clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, November 29, 2005
We saw Bon Jovi last night at Madison Square Garden. It was my birthday present to Miss Clap, and by all accounts, she had a fantastic time.

It was a really enjoyable concert, both on the visceral level of it being a great show with great music, and on the more distanced level of constantly feeling like we were in an 80s video, which, since I only started listening to pop music in 1989, is something I missed out on. There were no pyrotechnics, sadly, but that was really the only thing lacking. If you're curious, the set list is here, nicely alternating new stuff and old stuff. Although, yes, "Good Love" is the song you think it is, more's the pity.

I'm a little too groggy right now to detail all the various high points, but there were two particular moments that would have to rank among the best I've experienced this year. The first was a predictable, staged one, though no less enjoyable for its stagey-ness. The second moment, however, was much more unexpeted.

Number one: we were already pretty impressed with the seats. They were floor seats toward the back (section 11), but they were on risers, and we were smack dab in the middle, so we had a straight line to center stage and full exposure to the PA. This was all apparent during the opening act and we were very excited for the full Jov experience.

So then the opening music kicks up, which is, for some reason, "Rock Superstar," and the big LCD screen flips over and down and covers up most of the stage, although we can see the musicians coming onto it, and there's this big grid of metal poles and it's awesome and it flips up and the risers are colored neon blue and there's the band but when will Jon come on, is he going to make a big entrance, and then there he is, not on the stage, but five rows in front of us--Jon Bon Jovi, playing his acoustic guitar and singing on a platform in the middle of the audience. It's stagey but undeniably thrilling, plus we get a close-up view of his butt, which Miss Clap attests is still pretty good. We can see his butt because he is wearing tight black jeans. He is also wearing a black leather coat unzipped so we can see his chest when he turns around to gesture at us during the guitar solos. It's exactly what you would want, and that's why it's so fantastic.

Number two: I knew from looking at previous setlists that they were going to do an acoustic version of "Always," one of Miss Clap's favorite songs, and I figured that since they were also doing acoustic versions of "I'll Be There For You" and "Blaze of Glory," it would be like what Prince did--taking some of their best-known songs and putting them in a slightly different context. And indeed it was a more somber take on the song, so much so that he even changed the melody. But as the song, and the night, wore on, it became clear that changing the melody was less an artistic decision and more a practical one.

Take it from someone who's tried to cover it: "Always" is a really, really hard song to sing. Between the low point at the beginning of the verse and the high point of the chorus, it'll take up all of your range, if not more than all of your range. Now, when he changed the melody, he changed the chorus melody to make it lower, and when he did this for the first chorus, it seemed like a nice little gesture, kind of a "we're gonna keep it restrained here" thing. But when he then continued to do it for the rest of the choruses, when you'd expect him to start rocking out a bit (especially since "acoustic" in this context just meant "full band but with more acoustic guitar" instead of "just a singer and an acoustic guitar" as it often would, so the possibility for rockin' out was ever-present), he didn't go back to the original chorus melody, the high one. He stayed low, and he stayed low, we came to realize, because he couldn't go high.

Moments during the rest of the show confirmed this: he changed the melody of a few other songs to be lower, and on other songs, when they reached the high parts, he would just stick out the mic for the audience to sing. And we would oblige--we were singing anyway--but he just never sang those parts, sticking the mic out over and over again, which was especially noticable since the high parts in Bon Jovi songs tend to be in the choruses, and the choruses tend to repeat quite a few times. Once the key change hit in "Livin' on a Prayer," he just pretty much stopped singing entirely.

Now, Jon Bon Jovi is nothing if not a rock star, and he is a really good one, running around the stage, grabbing people's hands, playing to the camera (which there were four of, projecting a live movie up onto the huge screen hanging behind the band), grinning, using all his space, drawing us in, pumping us up. So while doing this acoustic version, he nailed all the sensitive signifiers, including the classic stage-sit. But by the end something unexpected happened. He turned his back to the audience and faced a camera that he'd faced before, and the camera obliged, projecting his expressions up onto the screen above. But where before he'd struck poses of triumph or ecstacy--stretching his arms up, pumping his fists, dropping to his knees--now his face registered what looked like real defeat. And it was real defeat--he couldn't sing one of his best songs anymore because he'd gotten too old.

Now, what should happen next but the giant screen--the one exposing that expression to our hungry eyes--died, the connection shorting out in a hail of fuzz on one half and blackness on the other. Jon turned around, and the expression he'd had before was just intensified--the song and the spectacle, both wonderful in their own way, were also in another way a failure. He had preceded the song with an odd little bit of banter where he said the album the song was from and then chastized the fan club members for not liking the album, noting that the song was their biggest hit ever. He had laid it out as a challenge to the audience, and he had failed to meet it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not plying some sad-old-rock-star trope here. That evocation of defeat went perfectly with the song itself, which, in contrast to Bon Jovi's other love songs that tend to focus on the strength or possibility of love, instead deals with love's aftermath, and while in isolation, the chorus--"I'll be there till the stars don't shine / Till the heavens burst and the words don't rhyme / Even when I die, you'll be on my mind" etc. etc.--seems like a traditional "here is much I love you" kinda thing, instead it's this utter wallow of desperation, because the baby in question is gone gone gone. The chorus is uplifting, but it's just self-delusion on the singer's part, an attempt to recast his groveling in a favorable light, and while it works at the time, any reflection brings the whole thing down. There's even a line about being unable to sing: "Now I can't sing a love song like the way it's meant to be, well I guess I'm not that good anymore." That moment at the end of the song last night, then, was a perfect interpretation of the song's core, a resetting, however practical in intent, that cut through the delusion in the original version to something remarkably honest.

Now, I came to that show for artifice, and I got it in abundance, and it was wonderful. But that little moment of honesty is probably, for all I might wish otherwise, what I will keep with me.

Along, of course, with the awesome lighting rig and the close-up view of Jon's butt.

God I love pop music.