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Bon Jovi: The Kids Are Alright

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Except for a gossip-column courtship with actress Diane Lane, Jon is very private – a steady love affair with his high-school girlfriend, little public hobnobbing. Like the rest of Bon Jovi, Jon reveres the kids – you know, the kids – cares about touching them and seeing them and even had a pulley designed so that each night during the song "Silent Night," he can fly out to a platform at the back of the arena and for a moment give the kids with the crummy seats a better show. But he thinks giving them too much reality – facts of his private life, for instance – chips away too much of Bon Jovi's mythic stature. Lounging in his Jacksonville hotel room in sweat pants and sneakers, he mentions Kiss's early days, when the band performed in disguise. Watery sunlight and the stink of a local paper plant fill the room; the Smurfs are on the tube, and the Babys on the boom box. "Kiss is the ultimate band," he says. "Look what Kiss did: they could do anything they wanted and then go to the pizza parlor after the show."

The only pizza parlor Bon Jovi goes to after its shows is at 25,0 feet – in the fuselage of the Bon Jovi airplane, a Grumman G-I. The band members are always starved after their shows, and tonight as they fly to the next town on the tour, they are scarfing luke-warm pizza.

They all love the airplane immensely. One of the management people traveling with the band even carries a handsome color photograph of the craft in his briefcase. The affection is understandable: because the guys in the band have been touring constantly since Slippery When Wet went wild and have no time or use for the new mansions or cars they can now afford, the airplane is about the only tangible evidence to them of their current success. Soon the plane will be upgraded in keeping with their multi-platinum stature: it goes into the shop this month to have its currently clemure BON JOVI insignia blasted off and replaced with a gigantic painting of the name.

They also love the plane because it speeds up their traveling, which will enable them to tour three extra months this year. For Bon Jovi, this is reason enough to love the plane, because like missionaries zealously spreading the word, the band wants to be out there as much as possible, bringing its music to the kids.

And like missionaries who learn the native tongue and folkways to communicate with their charges, Bon Jovi was happy to tailor Slippery When Wet to popular taste. After all, this was the album with which the band intended to prove its claim to a new, huge audience. "Jon said," recalls PolyGram's Derek Shulman, "'If I don't get it right, let's bring in someone who will.'" Getting it right meant writing songs that would bring the band more than the male-dominated audience that had snapped up Bon Jovi and 7800° Fahrenheit, and someone who could do that was Desmond Child.

Now a producer and songwriter, Child led his band Desmond Child and Rouge until 1980 and was best known as a light-pop writer. But in keeping with heavy metal's new hopes for the big demographic, he is now co-writing with such acts as Aerosmith and Kiss. When Jon Bon Jovi went looking for his breakout in 1985, Paul Stanley of Kiss recommended Child.

Jon, Richie and Child set to writing Slippery with grabby melodies and more of the "relationship-oriented lyrics" record executives consider a prerequisite to attracting a lot of girls. "Oftentimes," Child says of working with Bon Jovi, "I got a lot of resistance. Jon didn't want to try those new rhythms. He thought it sounded too Michael Jackson. It took a tremendous leap of maturity for him to let that in." (A leap, incidentally, that also ended with the band backing Cheron two of the songs for her new album, which Child is producing.)

The four songs they wrote, including the soon-to-be hits "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Livin' on a Prayer," were added to thirty others being considered for the album. According to the band members, they then recorded demos of those thirty-odd songs and played them for local kids – friends of Jon's younger brothers, workers at a New Jersey warehouse, people they knew. "We let them pick out the album," Tico says. "You're so close to it that you can't predict what people are going to like. So what we did is, since they're the people, let them predict it. We didn't want to make the same mistake [we had made in the past] of trying to foresee what is the best one to put on the record. It's for them that you're doing the songs anyway, so they might as well pick what they want to hear. It took a lot of pressure off us."

At least one song, "Never Say Goodbye," would not have been included on the album, says David, except that the kids liked it so much. And that, he says, is what matters. "If we'd brought in a bunch of writers and critics, they probably would have said it all stunk," he says. "A kid's opinion means so much more to me just for the fact that they are the ones who really are our fans." And as such, so goes the Bon Jovi credo, the fans are entitled to an album that makes them happy.

Other crowd-pleasing alterations followed. The minidrama videos the band had done before were ditched for videos showing something the guys knew kids loved: Bon Jovi onstage. ("Livin' on a Prayer" was for several weeks MTV's most requested video.) The original album title, Wanted Dead or Alive, now deemed too gloomy and masculine, was replaced by the lighter-hearted Slippery When Wet. The first cover photo of a buxom blonde was scrapped when censorship groups threatened protests; a wet Hefty bag, the name traced in water drops, was used instead.

What was on the cover mattered less than what wasn't: there absolutely would not be a gauzy portrait of Jon and the band. "That would have killed us," says Richie, who thinks that "a guy, especially a teenager thirteen to eighteen, who's going through that macho period in their life," would have been turned off by a too-pretty picture of the band. At the same time, restricting the exposure of a group already notoriously good looking had its own titillating effect. "We need to keep a little more mystique," says Doc McGhee, Bon Jovi's manager. "We want to make it a little more mysterious. You don't want to know everything about a band. If you do, you won't want to come to the shows. We've got to keep that myth alive and keep one step ahead of it."

The steps they took obviously worked. Slippery When Wet hit Number One when Bon Jovi was opening for 38 Special in Iowa, and nothing has been the same for them since.

None of the members of Bon Jovi will ever forget the afternoon they spent in the presence of Sammy Davis Jr. They were taping a show for Italian television about Americans of Italian descent, and no one can remember how Sammy Davis figured in the lineup, but he did. He looked kind of lousy at first, shuffling around with a cane and thick glasses, and it was scary to see an entertainer who had enjoyed such success sunk by something as far beyond calculation as old age. But then he threw aside the glasses and cane and – just like that – he turned back into the Sammy Davis Jr. they knew and loved, and he started singing and dancing and acting cool. Jon was impressed. "Sammy Davis Jr.," he says, savoring each part of the name, "an amazing talent, that man."

Amazing to Bon Jovi in no small part for his longevity. Like all professional entertainers, the boys in Bon Jovi respect people who have served an audience well and for a long time. They intend to do the same, by keeping careful track of their own health and welfare and a careful eye on their consumers. Teenagers, after all, are notoriously fickle, in love with a band one day, off it the next. "Image," says Derek Shulman, "is almost as important as music in the hard-rock genre. It's almost like peer pressure with the young-adult audience. It's not what the songs sound like."

Image is another thing no one in Bon Jovi will ever forget. The band was fighting with PolyGram over what was going to be the next single. PolyGram thought "Never Say Goodbye" would be a gigantic hit. Jon and the other guys insisted on "Wanted Dead or Alive" – not likely to be as big on radio, but they felt it was the right image at the moment. Their concerts – tickets are selling like mad across the country – are drawing sixty-percent female crowds. That makes this a perfect time to release a gruffer, tougher song, like "Wanted," to make peace with the male audience.

No, it's not left to chance. No one in Bon Jovi seems to think that music left to chance might engender something worthwhile. It's like the band's shows: energetic, entertaining set pieces, with great orchestration of lights, action and fireworks, and absolutely nothing unplanned. David, for one, thinks this is exactly the way it ought to be. Kids come expecting a tight, tidy, exciting show, and Bon Jovi is going to give them the very best one around. "It's like a Broadway show," he explains. "There are too many people depending on it to be a certain way. We couldn't do it differently. It's a Broadway show."

So much for spontaneity. And so much for anything else that might jar this fantastically successful organization. Bon Jovi certainly isn't, for instance, going to parlay its power with kids into a forum for raising difficult issues. After all, according to the members of the band – who have made it their business to know these things – kids only want to hear music that's rousing and loud and fun, not songs about bummers like, say, Vietnam. "Kids now don't know what Vietnam was," Jon says, "so why should I write about it?" He stands up and walks slowly, like a man weighed down by fourteen inches of wonderful hair and 7 million records, and he surveys the Smurfs waddling across his screen. He deliberates and then flips the channel. "My attitude is," he says, smiling, "we're prime-time TV."

This story is from the May 21st, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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