The unlikely return of Jon Rocker
Just when you thought the acting bug had benched Bon Jovi, the band strikes again.
by Rob Brunner
Beirut",- says JBJ, waiving his hand at the peeling paint and busted-out
windows backstage at the Asbury Park Convention Center, a crumbling concert hall
on the once-bustling Jersey Shore boardwalk where his namesake group played some
of their first gigs in the early '80s. It's exactly the sort of place you'd
expect to find the veteran band toiling in 2000, an out-of-the-way dive where a
few thousand faithful gather to pump their fists to nostalgic fare like "Livin'
On a Prayer" and "Wanted Dead or Alive". But a few songs into Bon
Jovi's set, a funny thing happens. The band launches into its latest single
"It's My Life", and nobody heads upstairs to the beer garden. Instead,
they let out a cheer and sing lustily to the chorus. Despite the shabby setting,
Bon Jovi have not been reduced to the sad irrelevance of many of their hair-
metal contemporaries. They're in town playing a charity gig to warm up for yet
another major world tour, which will kick off in Tokyo a few days later and
includes two nights at London's massive Wembley stadium (U.S. Dates are planned
for the fall). Their new album, "Crush" , recently debuted in the top
10, and the anthemic first single is shaping up to be the band's 17th Top 40
hit. An upcoming single, "Say It Isn't So", could be even bigger,
especially with help from video featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilio Estevez,
Claudia Schiffer, and Friends' Matt LeBlanc. Not long ago, it seemed time to bid
Bon Jovi bon voyage. Their last album, 1995's These Days, wasn't exactly
bloskbuster, and Jon's 1997 solo disc, Destination Anywhere, ended up going
nowhere ("It was my art album," he explains. "It was my
Nebraska"). Clearly, these teenpop times are scary for old- school rockers
like Bon Jovi, and the ramping up of Jon's acting career (highlighted by his
shipshape performance in the hit U- boat flick U- 571) has only fueled
speculation that his attention is wandering from the music. But the 38--year old
hyphenate doesn't flinch when people dub him and his band has- beens. "It's
just human nature," he says, sipping a glass of pinot grigio at an outdoor
cafe near his Manhattan apartment the folloing afternoon. "It has nothing
to do with me, it has nothing to do with music. They crucified Christ, they
tortured each of our presidents and the Pope. Every pop star gets beat up once
in a while, as do movie stars. Yeah, I've been written off more than once. I
don't even think about it. I don't look at the reviews anymore, I don't read the
articles anymore. I could give a f---. I'm beyond all of that."
Or may be not. When it's semi-seriously suggested that collaborating with Swedish teen-pop star maker Max Martin- who did minimal, uncredited production work on "It's My Life"- might have been a hedge against Top 40 failure, Jon doesn't exactly turn the other cheek. "You know what? You're wasting your time going there." he snaps. "If this is what you're going to write your article about, you're jerking yourself off. You're really wasting your time, your breath, and my energy. The guy just came in and put some loops and synthesizer stuff on a demo, and he was brilliant at it. He didn't write the cords progression or the lyrics or anything to do with that. I'm going to remember this, because if you (write) about it I'm going to hunt you down." Later, Jon mentions that the "Say It Isn't So" video is being shot by Wayne Isham, who directed videos for most of the band's '80's hits, and this reporter cracks wise about how Isham also lensed 'N Sync's latest video clip. Oops! I did it again. "I'm gonna beat the f--- out of you," Jon says, icily. "And it's gonna be easy."
You can understand why the boys in the band are a bit touchy. Never loved by critics, Bon Jovi and their brand of irony-free pop- metal ruled the '80s, but seemed especially stale by the early '90s, when Nirvana raged and the press singled out the group as the epitome of the spandexed romantics that alt-rock had supposedly killed off. "We were the pinpoint of the backlash," says guitarist Richie Sambora, 41, eating clams at an ocean-side restaurant a few hours before the Asbury Park concert. "I was scared. I was scared a lot. Damn scared. That was why we had such a ferocious desire to make it work. Fear and bravado. The strenght came from fear."
And a little cockiness. "I had just done Slippery, New Jersey, and 'Blaze of Glory', three number 1 records," Jon says, looking every inch the rock star in a tight black Dolce & Gabbana T- shirt and dark blue jeans as he sips his wine. "I had ten top 10 singles in a row. (Alt- rock) is gonna put me out of business? I don't think so. But it was okay. I got it, I completely understood it. I was digging what Kurt was saying, what Eddie Vedder was saying. I was like, "Yeah, reality check. You're right, I couldn't agree with you more.'" The cheese- metal backlash, Bon Jovi insist, wasn't his band's fault. "It was all the bands they signed after us that watered it down. Oh, God, it made you embarrassed, what it became. It was disgusting."
Bon Jovi survived alt-rock, of course, and their power-chord-pop sound is now making something of comeback, with bands like Vertical Horizon and 3 Doors Down riffing their way up the rock charts. Still, making Crush wasn't easy. The band had planned to record with longtime producer Bruce Fairbain, the man behind the board for blockbuster albums SWW (1986) and New Jersey (1988). But on May 17, 1999, a week before recording was to start, Fairbairn, 49, died of an aneurysm. "It was literally the day I came home from (shooting) U-571," Jon says, "I still had my coat on, and I answered the phone thinking, "God Almighty, the office isn't giving me a break even now." They told me Bruce passed away that morning. It was major setback. He was dear friend of mine. We'd been through all our successes together. It was very traumatic, a shock." After talking to a bunch of big name producers (Michael Beinhorn, Steve Lillywhite), the band hooked up with a young unknown named Luke Ebbin, who coproduced with Jon and Sambora. The result is a surprisingly natural- sounding evolution, a more comtemporary blend of subtle electronic sounds that is still very obviously Bon Jovi.
Musical irrelevance wasn't the only threat. Jon found himself facing scheduling conflicts and shifting priorities as critical praise poured in for his increasingly high- profile movie roles, which left Bon Jovi the band- in addition to Sambora, keyboardist David Bryan, 38, and drummer Tico Torres, 46- sitting on their hands. The guitarist, for one, is not complaining. "We get back togethet when we get back together," shrugs Sambora, who's wearing an olive green T- shirt, almost matching pants, and a $1,800 Cartier watch given to him by his wife, Heather Locklear. "It's not like a pressure thing. It's got to be when everybody's ready."
Everybody? Not really. "Richie's got more f---ing talent than anybody but me knows, but I'm the only one who has record deal," Jon says. "It's my deal, so it's up to me. It's a magical dynamic with me and Richie. I love him to death. I've been closer to him than my own brother. But could it go on without him or Dave or Tico? Sure. Would I necessarily want it to? No. I turned down a starring role in a big f---ing movie with Jene Hackman to do this tour. Gene Heckman! Don't you think that broke my heart? But this is where my commitment is, this is the right thing to do. I wouldn't walk out on the band, I gave them my word. What can I do? I'm gonna continue to diversify, do more and more movies, do solo albums and soundtracks when I feel like it, and make band records when I want to, when I'm this energized and feel like I have something to say as a band. I'm not dragging this down to where we're playing state fairs and bars to make a buck. This will never be a nostalgia tour. I'll walk away."
Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins, who recently saw Bon Jovi wow a crowd at a Boston radio- station concert, still detects that passion and commitment in the band's stage intensity. "They've gotten dissed completely by the media, so there's a certain amount of holding their chins up," he says. "I respect that. I think they have something to prove. They want their rock & roll props, same as anybody else. It's like, 'F--- you, no apologies: We're gonna do our New Jersey rock."
All right, we'll admit it: Bon Jovi kicks ass. Now please don't hurt us.