Bon Jovi in Israel: Wall-to-wall Anthems and a Perfect Smile

An ecstatic crowd of 54,000, mostly women, worshipped at the rock altar of Jon Bon Jovi and his merry men on Saturday night.

Moti Milrod

The lights go out and the dramatic sound of drums announces the start of the concert at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park. The band members take to the stage first, followed by lead singer-guitarist Jon Bon Jovi with his perfect smile. The band opens with “That’s What the Water Made Me,” the first stadium anthem in a set list that will include approximately 763 others. One thing is clear from the get-go — the well-calibrated, well-oiled band is excited to be here. The band members look happy, dressed in black and giving their all. As for Mr. Bon Jovi himself, the high-resolution video screens show a close-up of his face, and you can count every white hair and wrinkle.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s as handsome as ever. Black leather pants, tight black shirt, black choker with cross around his neck. Deep blue eyes and that smile. The opener isn’t a song I know — I don’t even like Bon Jovi, except for those two big hits from the Eighties — but still, his presence can make even an unfamiliar song sound exciting. He runs on a narrow path at the side of the stage, and 54,000 people go crazy.

If I were to make an unscientific estimate, I’d say the majority of the crowd are women: maybe three-quarters. Not as many as at the Backstreet Boys concert last May, and there isn’t the same incessant wall of screaming as there was then — but not because the crowd is any less enthusiastic on this Saturday night. This can be unequivocally and scientifically proven when they play their next song, “You Give Love a Bad Name.” The audience laps it up, eating out of Bon Jovi’s hand. With a hit like this as only the second song, it’s impossible to lose.

One can’t help but make comparisons to Kanye West’s performance from a few days earlier. I wasn’t there last Wednesday, but I picked up on the conflicting impressions: I’d say that the older the person commenting, the more disappointed he or she was with that gig. One could reflect on what it means that many people were left frustrated at Kanye’s performance, while tonight everyone is happy.

Besides their stage charisma, these two artists have absolutely nothing in common. West performs contemporary hip-hop, almost experimentalist. Bon Jovi performs that middle-of-the-road white rock that has been consumed in America, in one form or another, for the past 50 years, immune to the changing fashions and fads music and the world went through. It’s true that in the Eighties Bon Jovi was part of a new wave of flashy and pumped-up hard rock that split the world into lovers and loathers (guess which side I was on). But 30 years on, it’s clear they’re part of a mainstream and formulaic conservative tradition.

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With West there’s a persona and ego trip — an individualism that seemingly transforms every performance into something unexpected. With Jon Bon Jovi, everything is clear. He’s a superstar but radiates a warm and human directness that seems sincere and authentic. “We finally got here,” he shouts, and makes it sound authentic; being here genuinely seems to move him.

The next song is called “Raise Your Hands” and its message is as follows: now you’re all going to raise your hands, wave them and get excited. And that’s exactly what happens. And then Jon relates how once, not five, not 10 or even 20 years ago, but in 1983, he burst into a radio station and declared he had a song that would turn him into a rock star.

This was a station that held contests for unsigned bands and Bon Jovi’s song did indeed win, becoming a hit. The song was “Runaway,” and here it comes. If I’ve heard it before I’ve forgotten all about it, but now I’m in a receptive frame of mind. The opening keyboard notes remind me of a Billy Joel song I like — and that’s a sentence I’ll never repeat. I’ll understand if anyone unfriends me on Facebook. I can’t pretend I have a refined taste. In the space I’m in now, the most significant complaint I could voice against Bon Jovi is that he’s not Bryan Adams, who has four songs I love (which is roughly twice as many as Bon Jovi can manage).

The middle section of the performance leans heavily toward country music. On the other hand, the first ballad only appears an hour into the show. The rest of the time we get wall-to-wall, turf-searing anthems. Jon presents a new song, “We Don’t Run,” and declares — maybe in the context of Thursday’s terror attack — that this should be an Israeli anthem. One can hear Roger Waters tearing his hair out all the way from here. Bon Jovi, it transpires, is not an artist who doesn’t care about politics, thus performing here just as he would anywhere else. He takes sides.

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At this point, we don’t know that the performance is bracketed between two terror attacks. Positions for and against a cultural boycott are well known and I won’t delve into the matter here, even though my position isn’t what it used to be, regardless of Bon Jovi. We’re at “It’s My Life” (I’ll take the opportunity to recommend a song with the same title by the late Wendy O. Williams). And here comes “Keep the Faith”: Every time he gets the crowd to sing along, it’s impossible not to break into a smile.

The encores are like a completely new show. The volume is significantly louder; the anthems pulsate. There are 700 potential encores. Where’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”? “Bed of Roses” and “Always” don’t even make the set list. But the aforementioned Eighties hit does wrap up proceedings. First Bon Jovi sings part of it alone, a cappella style, and then the rest of the band joins in in thunderous fashion. My capitulation is complete. I bang my head, smile like an idiot and get genuinely excited. “Wo-ho, livin’ on a prayer!”

Bon Jovi leaves with a promise to come back “whenever you want” and begs us to “stay safe.” Tomorrow I’ll be back to normal and hate everything that’s happening here. Tonight, the parting words of a rock star I never liked touch me. Good-looking guys can get away with anything.

Moti Milrod