Bon Jovi in the USSR: Bon Voyage

The ambassadors of lite-metal music head out to export "New Jersey" to Russia and the rest of the world

Jon Bon Jovi, January 1989. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

Forty-six years ago, the stunning frost of a Soviet winter helped turn back the German army as it approached Moscow. But Bon Jovi is made of sterner stuff than the Nazis. And the band's plans to conquer the U.S.S.R. demonstrate a better sense of strategy than Hitler's.

Other rock groups have visited the country just long enough to see the Kremlin and play a concert. A one-night stand won't satisfy the boys in this band. To them, the Soviet Union represents the world's largest unserviced pop market, a huge nation of kids who have been deprived of American rock & roll. Bon Jovi wants to be the first foreign group sanctioned by the Soviet government to regularly perform and release albums there.

So in early December, Bon Jovi interrupted the European leg of its eleven-month New Jersey world tour to spend three hectic days in Moscow. The five band members — singer Jon Bon Jovi, 26, guitarist Richie Sambora, 29, keyboardist David Bryan, 26, bassist Alec John Such, 36, and drummer Tico Torres, 34 — arrived with a large entourage, which included Doc McGhee, their legally embattled manager, video director Wayne Isham and his crew, a photographer and executives of PolyGram Records, the band's label. Their official tasks were to arrange a July concert that would be the first rock show ever held in Lenin Stadium; to negotiate the release of New Jersey on Melodiya, the state-owned record company; and to offer a bit of soft-metal diplomacy as self-proclaimed "ambastards of good will."

In this era of glasnost, the Soviet government has initiated a number of more liberal cultural programs. After a long tradition of censoring bands, which forced musicians underground, the Kremlin will now be able to both monitor rock music and profit from it. Given the Communist party's long-standing suspicion of rock — in 1972, the government vetoed a tour by the Fifth Dimension, presumably because "Up, Up and Away" would corrupt communist youth — the Soviets must have thought long and hard about which band should have the lucrative honor of becoming their first foreign superstars. Why would they choose Bon Jovi?

Since Amnesty International's Human Rights Now Tour presented ideological problems for the Soviets, they would be wary of artists like Bruce Springsteen and Sting. Van Halen and Guns n' Roses would probably be disqualified for national-security reasons. So would Michael Jackson, whom the Kremlin once denounced as a puppet of the Reagan administration.

But Bon Jovi is a benign band with no professional interest in politics. Its members support antidrug and profamily causes. They will not make any inflammatory statements about refuseniks. They will play and leave. If Bon Jovi isn't the best rock band in the world, it is — for Soviet purposes — the ideal band.

"We're safe," says Richie Sambora. "We're not heavy metal, but we're certainly not pussy rock, either." Which means the band could succeed in the Soviet Union for the very reasons it has succeeded in the United States.

This place isn't much like Edison, New Jersey," says David Bryan, after arriving in Moscow on a Tuesday afternoon. The band members wait excitedly in a special holding room as Soviet officials check their passports and visas. They hug one another so often the scene looks like A Waltons' Christmas Reunion. "This is heavy," Jon Bon Jovi keeps saying.

Downstairs, to everyone's surprise, a few thousand kids are racing around the terminal, hoping to find the band. Kids gather wherever the band goes, but Bon Jovi hasn't even released an album in the Soviet Union. Copies of New Jersey reportedly sell for 150 rubles (about $200) on the black market, a staggering sum compared with a typical monthly salary of 200 rubles.

The band members are led through a back entrance, where a police escort is waiting to lead their two limousines. ("Man, Billy Joel didn't get limos," says Wayne Isham, who filmed Joel's Soviet concerts.) But when the motorcade arrives at the band's hotel, a few hundred kids are clogging the entrance to the hotel, so the limos turn around and head for Gorky Park, and Stas Namin's music center.

Namin, the grandson of a prominent Soviet politician, was instrumental in bringing Bon Jovi to the U.S.S.R. As the leader of the Stas Namin Group, the party-sanctioned Soviet rock superstars, Namin has sold 40 million records in his own country. Now he manages Gorky Park, a Soviet metal band. When he was in New Jersey last April, Namin asked Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora to help Gorky Park write some English lyrics. Jon and Richie, the creative axis of Bon Jovi, are nothing if not helpful — they've produced Cher, given songs to Ted Nugent, Aerosmith and Loverboy and introduced Cinderella to PolyGram execs. They agreed to help Gorky Park.

And how did a simple meeting with a prominent Soviet musician result in Bon Jovi's plans to conquer the U.S.S.R.? "Doc," answers Jon Bon Jovi, grinning at his manager's storied audacity. "Doc."

McGhee, 38, spends an unusual amount of time traveling with the band, and his crass good cheer masks the strategic savvy that has guided the band's international campaign. "Life is like a sleigh ride," he says, as shots of vodka vanish in the music center's dining room. "Unless you're the lead dog, you're always looking up someone else's ass."

Wayne Isham and his crew are filming the music-center party, as they do nearly every minute of the Soviet trip. "Maybe it's history, maybe it's not," says Richie Sambora. Bon Jovi has discussed making a documentary film similar to U2's Rattle and Hum but with a closer focus on the band's daily life.

Which, on this evening, isn't altered by the iron curtain. The "fun police," as Sambora refers to the band members' girlfriends, aren't in Moscow. But Stas has stocked his music center with attractive young Soviet women, including the reigning Miss Siberia, who proves to be quite popular among the Americans, in spite of her limited English. Isham turns his camera on some young fans and persuades them to sing "Runaway" — Bon Jovi's first hit single. The young Russians know only the chorus, which they sing over and over. As a reward, Isham brings them back to the hotel on the video crew's bus. The party continues at the hotel bar, where Jon is surrounded by students from St. Cloud State University, in Minnesota, who are on a class trip.

Much of the next day is spent traveling around Moscow on a bus. Richie and Dave — the most extroverted members of the band — tutor Yuri, the group's hulking Russian security guard, in remedial English. "Suck my fucking dick," he announces every few minutes, proud of his new bilingual skills. Jon looks pensively out the bus window at the dreary landscape or quietly quizzes the guys in Gorky Park about why they don't own cars, despite having sold a few million records. Jon is surprised to find that in the Soviet Union rockers don't earn royalties.

After a hurried circuit of the Kremlin, the members of Bon Jovi hold a press conference in the editorial offices of a Soviet-youth newspaper. The first two questions, directed to Jon, are "How old are you?" and "Are you a wealthy man?" He answers the first question; after a long pause, he tactfully dodges the second.

More innocuous inquiries follow, most of them concerning the band members' feelings about a country they've been in for twenty-four hours. "We're very comfortable here," says Richie. "We've had a great time," adds Jon. "Good vodka," says Dave.

The band leaves with Stas Namin, who directs the limo driver to enter a one-way street going against traffic. A police car pulls them over, and Bon Jovi — thinking of the KGB, or maybe New Jersey state troopers — gets worried. But when the policemen look in the car, they say, "Hi, Stas," and wave them on. Bon Jovi is impressed.

Back at Namin's music center, another kingly, festive meal has begun, with numerous toasts between the band members and their generous Soviet hosts. Afterward, too many people cram into a rehearsal room that is decorated with posters of Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev and Bon Jovi. Gorky Park plays a short set, which includes a pumping rearrangement of "My Generation," and then Bon Jovi joins the band for "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Mean Woman Blues." Miss Siberia jumps onstage to dance.

It's past 3:00 a.m., and a combination of jet lag, adrenalin and vodka has animated the entourage. A member of the video crew tries to sneak a girl into the hotel and gets hit in the stomach by a Soviet policeman. Jon and Doc McGhee leave for a late-night tour of Red Square. Alec returns to the hotel and makes a noisy, unsuccessful attempt to order room service. And Richie rebounds from the cold shoulder Miss Siberia has given him and disappears with a female fan.

The next morning, the band members show up late for a second press conference. Their visit to the U.S.S.R., Jon stresses, is "not as politicians, not to save the world, but to meet kids. The audience we appeal to is kids. Basically, I'm a kid, and kids are the future."

Their Lenin Stadium concert, Doc explains, is planned to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Woodstock. But, he continues, instead of promoting "the drug message," as Woodstock did, this show will carry an antidrug message. Proceeds will be donated to the Make a Difference Foundation (MADF), the nonprofit antidrug organization McGhee was ordered to establish after he pleaded guilty to importing 40,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. Other hard-rock bands will appear with Bon Jovi — McGhee also manages Mötley Crüe and the Scorpions, who are likely candidates — and there are plans to broadcast the show live via satellite around the world. The concert, one of the Soviet journalists suggests, sounds like "an anti-Woodstock," a label McGhee rejects.

Jon Bon Jovi is asked about the group's hobbies. "We don't have much spare time," he answers, "because we're almost always touring or recording or writing songs. But when we have free time, we like football, cars and motorcycles."

Football, cars and motorcycles — poll any number of young men from New Jersey, and you'd probably get a similar response. Which is not to say that the five members of Bon Jovi are a bunch of "regular guys." If that were so, Jon Bon Jovi would not have been able to fly to Milan on a shopping expedition to decorate the house in New Jersey he recently bought.

But the members of Bon Jovi come to interviews with an agenda, and they diligently promote a new image of the band. They are clearly tired of what Sambora calls their "pretty boy" image. So personal questions are answered vaguely and often redirected toward their favorite themes: their tough touring schedule, their skill as musicians, their commitment to pleasing their fans and their loyalty toward the members of their organization, collectively known as "the Jersey Syndicate."

The members of Bon Jovi are forever comparing themselves to a bunch of cowboys (see "Wanted Dead or Alive" and "Stick to Your Guns") or the Los Angeles Lakers, the teamwork-oriented basketball champions. "There's a real bond," says Jon. "It's more than a marriage, because in a marriage you can get divorced. It's more like a brotherhood, where you're stuck with these fuckin' lousy guys forever. Your sense of loyalty is more important than business, because when your back's against the wall, you know who's gonna be there for you."

That loyalty was tested by Doc McGhee's drug conviction. In January of 1988 he pleaded guilty to drug-importing charges dating back to 1982. As part of his plea bargain, the government agreed not to prosecute McGhee for criminal tax violations. In April he received the maximum sentence of five years in jail and a $15,000 fine. His sentence was suspended, provided he finance an antidrug organization with $250,000.

Listening to McGhee talk about his meetings with the Soviet minister of culture, it's easy to understand how he could be drawn to drug smuggling, as detailed and profitable an enterprise as managing a rock band. Before he hooked up with Bon Jovi, McGhee was a second-rate manager — his biggest clients were Pat Travers and James Brown. "When I signed with him, he had nothing, really," Jon says. "And I used to bust his chops 'cause he wore a necklace with a little gold record on it. I said, 'You don't even have a gold record.' I had a lot of big-name guys wanting to manage me. And then I had this guy who had absolutely stugotz. But I had stugotz, you know? I says, 'He's got nothing, I got nothing. He's gotta be my best friend for me to trust anybody at this point in my life.'"

Short and stout, with a gruff Chicago accent and a receding hairline, McGhee hardly looks like a member of Bon Jovi, but the band treats him that way. When McGhee's indictment was announced, Jon says, "it looked like a phone book of fucking managers trying to woo me. 'He's going to jail, he's gonna die.' With Doc, I stood tall, man. Did everything that a man had to do. There was never even a thought in my mind of leaving. I was going to court with the guy, if we gotta go to court. That's what we do. We fucking stick by people." And that, the members of Bon Jovi proclaim, is an element of "Jersey attitude."

Since establishing MADF, McGhee has made the foundation synonymous with Bon Jovi, thereby promoting both at the same time. And because the band is here in part to work out details of the Make a Difference concert, the foundation is paying for the trip. McGhee estimates he can sell 5 million to 10 million copies of New Jersey in the U.S.S.R. (Since the ruble is such an unstable currency, Bon Jovi's royalties will have to be paid in an export commodity — maybe wood, which the band would then sell to a guitar company.) And all this money will be made as the band continues to serve charity. Remarkably, the burden of McGhee's conviction has been seamlessly integrated into the band's game plan.

I was never hip," says Jon Bon Jovi. "I was never gonna be in an alternative or progressive-type rock & roll band."

That's another part of Jersey attitude. Although New Jersey is just a tunnel fare away from Manhattan, in musical tastes it could just as well be part of the Midwest. But Bon Jovi's mainstream values reflect not only geography but the times. Jon, Richie and Dave grew up in the Seventies, when the Beatles were already fixtures on the radio.

Richie's first concert was a Deep Purple show, and he still hums obscure songs by Uriah Heep, possibly the nadir of Seventies metal. "The biggest fucking thing I remember in the Seventies," says Jon, "was Aerosmith and Nugent playing Giants Stadium when it opened." The first song he played in public was Kiss's "Strutter." David Bryan, a classical-piano student for fifteen years, was turned on to rock keyboards by Yes. The first band he saw in concert was Kiss.

The fact that the members of Bon Jovi still listen to mid-Seventies rock demonstrates how much their music is a product of that era. On the New Jersey tour, they perform two covers: Thin Lizzy's "Boys Are Back in Town" and Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band," both self-romanticizing tales of roguish male camaraderie and hard-rock heroism. For "Livin' on a Prayer," Richie even brought back the voice box, a relic last heard on Peter Frampton's megahits. "I didn't get the Talking Heads," says Jon. "I didn't quite understand it, you know? I was fifteen years old. I was living for smoking dope, drinking Black Label beer with friends down in their basements." He grew up in Sayreville, New Jersey, the oldest of three sons; his father was a hairdresser, and his mother, a former Miss Erie, Pennsylvania, and Playboy bunny, was a florist. His childhood was unremarkable, with the possible exception of an expulsion from Catholic school for slapping a girl. If Jon's youth included anything other than music, he's since forgotten about it.

Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny and the Jukes lured him to Asbury Park, where he regularly sneaked into the Fast Lane with a fake ID. He formed the Atlantic City Expressway, a large horn band that included David Bryan Rashbaum, a keyboardist from Edison, New Jersey, who used his dad's surgical-supplies truck to transport the band. The group became successful in Jersey; Bruce joined them onstage once and hugged Jon, which seems to have had a nearly religious effect. While playing frat parties, Jon decided he didn't care about college. "When you drive up to 'em on a Friday night," he says, "and you see people puking out the window at a keg party, you go, 'What the fuck do I have to come here for? I know how to do this.'"

He had other bands — the Rest, the Lechers, John Bongiovi (his given name) and the Wild Ones — but when the drinking age in Jersey was raised to twenty-one, bars and bar bands suffered. Jon's big change came in 1980 when he went to work for "that cousin of mine."

Jon's second cousin, Tony Bongiovi, coowns the Power Station, an illustrious New York recording studio. Ultimately, the two cousins ended up in court, disputing the extent to which Tony helped Jon's career. But the experience exposed Jon to many rock stars, the behavior of whom he recalls with an obsessive's precise memory, from Jagger's encouragement to Diana Ross's bitchiness. Tony hired some well-known musicians to play on a demo tape of Jon's song "Runaway," extracting a percentage of future royalties as a return on his investment. "I was twenty," Jon says with a shrug. "I signed anything."

"Runaway" became a hit on New York radio, and Jon put together a band to play area clubs. He recruited Rashbaum, Alec Such (from Perth Amboy, New Jersey), Hector "Tico" Torres (from Colonia, New Jersey) and Dave "the Snake" Sabo, who played guitar. When Atlantic Records offered the Wild Ones a contract, Jon brought the deal to PolyGram and brazenly asked, "Can you beat this?"

PolyGram outbid Atlantic, but not without making demands. The record company wanted to call the band Victory. Then, Jon recalls, they wanted to rename him "Robin something or other," or maybe Johnny Lightning. "This is record-company guys who get paid a hundred grand a year," says Jon. "I'd sit there like Buckwheat — 'Say what?'" PolyGram also wanted him to get rid of Alec (for reasons Jon won't specify), which he refused to do.

There were compromises, many designed to enhance the marketing of the band. Jon agreed to change the spelling of his first and last names, thus deethnicizing the group. Dave Rashbaum later dropped his ethnic last name, because, he has said, his middle name, Bryan, is "a better showbiz name."

In promotional material, management sliced five years off Alec's and Tico's official ages to bring them closer to the median age of pop stars. And only Jon was signed to PolyGram — the members of the band were, and still are, his employees. Richie Sambora, a self-described "eternal optimist" from Woodbridge, New Jersey, joined the band last. He saw the Wild Ones play, went backstage and told Jon, "We should be working together." Then he recited his résumé of near stardom: guitarist in Mercy, a metal band signed to Swan Song, Led Zeppelin's label; guitarist in Duke Williams and the Extremes, a funk band signed to Capricorn, the Allman Brothers' label; vice-president of his own indie label; a minor acting career (he played a musician in Staying Alive); and a recent trip to Los Angeles, where he auditioned for Kiss and hung out in Sylvester Stallone's mansion.

"I rubbed Jon the wrong way instantly," says Sambora. "He just kind of went, 'Ha, ha. Who is this asshole?'" But after one rehearsal, he replaced Dave Sabo (who is now the guitarist in Skid Row, a hard-rock group managed by Doc McGhee and the opening band for Bon Jovi's American shows).

Bon Jovi toured hard. "That's the Jersey attitude: hit the pavement," says Dave Bryan. "If you throw enough shit up against the wall, some of it's gonna stick. And we're always there with shovels." The band opened for the Scorpions, Judas Priest and Kiss. "These people were ready to hear 'Kill your fucking mom,'" Richie says. Each of the first two LPs sold more than a million copies worldwide, but because of Jon's debts and legal obligations, the band made little money. Alec's and Tico's marriages dissolved.

With Slippery When Wet, the band's third album, Bon Jovi perfected a new kind of music — call it lite metal or hard bubblegum, "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Livin' on a Prayer" pumped hooks up until they had the force of steamrollers. With its hit singles, Bon Jovi found a niche between hard rock and a safe place. At last count, Slippery had sold 13.5 million copies.

"It had a lot to do with timing," Sambora says of the band's breakthrough. "It had a lot to do with the hole in the business. I guess there was a hole — there was a need by the people for a Bon Jovi. Just a good-time entertainment band, you know? A bridge between Phil Collins and Whitesnake."

Timing did indeed have a lot to do with it: David Lee Roth had left Van Halen, and REO Speedwagon and Journey had peaked. But it's more complex than that. Bon Jovi was perfect for the Reagan era. "Personally, I don't really understand politics," says Richie. He thinks Bon Jovi songs offer "positive messages for youth" and summarizes the band's philosophy as "be all you can be," echoing the U.S. Army's advertising motto. Bon Jovi trumpeted industriousness and family values and didn't sing about depressing, realistic subjects. And it surely didn't hurt that Jon was the beautiful ideal of a frontman — pillowy, highlighted hair, long, pillowy lashes and pouty, pillowy lips.

Having found the right formula on Slippery, Bon Jovi stuck with it. New Jersey was recorded at the same studio (Little Mountain Sound Studios, in Vancouver, British Columbia), with the same producer (Bruce Fairbairn). The band used the same co-writer (Desmond Child) and the same video director (Isham).

And once again, Bon Jovi premiéred several dozen finished tracks for a bunch of fans and used their votes to determine which songs would make the LP. When musicians from Sinéad O'Connor to members of Metallica cite Bon Jovi as an example of everything that's wrong with rock & roll in the Eighties, the band falls back on its fans.

"When I used to stand there when I was seven years old with that guitar in front of the mirror, acting like John Lennon, man, and I didn't know what the fuck I was doing," says Sambora. "Now I'm doing it for real. And the mirror is the people, though, and their eyes, and how happy they get." The members of Bon Jovi agree that a kid's smile is all they need to justify their work. "Musicians get the records for free, critics get the records for free — kids buy the records," Sambora continues. "If they're happy, that's what makes me happy. I'm not here to make the guy in Metallica happy. We depend on our public as our barometer."

It wasn't what Red Dawn led me to expect," Jon Bon Jovi says. "That was my view of Russia — they're the guys that win the gold medals, and they're the enemy. But I went there, and they're not the fucking enemy. If we lent that hand, that we went over there and showed the Russian kids that a bunch of guys that play instruments aren't political, we're just friends, that's cool. Then maybe they'll have that view of America. That's all I'm doing, man, showing them that men are men, you know, regardless of East or West And that's as simple as I can explain it."

It's a week after their Soviet trip, and the members of Bon Jovi have settled into an exclusive hotel in London's Piccadilly area for a series of U.K. shows. Kim Basinger is staying in the hotel, too, and her presence reduces Jon and Richie to jitters and titters. Things are more sedate now, at least partly because of the proximity of the fun police: actress Ally Sheedy, Richie's steady of five months, phones a few times a day, and Dorothea Hurley, Jon's girlfriend, has rejoined the band.

The brevity of his high-profile romance with actress Diane Lane and his reunion with Hurley, a friend since high school, "say everything about my career with this band," Jon says. "You might find a picture of us with the ripped-up clothes and the pose of the week, because we wanted to be a famous rock band and we didn't really know how. So it took us some time to find ourselves, in our personal lives as well as our career. So I did that. I went out and had a ... whatever you want to call it. I went out with a girl for ten months, a year maybe. You come to terms with who you are and what you're about. That lifestyle is not for me."

Jon takes music too seriously to consider any of the acting opportunities that are regularly offered to him. For one thing, he says, he wouldn't play a rock star, and "you ain't got enough money" for him to cut his hair for a role. "I would have been in Young Guns if I could have got shot early," he says. "I saw that movie, with all those cool guys, and they were cowboys. I could see myself spitting, you know. I'd be good at spitting."

Hollywood moguls who woo him don't understand that acting would be contrary to the Jersey attitude Jon prides himself on. "I couldn't," he says. "It's not what I do. I think I can do what I'm doing for a long time, you know. I like it here." He chuckles. "Yeah."

To paraphrase Dave Bryan, the members of Bon Jovi are determined to shovel shit until they are at the top of the heap. They will tour as hard as they need to. "We're not big," Jon says. "In my shoes, you don't say, 'We're a big band.' 'Cause to me, I go, 'Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, George Michael — those are big.' There's always more."

After conquering the Soviet Union, what's left — the first tour of Mars? "Don't say that in front of Doc," Jon says with a pained smile. "He'll have me up in the space shuttle."