The Number Ones

September 8, 1990

The Number Ones: Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Here’s the thing you need to know about “Blaze Of Glory,” the song that Jon Bon Jovi wrote for the soundtrack of the motion picture Young Guns II: It kicks fucking ass. It rules so hard. It’s overblown and preposterous and supremely goofy, and I love it so much. The part where the song kicks in? Where our boy JBJ is telling us about he doesn’t know where he’s going, only God knows where he’s been, he’s a devil on the run, a six-gun lover, a candle in the wind? And then he wails out “yeah!” right when the first bass-drum boom hits? Are you fucking kidding me? Slaps too hard. The best.

My original line was that there are no cowboys in New Jersey. I was wrong. There are cowboys in New Jersey. The Cowtown Rodeo in Pilestown, it says right on the website, is the oldest weekly running rodeo in the country. But Pilestown is in South Jersey, the other end of the state from Bon Jovi’s Sayreville. In any case, there are no cowboys in Bon Jovi. “Livin’ On A Prayer” would’ve been a very different song if Tommy used to work on the ranch. And yet Bon Jovi were consumed with the idea that they should pretend to be cowboys.

Bon Jovi initially planned to use Wanted Dead Or Alive as the title for their 1986 breakout album Slippery When Wet, but an Old West photo shoot convinced them that they couldn’t pull off the look. It was too goofy on them. The band’s fear of goofiness did not, however, prevent them from recording “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” a beautifully absurd song about walking these streets with a loaded six-string on your back and about playing for keeps because you might not make it back. (“Wanted Dead Or Alive” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)

Bon Jovi continued to record songs about being cowboys; there are a couple on their 1988 album New Jersey. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora also took to wearing cowboy hats onstage sometimes, and Sambora could pull that look off better than JBJ. Other glam metal bands were also into the idea of being cowboys, which, in retrospect, is one of the funniest and best things about the whole glam metal moment. Apparently, at least a few young actors thought of themselves that way, too.

One fan of “Wanted Dead Or Alive” was John Fusco, screenwriter and producer of the 1988 Brat Pack Western Young Guns. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Fusco says that he listened to “Wanted Dead Or Alive” a lot while writing the Young Guns script and that he used the song as “mood music”: “‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’ gave me a blast of energy a couple of times a day. I think that helped me push for a contemporary feel for the picture.” As a film genre, the Western was in steep decline in the late ’80s. But Young Guns ended up making a pile of money, so the movie got a sequel. (A few years later, Warren G also sampled some of Casey Siemaszko’s Young Guns dialog on his 1994 smash “Regulate.” “Regulate” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

Jon Bon Jovi happened to be friends with Emilio Estevez, the star of the young Young Guns ensemble, and he was a fan of the movie. According to some accounts, Fusco wanted to use “Wanted Dead Or Alive” on the Young Guns II soundtrack, but Jon decided that the lyrics wouldn’t fit — after all, Billy The Kid had never seen a million faces and rocked them all — and that he should write a new song instead.

At that point, Jon was at loose ends. Bon Jovi — the band, not the guy — had spent more than a year touring behind New Jersey, and they were worn out. The members of the band have talked about how they finished the tour’s final show in Mexico and then immediately flew back without talking to each other. They didn’t talk to each other for months. So Jon flew out to New Mexico, where Young Guns II was shooting, and he hung out with the cast. Fusco says that Jon “wandered out onto the set with an old beat-up guitar,” like he’d just been ambling through town on his steel horse.

While hanging out at a diner with Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland, Jon — I’m calling him “Jon” because it gets confusing if I start to call him “Bon Jovi” — wrote “Blaze Of Glory” on a napkin. Sutherland later said, “We were all eating hamburgers in a diner, and Jon was scribbling on this napkin for, say, six minutes. He declared he’d written ‘Blaze of Glory,’ which of course then went through the roof in the States. He later gave Emilio Estevez the napkin. We were munching burgers while he wrote a #1 song… Made us feel stupid.”

Jon used that beat-up acoustic guitar to play the song for Fusco, and Fusco put the song in the movie. While Jon was out there, he also made a cameo in Young Guns II, playing the small but dramatically crucial role of “prisoner who escapes but then immediately gets shot.” (Jon does go out. I don’t know if I’d call that death a blaze of glory, but the flip-and-fall stunt, which Jon Bon Jovi most certainly did not perform himself, is pretty good.) This was the beginning of Jon’s occasional acting career; he wouldn’t take another film role until Moonlight And Valentino in 1995.

One song became a whole album. Like Prince and Madonna before him, Jon Bon Jovi ended up recording an entire LP as a companion piece to a big summer movie. Jon co-produced Blaze Of Glory, his first solo LP, with Danny Kortchmar, a former member of New York folk freaks the Fugs who had played on big early-’70s records from Carole King and James Taylor and who had then co-produced ’80s albums for Don Henley and Neil Young. While Jon and Kortchmar were working on “Blaze Of Glory,” they also co-produced “So Close,” a Daryl Hall and John Oates single that peaked at #11.

While working on Blaze Of Glory, Jon Bon Jovi called in a lot of favors. Elton John and Little Richard came in for collabs. Young Guns II composer Alan Silvestri did the arrangements, and star Lou Diamond Phillips sang backup on one song. Jon’s buddy Aldo Nova played guitar and keyboards on the whole album. (Nova’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Fantasy,” peaked at #23.) The actual backing band on “Blaze Of Glory” itself is just ridiculous: Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on Hammond organ, John Mellencamp sideman Kenny Aronoff on drums, future American Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass, Jeff Beck on triumphantly fiery guitar solo. (As far as I can tell, Beck’s highest-charting single is “Goo Goo Barabajagal (Love Is Hot),” a 1969 collaboration from the Jeff Beck Group and Donovan. That song peaked at #36.) It was like Jon Bon Jovi intentionally set out to put together a better band than Bon Jovi.

Most of the Blaze Of Glory album is just dress-up silliness; nobody needs to hear Jon Bon Jovi’s version of country-folk, whether or not he’s got Little Richard on it. But “Blaze Of Glory” itself is transcendent dress-up silliness. Jon sings the song from the perspective of Estevez’s Young Guns II hero Billy The Kid, but last year, he told Rolling Stone that he really unintentionally wrote about his own life: “I was pretending that it was Billy The Kid, but it was my pain and distrust and things that I wasn’t brave enough to write in the first person. It was questioning the celebrity and now you’re the big boy in the room — all that stuff.” Sure! Whatever!

Look, I honestly don’t care what kind of mental contortions you have to perform to write about being a colt in your stable, what Cain was to Abel, Mr. Catch-Me-If-You-Can. I only care that someone is doing it. “Blaze Of Glory” fits into a beautiful rock ‘n’ roll tradition that has sadly disappeared. It’s a song about being a mythic badass. Can you imagine a rocker — any kind of rocker — writing a song about being a badass now? You can’t. The ’90s alt-rock revolution did a lot of great things, but it also scared rockers away from writing songs about being badasses. They ceded that lyrical territory to rappers. These days, at least as far as I can tell, people in rock bands generally don’t think of themselves as badasses. They don’t even aspire to badassery. You could come up with about a million theories to explain the decline of mainstream rock music over the past 30 years, but that’s mine.

Jon Bon Jovi really puts his whole ass into singing “Blaze Of Glory,” too. There is no embarrassment there, no hesitation. Jon may be a limited vocalist, but he’s got power, and he’s also the rare beast who can sing that he’s starin’ down a bullet, about to make his final stand, and believe it. The hammy enthusiasm on “Blaze Of Glory” is what makes it great. I’m not sure who sang the backing vocals on the “Blaze Of Glory” chorus — it may have been Jon himself — but that person deserves a big hug. Those backing vocals make the hook soar. That “shot doooo-owwwwn” thing? Jesus Christ. Come on.

“Blaze Of Glory” is ultimately a kitschier “Wanted Dead Or Alive” sequel, the same way that I imagine Young Guns II is a kitschier Young Guns sequel. (I’ve never seen either movie. Don’t need to. Already have “Blaze Of Glory.”) The song is probably too long, and it’s definitely chasing the same mythic country-rock grandeur that Steve Earle brought to 1988’s “Copperhead Road.” But it’s awesome, and it’s not scared to be awesome. It’s a fist-in-the-air anthem, and we don’t get enough of those.

The “Blaze Of Glory” video kicks ass, too. Jon, way out in the Utah desert, rocks the bare-chested leather-vest look, and if that’s the old coat he’s using for a pillow, he’s getting terrible sleep. Director Wayne Isham piles on the helicopter shots while Jon stands at the edge of a cliff and plays guitar — the same move that Slash would steal so awesomely in the “November Rain” video two years later. (“November Rain” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) A drive-in theater screen plays clips of Young Guns II while Jon plays guitar. This would be a serious breach of moviegoing etiquette, but it seems like there’s nobody else at the drive-in, so I guess it’s OK. At the end of the song, the screen catches on fire, presumably because the song rocks so hard.

Young Guns II did decent business and got terrible reviews, and they never made another one. Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory” single went platinum, and the album sold two million copies. One more single, the OK ballad “Miracle,” made it to #12. Jon Bon Jovi got nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar, but he lost it to Stephen Sondheim, who won it for writing Madonna’s “Sooner Or Later.” (Fucking Sondheim. Always getting in Jon Bon Jovi’s way. Jon did win the Golden Globe, but nobody cares about that.) At the 1991 Oscars, all of Bon Jovi got together to perform “Blaze Of Glory,” even though it wasn’t their song. Only Richie Sambora wore a cowboy hat. All of them had spectacular hair. If this had been Bon Jovi’s last performance as a band, then they would’ve gone out in a blaze of glory by playing “Blaze Of Glory.” But that’s not what happened.

Jon Bon Jovi made a couple more solo albums over the years, but none of his solo singles after “Miracle” made the Hot 100. He also did some acting, though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any of the movies he’s been in. He was the first owner of the terribly-named Philadelphia Soul, an indoor arena-football team, and he tried to buy the Buffalo Bills a few years ago. Jon has done some campaigning for Democrats, and on election day 2016, he took place in a Mannequin Challenge video that, at least in my head, has come to symbolize a certain form of tragic overconfidence.

Mostly, though, Jon has recommitted himself to Bon Jovi. The whole band got back together for a Caribbean retreat later in 1991, and they started planning out their future, firing longtime manager Doc McGhee and getting started on their Keep The Faith album. When that album came out, though, it might’ve been the first major casualty of the whole grunge revolution. In the time since Blaze Of Glory, the whole Bon Jovi enterprise had become terribly dated. Keep The Faith sold a piddling million copies, and only one single, the ballad “Bed Of Roses,” made the top 10 at all. (“Bed Of Roses” peaked at #10. It’s a 6.)

But Bon Jovi weathered the grunge storm. In 1994, they released the all-killer greatest-hits album Crossroads. (That collection includes “Blaze Of Glory,” as if it was a regular Bon Jovi song and not a solo thing.) One of the new tracks on Crossroads was “Always,” another power ballad, and that became the last Bon Jovi song to reach the top 10, where it peaked at #4. (It’s a 5.) But Bon Jovi kept cranking out more albums and touring more arenas, until people basically stopped thinking of them as a glam metal band and basically just regarded them as a big ol’ rock institution.

These days, Bon Jovi can go anywhere and do pretty much whatever they want. In 2005, for instance, the CMA Awards were in New York, and I covered the show for the Village Voice. In a backstage hallway, I walked past Bon Jovi, and I was like: Oh shit, that was Bon Jovi. It didn’t matter that it was a country awards show. People were just psyched to see them doing anything.

Bon Jovi are now a machine, cranking out a new album and heading out on a new arena tour every few years. Richie Sambora left the band in 2013, which seems crazy to me. (Why would you quit Bon Jovi?) But that didn’t slow the band down at all, and they’re still doing what they do. Jon Bon Jovi won’t appear in this column again, with or without his band, and I bet he’s fine with that. He’s Jon Bon Jovi. What’s he got to be stressed about?

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: I never watched Chuck, so I don’t know what’s going on here, but the show’s 2010 finale episode apparently involved a fictional duo called Jeffster covering “Blaze Of Glory.” The show’s producers also put together an intentionally terrible music video for that cover, and here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the raspy, twangy “Blaze Of Glory” cover that Lydia Lunch and Cypress Grove released in 2017:

THE 10S: Faith No More’s fiery, fist-pumping funk-metal fish-flopper “Epic” peaked at #9 behind “Blaze Of Glory.” It’s magic, it’s tragic, it’s a loss, it’s a 10.

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