45. Bon Jovi - Livin' On a Prayer

Bon Jovi has always struggled for critical acclaim.  And by struggle, I mean they really don't give a damn.  They write songs that they'd like to hear and know their fans want to hear.  In many ways, they're the Wolfgang Peterson (director of In the Line of Fire, The Perfect Storm and Poseidon) of music.  They make solid records that millions enjoy.  Until 2008, they had been nominated for Grammys, but had never won.  In the ultimate irony, their only Grammy win was in the "Best Country Collaboration with Vocals" category for the version of their song "Who Says You Can't Go Home?" that they did with Sugarland's lead vocalist, Jennifer Nettles, off of their Lost Highway album.  So the rock icons of the 80's won a country Grammy?  Next thing you'll tell me is that Bono was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Like many great songs, "Livin' on a Prayer" builds in intensity from a single musical source.  In this case, it's David Bryan's keyboards that lay the foundation for the song.  Then there's a few hits of some finger cymbals as the bass joins in.  Finally, as the song kicks off, you have Tico Torres' machine gun drum into.

After the big, atmospheric opening, guitarist Richie Sambora beaks in with his guitar played through a vocoder, or in the guitar world, a talk box. For those of you who don't know, a talk box is a device that takes the sound of the guitar from the amplifier and then funnels it through a plastic tube back up to a microphone in front of the guitarist. So if the guitarist opens and closes his mouth, the guitar can appear as if it's "talking" the notes.  The best example of this is Peter Frampton using a talk box in his song "Do You Feel Like I Do?", released in 1976.  Another good one is Joe Walsh's work on "Rocky Mountain Way." A lot of people think that Frampton "jumped the shark" with the talk box on "Do You," and so you didn't hear much more of it for a while. (Then again, Frampton Comes Alive was one of the most popular albums of all time, selling over six million copies back in the 70's). But Richie brings it back with authority in "Livin' on a Prayer" and it becomes one of the musical foundations for the song.

Talented guitar players aren't too hard to find, but for my money, there are none better than Richie Sambora.  He plays with such passion yet technical perfection that I'm still in awe when I listen to him play.  He does the lightning fast guitar solos, but also stunned the world with the acoustic performance that he and Jon did for MTV's Unplugged.  He can play rock, metal, blues, jazz - anything you throw at him or the song requires.  He even knows when to play with restraint when that's what's needed, an example that many other rock guitarists should follow.  I've said that I would give my right pinkie finger to be able to play like Richie Sambora.  Not Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai or Jimi Hendrix.  Richie.  Of course, I should probably practice some instead, but that sounds like work.  Just take the finger and make me a rock god.

Jon Bon Jovi sings the song with the gravelly voice that echoes the song's subject matter.  He alternately sings as if he's dead tired, but in the choruses, he lets his vocals soar.  "Livin' on a Prayer" is about two blue collar Americans, Tommy and Gina, who are "down on their luck" because of a union strike.  Sure, Gina works at the diner and brings in some money, but without Tommy's income, they're just not making ends meet and the stress is taking its toll.  These are Springsteen's working class heroes who've been betrayed by Reaganomics.

Tommy got his six string in hock
Now he's holding in what he used
To make it talk - so tough, it's tough
Gina dreams of running away
When she cries in the night
Tommy whispers, "Baby it's okay.  Someday..."

But as their lives crumble, their love keeps them strong.

We've got to hold on to what we've got
'Cause it doesn't make a difference
If we make it or not
We've got each other and that's a lot for love

We'll give it a shot 

Critics called it cheesy, but the lyrics spoke to so many of America's couples who struggle with the hands that were dealt them.  You want Tommy and Gina to make it.  You hope that their love will give them the fortitude to make it through the tough times.

As the song heads into its final chorus, there's a key change, kicking the melody up a notch, and taking the high notes of the chorus to a death defying level.  There are notes that I'm sure Jon probably now regrets writing because he no longer has the twenty-four year-old voice he had when he recorded it in 1986.  But in listening to the studio version, the song soars to epic levels.

"Living on a Prayer" is that guilty pleasure that people don't want to admit they have.  But when the song comes on the radio, they're not turning that dial.  They're staying through Tommy and Gina's story 'till the end.  And if they're in the car alone, you know they're trying to hit those high notes at the end.  I know I am, but I'm not 24 anymore, either.

This is the official video of "Livin' on a Prayer."  Jon's outfit is the epitome of the 80's fashion gone bad.  The black leather jacket with the fringe (and the shoulder pads!).  The faded jeans with holes in the knees.  The cowboy boots.  The scarf and the tacky claw necklace resting on his chest hair.  And then his hair - on his head!  Look up 80's rock n roll fashion trends in the dictionary.  And there he is, in all his glory.  Awesome!  Totally Awesome!

Fun Fact #67 (Not really a Bon Jovi fun fact, but since I talked about Peter Frampton and his performance of "Do You Feel Like I Do?", I thought I'd point out that the live version of the song on Frampton Comes Alive! checks in at a mind-blowingly self-indulgent 14 minutes and 15 seconds! Exclamation point, indeed! Come on, Peter, I've got a doctor's appointment in four hours, could you wrap it up, please?)
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