Why a Philly Bar Banned Bon Jovi (From Its Jukebox)

Back in the early 2000s, patrons at Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloon wouldn’t stop playing “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Bartender Rob Szatkowski got so enraged he started what’s become bar tradition.

Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloon and its No Bon Jovi jukebox policy

Photos courtesy Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloon

Rob Szatkowski couldn’t take it anymore.

It was the early 2000s. He was tending bar at Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloon, a bar at the corner of Conrad Street and Indian Queen Lane in East Falls. It was homecoming weekend at Philadelphia University. When Szatkowski walked into the bar 15 minutes before his shift started at noon, the place was packed. “Motherfuckers were already drunk, doing shots, car bombs, and acting like it’s almost midnight — and this was just alumni,” he tells Philadelphia magazine.

Just as he started his shift, he heard it: “Tommy used to work on the docks …” At 1:15, he heard it again. And again and again and again. By 7 o’clock, he’d heard Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” at least seven times — maybe more. He had enough. Someone played it again. He hit the reject button, which is behind the bar and skips songs on the juke if pressed. The crowd groaned.

“It just skipped,” he told a patron. “Here’s your buck.” The crowd was not deterred. A half-hour later, he hears about Tommy and the docks again. He skipped the song, and rung the bell behind the bar. “That’s it!” he yelled. “No more ‘Livin’ on a Prayer.’ Fuck Tommy and the dock. I’m skipping it and you’re not getting your money back! You’ve been warned.” Someone — and, though he calls him “some asshole,” Szatkowski admits an admiration for this man — tried to play “Wanted Dead or Alive.” He wasn’t having that, either, though. “No Bon Jovi, ever!” he told the crowd, who booed. “Not on my watch.”

Szatkowski’s shift ended at 8, but he stayed at the bar to hang out. Mike Murphy, who oversees day-to-day operations at the bar his late father bought in 1977, took over. He decided to keep Szatkowski’s rule for the night.

“Michael J. Murphy, being a man of honor, upholds my rule but also directs people to an increasingly drunk me for an explanation,” Szatkowski says. He repeated the same clause to questioners all night: “’Cause Bon Jovi sucks and so does anyone who plays him.”

The No Bon Jovi rule became bar legend in just a few weeks. But not everyone who stepped in there knew the rule. Murphy, not wanting to be a jerk to his customers, told Szatkowski he needed to do one thing: “Dude, I love the rule, just make a sign and we’ll stick it on the jukebox.”

Billy Murphy’s (also known as The Saloonery) has a different jukebox now, one from TouchTunes. But it still has a sign on it forbidding playing the music of Bon Jovi. The rule is now almost 15 years old.

But why the Bon Jovi hate? For Szatkowski, it’s partially because he’s from New Jersey. “I had always been bummed by the ‘You’re a Jersey guy — you must love Frank, Bruce and Bon Jovi,’” he says. “The first two are legends, but Bon Jovi isn’t in the same league.” And when the 1980s hair metal backlash subsided in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Bon Jovi was the singer you’d be most likely to hear at a bar, with people in their early 20s screaming, “Whooooooooooa! Livin’ on a prayer!” over and over and over again until it made your (or at least Szatkowski’s) head spin.

Even though he didn’t invent the rule, Murphy is the one who installed it as a permanent bar fixture. “I hate his music,” says Murphy. “It’s boy-band rock. I don’t mind when someone plays ‘Hanging Tough’ by New Kids on the Block or some MC Hammer every once in a while. It’s funny — I get it. However, if you truly think blocks of Bon Jovi songs are cool, well …”

Murphy and Szatkowski have talked about starting a website, Bartenders Against Bon Jovi, but it never got off the ground. The anti-Bon Jovi rule remains a Billy Murphy’s special.

“Every once in a while we have live music,” Murphy says. “If they start to play Bon Jovi we walk over and mute their guitars. I am now boycotting DirecTV because he is the official spokesperson for them.”