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Bon Jovi: The Kids Are Alright

Bon Jovi has hit the top with an image tailor-made for today's teens

May 21, 1987 12:00 AM ET
Bon Jovi on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bon Jovi on the cover of Rolling Stone.
E.J. Camp

Jon Bon Jovi's hair is about fourteen inches long. Its color 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 funneling 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 colors 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."

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