing bass with a thriving New Jersey band, Phantom’s Opera. Last to join was Richie Sambora, who had played with Alec in another New Jersey band called the Message. (“There was no message,” says Alec, just to clarify things. “That was just the name of the band.”)

Derek Shulman, a senior vice-president at PolyGram, heard Bongiovi and his band at a performance for record executives. They all agreed on a sliced and diced version of Jon’s last name for the band, and Shulman signed them immediately. More than anything else, Shulman was struck by Jon’s appetite for success. “With Jon,” he says, “I felt he had an unbelievable desire to be a star. He had a burning desire to be huge.”

The girls are a problem. Shrieking and weeping, they storm Al Lopez Field in the seventh inning of the softball game and cling to Jon as if he were covered with Velcro. (The game is subsequently called on account of hysterics.) Whooping and squealing, they bust down the gates around the civic center in Fort Myers before the concert there the following day. (The doors are opened early to ease the crush.) During the show in Jacksonville, they divest themselves of red satin garters and pink scarves and trainer bras and shirts and wads of paper on which they have written things like Jon I Love You Please Call Me. Charlene.

Of course, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that if you get too many girls, what with their enthusiasm and all, you might scare the guys away. Or, more exactly, if your demographics skew too female, the downside risk is that you alienate your male consumer. On the other hand, without your females, you can’t break out. And Jon and his colleagues, inflamed as they are with the desire to be huge, will have none of that.

At first, they were just like any other arena act. Draped in black leather and outlined in eyeliner, they opened for ZZ Top, Judas Priest, the Scorpions and 38 Special, playing constantly and everywhere – dinky towns as well as megalopolises. “Runaway” became a national hit, and they began racking up decent sales: their first album, Bon Jovi, sold well, and the next, 7800° Fahrenheit, even went gold. But if they hadn’t done something different, the most they could have hoped for was the best heavy metal usually gets: teenage male audiences that top off around 2 million and have to be maintained by constant touring. They had that audience, and they didn’t want to lose it, but they knew that wasn’t all there was.

That meant girls.

Bon Jovi made its break by making nice: nice dispositions, nice looks, nice songs, nice attitude, all of which appeals to listeners who think they don’t like heavy metal. It appeals especially to girls, who are usually spooked by heavy metal’s adulation of the ugly. The band started its shift after the second album. Off went the leather, and out went the word: the band was tight and lively, and the guys were… they were… all right, damn it, they were cute. And fun. In a further effort to distinguish themselves from their more metallic rivals, the members of Bon Jovi frequently grinned and made few if any oversights in hygiene, and their increasingly playful performances made it seem as if they were just tickled to be onstage. Even the band’s name, in a genre where band names often refer to things bestial or impolite, had a cheery ring to it.

The songs followed suit. Rife with roaring guitar riffs and chords full of portent, Bon Jovi’s music became all the more sprightly and tuneful. The lyrics, once standard-issue suicidal, now were tales that turn out happy, or rousing shouts of rock & roll imperatives, or heartbreak sagas that end with each individual involved becoming a far, far better person. “We wanted to give people something positive,” says Richie Sambora, who writes most of the songs with Jon. “We don’t want to get heavy. We don’t want to tell people politics, things like that.” And if the songs verged on cliché, well, so be it. “Maybe it’s clichés to critics,” says David Bryan, “but it’s not to the kids. And they grow up, and then there’s more kids, and they don’t know it’s a cliché.”

And then there’s that, you know, hair. Jon’s, of course. The whole band, in fact, has nice hair, as well as the kind of good looks that blur the distinction between pop-culture creations you’d enjoy terrorising your parents with (like anyone in Metallica or most of the guys in Venom) and those you’d like to marry (like Rick Springfield and, well, Rick Springfield).

All this nice making had to be done, of course, without getting too genial and pretty for the male fans, who like a little nasty with their blasting guitars. But Bon Jovi’s ascendancy coincided with a political and cultural conservative retrenchment in which this kind of good, clean fun was right at home. Even the band’s elementary patriotism (“I’m so happy that I go on the road and I come home to America,” Richie explains) had its hook. If this verged on something so centrist and compromising that it had no core, it also verged on being a perfect, pleasing concoction for the times – and Bon Jovi knew it. “We want,” says David, “to make everybody happy.” The splintering of Van Halen, which had started this heavy-metal trend, made it an even more perfect moment. “The timing was right,” says Alec Such, “in that kids were looking for something else besides the satanical.”

Jon was the focus of it: the hair, the eyes, the nose, the jaw, his feisty but familiar manner. His style onstage capitalized on this without bloody theatrics or trickery, matching his rather charming and funny stage patter with all the gesturing, thrashing, howling and cocky posturing in the world. The boys bought it.

And the girls went simply cuckoo.

These are a few of the things that Bug Bon Jovi:

First, there’s his cousin Tony Bongiovi.

Second, there’s the suggestion that he, a working-class product of the Jersey shore, is just a knock-off you know who. “What?” he asks. “Does Bruce own New Jersey?”

Third, there are the band’s early videos – gooey interpretive teleplays. “I hate them,” he says. “If you ever want to punish me, tie me down and make me watch them.”

Fourth, there’s the fact that lots of times when Tico Torres is smoking a cigarette, he gestures broadly and accidentally burns Jon with the end of it.

Fifth, there’s his looks. More exactly, undue emphasis on his looks in explaining the explosive success of the band. He’s not sure why Bon Jovi has got so huge, but he is convinced that his knack for communicating with the kids and three years of constant touring had more to do with it than either good looks or good cousins did.

Sixth, there’s that explosive success. “I’ll never be satisfied,” he says. “I’m not happy that we have the Number One album, single, CD, video, that I sold out every show and that I fly in my airplane and that I can buy a huge mansion if I want to. Next year I plan to be better. I want a bigger record. I want to do more shows. I want to be able to buy two houses instead of one.” And he’s certainly not going to let some crazy obsession with his music cause him to lose track of the bottom line. “Pete Townshend,” he says, recalling what he considers a sorry example of that single-mindedness, “all Townshend cared about was the music.” Not Jon. He reads books about the business and attends to every financial detail. “I’m going to become,” he says, “a professor on the music business before this is over.”

One thing that does not particularly bug him is that plenty of people sneered when he said he wouldn’t release his third album until it was better than Def Leppard’s Pyromania and bound to be bigger than Bom to Run. It does not bug him that even after he went in person to Saturday Night Live last year, begging the show to book Bon Jovi, he was turned down. It does not bug him that critics haven’t come around. Because the way he sees it, success in the 7 millions is sufficient revenge.

He doesn’t seem like a guy given to vain pronouncements, or any pronouncements at all, for that matter. If anything, he’s the cipher at the center of a band full of wags and characters. David and Richie ping-pong patter and quote Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy endlessly. Tico is quiet and droll. Alec is slippery and contradictory: once fined for wearing an antique gun onstage, he admits he loves heavy metal because “you can dress the wildest and do the wildest things, and nobody knows exactly if you are crazy or not.” Yet now that he has the wherewithal, Alec dreams of success in a field somewhat less wild and crazy than heavy metal. He wants to hire someone to produce an invention of his. Although he’d rather not be too specific about it lest someone swipe the idea, he grudgingly explains this much: “It has to do with – you know how Mr. Frank Perdue has those little things that are in chickens, and when they’re done cooking, they pop out? It has something to do with that.”

Of them all, Jon is the lowest pitched: broody and cool, gracious but not given to emotional demonstrations. The other four goof around like a litter of puppies; Jon is most often alone, mulling over something or in conference with road crews, business functionaries or the band’s management. He is meticulous about the band’s each and every move and is reluctant to assume that someone else will take care of anything. He’s a worrier and a bit of a fatalist too: even though he eschews drugs, goes to the gym whenever he has a free hour and looks fit and trim, he shrugs when asked about the future and says with a gloom worthy of a romantic poet, “I don’t think that I’ll live to be old. I’m not a healthy guy.”

Except for a gossip-column courtship with actress Diane Lane, Jon is very private – a steady love affair with his high-school girlfriend, little public hobnobbing. Like the rest of Bon Jovi, Jon reveres the kids – you know, the kids – cares about touching them and seeing them and even had a pulley designed so that each night during the song “Silent Night,” he can fly out to a platform at the back of the arena and for a moment give the kids with the crummy seats a better show. But he thinks giving them too much reality – facts of his private life, for instance – chips away too much of Bon Jovi’s mythic stature. Lounging in his Jacksonville hotel room in sweat pants and sneakers, he mentions Kiss’s early days, when the band performed in disguise. Watery sunlight and the stink of a local paper plant fill the room; the Smurfs are on the tube, and the Babys on the boom box. “Kiss is the ultimate band,” he says. “Look what Kiss did: they could do anything they wanted and then go to the pizza parlor after the show.”

The only pizza parlor Bon Jovi goes to after its shows is at 25,0 feet – in the fuselage of the Bon Jovi airplane, a Grumman G-I. The band members are always starved after their shows, and tonight as they fly to the next town on the tour, they are scarfing luke-warm pizza.

They all love the airplane immensely. One of the management people traveling with the band even carries a handsome color photograph of the craft in his briefcase. The affection is understandable: because the guys in the band have been touring constantly since Slippery When Wet went wild and have no time or use for the new mansions or cars they can now afford, the airplane is about the only tangible evidence to them of their current success. Soon the plane will be upgraded in keeping with their multi-platinum stature: it goes into the shop this month to have its currently clemure BON JOVI insignia blasted off and replaced with a gigantic painting of the name.

They also love the plane because it speeds up their traveling, which will enable them to tour three extra months this year. For Bon Jovi, this is reason enough to love the plane, because like missionaries zealously spreading the word, the band wants to be out there as much as possible, bringing its music to the kids.

And like missionaries who learn the native tongue and folkways to communicate with their charges, Bon Jovi was happy to tailor Slippery When Wet to popular taste. After all, this was the album with which the band intended to prove its claim to a new, huge audience. “Jon said,” recalls PolyGram’s Derek Shulman, “‘If I don’t get it right, let’s bring in someone who will.'” Getting it right meant writing songs that would bring the band more than the male-dominated audience that had snapped up Bon Jovi and 7800° Fahrenheit, and someone who could do that was Desmond Child.

Now a producer and songwriter, Child led his band Desmond Child and Rouge until 1980 and was best known as a light-pop writer. But in keeping with heavy metal’s new hopes for the big demographic, he is now co-writing with such acts as Aerosmith and Kiss. When Jon Bon Jovi went looking for his breakout in 1985, Paul Stanley of Kiss recommended Child.

Jon, Richie and Child set to writing Slippery with grabby melodies and more of the “relationship-oriented lyrics” record executives consider a prerequisite to attracting a lot of girls. “Oftentimes,” Child says of working with Bon Jovi, “I got a lot of resistance. Jon didn’t want to try those new rhythms. He thought it sounded too Michael Jackson. It took a tremendous leap of maturity for him to let that in.” (A leap, incidentally, that also ended with the band backing Cheron two of the songs for her new album, which Child is producing.)

The four songs they wrote, including the soon-to-be hits “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” were added to thirty others being considered for the album. According to the band members, they then recorded demos of those thirty-odd songs and played them for local kids – friends of Jon’s younger brothers, workers at a New Jersey warehouse, people they knew. “We let them pick out the album,” Tico says. “You’re so close to it that you can’t predict what people are going to like. So what we did is, since they’re the people, let them predict it. We didn’t want to make the same mistake [we had made in the past] of trying to foresee what is the best one to put on the record. It’s for them that you’re doing the songs anyway, so they might as well pick what they want to hear. It took a lot of pressure off us.”

At least one song, “Never Say Goodbye,” would not have been included on the album, says David, except that the kids liked it so much. And that, he says, is what matters. “If we’d brought in a bunch of writers and critics, they probably would have said it all stunk,” he says. “A kid’s opinion means so much more to me just for the fact that they are the ones who really are our fans.” And as such, so goes the Bon Jovi credo, the fans are entitled to an album that makes them happy.

Other crowd-pleasing alterations followed. The mini-drama videos the band had done before were ditched for videos showing something the guys knew kids loved: Bon Jovi onstage. (“Livin’ on a Prayer” was for several weeks MTV’s most requested video.) The original album title, Wanted Dead or Alive, now deemed too gloomy and masculine, was replaced by the lighter-hearted Slippery When Wet. The first cover photo of a buxom blonde was scrapped when censorship groups threatened protests; a wet Hefty bag, the name traced in water drops, was used instead.

What was on the cover mattered less than what wasn’t: there absolutely would not be a gauzy portrait of Jon and the band. “That would have killed us,” says Richie, who thinks that “a guy, especially a teenager thirteen to eighteen, who’s going through that macho period in their life,” would have been turned off by a too-pretty picture of the band. At the same time, restricting the exposure of a group already notoriously good looking had its own titillating effect. “We need to keep a little more mystique,” says Doc McGhee, Bon Jovi’s manager. “We want to make it a little more mysterious. You don’t want to know everything about a band. If you do, you won’t want to come to the shows. We’ve got to keep that myth alive and keep one step ahead of it.”

The steps they took obviously worked. Slippery When Wet hit Number One when Bon Jovi was opening for 38 Special in Iowa, and nothing has been the same for them since.

None of the members of Bon Jovi will ever forget the afternoon they spent in the presence of Sammy Davis Jr. They were taping a show for Italian television about Americans of Italian descent, and no one can remember how Sammy Davis figured in the lineup, but he did. He looked kind of lousy at first, shuffling around with a cane and thick glasses, and it was scary to see an entertainer who had enjoyed such success sunk by something as far beyond calculation as old age. But then he threw aside the glasses and cane and – just like that – he turned back into the Sammy Davis Jr. they knew and loved, and he started singing and dancing and acting cool. Jon was impressed. “Sammy Davis Jr.,” he says, savouring each part of the name, “an amazing talent, that man.”

Amazing to Bon Jovi in no small part for his longevity. Like all professional entertainers, the boys in Bon Jovi respect people who have served an audience well and for a long time. They intend to do the same, by keeping careful track of their own health and welfare and a careful eye on their consumers. Teenagers, after all, are notoriously fickle, in love with a band one day, off it the next. “Image,” says Derek Shulman, “is almost as important as music in the hard-rock genre. It’s almost like peer pressure with the young-adult audience. It’s not what the songs sound like.”

Image is another thing no one in Bon Jovi will ever forget. The band was fighting with PolyGram over what was going to be the next single. PolyGram thought “Never Say Goodbye” would be a gigantic hit. Jon and the other guys insisted on “Wanted Dead or Alive” – not likely to be as big on radio, but they felt it was the right image at the moment. Their concerts – tickets are selling like mad across the country – are drawing sixty-percent female crowds. That makes this a perfect time to release a gruffer, tougher song, like “Wanted,” to make peace with the male audience.

No, it’s not left to chance. No one in Bon Jovi seems to think that music left to chance might engender something worthwhile. It’s like the band’s shows: energetic, entertaining set pieces, with great orchestration of lights, action and fireworks, and absolutely nothing unplanned. David, for one, thinks this is exactly the way it ought to be. Kids come expecting a tight, tidy, exciting show, and Bon Jovi is going to give them the very best one around. “It’s like a Broadway show,” he explains. “There are too many people depending on it to be a certain way. We couldn’t do it differently. It’s a Broadway show.”

So much for spontaneity. And so much for anything else that might jar this fantastically successful organisation. Bon Jovi certainly isn’t, for instance, going to parlay its power with kids into a forum for raising difficult issues. After all, according to the members of the band – who have made it their business to know these things – kids only want to hear music that’s rousing and loud and fun, not songs about bummers like, say, Vietnam. “Kids now don’t know what Vietnam was,” Jon says, “so why should I write about it?” He stands up and walks slowly, like a man weighed down by fourteen inches of wonderful hair and 7 million records, and he surveys the Smurfs waddling across his screen. He deliberates and then flips the channel. “My attitude is,” he says, smiling, “we’re prime-time TV.”

This story is from the May, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.

Bon Jovi’s new album ‘This House Is Not for Sale’ is set to be released on Friday, November 4th.