The Meaning Behind the Road-Dog Lament “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi

Of all the rock songs that have adopted an Old Western aesthetic over the years, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” is one of the most famous. But the meaning is not as to-the-point as its title. 

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Released in 1986, “Wanted Dead or Alive” remains one of Bon Jovi’s most popular songs to date, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s still just as recognizable as “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” from the same album.

One of the key “hair metal” bands of the 1980s (and beyond), Bon Jovi formed in 1983 as teenagers. Cut to third major-label album Slippery When Wet, and the band found themselves in the middle of a scene that was a perfect storm of classic rock hooks, blistering guitar virtuosity, and an emphasis on looks not seen since the glam era of the ’70s. The band co-wrote with über-producer Desmond Child on the album, who was known for his work with KISS and Aerosmith. Slippery‘s stellar songs and MTV’s ability to get photogenic artists into people’s living rooms quickly tripled the audience Bon Jovi had gained from past singles like “Runaway” and “In and Out of Love.”

The Songwriting

“Wanted Dead or Alive” was written by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. Sambora was Bon Jovi’s lead guitarist up until his departure in 2013. The song was produced by Bruce Fairbairn, who also produced for Aerosmith, Van Halen, KISS, and later, The Cranberries. 

The song opens with steely guitars reminiscent of old-fashioned country and blues instrumentation; that sound was then blended with the stadium rock energy Bon Jovi are known for. The result is a rock ballad as enthralling as any they would produce (and they produced many). 

In a 2009 interview with Inside The Actor’s Studio, Jon Bon Jovi revealed that the song was written in the basement of Sambora’s mother’s house, where Sambora already had the song’s signature lick down. It came together in about two or three hours.

The Meaning

With references to cowboys, ‘Wanted’ posters, and “steel horses,” “Wanted Dead or Alive” builds a concept while pulling from the band’s lived experiences, as was typical of the other hits on Slippery When Wet

On Inside The Actor’s Studio, Jon Bon Jovi draws a parallel between images associated with the Old West and the way of road life he and the band had adopted at a young age: “Here was this … young band of thieves, if you will, riding into town, stealing the money, the girls, and the booze, and leaving before the sun came up. That was the lifestyle of every rock band.”

[RELATED: The 25 Best Jon Bon Jovi Quotes]

Like a hero, or anti-hero, on a long journey, the song yearns for home over the constant push to survive out on the road. Time, place, and people blend together, but the pressure placed on the band remains.

It’s all the same, only the names will change
Every day, it seems we’re wastin’ away
Another place where the faces are so cold
I’d drive all night just to get back home

The “steel horse” might refer to a motorcycle, playing into the suave image attributed to rock stars at the time. While Bon Jovi were not being hunted like Old West cowboys, people’s unwavering desire to see and meet them, no matter what condition they were in, was comparable. 

I’m a cowboy
On a steel horse I ride
I’m wanted dead or alive
Wanted dead or alive

Life out on the road proved to be existential but numbing, with the end of the lifestyle seemingly out of reach. The band lived an uncomfortable, often harmful existence, where they were awake for days on end and binged on inebriants. 

Sometimes I sleep, sometimes it’s not for days
The people I meet always go their separate ways
Sometimes you tell the day by the bottle that you drink
And times when you’re alone, well, all you do is think

Hammering home the image of a rock ‘n’ roll cowboy, the final verse evokes Old Western touchstones, with a guitar replacing a cowboy’s weapon, and the audience’s satisfaction what he needs to conquer rather than the villain. 

And I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back
I play for keeps ’cause I might not make it back
I’ve been everywhere, still I’m standing tall
I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all

The Music Video

Bon Jovi produced a wealth of no-frills videos, usually featuring clips from their live performances as well as candid moments from the road. The music video for “Wanted Dead or Alive” follows that same formula, but when incorporating the lyrical content, the footage becomes much more potent. Subdued shots of traveling between cities contrast the screaming, enthusiastic crowds. The grayscale also parallels their video for “Livin’ on a Prayer,” acting as a companion piece of sorts to that video. Fans’ faces are often cropped out or obscured, but their obsession with the band shows. The video closes with the band collapsing in exhaustion when they return to the green room after a performance.  


“Wanted Dead or Alive” is one of three songs on Slippery When Wet to hit the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the first-ever metal album to contain three Top 10s. 

As one of the biggest rock songs of the 1980s, “Wanted Dead or Alive” has been covered countless times. It has had a particularly significant presence in Nashville, as country acts like Jason Aldean and Zac Brown Band would take on the song in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Richie Sambora even joined Zac Brown Band on stage at the Country Music Awards one year to perform their cover with them. 

“Wanted Dead or Alive” joins many other Bon Jovi songs as being a multigenerational hit, regardless whether it’s captivating those who grew up with the song or those who are just discovering it.

Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

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