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[whitespace] Bon Jovi
Photograph by Olaf Heine

Keeping the Faith: Through the changing tides of fortune, Bon Jovi continues to prosper.

Like a Prayer

Critics be damned, Bon Jovi is everyman's band--from the streets of Berlin to the alleys of New Jersey

By Gina Arnold

JON BON JOVI. To me, the name conjures up a number of best-forgotten images from the 1980s: big, blond, teased hairdos, sleeveless T-shirts and guitar-ridden pop-metal anthems about keepin' the faith, livin' on a prayer and givin' love a bad name.

At the height of his career, Jon Bon Jovi and his self-titled band epitomized the most lowbrow aspects of a pretty lowbrow decade, so you can imagine my surprise when I found myself seated directly behind Mr. Bon Jovi himself at a Tom Waits concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City last September.

Bon Jovi was not the only celebrity in the house that night. Elvis Costello sat a few rows over. Keith Richards, Stanley Tucci, Uma Thurman and Liam Neeson were all within spitting distance. But Bon Jovi was the only star in attendance whose oeuvre--if you can call a repertoire that includes the song "Slippery When Wet" an oeuvre--had no chance of winning him an award for artistic achievement or musical excellence.

I mean, this is a man who changed the spelling of his name from Bongiovi to Bon Jovi, in order to make it easier for his fans to read. He's been known to lead his fans in clapping contests and to fly across arenas on guide wires a la Garth Brooks. Given those facts, one has to wonder what such a guy is getting out of Waits' songs like "16 Shells From a Thirty Ought Six" or "Innocent When You Dream."

Either he's a huge fan of Waits--in which case, I can't believe he can stomach his own music. Or--well, or what? Perhaps he has a dual personality, like those psychokillers who can't remember the crimes they commit in one guise or another.

One Bon Jovi loves and reveres arty and difficult and ultrasophisticated music. The other one can't actually tell the difference between Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen, and it's the second one who goes into the recording studio to speak for his constituency.

Apparently, he speaks very well for them, thus iterating French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's suggestion that all aesthetic distinctions are based merely on class differences. Bon Jovi may use words of one syllable and hummable melodies, but judging by his incredible longevity as a bestselling rock act, he is conveying a vision that is valid in its own way.

The only truly disturbing thing about Bon Jovi's music is that it concedes nothing to the last 10 years of pop. Indeed, there is not a single vestige of the '90s in it--no samples, no synthesizers, no raps. It's not hip. It's not young. It's not critically acclaimed, and if you look on Pollstar's helpful consumer web link, it says, "Users who have signed up for Bon Jovi also like Def Leppard, KISS and Metallica."

That's not exactly a compliment. And yet despite his complete disregard of the modern era, Bon Jovi's career is currently thriving. Crush, the band's eighth LP, released last June, has sold 7 million copies (most of them overseas). It was nominated for a Grammy (the band's first). The accompanying One Wild Night tour arrives in San Jose at the Compaq Center on Monday night.

OK, so it's not U2. The band hasn't sold out arenas nationwide. But somehow or other, Bon Jovi has escaped the opprobrium attached to most bands of its ilk after Beavis and Butt-head made merciless fun of the group. Warrant, Skid Row, Poison and even Guns N' Roses lie on the killing fields of MTV, while Bon Jovi soldiers on.

ONE REASON Bon Jovi survived the purge of pop metal may be a well-timed break between 1995 and 2000, a break that Bon Jovi, speaking from a cell phone in a car on the New Jersey State turnpike, immediately repudiates: "You people in San Jose probably think we were sitting in front of the TV that whole time, when in fact, there's a wide world out there that we were playing in front of. We'll go anywhere there's electricity."

The years 1995 and 1996, he points out, were taken up with touring for the These Days album. In 1997, he released a solo LP titled Destination Anywhere--"My 'art' record, if you will." Then he did a number of movies, including U-571, Pay It Forward and others, during which time, he says, he was working on Crush with his songwriting partner, guitarist Richie Sambora.

"So we didn't by any means take a break," he concludes. "It was just five years between LPs."

Crush, like all the band's albums, has been slammed by critics everywhere for being simplistic, dumb and out of touch. It was, of course, a huge success, particularly in Europe, where Bon Jovi's quintessential American music and quintessential American good looks actually seem to be exotic.

When I ask him why he thinks he did so well abroad, he pauses for a second before answering: "People used to ask me, 'What type of music do you play? Pop, hard rock or metal? and I'd always say, 'It's rock & roll.' And it's the same with the 'American' tag. Yeah, it's American. But it's also just universal music. That's why it has no borders. Language hasn't held it back. Boy bands or whatever, they have limits to what they can do. But when 9 million people like your stuff, it can only be because it's thematic and universal.

"I didn't even intend it to be. When I was writing 'It's My Life,' I thought I was writing very self-indulgently about my own life and where I was in it. I didn't realize that the phrase 'It's my life' would be taken as being about everyone--by teenagers, by older guys, mechanics, whatever. 'It's my life, and I'm taking control.' Everyone kind of feels that way."

Continuing in this vein of universalism, he adds, "It was the same with 'Keep the Faith,' which came right after the wall came down in Berlin. I had no idea it would be taken as a statement about East meets West in Germany and the fall of the Soviet Union. When I wrote it, those things hadn't even happened yet, but when it came out--well, the repercussions were huge, 10 million people thought that's what it was about. Similarly, 'Living on a Prayer' was about two kids I knew in New Jersey. Turns out everyone knows someone like them."

Even people in Europe who don't speak English?

"Sure. It's kind of like everyone lives in New Jersey now, even if it's in New Germany or New England or New Japan or whatever. Metaphorically speaking, it's all the same place. At least that's what I've come to find out."

MEANWHILE, in addition to finishing up the One Wild Night tour, Bon Jovi is anticipating the release of his first live album, in May. It is, he says, not a greatest-hits package, or a 20-year-retrospective box set, but a snapshot of the band in action, playing to its strengths.

"I've always been hesitant to do a live album, just because Richie and I are so prolific," he explains, "but with the success of Crush, we realized there's this whole new generation of fans, and we have to explain to them we have many other LPs."

Normally, he adds, "We'd never do a cover. But this has two, 'I Don't Like Mondays' and Neil Young's 'Rockin in the Free World,' which we did in South Africa in 1995, right after the first elections were held. It was such an amazing statement for us to be making on that day, right then, and I wanted to capture that--also playing 'I Don't Like Mondays,' with Bob Geldof, the man who wrote it, on the 10-year anniversary of Live Aid. The record is just supposed to be a snapshot of great moments in our career from 1985 to 2001--things the fans may have heard about, but not necessarily heard." What's the secret to his success? Jon laughs. "Sell your soul to the Gypsy, it's totally worth it." He pauses. "No, seriously. Its been three parts hard work and determination and sweat, and one part pure luck."

Bon Jovi performs Monday (April 23) at the Compaq Center, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose. Tickets are $37.50-$75. (408.998.TIXS)

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From the April 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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