Bon Jovi: The Kids Are Alright

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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 terrorizing 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 accidently 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."

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