I can remember something from almost every concert I've ever attended. I remember a Billy Joel show in Providence about 25 years ago because my friend Leigh got busted for throwing chewing gum in a girl’s hair. I remember a Green Day gig in New York a few years later because it was just after I had broken up with my girlfriend and I had spent half the show dialing my answering machine to see if she called (she didn’t). And I'll always remember the Bon Jovi concert in Syracuse in 1989 for a much different reason.
But first I need to back up a bit.
On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from London’s Heathrow Airport en route to New York’s JFK. There were 243 passengers on board — 35 of which were students at Syracuse University — where I was days away from finishing the first semester of my freshman year. As the flight ascended over Lockerbie, Scotland, a bomb stashed somewhere under the “P” in “Pan Am” detonated, its blast puncturing the fuselage. The plane shredded on its rapid six-mile vertical dive toward earth. There were no survivors.
I had just ventured into the lounge of my dorm when I first heard about the crash from a special news report on a mounted picture-tube TV. There was no immediate mention of who was on board, but as people drifted in and out of the lounge that freezing afternoon, rumors began to swirl that there may have been some Syracuse students on the flight who’d been studying abroad. At the time, I didn’t even know what “abroad” (or, sadder, “studying”) meant. Shouldn’t Syracuse students be in Syracuse? For me the tragedy felt … distant, in every sense of the word. I’d been an Orangeman for only four months and the Syracuse casualties were all upperclassmen so, naturally, I couldn’t have known any of them.
It took Bon Jovi, of all people, to finally make me grieve. Bon Jovi was one of the biggest bands on the planet when they played Syracuse’s Carrier Dome on March 3, 1989. Hell, they still are. They were touring in support of “New Jersey,” an album I’d listened to incessantly for months. I’d never seen them before ... actually, that’s not entirely true. A couple years earlier, they walked past me in LaGuardia Airport, looking as haggard and forlorn as they do in the “Wanted Dead or Alive” video.
As you probably know, no one expects profundity from a Bon Jovi show. You’re basically there to have a good time and sing along. If you can check your cynicism at the door, you’ll succumb to inspiration (“Livin’ on a Prayer”), dome-rock anthems (“You Give Love a Bad Name”), a little cheese (“Bad Medicine”) and often something special.
The show was the usual hardworking fun, filled with the band's hits and power ballads, but when only Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora sauntered on stage for the encore, no one knew why. Where were the three other guys whose names escape us? Richie had only an acoustic guitar, and Jon did, too. And now they were sitting. This was months before the debut of "MTV Unplugged," and the Carrier Dome, suffice it to say, is the least intimate setting for a campfire hymn.
Then Jon spoke. I don't recall exactly what he said, but I remember the words were stunning and unscripted. He had no personal connection to any of the 35 murdered Syracuse students, but here he was dedicating the final song, "Never Say Goodbye," to their memory. He couldn’t have known who the tragedy had touched most, and that somehow made us all the same.
It no longer mattered that I didn’t know the victims any more than I didn’t know the 30,000 people flicking their Bics, swaying in unison, at this impromptu memorial. We were hearing the same song, crying the same tears, mourning the same tragedy. I felt the pain, the anguish, the everything I couldn’t feel nearly four months earlier.
I sometimes wonder if Jon and Richie have forgotten that moment almost 25 years ago, but I suppose, ultimately, it’s more important that I haven’t.