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Telegraph Road vs Livin' On A Prayer
Mark Knopfler and Jon Bon Jovi fight over my soul
In my last post I spoke about my musical awakening in Bray, Ireland in 1987. Pandora’s box had been opened. The Genie was out of the bottle etc. I was obsessed with music. Back home in Cork, I discovered my teenage neighbours had also heard of this music thing. They were a boy and a girl, both mid-teens. I annoyed the hell out of them with my near daily visits, but they were exceptionally patient and kind to me. As I recall, she was into Tracy Chapman and U2. He was more into U2, and he was learning guitar. It was probably through them that I first heard Dire Straits.
This was the first album I bought.
This album was basically a greatest hits without calling itself a greatest hits. What I really wanted to buy was Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi, but the music shop in my home town only had one of the early Bon Jovi albums and I didn’t know any songs off of that.
Today we have streaming services. YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, Deezer, Napster, Tidal, and many, many others.
You can dip in an out of an artists entire back catalogue at a whim. You can sample bits of an album. You can get a feel for them without ever immersing yourself in their music. Also gone are the days when you buy the album. I have opinions on whether this is a good idea or not. I’ll write about that another day.
Back in the 80’s you had no such luxury. You had to buy the damn music. Even if you went the pirate-tape route, you still had to pay the guy hawking it on the street or outside the music venue.
As such, you were making a commitment. The commitment was really to yourself and not the artist. As a ten or eleven year old kid spending pocket money, it was a massive big deal to decide on one band.
I lived inside this album for months.
I doubt I’ve ever listened to another album as much as this one. I learned all the lyrics, every guitar note, drum fills etc. My neighbour explained to me what a bass guitar was. Mind blown, I listened to the whole album again for just the bass bits.
In hindsight, Dire Straits were a very good pick for my musical education. Mark Knopfler is a talented guitar player. He is also a superb songwriter. The track I was drawn to the most on this compilation was ‘Telegraph Road’. It’s a pretty complex musical arrangement. With several changes in tempo and a shifting lyrical point of view, it taught me a lot about storytelling and creating art in general. The subject of the song is the eponymous Telegraph Road, which runs for 70 miles through the state of Michigan. Knopfler uses the road to expound upon the founding of America as an Industrial Power, the American dream, and ultimately shifts to its failure, from the point of view of an out of work everyman.
The song told a story. The song had a clear beginning, middle, and an end. It helps that the song is over 14 minutes long. I could picture every part of the song in my head. It made me wonder and it made me cry. It’s the kind of song Bruce Springsteen could write. It’s the kind of song Jon Bon Jovi wishes he could write.
In fact Jon Bon Jovi did try to write it but he added synthesisers and a talk-box to turn it into an anthem for the masses.
That song of course is ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. The now famous tale of Tommy & Gina struggling to make ends meet, but they’ve got each other etc. (Slippery When Wet was back in stock eventually)
It’s an absolute banger of a tune and one of the most famous rock anthems of all time. It more or less tells the same story as ‘Telegraph Road’, or ‘The River’ by Springsteen. A couple struggling to make ends meet in the land of plenty. The American dream is a lie. Except ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ is bombastically optimistic. The lyrics imply Tommy & Gina make it. Bon Jovi released a spiritual sequel in 2000 called ‘It’s My Life’ which further hints at this.
A 2006 article for the Guardian had Jon Bon Jovi described as “a sort of unthinking person's Bruce Springsteen: a spokesman for the working man, born in New Jersey like the Boss, but without the poetry, and with a mane of blond highlights where his blue collar ought to be.”
That’s probably fair, and I’d agree except for the sneery tone. Like a lot of artists that gain mainstream success JBJ lost some of his street-cred.
11 year old me didn’t see it that way. Jon is a natural rock star. He literally flies around the stage in the music video for ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ for heavens sake! Also, the lyrics told a vivid story. I was learning that things didn’t always work out as expected for grown ups. ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ also has a notoriously difficult bit to get right for cover bands. Right after the guitar solo, there is a ludicrous key change that (trust me on this one) absolutely destroys you if you are singing this in Karaoke. As musicians Bon Jovi are no slouches.
I don’t listen to Bon Jovi or Dire Straits much anymore. I did buy the Dire Straits album again a few years back. Interestingly the record label deleted the album in order to release a different compilation. I had to get the CD from eBay and it isn’t available on any of the streaming services. A lot of it is really pants.
I grew out of both bands eventually. A good friend of mine has expressed how he absolutely loathes Dire Straits. He’s not a fan of the guitar noodling and finds Knopfler a tad boring. I get that. With Bon Jovi it was a case that other, harder bands took their place. Guns n’ Roses had just released ‘Appetite for Destruction’, a game changer in the Rock world. ‘Appetite’ was the third album I purchased.
Around this time my cousin played me the opening tune from another album in his collection. I’ll talk more about that morning in the next post… because things would never be the same again.