Thirty years ago today, Bon Jovi released its debut album, a self-titled assortment of floppy-haired Springsteen riffs, with a hit single so goofy and iconic you'll recognize it instantly even in your hair metal-proof cubicle.
So we tracked down the guy you can thank (or blame) for the song that launched Bon Jovi to three decades of megastardom, a songwriter who has neither seen a million faces nor rocked pretty much any of them.
No, not Desmond Child. Meet George Karak, the local songwriter whose penning of "Runaway" with Jon Bon Jovi lifted him out of New Jersey obscurity, where he happily returned shortly after to compose material for the likes of country singer Jason Aldean and Lou Reed bassist Fernando Saunders. Reached by phone at his home in the Garden State, Karak explained how he accidentally jumpstarted the world's longest-serving purveyors of stadium-ready pop metal.
"I was playing at a club called the Fast Lane in Asbury Park, and Jon [then John Francis Bongiovi, Jr] played on and off there also," Karak said. "I think I was opening up for [1970s and '80s rock band] Mink DeVille, and Jon was in the audience. He walked up to me after the set and basically said, 'I really like the way you write original music. Do you want to write some songs together?' I said, 'Sure, why not?'"
They decamped to The Power Station, the Manhattan studio then co-owned by the singer's cousin, Tony Bongiovi, who would later produce the group's debut. But this was in 1980, before the band was formed, and most of the songs Karak wrote during these sessions never appeared on a Bon Jovi album. Except, well—
"'Runaway' was actually written in Jon's living room in Sayreville, New Jersey," Karak recalled. "I went to his house, I met his parents, I had spaghetti dinners with him. He's been to my house; we wrote songs at my place." They were never really close friends, Karak clarified. But not long after, "he calls me up and he says, 'George, hey, meet me for a drink at the Trade Winds. I got a record deal.'"
The burst of productivity between the two acquaintances had generated a demo, featuring "Runaway" and another Karak-penned track called "Talking in Your Sleep." ("I think 'Talking in Your Sleep' was a good song," Karak adds. "I think that should've been on his first record.") Recorded by a one-time "All Star Review" lineup (Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan handled the bodacious synth intro), "Runaway" slipped onto the air after appearing on a compilation by WAPP 103.5FM The Apple. "The song started climbing the charts, and before we knew it it was in the Top 40."
When the curly-mopped vocalist eventually assembled a band to march back into The Power Station and record a full-length album in 1982, Karak wasn't tapped, nor did he expect as much. Despite a stint in a band called Intruder, he prefers songwriting over performing, and the royalties floating in from "Runaway" have helped him pursue as much for more than three decades, even as he's shifted his focus from '80s pop to Nashville because he's "not really into what's going on in the music business as far as the whole Katy Perry thing."
Fame, in other words, flurried into his lap at an Asbury Park nightclub and promptly enough scurried into the night without him, and he doesn't bear a grudge.
"All I can say about Jon is he's kept his word," he reflected. "He put it on the live record, he put it on the greatest hits record for me. In his own kind of way, he's taken care of the people that have written for him over the years."
Still, after 30 years, "he's never given me the opportunity to write more songs with him. I would jump at the chance if I could."