Jon Bon Jovi Is Rock's Mr. Nice Guy

Bon Jovi gives arena rock a good name.
Bon Jovi gives arena rock a good name. "Have a Nice Day" is the band's ninth studio album. (By Olaf Heine)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

"Twenty-two years of touring -- we're pretty good," Jon Bon Jovi says. "We know how to play, we know how to sing."

Bon Jovi's not bragging, mind you, just explaining why Bon Jovi (the band's) current tour has been one of the year's hottest. For instance, Saturday's concert at MCI Center sold out so quickly that a Feb. 2 date was added almost immediately.

Of course, it doesn't hurt when a band can deliver anthemic arena rock at its finest, full of meaty hooks for pop fans and crunch and power for rock fans. Bon Jovi (the singer) opens the show on a small stage near the soundboard, playing "Last Man Standing" on acoustic guitar before guitarist Richie Sambora, keyboardist David Bryan and drummer Tico Torres power up. In some ways, Bon Jovi is one of the last bands standing from the '80s, thanks to a solid foundation that includes "Livin' on a Prayer," "It's My Life," "Blaze of Glory," "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Bad Medicine" and "Wanted Dead or Alive."

The show also features songs from Bon Jovi's latest album, "Have a Nice Day," its caustic title cut one of several socially informed tracks that belie some critics' dismissal of the band as disconnected and lightweight.

"There's been a lot of talk over the years about 'How relevant is Bon Jovi?' " says its frontman. "When I took social stances, I was so concerned with making [those songs] timeless that I didn't get up there and preach my politics; if I chose to do something, I did it on the side. Now when I do a song like 'Have a Nice Day,' thematically it's universal, and people can make the song their own; like 'Livin' on a Prayer' and 'It's My Life,' which have different meanings to different people as the years go on."

Bon Jovi admits he thought about making the show "much darker if I chose to get into 'Keep the Faith' and 'Something to Believe In' and 'Hey God' and those kind of songs that were a little more introspective and dark and angry. But I thought to myself, 'Is that really what I want to be doing in the middle of December leading up to Christmas in these big arenas, or should I keep it really upbeat and optimistic and lighthearted?' And I thought, 'You know what? People are going to be leaving that arena going, "Wow, I've just had the best time," so I needn't get up there and start pounding my chest and telling you about my viewpoint on things.'

"If we're going to be celebrated for being fun, that's okay."

Does that mean that, particularly given the season, we might hear "R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas"? After all, that was Jon Bon Jovi's first radio appearance back in 1980, when the song was featured on Meco's "Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas." Then known as John Bongiovi, the 18-year-old, fresh-out-of-high-school rock aspirant was working at cousin Tony Bongiovi's famous Manhattan recording studio, the Power Station, sweeping floors, doing odd jobs and recording demos that failed to impress any labels. When Meco auditioned singers, Tony suggested his cousin for a lead vocal, backed by a high school choir. The Meco album remains a favorite among movie, music and Christmas music collectors alike.

As for the prospect of us actually hearing "R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas" on Saturday, Bon Jovi says, "Yes . . . absolutely . . . sure!" He's laughing as he says this, which we think translates as "Not on your life!"

However, fans will hear "Runaway," recorded at the Power Plant in 1983; it won Bon Jovi a best-unsigned-band contest sponsored by a New York radio station, which led to a record contract with Mercury. Released in 1984, the single cracked the Top 40 (barely, at No. 39). Last year's "100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can't Be Wrong" (homage to Elvis Presley's "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong" hits album) marked worldwide sales of 100 million albums while also commemorating the 20th anniversary of Bon Jovi's eponymous debut album.

Fans will also get a short "Unplugged" set, an approach that Bon Jovi actually pioneered back in 1989 on the MTV Music Awards. "We were wondering how to impress an audience of peers sitting in the front rows," Bon Jovi recalls, "and felt the best way was not to impress them but to sit down with two acoustic guitars and sing a song. We were going to choose between 'Livin' on a Prayer' or 'Wanted Dead or Alive' until the producer said to do them both. So we did, and we walked off the stage thinking, 'Well, that stiffed,' until the next day when the papers and the radio stations were all talking about it.

A few years ago, Bon Jovi revisited some of its favorites acoustically on "This Left Feels Right," which the singer now calls "a self-indulgent record. As much as we loved it, our fans hated it. Who knew? I didn't realize, but it makes sense: People were saying, 'Don't mess with our memories.' Oh! I never thought of it like that!"

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