Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Jersey Boys: The Case of Bon Jovi

On a Steel Horse I Ride I’ve always loved the opening to Jimmy Guterman’s Rolling Stone review of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet: “How many clichés can you squeeze into a pop song? Probably not as many as Jon Bon Jovi can. Listen to ‘Raise Your Hands, from his new album Slippery When Wet. (I know, that's two already, but titles don't count.) Bon Jovi lets loose with nasty reputation, sticky situation, ain't nobody better, show me what you can do, under the gun, out on the run, set the night on fire, playin' to win. Pretty impressive, and that's only the first verse.”

Maybe that’s unfair, since “Raise Your Hands” isn’t exactly a landmark in the Bon Jovi canon, but Slippery When Wet is by far the band’s best-selling album, and was its first to go to Number One on the charts. When you think Bon Jovi, you think Slippery. And you think clichés.

You also think of a world-dominating band, whose brand of lightly teased hair metal spawned five Number One hits, from 1986’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” to 1990’s “Blaze of Glory.” That’s as many Number One singles as Prince or the Eagles, a number that legitimately puts them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame conversation. On the other hand, Milli Vanilli had five Top Five singles (and three Number Ones) in that same time frame. The late Eighties, man.  

We're Halfway There Bon Jovi’s apotheosis came with “Wanted Dead or Alive,” which cast the Jersey pretty boy as an urban cowboy. Jon has said he modeled the song after Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” a weary travelogue depicting the downside of being a traveling rock star (which also laments “all the same old clichés”). Jon’s version of this prefers to brag about the fact that he’s seen a million faces and rocked them all, which is undoubtedly true.

“Nobody listens to Bon Jovi's brand of pop metal for its lyrics,” Guterman wrote in the RS review, “they listen because they want to bang their heads lightly. It's a canny marketing strategy, but Bon Jovi's band is barely functional: guitar solos pop up like afterthoughts, bass lines whine like spoiled children, and Jon Bon Jovi's voice is double- and triple-tracked in halfhearted attempts to cloak its blandness.” 

I think he’s wrong about this: Bon Jovi’s lyrics are read by his fans as a way to mythologize their lives, to bring some drama to working in a diner all day, or working on the docks when you’re not out on strike. The rest of Guterman is spot-on, though. He even missed the fact that Jon and the boys worked those late-verse key changes harder than anybody since Barry Manilow, or that Jon makes as nearly many references to guns and shooting as Ted Nugent does.

Shot Down in a Blaze of Glory The bottom line is this: I have never listened to Bon Jovi on purpose. I have no doubt that they will cruise into the Hall of Fame on a steel horse, but I don’t have to be a party to it. Jon Bon Jovi has had far more money, women, recognition and fame than I will ever dream of, and I’m sure he will do quite fine without my approbation.