On the road with Big Jon

They don't snarl or growl. What kind of heavy metal band is Bon Jovi?

A cloyingly hot day in London and Bon Jovi are in town to pick up a few gongs. The function room of the Cumberland Hotel is festooned with burning trash cans, crashed cars and flickering lights. Jon Bon Jovi strolls around the post-apocalyptic hell that is the Kerrang! Heavy Metal Awards, with a honey-coloured Jovi baby balanced on his leather-clad hip. The peroxided, lycra-clad audience, death-white pancake make-up melting in the heat, look on in disbelief. These are the Heavy Metal awards, after all. They shake their heads. "If it were Steven Tyler, he would have eaten the child. And then eaten the rich. And then eaten the poor."

Bon Jovi were always so easy to understand, such a perfect big-haired spandex metaphor for all the worst excesses of the Eighties. They were the ultimate poodle- haired glam-metal rock band. Except that Jon came from New Jersey and cited Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen as influences. Somewhere along the line, he got a less flamboyant haircut, stopped wearing make-up and the hits became stripped- down ballads ("Blaze of Glory", "This Aint a Love Song"). Last year's greatest hit album, Cross Road, sold over 12 million copies, and Bon Jovi crossed the line from metal-boy fan base to FM-staple baby-making music. The metal community regards them as traitors, and the press sneer at Bon Jovi's stance as Band of the People.

As if to drive home the gap between popularity and credibility, Bon Jovi spent their one day off last week "busking" in Glasgow, Cardiff and London's South Bank, each gig four hours apart. The Sun, slighted at not having an exclusive, tipped off the police that the band's outdoor gig was illegal, and the Glasgow show had to be relocated to a record store. In a clammy chainstore, Jon and guitarist Richey Sambora plucked those strings as if they were actually enjoying themselves. Sambora's wife, Melrose Place star Heather Locklear, grinned in the corner like a beautiful blonde pixie,as Pam Rosenberg, the band's ultra-glam press officer, mouthed every word. Then Bon Jovi and their glossy haired entourage got back on their private plane and flew to Cardiff.

I was put in a limousine with a weary Jon, as we journeyed from the airport to the Cardiff bandstand. Jon is one of those people who, no matter how short his haircut, will always have BIG hair. You have to wonder if it just falls like that, or if it has to be coiffed. That's the conundrum about Jon: everything about him could be very cheap or very expensive. Was the black bobbled V-neck he was wearing costly bobble effect, or bobbled from years of wear?

Glasgow and Cardiff are two of the most economically and emotionally depressed cities in the United Kingdom. Glasgow has one of the highest rateas of HIV in Europe and a flourishing Temazepam problem. The bandstand Bon Jovi played in Cardiff is usually occupied by the Jesus Army shouting through megaphones. There is a constant smell of beer brewing in the centre of town. Whatever beer smells like as a finished product, the stench of it brewing is foul.

As we head back to the airport, Jon talks about how much he loved Kerouac, Ginsberg and Bukowski as a teenager, how he knew he had to escape. He is a pop star who understands boredom, who came from a soul-destroying industrial town like most people do, who knew he was destined for a career in auto parts, but dreamed of something better. Who knew that however much he won, part of him was already lost to the New Jersey smog and backstreet bars.

"I once talked about it to Joe Elliot, of Def Leppard, who grew up in Sheffield. We both agreed that just growing up in those towns

gives you a sadness that never leaves. Music isn't politics. That's why the President doesn't break into song at the end of a speech. Music truly saved my life in 1976, but, to be honest, all I hope my songs do is make someone not honk their horn at the car next door."

Either a line like "you live for the fight when it's all that you'v' got" makes you squirm or, in the simplest terms, tells the story of your life. For the 12 million who bought the record, listening to Cross Road is like watching the opening titles to Fame: Yes, I do wanna live forever. Restructure your fantasies by the track listing on the Greatest Hits: I wanna give love a bad name, keep the faith and go down in a blaze of glory. The Cardiff office workers watching the busking spectacle from their tower blocks knew every word.

Jon is mistrustful of any band who seems too cool. "There was a piece written about Oasis in Rolling Stone, who, of course, loved them. They played a concert where they told the audience `you don't deserve us' and started flicking V-signs at the crowd. In Asbury Park, New Jersey, they don't understand that means f**k you."

"I think Courtney Love made a brilliant record, I love it. And the shock factor thing is cute, but... I saw it the first time. I think Green Day write nice pop songs, but the Sid sneer, the English accent and you're from Northern California? I wanna grow up and be Green Day? Naaah."

But the last album, Keep the Faith, did seem to have been influenced by the sounds exploding at the time. Madchester, perhaps? The title track sounds like classic Stone Roses, what with the drum loop intro. Jon shakes his head.

"No drum loops. Tico did it. But, yeah, it was a different sound for us. I couldn't write "You Give Love a Bad Name" for 20 years. It'd kill me."

Now 33, Jon has just completed his movie debut, Moonlight and Valentino with Whoopi Goldberg. Which industry is more shallow?

"Well, I loved making the movie. But, in films, regardless of your success, you always have to kiss someone else's ass to get another movie. To me, politics is the worst kind of f**king showbusiness. I saw Bob Dole [Republican Senator for Indiana] on a talk show, saying basically that whatever Bill Clinton says, even if it's `I can cure cancer,' he's gonna oppose it. Now that's f**ked up. Whatever happened to the common good of the people?"

Then Bon Jovi clamber back on to their plane and fly to London. At the South Bank, teenage boys play air guitar while trying to cling to tree branches, thirtysomething secretaries wriggle in delight and a four-year- old girl sits by the side of the stage with her dad. Jon Bon Jovi may never get the critical respect that Springsteen inspires, but to the 9,000- strong crowd, they equal the same thing. Because all anyone really wants is a working-class hero with bone structure.

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