(8) dokken, "dream warriors"
and play on in the sweet 16

Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/14.

Which song kicks the most ass?
Bon Jovi, "Livin' on a Prayer"
Dokken, "Dream Warriors"
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rhymes with rockin': steven church on dokken's "dream warriors"

He had the gloves with the blades on and we were doing cocaine. So, he’s using his blade fingers, to serve up coke to everybody. With the knife hand thing. It was kind of surreal. —George Lynch, former lead guitarist of Dokken

Mostly she just sits there quietly, occasionally sipping on a mug of coffee. She doesn’t really talk all that much. My therapist also doesn’t keep records or notes and often seems not to know or care much what we’d been discussing in a previous session. Not unless I start telling her about my dreams. That’s when she pulls out her notebook and pen and starts scribbling things down. I don’t really know what she’s writing but she clearly enjoys it. And I have to admit that there is something about the subconscious that is kind of fun to talk about and puzzle over.
     My therapist practices what she calls “depth analysis,” and has never “diagnosed” me or really given me what I’d call “advice.” She just asks questions. A lot of questions. And I mostly ramble along in response, following whatever digression presents itself to me in the moment. Each session is a bit like its own essay and, at times, she seems a little lost or reluctant to admit that we’ve probably traveled the territory before. But when I talk about my dreams, about the 3 a.m. hauntings, the spinning brain, her face brightens, she sits up in her chair, talks more and offers me interpretations from a “clinical perspective,” as she calls it. Our sessions become more lively and, inevitably, more bizarre.
     There was the dream I’d had where my daughter and I visit a food court inside a huge renovated gas station or truck stop of some kind. I tried to order from one counter but couldn’t understand the menu or anything the people were saying. Then we ran into my mom while waiting in a line for food at different restaurant, but we never actually ordered any food. And then there were the long tables, rectangular and filled with people seated family-style around enormous deep-fried frogs, each one the size of a piglet, splayed out in the center like a sacrificial offering.
     That one was pretty weird.
     I’ve realized that I need a therapist now, as I’ve rounded the corner into my 47th year, to help me with things like generalized anxiety, bouts of depression, and deep fried frogs--you know, to process the everyday strangeness of the subconscious—and I appreciate the help. But it was a little hard for me not to laugh when, during that session, she asked me if I have any conscious connection to frogs or to other amphibians, any memories I could tap into. It felt like a reach, like one of those leaps you take in a story, and nobody is sure where you’re going to land. So I talked about the giant bullfrogs you can find in Kansas, some of them as big as a small dog, their throats bulging out like a birthday balloon when they made their deep-bass calls at dusk. Huge and grotesque, these frogs have been rumored to eat birds and fish and I can distinctly recall their croaking echoing off a pond like a chorus of ghostly didgeridoos.
     My therapist kept nodding her head and taking notes as I talked about frogs.
     “Have you ever eaten these frogs?” she asked, pen poised above the page.
     “No,” I said. “You don’t eat these frogs.”
     I wished I could dredge up some deep trauma or serious weirdness connected to frogs, but there just wasn’t much I could find, much she could use or make sense of that day. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe we’ll find it together at some point, buried deep inside me or this essay. Instead I rambled on about bullfrogs for a while, talked about how, in my dream, at first the restaurant appeared to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken but, on the inside, was actually this food court of restaurants; and I talked about how my Grandpa Doc used to like to eat at the Kentucky Fried Chicken near his house.
     “He liked the waitresses,” I told her. “He’d just walk in, sit down, and wait for one of the “waitresses” to come out from behind the counter and take his order.”
     It was kind of fun to retell these stories that my mom tells over-and-over, to re-forge these connections with memories in the therapy setting. And my therapist encourages my explorations, no matter how far they seem to pull us away from the initial thread. But none of these digressions gave us any real clarity on the original dream and the deep fried frogs. The whole session was all so confusing and weird, but still oddly and essayistically enjoyable, as we tumbled over the oddity of my own brain.
     This was not really the hard work of unpacking nightmares, which I mostly try to forget and rarely want to revisit in our therapy sessions in part because what makes my nightmares terrifying is that they never seem to end, as if they’re this continuous reality that exists independently of my agency, a subconscious reality that I’m forced to visit if the right collection of elements in my conscious life unlocks the door to its house of horrors. Let’s just say it’s a reality that I’m glad to know is just a dream and one I don’t want to recreate in my waking life, not even in a “safe space” with a therapist to help. And I suppose one point we can take away from all of these digressive ramblings initially, one certainty, is that giant deep fried frogs served family style in a renovated gas station food court isn’t as nearly troubling or terrifying as entering a multi-leveled subconscious dream-state where you’re being stalked and tortured by a vengeful homicidal child-molesting burn victim who wears a glove full of finger-knives.

The third installment of Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors, widely considered to be the 2nd best in the NOES series, premiered on Feb. 27, 1987, when I was just 15 years old, and marked the return to the horror franchise of Wes Craven, the writer and director of the original film. It also featured Patricia Arquette in her first starring role and marked another installment in Freddy Kruger’s haunting dominance of both the conscious and the subconscious world of contemporary American teen life in the 1980s.
     The plot of Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3 is clearly tapping into a burgeoning cultural awareness at the time of teen mental health, addiction, suicide, and other forms of self-harm, combined with a focus on group therapy and lucid dreaming. In this iteration of the Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy goes after the last living descendants of the parents who’d killed him years ago, each of whom happens to be confined to a behavioral health facility for a different reason. In this hospital, Dr. Nancy Thompson, an old foe of Freddy, is teaching the teens to control their dreams. Freddy, for his part, appears as some manifestation of their own demons and hunts down the teenagers, who fight back through group therapy and what might be called “collective lucid dreaming.”
     But more importantly, perhaps, for our celebration here of the idea and experience of Shredness, the movie was also teased and promoted with a MTV music video tie-in featuring hair-metal legends, Dokken, and their hit single, “Dream Warriors,” which was released later on their 1987 album, Back for the Attack.   
     Released on February 10, 1987, roughly two weeks before the movie’s premiere, the single was written specifically for the movie and the accompanying music video became a kind of extended sneak-preview or “trailer”, offering us our first glimpse of the coming attraction while simultaneously displaying the awe-inspiring power of Dokken’s brand of Rock [1]. The song reached as high as #22 on the Billboard charts and cemented itself in my consciousness when my best friend’s six-year-old sister belted out the lyrics as she pummeled the underside of the hide-a-bed where I was sleeping one morning. Her feet pounded my back from below like Wild Mick Brown beats on the drums.
     “Are you singing Dream Warriors,” I asked her as I stirred from sleep, wondering if I was still stuck in some horrible nightmare.  
     “Duh,” she said and kicked me in my right kidney.
Then she informed me that I was a dummy and a turdface and that she knew all the lyrics      and she’d seen the video hundreds of times.
     I told her I doubted she’d seen the video hundreds of times.
     “That’s impossible,” I said. “It was just released.”  
     Then she kicked me square in the spine.
     To very briefly summarize the plot of the video, Patricia Arquette’s character, Kristen Parker, who does double duty in both the video and the movie, is being stalked through a bizarre dream house by Freddy Kruger. There is drama and weirdness. But ultimately it is the undeniable and ineffable Shredness of Dokken’s song, “Dream Warriors,” that defeats Freddy Kruger and saves the girl.
     It’s a classic Rock-Gods-Defeat-Evil-Demon story; and I’m guessing Dokken isn’t the only band in this Shredness tournament to wield the power of rock [2] against the forces of evil and emerge victorious, but they were one of the most commercially successful illustrations of this archetypal tale and a trendsetter for future multi-platform movie/music/video marketing tie-ins.

The song itself, “Dream Warriors,” appears to be told from Kristen’s point-of-view. The lyrics are mostly an expression of her desire not to dream anymore, to avoid the shadows that haunt her subconscious, combined with the somewhat vague hope that one day “maybe you’ll be gone.” Given the context of the movie, “you” here becomes Freddy Kruger, but also perhaps the speaker’s “other” dream self, her vulnerable troubled self that is tormented by Freddy, and also, weirdly, the band, Dokken. Though she claims to be “standing in the night alone,” she also admits to being there, “with the Dream Warriors,” referring most likely to her friends and co-stars in the movie, who join her in fighting Freddy with their dream-state superpowers.
     It is the music video, however, that truly affirms the band’s unique ability to transcend the bonds of your everyday conscious life, enter your dreams and fight on your behalf against the forces of Evil, more specifically against a psychotic mass-murdering demon with finger-knives.
     Show me another band in this tournament that can do that.
     Yeah, that’s what I thought.  
     Anyway, in the film, Kristen is confined to a mental hospital with other troubled and disabled teens who’ve refused to sleep for fear of their nightmares and, specifically, of Freddy Kruger; but Kristen has the unique ability to pull other sleeping teens into her dreams and, once there, assembles them into a kind of (forgive me) Dream Team where everyone not only mysteriously regains their abilities (i.e. the wheelchair-bound boy can walk again) but also super powers that they use, largely unsuccessfully, to fight Freddy. Kristen, it turns out, is really good at gymnastics. And hysterical screaming.
     The video’s narrative is a bit difficult to follow and is conveyed through a weird and clumsy pastiche of recycled scenes from the movie mashed together with new footage in a kind of hodge-podge story. Scenes of the band playing seem to be spliced together with film footage like one of those collages you made by cutting pictures out of teen magazines and gluing them to a piece of poster-board.
     Our story begins with teenage Kristen up late, doing what so many troubled teens found themselves doing late at night in the 80’s--building an elaborate Dokken-themed “Doll House.”
     She finishes her work and leaves the house on her desk before she curls up in bed. It is from this present action that we launch into the first dream-level. The video alternates between shots of Kristen sleeping and of Dokken playing, giving us close-ups of Don Dokken with his fountain of brown hair and George Lynch with his thick aura of black hair, his skull guitar, and those perpetual pouty lips. Jeff Pilson and Wild Mick Brown are there, too, driving the music. Lynch’s acoustic-sounding guitar riffs rise slowly, quietly at first, and a pulsing drum beat from Brown provides some dramatic tension.
     As we dive into the first verses of the song, Kristen wakes up in her dream standing outside a life-size version of the dollhouse (or is it a different house?) and, in the front yard, blurry children swing a jump-rope and sing songs. She approaches the porch and a little girl in a yellow dress rides a tricycle in circles, staring at her. It’s all super creepy and any sane awake person would obviously hightail it in the opposite direction. But that’s not how these things work.
     Suddenly Freddy appears and beckons Kristen into the house, and like any good viewer of horror movies, some small part of you is screaming, “Don’t go in the house, you idiot!!” But she doesn’t listen. They never do in this genre.
     Meanwhile we jump to scenes of Dokken playing in some kind of underground industrial lair that looks vaguely familiar. Then we’re back with Kristen and the Yellow Girl as the unlikely duo ventures down into Freddy’s Boiler Room because, you know, that seems like a sensible thing to do. You don’t ask why an old house has an industrial-sized boiler room or even if boiler rooms existed in the 1980s, or how the Yellow Girl got her trike down the stairs. You’re not even sure why they’re there until you hear the siren call of a gut-pounding drum solo. Kristen peers inside the boiler and you suddenly realize why the underground lair seemed so familiar.
     Inside the boiler, behind a fence of human bones, a tiny Wild Mick Brown drums for his life as the flames dance around him. Kristen screams, scoops up the Yellow Girl off of her tricycle, and they dash upstairs.
     But once there she encounters Don Dokken and bassist, Jeff Pilson, who begin stalking Kristen down a long hallway as she carries the Yellow Girl in her arms, a craft choice which seems designed mostly to provide up-shots of Dokken stomping down the hallway, lip-synching and making dramatic hand gestures[3] at Kristen while singing the lyrics. At this point, near the top of the list of things that are confusing here, Dokken seems to be the bad guy and kind of teaming up with Freddy to scare the crap out of a teenage girl.
     That’s when we get a shot of Freddy that seems to be recycled footage from the film and Dokken actually chases our protagonist into Freddy’s grasp. Kristen sees Freddy and then looks down at her arms, realizing she’s no longer holding the Yellow Girl but instead a charred baby skeleton . . . Yeah, I don’t understand that part either, but it IS a dream after all.
     Kristen screams. Again. And then she wakes up . . . or does she?
     It’s at this point that we enter the second dream level.   
     Kristen falls back to sleep and the camera lingers for a second on the Dokken doll house as it lights up, glowing with artificial life. We are suddenly thrown into a dream within a dream as we jump to scene of Kristen in the old house again. And inside the house, the lights flare and the carpet bulges and roils as something moves beneath it and up into the walls. Kristen screams. Plaster flies off the walls as the thing moves like a sea monster in shallow water. Here the music sort of competes with the film footage, as if the band is playing in another room in the house and all you have to do is open the right door to find them.  
     Kristen screams. Again. And you know Freddy is coming for her.
     Then it’s not Freddy Kruger but George Lynch, grinning like a school boy, who unexpectedly crashes through the wall [4] and launches into a face-melting [5] guitar solo that makes Kristen smile. Suddenly we’re in a happy place, carried there by the force of sentiment. But just as quickly as it arrives, this lighter moment disappears.
     Freddy reaches out from the wall, grabs George and pulls him into the wall, or into the weird industrial cave/temple/boiler room where saw Wild Mick Brown playing earlier.
     Kristen follows and finds herself in the cave/temple/boiler with Freddy, who has apparently unwittingly reunited the band. Foolish demon, what were you thinking? Dokken, no longer stalking Kristen through the house, are instead part of Team Kristen now. Mick Brown materializes mid-jam, perched above everyone on a cliff. Then an explosion! And the rest of the band appears. Like magic. Or some elaborate dreamy illusion. And we now realize that Freddy is the only bad guy in this story and Dokken are the real Dream Warriors, a united front of Rock fortified against Evil. [6]
     This is the dramatic climax of the story, the final confrontation between Kristen, Dokken, and Freddy Kruger. As the band rocks and Don belts out the lyrics, they all stare menacingly at Freddy. Don does the Rock Star Chin-up move and Freddy cowers in the wash of their sonic power, covering his ears in pain. That’s when Don throws out the Wizard’s Spell hand move to defeat Freddy, who just sort of falls down, clearly cowed by the irrepressible power of Dokken’s Rock, and it is over.  
     Kristen smiles, appearing happy, and for another brief moment, all seems right and good.
     That’s when we enter the third dream level and everything changes. Again.
     We cut away from the scene, to a darkened room with a twin bed. Now we are in a dream within a dream within a dream, and things have turned. Suddenly, Freddy jolts up screaming and holding a yellow-haired doll. He throws the doll to the ground and says, “What a nightmare? Who were those guys?”
     Damnit. We know who they were. Or we thought we did. They were Dokken, the Dream Warriors, mercenaries of the subconscious sent to ward of your demons and tame your tormenters with their Rock. They were more than just a dream to us! Weren’t they? We believed and now there’s this whole other layer. Now we couldn’t even be sure if Dokken actually existed or if they were some self-flagellating construct spawned from the tortured consciousness of Freddy Kruger. Were we now expected to believe that Freddy had a nightmare about a teenage girl having a dream wherein she has a dream in which the Heavy Metal Band, Dokken defeats Freddy. We’re supposed to buy that his tortured subconscious created a world where he loses everything to the power of Rock. My therapist could have a field day with that one.
     I like to imagine how I’d tell her about this video or even this essay.
     “Well see,” I’d say, “Freddy Kruger is like this horrifically burned child molester in a hipster sweater and a fedora and he wears this glove that has knives on all the fingers.”
     “Go on,” my therapist would say.
     “Yeah, and he’s like this demon or ghost who haunts your subconscious but if he kills you in your dreams then you actually die.”
     “Hmmmmm,” she says and her pen stops moving for a second. “So he can transcend the boundaries between the conscious and subconscious?”
     “Yes!” I say, “And so can this metal band, Dokken! They enter the dream world, save the girl and defeat Freddy with their face-melting rock.”
     She looks up at me as if I’m speaking in tongues . . . which, of course, I am because that is sooooo metal.
     I want to go on and on about the House of Dokken and how I like to imagine that the music video is an outtake from a short-lived 80’s TV series featuring Dokken as a hair metal version of the A-Team, a group of misfits traveling in search of troubled teens, entering their dreams and saving them from real-life pain and suffering with nothing more than Rock and a whole lot of hair product.
     “The A-Team?” she’d say, raising her eyebrows.
     “Yeah,” I’d say, “And Dokken would drive around in a sky blue van with some kind of airbrushed painting of a wizard, and it would be amazing.” [7] 

One of the mistakes student writers are often disabused of first, is the tendency to rely on cliché tropes of storytelling and, in particular, what is often called the error of deus ex machina, which is Latin for “shitty Hollywood ending.”
     Ok, not really. What it actually means is “God from the machine,” and is used now to refer to exactly the kind of storytelling move that the Dream Warriors video pulls at the very end—the surprise ending you never saw coming. If you’ve spent any time at all studying writing or thinking about how a story should end, you’ve encountered this mistake before. Perhaps you’ve even made it. We’ve probably all read these stories or seen these movies—long, intricately detailed, vividly rendered, filled with real-live action and suspense, risk and occasional rewards—only to find out at the end that “it was all a dream.” Such endings are also what is known as a predictable “cliché,” which is French for “shitty Hollywood ending.” Basically such endings are too easy, too deterministic without being believable.
     It has often been said that the best ending to a story or is both inevitable and unpredictable. The best ending is somehow predetermined, patterned, and designed by the existing logic and architecture of the story itself. The best ending is the only ending the story could have but it is also an unpredictable ending that you can’t quite see coming. It emerges from the fog of uncertainty into something resembling clarity without beating you over the head with it. It is not a twist necessarily or even a knot tying all the threads together but instead, perhaps, a kind of gathering of the threads, pulling them closer, and where you can feel the author’s hand, ever so slightly, tugging on the braids of narrative. In other words, the best ending typically does not come when the author tells you that it was all a dream.
     The heavy hand of deus ex machina forces an exterior logic or agency acting upon the narrative to “resolve” something or change the course of events and the reader’s relationship to those events; and it typically feels forced, the stuff of amateur storytelling and easy answers, the kinds of endings we expect from ham-fisted Hollywood screenwriters and not from literature. However, these are also the kind of endings that, perhaps paradoxically, we often want precisely because of their authoritarian optimism. We want to believe in happy endings.
     Isn’t that why such endings are so commercially successful? We want to know that an omniscient narrative force is propelling us through a deterministic, predictable sort of journey that is tinged with the glow of facile resolution and happiness. We want to be immersed in a continuous dream and then be plucked from that dream and dusted off by the protective hand of an all-knowing storyteller who makes everything right. Perhaps we like to be fooled and forgiven. Is that so wrong?

Maybe it’s also true that such popular narrative desires aren’t also so antithetical to the more high-minded pursuits of literary work to which many of us reading these essays probably adhere. We can love schlocky 80’s Hair Metal, cheesy videos, AND literature. Sometimes we can even love them for oddly similar reasons and risks. For example, I might offer up an essay I teach regularly, Bernard Cooper’s “Capiche” from his book, Maps to Anywhere, wherein we as readers are seduced by the real, yet also surreal, scene of Cooper dining at an outdoor café in Venice when he is approached by a handsome man, Sandro. There are sensory details, action, dialogue, emotion and vivid imagery. Cooper’s language is musical and luxuriant, patient but sharply evocative. He immerses you in the reality of the moment; and this essay is one of my favorites to teach in part because of how it breaks the rules. Near the end, as Cooper admits that everything he’s just told you, everything you believe, is a lie, or at least a fabrication, an imagined reality inspired by the simple sound of a rooster crowing outside his window one morning as he woke up, he is basically saying, “It was all a dream.”
     It is true that this particular moment in the essay is often a fulcrum upon which the class opinion will tip one way or the other. Most people don’t have a problem with it. Cooper somehow makes it work. But for other readers it feels like a bit of a betrayal, feels wrong and this feeling, at times, is fueled by some long-held fundamentalist ideas about what nonfiction can or should do. Some readers think he’s broken the contract, they feel tricked, and thus find it hard to believe anything else he says in the book. Other readers, I think, get that same uneasy feeling you get when you feel the specter of deus ex machina haunting the page or the screen, when you not only see the magician’s hand but also how the trick was performed. Cooper pulls the curtain back and reminds you of the artifice behind the realness of the dream; and I think this is deeply unsettling for some but, also, deeply satisfying for others.
     I have a confession: that’s all I ever wanted and I think it’s part of what I love about the nonfiction narrator at times and about the essay form. The essayist has that unique ability and responsibility to show their hand while still tricking you into believing in the continuous dream. The essayist must be both character on the page and in the scene but also the narrator who is guiding you to see or think about the world in a different way, both magician and skeptical debunker. The essayist creates a narrative of thought, luring you into a unique reality while often also reminding you, sometimes more subtly than others, that it is a reality that has been constructed and crafted for your benefit. The essayist is the creator and critic of artifice. For me, Bernard Cooper’s artful slight-of-hand in “Capiche,” is exciting and seductive, like a warm embrace, as comfortable as any great ending, because it feels both inevitable and unpredictable, but also completely crafted and pre-determined. It enacts its own meaning as it becomes an essay about thought, associative logic, and the power of language to take us places, to transcend the present moment and offer us the gift of belief.  
     I’d like to tell you a story now about the origins of my appreciation for Dokken and how my Grandpa Doc died the same week that the “Dream Warriors” music video premiered in February 1987, and about how my brother and I drove with my cousin, Chip, to Springfield, Missouri in his Chevy Cutlass Supreme for a funeral held down the street from the Kentucky Fried Chicken where Doc used to eat every Friday because he liked the waitresses. I’d also tell you how, just outside of town, on a two-lane back road tented with trees, my cousin had let me drive and, a half-hour later, I’d stopped the car in terror and climbed out, waking the others.
      “Oh, my God. Look at them!” my brother yelled as he sat up in his seat.
     All around us, littering the blacktop, were the squished bodies of bullfrogs. More of them, the alive ones, croaked and hopped slow, pausing amidst the carnage, as I tried futilely to herd them off the road.
     “They won’t move,” I yelled back at the car while my cousin, just rising from the back seat, barked at me to get back in or we’d be late for the funeral.
     The frogs had come for the heat, for the warmth of the blacktop; and I’d like you to believe me when I tell you about the sun and the smell and the noise of cicadas thrumming in the brush. Or how, after the funeral, that night in the hotel room, as I tried to chase the image of the dead and doomed frogs out of my head, we ate Kentucky Fried Chicken from a bucket and watched Dokken’s “Dream Warriors” video on MTV, talking about how excited we were to see the new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. I’d like to tell you this is the story I finally told my therapist that day when she asked about the deep fried frogs.
     But that would be too easy, too predictable. And none of it would be true.
     Instead, as a way to end this essay, I’ll confess that my Grandpa Doc’s funeral was actually held a year later on April 4, 1988, about a week before Don Dokken and George Lynch had their infamous limousine fistfight en route to backing up AC/DC at Wembley Stadium. I’ll admit that there were no frogs and no fried chicken, and that night after the services, back in our hotel room in Springfield, Missouri, we’d gathered around the television not to watch the “Dream Warriors” video, but to bear witness to our hometown basketball team, the underdog “Cinderella” Kansas Jayhawks, led by Danny Manning, defeat of the Oklahoma Sooners for the NCAA National Championship. It was a thrilling, unforgettable, and unpredictable ending to three weeks of March Madness. It had, by all accounts, been a dream tournament for a team known forever as “Danny and the Miracles,” which, come to think of it, sort of sounds like a band name.

[1] Of course it’s entirely possible that Dokken’s uniquely awe-inspiring brand of Rock, not to mention their rise and fall as a band, was fueled at least in part by a steady diet of the most 80’s and most metal of mind-altering substances—cocaine. George Lynch talks here about the part it played in filming the music video:

They built this elaborate horror set for us for the video. And we were in the trailers, you know they had production trailers. We’re supposed to be getting ready, and Freddy was all in make-up. So he looks like—he looks in Nightmare on Elm Street. Which was kind of bizarre to be sitting there talking to a guy that looks like that you know. He had the gloves with the blades on and we were doing coke (cocaine). So, he’s using his blade fingers, to serve up coke to everybody. With the knife hand thing. It was kind of surreal. I mean hey, that is a long time ago, that is what everyone was doing back in the day sorry, but it’s a true story.

[2] In the battle of Rock v. Evil, Rock basically has two devastating weapons at its disposal: 1) Sound warfare, wherein the evil demon/antagonist is subdued through sheer amplified volume of rock and typically responds by clutching their hands to their ears and wailing in pain. 2) Face melting, wherein #1 is wielded through the specific vehicle of the bombastic virtuosic screaming guitar solo that either literally melts the demon’s face like the Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark (which, let’s be honest, is a little redundant in the case of Freddy Kruger since he’s already a crispy critter), or metaphorically “blows the mind” of the demon and tames him with the sublime hypnotic power of their Rock—sort of like rubbing the belly of an alligator until it falls asleep and you can make it into a wallet and a pair of boots.

[3] In the video, Don Dokken employs a couple of signature choreographed hand gestures: First, there’s the index-finger-point-double-fist clutch-to-his-chest move that I call the “Rock Star Chin-up”; and then there’s the index-finger-point-hand-opening beckoning move that I call the “Wizard’s Spell” because it looks like Don is casting a spell or releasing a dove or something. Most of what he does with his hands is some variation on these two moves.

[4] I cede the floor here to the inimitable George Lynch who shall illuminate us on the filming of this scene:

I was so high (on cocaine) during the making of that video. I couldn’t bust through the wall. There is a point in my guitar solo where I am supposed to come crashing through this wall. The wall is called a break away wall. It’s made, so that it looks like a real wall, but a fly could break through it, an infant could break through it. But I was so high and so weak I couldn’t even break through it. And they had to keep re-setting up the wall, and re-shooting it because I couldn’t fucking get through it. They thought, ‘Oh Lynch is buff, he’ll get through that thing no problem’ – which is why in the video, you watch it, I am laughing.

[5] The origins of the phrase “face melt” or “face melting,” part of the lexicon of Shredness, is of some debate, one version of which you can read here in a Facebook-sourced comment feed. Many people connect the phrase to either LSD use or to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the melting Nazis. Most folks I’ve talked to seem to agree that the general character of “face melting” requires a virtuosic and bombastic guitar solo that has a profound emotional, mental, and physical effect on the listener. According to Research Guru Extraordinaire, Christian Exoo, the earliest use of the phrase is actually credited to the totally Shredworthy British essayist, William Hazlitt, who used it in "On Beauty" in the February 4, 1816 issue of The Examiner: "We sometimes see a face melting into beauty by the force of sentiment—an eye that, in its liquid mazes, for ever expanding and for ever retiring within itself, draws the soul after it, and tempts the rash beholder to his fate."

[6] I hesitate here to point out that, according to the rules and metaphysics of this reality, in order to enter Kristen’s dream, Dokken would have to be pulled into her dream and, thus, they’d all have to be sleeping somewhere nearby, like in the same house. So I’m assuming that Kristen then lives in the House of Dokken, which I imagine must be some kind of home for wayward troubled children run by the band. Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that, if we’re sticking to the metaphysics of the movie reality, the band’s Shredness would be an alternate ability, a kind of superpower they have in the dream world but which is most likely missing in the waking world. In other words, they only place Dokken would be a truly great band, capable of defeating the forces of Evil, is in their collective dreams.

[7] This TV series, as amazing as it sounds, would never have lasted if only because of a long-running feud between Don Dokken and George Lynch, a feud which continues to this day, despite (or perhaps because of) several public reunions and subsequent break-ups. There are many stories, interviews, reports, gossip items, and rumors about this seemingly intractable conflict and, running through it all, an odd pervasive feeling of hope that somehow the band will reform and achieve a small measure of their previous glory. America loves its Hair Metal reunion story. But this one will likely never be told. The beginning of the end, by many accounts, was a fistfight in a limousine between Dokken and Lynch on April 13, 1988 in London, a little over a year after the release of “Dream Warriors,” followed soon after by a disastrous Monsters of Rock tour where Don Dokken, self-medicating with Valium and booze, grew increasingly frustrated with his coked-up and hungover bandmates and their sloppy playing. In turn his bandmates grew increasingly frustrated with Dokken’s controlling Rock Diva ways. It didn’t help that for the Monsters of Rock Tour the band was forced to follow the high-energy heavy metal storm that is Metallica, a band that seemed hell-bent on pounding the final nails into the coffin of power-ballad hair metal . . . with their faces. Don would admit later in an interview that, “After Metallica went out and played Master of Puppets, we sounded like the fucking Partridge Family." The stress was too much too take and Dokken just kind of imploded. The feud, by the way, continues in earnest even today, some 30 years later, with each adult man fairly regularly giving interviews in which they trash the other adult man. It’s just sort of sad to see, honestly. It’s possible, back in 1987-88, if given the right script writers and co-stars, they could’ve channeled all that angst and bitterness into some simmering on-screen tension that pushed them into the realm of superstardom. They could’ve had that van with the wizard and a lasting place in our hearts. It’s also possible they would’ve killed each other. It’s also true that this TV series exists entirely in my imagination. Maybe I should talk to my therapist about it. 

photo if you want one...

photo if you want one...

Steven Church is the author of 6 books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood and the book-length essay, One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals. He's a founding editor and nonfiction editor for the literary magazine, The Normal School, the Series Editor for The Normal School Nonfiction Series from Outpost19, and he coordinates the MFA Program at Fresno State. In July 2018 he'll also be coordinating The Normal School's Summer Workshop in Creative Nonfiction in Fresno, California. 


Jon Bon Jovi feels it. He wants you to feel it, too. He is unabashed in his enthusiasm, his energy, his giant halo of hair, his fringed leather jacket. Jon Bon Jovi is silhouetted in light, Jon Bon Jovi runs the length of the stage, Jon Bon Jovi flies over the crowd. Jon Bon Jovi holds the microphone with a vice-grip as if by letting go, he might lose the song. Jon Bon Jovi sings into the microphone before extending it into the audience who responds in cascades of sound. And though it is Jon Bon Jovi’s voice on the record and streaming from the speakers onstage, “Livin’ on a Prayer” is not his anthem—it’s ours.
     I was a child of the 80s, born into Trapper Keepers and neon and really, really poor fashion decisions. I cannot remember a time when I did not know the song “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I cannot remember a time when I did not know it by heart. When “Livin' on a Prayer” was released in 1986, I was seven years old growing up in Louisiana—thousands of cultural and physical miles from New Jersey. This was a land of blazers and crewcuts, pantyhose and high hair. Jon Bon Jovi both excited and confused me. Was this what rockers looked like? Bon Jovi’s music was one backdrop to my youth and adolescence and it was fitting—so much angst and yearning.
     Recently, I was at a wedding when the DJ put on “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a song that pervaded the culture in new and exasperating ways after it was featured on the television show Glee. Bodies rushed the dancefloor. I looked around and saw people in every decade of life singing all the words at the top of their lungs. I, of course, was too. I couldn’t help it. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is that kind of song—that cross-continents, know-all-the-words, sing-til-you’re-hoarse kind of song. It has that quality of making everyone in the room feel momentarily united in struggle. We are all Tommy. We are all Gina. I mean, we’re not, but for a moment, coasting on the wails, we feel we are.

When Jon Bon Jovi sat down with Richie Sambora and legendary songwriter Desmond Child at Sambora’s childhood Jersey home—“on the edge of a marsh and in the shadow of an oil refinery”—they had a goal in mind. They didn’t just want to write a good song. They wanted to write a stadium song, a song built for the tours they saw in their minds. That first session, they wrote “You Give Love a Bad Name,” but during the second session in New York City, the trio composed what would become the band’s career-defining song. “Livin’ on a Prayer”’s plot was a patchwork of their lived experiences—Jon was still with his high-school sweetheart (and now wife of over 30 years) Dorothea, and Desmond worked on his songs while his girlfriend waited tables at the diner.
     Tommy and Gina are hard-working, blue-collar folks. They are doing their best in a world rigged against them. The song was written in the 1980s when the overall unemployment in the U.S. was 10 percent, then the highest rate since the Great Depression. Unemployment was almost three times as bad for Black Americans as it was for White Americans. Tough times were not hard for folks to imagine.
     The song centers the sacred. Jon Bon Jovi calls himself a recovering Catholic, a moniker I also claim, but you can’t un-embed the power of ritual from someone who has been inscribed in them since birth. Even if you absent yourself from the Church, you can’t un-remember what you’ve been told about the power of prayer. Prayer is not merely supplication, it is refuge, it is the statement of an undying desire for things to shift and be different than they are. We turn to prayer when we are most hopeless but if we had no hope, we wouldn’t pray at all. While I know many people pray when they are glad or grateful, when I think of prayer, I think of words that come out in spite of ourselves, some version of help me, help me, help me. 
     Bon Jovi begins in a whisper: Once upon a time, not so long ago, placing the song both in the realm of fairytale and in present times. Except for the central metaphor, the song is literal. The details of Gina and Tommy’s lives unfurl before us. Any good writing teacher will remind their students that specificity invites the reader into your story and allows them to connect. Readers and listeners don’t need to have the same exact experience to cast their story alongside yours, but they need to understand your experience to feel something. And isn’t one of a song’s primary goals to make you feel something?

Tommy used to work on the docks/the union’s been on strike/he’s down on his luck/it’s tough, so toughGina works the diner all day/working for her man, she brings home her pay/for love, for love.

Tommy hocks his guitar. Gina wants to run away. At night, they comfort one another. Theirs is a universal story: what happens when the life we imagined for ourselves juts up against hardness of reality. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is an anthem for the direness of living: regrets, restlessness, deferred dreams, working shit jobs, struggling to make a living while trying to keep relationships together. But alongside the frustration, the song carries the hope that dreams will come to fruition without knowing when or how that will happen.
     When Jon Bon Jovi was 17, he got a job sweeping floors at his cousin’s music studio. After his song “Runaway” was put on an album featuring local talent, he was signed to a recording contract and formed Bon Jovi.  Still, even after two albums, the band had only garnered moderate success.  “Livin’ on a Prayer” was an aspirational song—produced with the vision of an entire stadium of people singing along, success that had not yet materialized.
     In the black and white video, Bon Jovi stares at the camera through his mop of hair, tries on harnesses, and runs around in an empty theater. Then suddenly, the space of the theater transforms from black and white to full color, from empty to full—with Bon Jovi flying across a packed crowd to his place on stage.

Jon Bon Jovi didn’t like the first recorded version of the song. Lead guitarist Richie Sambora was the one who convinced him they should stick with it. They recorded a new bass line, added new drum fills. And they added a talk box.
     I didn’t know until very recently what a talkbox was or what was helping to create that sound in the song. I figured it was some sort of pedal or sounds played through a keyboard. But if you watch videos of Bon Jovi performing live, you can see a tube in Richie Sambora’s mouth. A talkbox is a pedal with an airtight tube. You plug your guitar into the pedal, insert the tube in your mouth, and, standing in front of a vocal microphone, shape your mouth without singing. The resulting sound is neither produced by your mouth or your guitar, but by both. The percussive background for the beginning of the song and the verses made by Richie Sambora completely alter the shape of the song. There is no “Livin' on a Prayer” without the rhythmicism and otherworldliness of the talkbox that moves the song forward, like a train: oowah oowah oo oo oowah, oowah oowah oo oo oowah. 

The root of the word catharsis comes from the Greek katharsis “purging, cleansing” and from katharos “open, free; clear of shame or guilt; purified.” Catharsis means “a purging through vicarious experience.”
     In many cultures, singing is embedded as part of life. There are no gatekeepers, no deciders of who is “allowed” to sing. If you have a body, you have vocal chords and you have breath. You sing. People sing as part of ceremony, for celebration and for mourning, as a way to honor individuals and as a way to pass time.
     That is not the reality of our American culture. We have shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice (definite article: “you” are “the” voice, not “you” have “a” voice); these shows perpetuate the idea that some bodies are made for singing and others are not. That some people will be our culture bearers while the rest of us cower—singing only alone in our showers or sitting in traffic. There are a few bastions where this damaging grip loosens a little—when we’re at public events like church, weddings, concerts, and karaoke.
     In these moments, our songs come out from hymnals and across decades and Billboard charts. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is one of them. And it’s a fun song to sing. The verse cascades from high to low, high to low, as we tell Gina and Tommy’s story. We put language to the feeling of trying hard and still not getting by. We amp up. But it’s the chorus that really claims power. “We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got” is a precursor, just a warm up for “Oh-Oh We’re halfway there” and “Whoa-Oh, livin’ on a prayer.” We wail.
     I don’t usually like when people yell in songs. I don’t mind belting but that’s different than what Bon Jovi is doing and demanding of us. His voice becomes full-throttle insistent. And the insistence feels absolutely called for. Maybe if we believe hard enough, maybe if we put everything we have in, we can make it. There is urgency in these notes, urgency that makes it nearly impossible not to throw one or both hands up into the air to accompany the ascendant notes. The chorus is the kind of catharsis that turns strangers momentarily to kin. For the duration of the song and the moments after, we believe in each other. From the whispered intro to the epic guitar solo to the key change that pushes us towards resolution.

Have you ever heard someone say: Yeah, I really don’t like “Livin’ on a Prayer”? I have not. Not even from music snobs who might ordinarily say that the song and ones like it are too riddled with cliché.
     There is no doubt about the commercial success of “Livin' on a Prayer.” The song spent two weeks at number one on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and four weeks at number one on Billboard Hot 100. It hit number 4 on the UK singles chart. Billboard rated it 46 in all-time rock songs and in the time since going digital, the song has sold over 3.4 million copies.
     Overall, Bon Jovi has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling American rock bands of all-time, and this spring, they will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with Nina Simone, the Cars, Dire Straits, the Moody Blues, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Their 1989 acoustic performance at the VMAs is credited with inspiring MTV Unplugged. When Bon Jovi cut his hair in the early 90s, CNN covered it. Bon Jovi is an ubiquitous part of American culture. And so is “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
     A search for “living on a prayer” on Youtube yields over 20 million results. “Living on a prayer cover" comes in at over 12 million. My favorite cover of “Livin’ on a Prayer” is one I’ve watched often enough that I often get “Whoa-Oh, Livin’ for the Free Gas” stuck in my head. In the video, a man filling his gas at a station is humming when a voice comes over the video screen. The newscaster tells the man if he sings karaoke, he will get his gas for free. He picks “Livin’ on a Prayer.” In the song, his enthusiasm is palpable. He is us. Before he begins, the newscaster asks if he wants the words. “No,” the man says. “I know them, baby.”

Bon Jovi alludes to Tommy and Gina in three other songs. In “It’s My Life,” Jon sings, “This is for the ones who stood their ground/for Tommy and Gina, who never backed down.” In “99 in the Shade,” Jon sings “somebody tells me even Tommy’s coming down tonight/if Gina says it’s alright.” Jon Bon Jovi has said in interviews that although their names are not mentioned, he wrote “Born to Be My Baby” for Tommy and Gina, to give them some closure and tell the audience these beloved characters were doing fine.
     Tommy and Gina are older now. Maybe Tommy made it to the big time and Gina found her passion in life. Maybe they are nearing retirement from their 9 to 5s and tallying up their 401ks while they play by the lake with their grandkids. But for us, they are forever frozen in time—in a moment of striving, uncertainty, fear embedded with hope. They are naïvete shot through with desire. They are holding on to one another.
     In a 2007 interview with Parade, Jon Bon Jovi says, “I pride myself on having [always] had the same band. I pride myself on having the same wife. I like progress but I hate change. And I think that counts for something in this day and age. I think it also has helped my career, because I didn’t do Grunge when Grunge got popular; I didn’t get a rapper when Rap became popular; I didn’t try to dance like a boy band when that got popular. You just stay the course, and do what it is that you do, and grow while you’re doing it. Eventually it will either come full circle, or at least you’ll go to bed at night happy.”
     I have often wondered what it feels like to have a song that the whole world knows. I wonder what it would feel like to have that song be synonymous with you and to be called upon to sing it again and again. I know that in every video performance I have seen of Bon Jovi singing it—from 1986 to 2017—he radiates. Actually, he is downright giddy. He seems to thrill each time in the audience singing the chorus with and for him, as if it’s the first time. Maybe he’s a very talented performer. Maybe after all this time, the song still resonates for him. Maybe, in the song, he sees the fulfillment of dreams, prayers answered.


Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer, teacher, singer/songwriter, creativity usher, child of the 80s, and karaoke fan. She's glad that Bon Jovi is being inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but is more excited that foundress of Rock and Roll and innovator of guitar distortion Sister Rosetta Tharpe is finally getting her due. Find Lisa on twitter .


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