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"I'll Be There" 24 May 2003
Bon Jovi article from The Guardian

Source: The Guardian

Here's a tale about me and Jon Bon Jovi. A couple of months ago, I was in quite a sulk - recent heartbreak and, oh boy, was I getting some self-pity mileage out of that. Tired of listening to me whinge, my little sister came over one evening and swapped the Gabrielle CD in my stereo for Cross Road, Bon Jovi's greatest hits album, and the two of us proceeded to fling ourselves around my one-room flat.

So gloriously anthemic, so soothingly familiar, so accommodatingly vague, each song seemed to speak to my much-vaunted misery - powered as they are by a similar kind of overwrought energy - and repeatedly promise that he, Jon, shared my pain. We (me and my sister, I mean, not me and Jon, sadly) poledanced with kitchen equipment, punched our fists to the ceiling and I don't think I've ever felt so cheered in all my life.

And here's another tale about me and Jon Bon Jovi. When I finally, thrillingly, met the man, obviously I had to share the above anecdote. And you know what? He didn't seem all that impressed.

With a smile that had the strength and lifespan of an ailing fruit fly, he sighed in a bored monotone. "That blows me. Really. Sure is wild." Perhaps ridiculous twentysomethings drunk on chablis and Bridget Jones clichés were not quite Jon's imagined audience when he wrote his ballads of blue-collar yearning and male angst.

Just who this golden-locked, Adonis-faced singer does think is his audience we'll return to later. Right now, more pressing matters are at hand, for we are in Jon's Manhattan apartment! So does it live up to expectations of a rock god's pad?

It does not disappoint. Panoramic views, marble entryway, a kitchen stocked only with wine and potato chips. And, oh, the photos! Here's Jon with the Rolling Stones, here's Jon with Clinton ("You were terrific! Bill"), here he is with Bob Geldof. Many photos of Dorothea, his twin-like wife - same long face, aquiline nose, wide, thin mouth and blond shag - and the three kids.

But something's not quite right. For a start, it is very, very beige. Even the hand towels in the bathroom are beige. Whoever heard of a beige-loving rock god? Also, it's almost entirely empty: no books, no clothes, nothing.

Crushingly, even the bathrooms are devoid of personal effects, cruelly preventing visitors from learning what shampoo he uses. There is no point in snooping: this is not a home, it's a slickly professional facade.

Now here comes the man himself. Having just arrived by helicopter (how cool is that?), Jon Bon Jovi (and that is his real name - John Bongiovi, to use the original spelling; how cool is that?) is wearing a black shirt that he must have bought from Rock Stars 'R' Us: just tight enough around the arms to show off the biceps, just open enough at the front to show off the chest hair.

But he, too, is looking just a little too slick and, in fact, a little too beige. Three states in one day and he's worn out, but "no, really, it's my pleasure to talk", he says in a voice that has the rhythm of slowly drumming fingers.

Twenty years of being the butt of music journalists' sarcasm - once it was the hair, now it's the longevity - can get a man down. But, hell, he's sold 100 million albums, right? Who cares about critics? "I know," he says, in a tone of deep reassurance, "that there's a lot of love."

John Bongiovi, now a statesman-like 41, was born and raised in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, "like one of those Mellencamp picket fence songs - very industrial, very middle class. Kind of like Sheffield. Nice, but a dead end."

Instead of opting for the popular escape route of the navy, he decided by the age of 13 that, quite simply, he was going to be a rock star. As a boy he had a poster of Led Zeppelin on his wall, standing in front of their plane - not because he was a Led Zep fan, but, damn, he liked that plane. "I hated that 1970s stuff, but that plane was cool!"

After playing in bars throughout his teenage years, he recorded his first single, Runaway, at his uncle's studio when he was 21. A record company signed him and he hastily assembled a band with his friends Tico Torres, David Bryan, Alec John Such (who quit in 1993) and Richie Sambora, whom he hadn't known before but "recognised in him my kind of desire".

With the release in 1986 of the unsurpassably titled Slippery When Wet, containing the still glorious Livin' On A Prayer and You Give Love A Bad Name, followed by New Jersey in 1988, they became one of the biggest bands in the world.

But the lead singer was not enjoying it. Too worried about proving that they weren't flashes in the pan, too worried about what to do with the next album. On top of that, he thought he looked like an idiot: on the inside cover of New Jersey, the band stand together, hair flowing, except for Bongiovi, who turned away from the camera and wrapped his coat around himself.

"In retrospect, I can see that I was trying to hide," he says, understandably. Things are better now: "This is what I wanted to do, to still be here in 20 years' time. It's what I aimed for back then, so now I'm just enjoying it," he says, in a tone that actually does not suggest too much enjoyment.

Now, what kind of rock singer makes a 20-year career plan when he's 23? The same one who dutifully, doggedly, presents the same anecdotes for every interviewer. From an interview three years ago: "The worst time was 1991. I was even going to see a shrink because I was so messed up. But I couldn't find the guy's office and I showed up 45 minutes late. I sat down, ready to spill my guts to this guy, and after a couple of minutes he says, 'Well, your time's up; after all, you are running late.' That was a real low."

And today: so, Mr Bongiovi, why did you and the band take a break from one another in 1991? "I was in a really bad place then. I even made an appointment to see a shrink at one point, but I turned up 45 minutes late. So I get there, ready to spill my guts, and he says, 'Time's up, you're late.' " Impressive, no?

The man does have a kind of vorsprung durch technik efficiency about him, which explains why he, of all people, is still going, 20 years after starting out, whereas most of his stadium rocker contemporaries (Whitesnake, Twisted Sister) have long since beached. The band is currently chugging along on a sold-out worldwide tour.

But efficiency was never cool, and even at their height Bon Jovi were not, as he says himself, with a sarcastic enunciation of every syllable, "fashionable". In part, this is, admittedly, due to the music (though obviously the hair never helped).

Bongiovi might like to think his music inhabits his friend Bruce Springsteen's territory, with its deep-chested passion about breaking out of small towns, but his lyrical social commentary tends to get slushed up with rhyming couplets of the together/for ever sort (and all the better for it, in the opinion of those of us who like to dance around our flats, miming into hairbrushes).

Another problem was, despite the hair, the make-up, the loud music, Bon Jovi's image was always a little too clean for credibility. In interviews, Bongiovi frequently warned against the evils of drugs and the closest they came to scandal was when MTV banned one of their videos for being too risqué (they duly re-cut).

The band, though they were never going to be Axl Rose, did their bit to perpetuate some of the more enjoyable rock'n'roll clichés - Richie Sambora busied himself with, among others, Ally Sheedy, Cher and finally Heather Locklear, to whom he is still married, and Tico Torres was, as one tabloid coyly put it, overcoming language barriers with supermodels. Meanwhile, Bongiovi was in a long-term relationship with his high-school sweetheart, Dorothea Hurley.

The tale, as he tells it, of how they got together sounds like one of his ballads about small-town American life: she was the "cool chick who didn't want to live her life working at the supermarket checkout", he was "the class rebel". She was also his buddy's girlfriend, but when the buddy went off and joined the navy, well, the opportunity presented itself.

And she does sound a bit of a pistol: aside from having a black belt in karate, she was never, her husband claims, "affected by [his] fame thing. I don't think she ever gave a shit about it".

He might not always have been a saint when the band first took off, he concedes, but she soon enough informed him that were he ever to mess around, why then she would take the kids and shack up with Tom Cruise. The two have been married for 14 years, still live in New Jersey, and Bongiovi talks happily about wanting a fourth child, "a little clan".

With maturity and marital cosiness came inevitable change. When Bon Jovi released Keep The Faith in 1992, the eyeliner had gone ("We kept poking ourselves in the eye and then we realised we looked like jerks") and, most seismically, Bongiovi trimmed his hair from a shag-pile carpet to more of a frosted mullet - an event perceived as so culturally significant that CNN carried it as a news item. "Ah, the hair, the hair. I find it incredible that people still talk about the hair," he sighs, apparently not having seen a photo of himself from then in a while.

As for the music, well. Has it changed? There is, shall we say, a thematic consistency to the Bon Jovi oeuvre: blue-collar lovers scraping by, love is pain, tough but good-hearted guys called Jimmy or Tony, and so on.

But the music has become less rock'n'roll, with an increasing number of sudsy ballads. "I'm not in the shoes of the 25-year-old kid from the Jersey mall any more," he says defensively, looking down at the tips of his suede cowboy boots and giving them a waggle.

"But no matter what the critics say, the band has always been true to who we are. God forbid I would ever jump on the hip-hop bandwagon, or in 1995 have put on a flannel shirt and tried to be Pearl Jam. What would I be doing now? Going through the boyband thing and learning how to dance and doing duets with J-Lo? Forget it."

This fidelity to the mainstream has helped them retain their impressively loyal fan base (although the thought of Jon "boarding the hip-hop bandwagon" does provide a pleasing interlude).


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