Jon Bon Jovi has always been an optimist, in a way that is characteristic of the American spirit.

As a kid, he was told that no dream was too big. Hard work pays off. True love is real. And good guys prevail.

"That was my upbringing," Bon Jovi said, recalling his childhood in Sayreville. "That optimism came from my folks and where I was brought up and the time I was raised. I was born in the Kennedy era -- it was that magical Camelot time -- and it gave me blind faith."

Bon Jovi grew up to become a husband, a father of three, and a world-famous rock star. He and his wife, Dorothea, and their children live in a beautiful estate on the Navesink River in Middletown. They enjoy the good life, but they also stay grounded through philanthropy and close ties to the local community. This is American optimism richly rewarded, this is the American dream dressed to the nines.

But money, fame and popularity can't shield you from something like Sept. 11, especially when you live in a county that lost some 158 people that day and one of your kids wants to know, 'Dad, why didn't the president stop it?' It's easy to be an optimist when things are going your way. The challenge, to quote a Bon Jovi hit, is to 'keep the faith' when global turmoil pays a visit.

"It was a very difficult lesson to teach," Bon Jovi said. "How do you tell your kids there are bad people, to that extent, people who take life without a thought? You always know there is war and terror in the world, but when it happens in your back yard, you have to face it. So I sat them down and told them, yes, bad things happen to good people. And you have to tell them what it means when someone passes away, but also that just because your friend's dad is going to heaven, don't think that your dad is going to die, too. You have to tell them you'll be there for them, no matter what. It's hard."

Almost a year after that traumatic day, Bon Jovi and his bandmates -- Richie Sambora, David Bryan and Tico Torres -- will perform in New York as part of all-day festivities planned by the NFL.

A 'Giant' show
"NFL Kick-Off Live From Times Square," scheduled for Thursday, serves to herald the football season and the opening game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. Bon Jovi will be the headliner, playing from about 7 to 8 p.m. before heading to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford to perform the half-time show. The day also features a New Year's Eve-style ball drop -- shaped like a football -- and recognition of the city's upcoming Sept. 11 memorial events.
Bon Jovi is a serious Giants fan and was eager to support his favorite sport -- he'll debut his band's new single, "Everyday," at the NFL events. But he also saw this event as a prelude to the Sept. 11 commemorations. Most major sporting events of the past year -- from the World Series to the Olympics to the U.S. Open -- have acknowledged Sept. 11 with ceremonies.

"I haven't gotten the official line from the NFL," Bon Jovi said, "but as I see it, the season starts in New York, and this is an opportunity to thank the country on a nationwide level for the support shown to New York, and to recognize, a week before the anniversary, that New York is getting through this."

VH-1 will broadcast Bon Jovi's Times Square performance live. ESPN and MTV will televise portions of the kick-off party. CBS will tape the event and air a one-hour primetime special the following night, Sept. 6. Westwood One will produce and distribute the radio broadcast of the event to stations nationwide.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Bon Jovi was exercising in his home gym when a breaking news report came on the TV. The night before, Bon Jovi and bandmate Richie Sambora had been working on songs for the band's next album.

"Richie was at the house, so I woke him up and said, 'There's something going on that you need to see,' " Bon Jovi said. "We couldn't contact his wife (actress Heather Locklear) and child on the West Coast. We didn't know what to do about my kids. Should we run to the school and get them? We drove to the beach and watched the burning, and then we went home."

When the first shock subsided, Bon Jovi grew restless. Like so many Monmouth County residents, he brought supplies ("sandwiches and socks") to local drop-off points, to be ferried over to lower Manhattan.

"I tried to be on the bucket brigade but they wouldn't let me because I didn't know CPR," he said. "I tried to donate blood but they didn't need it. We did everything we could from this side, everything we could think of."

Waving the flag
That included performing at two concerts in October at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, which raised money for local 11 families; the massive Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden, which honored firefighters, cops and recovery workers; and the understated national telethon for United Way's Sept. 11 funds. Bon Jovi draped the front of his home with an enormous American flag, big enough to be noticeable to drivers on Navesink River Road. "It's still there," he said.

Needless to say, when he and Sambora returned to their songwriting, a dark tone emerged.

Musicians can't help but write about Sept. 11. Everyone from Sleater-Kinney to fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen has written music inspired by the day. Springsteen's album, "The Rising," dealt with the ongoing trauma of Sept. 11 and the many layers of grief sparked by sudden, massive loss. Bon Jovi has followed Springsteen's path by writing songs about hardship and blue-collar heroes, but Bon Jovi's perspective has been rosier. Bon Jovi's approach is more like Dr. Seuss's bittersweet children's book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," wistful but playful, while Springsteen takes a cue from John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," serious and bleak, hinting at hope.

No surprise, then, that Bon Jovi's innate optimism resurfaced in the studio. Bon Jovi's eighth studio album, "Bounce," is set for release Oct. 8 on Island/Def Jam, with a tour to follow in December. It picks up where the wildly successful "Crush" left off, albeit tinted by recent events.

"I didn't want to do a whole album about Sept. 11," Bon Jovi said. "I have a few songs on 'Bounce' directly related to it, but I've taken it more from what I saw emerge after Sept. 11: the unity among people in this community was unparalleled anywhere in the world. To see those flags everywhere, that was something that got to me.

"When I'd read your paper, I'd read about families who are getting on with their lives, women who'd lost their husbands and were dusting themselves off and running the household, making this part of their lives, but not all of it. I noticed that nobody pulled their kids out of school, nobody moved away. None of the things that often happen after a tragedy happened here. Everybody stayed, stuck together and helped each other. So, the subject matter is resiliency and optimism in the face of adversity."

That is reflected in the title of the album, "Bounce," as in "bounce back," and in the first single, "Everyday," whose chorus of "I'm gonna live my life everyday," echoes the promise so many Americans made to themselves after Sept. 11.

"Life is short and you never know what's going to happen," Bon Jovi said. "So you better make the most of it while you can."