Oct. 18, 2002
Bon Jovi still going, but plans to leave a nice corpse
Knight Ridder Newspapers
The first time I interviewed Jon Bon Jovi, I was 17 years old and he was 23.
It was 1985, I was doing some work at my college radio station, and Bon Jovi was leading his up-and-coming rock band through its summer tour. Even then, you could see the group had lots of talent and charisma, and within three years, with the release of 1986's Slippery When Wet and 1988's New Jersey, it had become the biggest band in the world.
Each album hit No. 1 on the charts, and combined, they sold more than 23 million copies.
Since that first interview, I've talked to Bon Jovi again on several occasions. And through the years, I've not only seen his career skyrocket, but I've seen him grow as a songwriter and a performer. But during our most recent conversation, even he seemed surprised by the early rush of critical acclaim the band's new CD, Bounce, is receiving.
The album, released overseas in September, hits record stores in America on Tuesday.
"The reaction has been pretty spectacular," Bon Jovi says. "I don't know if I've ever had this kind of reaction before. The usual sales trends are happening overseas in both Japan and Europe, which is always great, but the press response has gone up another level.
"People are digging the record."
The new album comes on the heels of 2000's Crush, which contained the hit single It's My Life and which some viewed as a commercial comeback for the band. Bon Jovi says the group and his songwriting partner, guitarist Richie Sambora, fed off the success of "Crush" and its accompanying tour. Some of that energy, he says, may have bled into the tracks of Bounce.
"There was an exuberance, post tour, because of the success of Crush and because of the new generation that found the band for the first time," he says. "Within a month, Richie and I started the writing process."
Bon Jovi says he and Sambora had some musical ideas when they began writing, but it wasn't until the events of 9/11 that the album found its sense of place.
"Obviously, it was going to continue to be optimistic, because if there's any thread that's run throughout our records, it's been optimism. But it lacked focus, as it should, initially, when you're writing a project. You don't know what the voice is. It takes a little time. Songwriters usually figure it out (as they go along). You write in mass, and then you hone it down.
"9/11 became a focal point, and therefore it became more pointed. It wasn't going to be a collection of pop songs. It would be a very well-rounded record, in that there would be socially conscious songs, but it wouldn't be a 9/11 tribute. One thing we knew was that there were another 364 days in that year, so there were other things we needed to say and do. And in doing that, we found a voice, and the record came quick."
Bon Jovi says the new album offers more musical collaboration between him and Sambora than its predecessor. It is a pure rock record, and in the Bon Jovi tradition, it contains a few anthems and ballads. Some say it also comes with a sense of familiarity.
"I never thought of this as a 'return to the roots,' but that expression comes up often," he says. "It wasn't intended to be. But if there was an exuberance, because we'd just gotten off the road, I now can say 'Oh yeah, that makes sense.' But it took me a year to realize it, having been too close to it."
Bon Jovi says he's amused at the perception the band has enjoyed a commercial comeback after supposedly suffering through a grunge-induced lull in the '90s. Keep The Faith, the band's album from 1992, sold 10 million copies worldwide, and the group's 1994 hit, Always, was among its biggest ever. In 1995, while supporting the These Days album, the band played three sold-out shows at London's historic Wembley Stadium.
Next came a self-imposed break and few years of solo albums and exploring other projects, and with Crush, the band was right back on top.
"The perception is what it is," Bon Jovi says of the supposed slump. "But when we needed to haul out the big guns, they were still there for us -- the Saturday Night Lives of the world and the Today Show and radio and what have you. But I understand. It is perceived that we 'came back.' You just have to say 'Whatever.' Whatever gets you to be accepted, you just deal with it."
The A&E television network recently profiled Bon Jovi in a Biography special, during which guests such as Elton John and Al Gore, for whom he campaigned in 2000, praised his musical talents and tireless energy. In addition to music, the show discussed Bon Jovi's successful acting career, which has included appearances in several feature films and a stint on Ally McBeal.
Acting is simply another creative outlet he enjoys.
"I like it just as much as I love music. No less, no more. They are absolutely equal. Should I have had the opportunity to do a great movie, I would have done it. But the record just seemed to pull ahead with focus, and I jumped at it."
The group, which also includes drummer Tico Torres, keyboardist David Bryan and bassist Hugh McDonald, supports his acting career, Bon Jovi says.
"The band understands, and it actually energizes the band. A lot of your peers aren't allowed to do solo records, and they're not allowed to go out and make a movie, and then they sit around frustrated and bored. Our thing thrives on (outside projects), because you bring new information back to the table, and everybody endorses it and encourages it."
At one point during the interview, I mention to Bon Jovi that I'd just seen the Rolling Stones in concert and was highly impressed with how well they played and performed and with how good they sounded. The Stones, I point out, are now in their 40th year together, while Bon Jovi is coming up on 20 years.
Can he imagine playing with his band for 20 more years?
"No," he says. "I never dreamt about doing it 20 years on, let alone 40 years on. I honestly don't know if I want to do it like that at that age, but on the other hand, the model you've got to look at is the Stones and Sinatra. Frank toured until he was 80, and he made 60 movies. And as a rock band, I wouldn't want to go on after the Stones. They're kicking ass. They're going to tell all the rest of the rock bands where the end of the road is. God bless them."
Unlike some older acts, Bon Jovi says he will never allow his group to become a caricature of itself or get together years down to road for easy-money reunion shows. Keeping the band's integrity is important to him.
"I don't want to be the fat Elvis. You see bands like that, and they're out there doing the 'reunion tour' sucking it in. I won't do that. I'll walk away leaving a pretty corpse before we do the reunion tour for money. If it isn't fun, I've said it from the first day, I'll walk from this. I'm going to leave it looking good and leave the memories there for the people that cared and believed it."
Bon Jovi has sold 93 million records. Slippery When Wet recently was the subject of a VH1 special and is now considered a milestone rock album. The band's songs, such as Wanted Dead or Alive and Livin' On A Prayer, are considered radio and MTV classics, and the group recently helped kick off the NFL football season with a nationally broadcast live performance from Times Square.
Seventeen years after our first interview, Bon Jovi, now 40, is asked a question that would have been inappropriate in 1985:
What has been the highlight of his storied career?
"I couldn't tell you one or a hundred," he says. "Every day is too ridiculous. Add them up: Times Square and a half a million people, Giants Stadium for a couple of nights or playing in a little theater in London, which we did last week, and have it televised to movie theaters around the continent. There's so many ridiculous things that this band has accomplished, if it's a dream, then I don't want to be woke up."