The year 2003 had lots of acts on the come up, from The Postal Service to 50 Cent. But the only band who mattered to me and my friends was one who had long ago peaked: Bon Jovi.
We grew up in a relatively small town outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Classic rock was a staple at parties and school dances. Bon Jovi's greatest hits album, Crossroads, was on the jukebox in the cafeteria of our high school. “You Give Love a Bad Name” was a lunchtime favorite. But that alone doesn't explain how our love for the group went on to grow as big Jon Bon Jovi's hair circa 1987.
In college at the University of Wisconsin, our Bon Jovi appreciation became obsessive. In 2003 the group was coming to nearby Milwaukee, and we were on the phone with Ticketmaster the morning the show went on sale. Despite the fact that we were unemployed college students, we paid for good seats.
Perhaps this was nostalgia, since we'd spent our high school summers hitting county fairs all over northeast Wisconsin to see bands including Journey (Outagamie County), Def Leppard (Kewaunee County) and REO Speedwagon (Fond du Lac County). For us, though, Bon Jovi was the big daddy of '80s and early '90s arena rockers — they had loads of hits, were still making acceptable new music (see: “It's My Life”) and filling big venues. We were there.
Then there was Jon Bon Jovi himself. Though old enough to be our father, he was our number one crush — a symbol of masculine virility and sexuality. (A particular favorite was the nearly naked ad campaign he did for Versace in 1997). There was nothing dangerous about him. None of us knew all that much about sex at the time, but we emailed JBJ photos back and forth and played the band's steamy music video for “Please Come Home for Christmas” all year round.
The concert, in February of 2003, was nearly a disaster. We almost got in a bad car accident while en route to Milwaukee and were fairly shaken up when we arrived. But, once inside the Bradley Center, we were close enough to the stage that we could see JBJ in the flesh with our own hungry eyes. He was wearing some sort of brown leather outfit. His highlights were frosty. We screamed until our throats were raw and left the show with arm fulls of merch. We were probably the only chicks in our respective dorms with Bon Jovi posters on the walls. In art class that semester, I made these weird little collages with Jon Bon at the center. I'm sure my professor thought I was a creep.
When the band added a Madison date to the tour for the following month, it was a gift from the rock gods. The venue was literally across the street from our dorm. We bought cheaper tickets this time and got terribly drunk on shots of vodka before the show. This is probably part of the reason one of my friends got hit by a minivan when we were crossing the street to get there. Amazingly, she bounced right up off Dayton Street and we headed into the show in what you might call a blaze of glory.
As our freshman year of college wound down, we returned to our hometown, settling into our summer waitressing jobs and lifeguarding gigs. My parents were pissed when I announced I was going to see Bon Jovi, again, at Alpine Valley, a huge outdoor amphitheater in southern Wisconsin. “You're spending all of your money to see the same damn show over and over,” they argued. Whatever. My friend borrowed her family's minivan and the six of us hit the road.
We had a cooler full of hotdogs and beer that someone's older brother had purchased for us, and a bunch of t-shirts that we had had made at the mall with Bon Jovi lyrics on them. It was only when we got to the campsite that we realized we had neglected to bring water or any fire starting materials. When we got lost while en route to Alpine, we asked a cop for directions. Thankfully, he did not search the cooler.
It was a beautiful summer night, we tailgated in the parking lot, our t-shirts were a hit, and we were able to procure loads of Mike's Hard Lemonade with a fake ID. Best of all, the band finally played my all time favorite Bon Jovi song, “Lay Your Hands On Me,” with Jon inexplicably announcing “you're only making me harder” as the crowd screamed. It's possible the six of us all nearly passed out from overstimulation. After the show, we had a campfire and flirted with boys from the neighboring site. The experience, like all of our Bon Jovi adventures, taught us about adventure and danger, but, much like the band itself, it was all still very much innocent.
Truth is: Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Tico Torres and David Bryan all seemed like mild mannered, middle aged dudes with a dorky side. I think we appreciated their earnestness and the feel-good themes of their songs — keeping the faith, doing your best against all odds, being in love. It didn't matter that Jon could no longer quite hit the high notes on “Livin' on a Prayer.” We liked that he had been married to his high school sweetheart for decades, that he owned an arena football team in his native New Jersey and that he appeared in an episode of Sex and the City. We were fully aware that the band was slightly cheesy — Jon Bon always left the stage mid-set to have his hair re-feathered, after all. We didn't care.
Shortly after I moved to L.A., Bon Jovi played Staples. A guest at the chi chi restaurant where I worked at gave me tickets. I had been hoping this would happen and had packed my mall-made t-shirt in my purse just in case, changing in the restaurant's coat check room and rushing across the street to the show. Jon and Richie wore matching silk shirts. When they played “Who Says You Can't Go Home,” I indeed felt very close to Wisconsin. We girls now have babies, careers, husbands, Master's degrees and live in cities scattered throughout the country. We still send “Please Come Home for Christmas” to each other every holiday season.
Bon Jovi plays the Staples Center tomorrow, October 11