Bon voyage: The return of Bon Jovi
It's almost 25 years since Bon Jovi shot to fame with their big ballads and even bigger hair. On the eve of their latest sell-out tour, Jon Bon Jovi tells David Usborne why it hasn't all been plain sailing
If by chance you have tickets for the veteran American rock'n'roll band Bon Jovi, opening the revamped O2 Arena in London's Docklands tomorrow night, you will want to be sure the concert's not cancelled at the last moment. For here is something not entirely reassuring: the lead singer has his doubts. " I have told the promoter that I'll believe it when I see it," Jon Bon Jovi says.
It was 1983 when the boys with tight leather trousers and massive hair first burst on to the pop scene in America and started a blinding streak of success that has lasted longer than some of its younger fans have been out of nappies. But not everyone can be Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, so is Jon Bon Jovi, himself now 45 years old and a father of four, finally admitting that he might be running out of steam?
That's not it. Bon Jovi has no plans to retire, even if the madness that used to possess him to perform and record nearly non-stop – in his time, he has done 240-show tours – has eased these days. Sitting in a studio atop the Viacom building in New York's Times Square with a view westwards so vast it seems to encompass all of his native and beloved New Jersey, he voices scepticism about O2, not because of fatigue, but because of what always seems to happen when they refurbish big venues in London. "Is it going to be ready?"
He hasn't forgotten about June last year, and the two concerts they were booked to do at the new Wembley Stadium. Both had sold out. (The band always fills every seat in the UK, famously drawing 91,000 fans to Hyde Park four summers ago.) But then construction fell behind and Bon Jovi were forced to scratch. Tomorrow is his consolation prize. The O2 Arena may not be as big as Wembley – 22,000 seats instead of more than 70,000 – and for Bon Jovi the bigger the venue the better he likes it. But still, it should be a great night.
Bon Jovi is a nice guy, and smart too. This is what everyone tells you when you are getting ready to meet this icon of American rock, even if he is not quite Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, the man he coyly calls the "other guy from Jersey". And the advertising seems to be true. He is a pal of Al Gore, he can act – you may remember his brief stint on The West Wing – he gives a lot of his money to building homes for the poor and he speaks passionately about the American political scene as well as about what has gone wrong with the music industry.
So it is kind of sad that as we speak, we are both aware of an irony behind our O2 conversation. That he has the energy to honour his London commitment is not in doubt. With a new album, Lost Highway, just out, Bon Jovi is at the top of his game. But he can only be as good as his band and, most importantly, as the lead guitarist who has been with him virtually since the start, Richie Sambora.
On the afternoon of our meeting, some disturbing rumours about Sambora began appearing on celebrity internet sites. I hardly needed to have read them, however, because I had seen him perform two nights before. Sambora is only two years older than Bon Jovi, but you wouldn't guess it. It wasn't just the old-rocker hair-do that wouldn't have looked amiss on a Seventies tea-lady, or even the waxwork complexion. Sambora seemed to have trouble staying vertical and playing his guitar too.
The occasion was an important one. After a hiatus, MTV (owned by Viacom) is reviving its hugely popular series of UnPlugged concerts. The Police will reunite for one of them, but the first of the new batch will be devoted to Bon Jovi. Scholars of rock will know why this is appropriate. According to legend it was an impromptu performance by Bon Jovi and Sambora with only acoustic guitars at the 1989 MTV awards show that inspired UnPlugged in the first place. They played perhaps the most popular of all their ballads, "Wanted Dead or Alive". So, of course, it should be them who introduce the reborn UnPlugged.
The taping of the new show took place earlier this month on a specially built stage inside the Steiner movie studios that recently opened in the defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard across the East River from Manhattan. It was never going to be an easy night for Bon Jovi. MTV was unusually dim-witted with the audience it invited – no screaming girl fans, instead mostly journalists and friends of label executives still in their office clothes. They were not going to give him much energy. Plus, it is hard to keep pumped up when the director repeatedly declares himself unsatisfied and asks that songs be performed again. (One had to be done three times.) After nearly four hours it became an endurance test for everyone. And part of the problem was Richie. "We are going to stand for this one," Bon Jovi decreed before one of the songs. Richie obliged, but then it was too much and he subsided back on to his stool. Sambora's vocals during "Dead or Alive" were a rasping disgrace and he apologised to Bon Jovi and to us. "I don't know what happened," he croaked.
Talking about friend and bandmate is the only time Bon Jovi really measures his words. "He has gone through a lot this year," he says. In a few months, he has broken up with his wife, the actress Heather Locklear, and lost his father to complications from cancer. "My job is to be his shoulder right now to get him through the grieving." On the internet, they were saying he was drunk at the MTV taping.
"I don't know that he didn't have a drink, but honest to God, as I sit here telling you the truth, looking you in the eye, there was a total of four bottles of wine in the dressing room and none of them was opened prior to going on to the stage. I didn't have a drink that night and if he did, he kept it somewhere that I don't know about." Bon Jovi wants to stay loyal. "He's had a hard, hard time. He is an only child, everybody grieves differently and we will be there for him in whatever manifests." I had wondered about what was said between them when we had all gone. Nothing at all, Bon Jovi insists. "I can tell you there were no angry words that night. He'll be all right, we will get him through this." It is while we are talking, in fact, that the news wires light up with word that Sambora has checked into a rehab facility in LA.
The first single from Lost Highway has already been released when we meet. It's called "Make a Memory" and it's doing so-so in the US, hovering at No 20. "That is probably where it is meant to be," Bon Jovi admits. The album was partially recorded in Nashville, which won't surprise anyone who has heard the band gradually adopt a more country and western sound. It's also the only town where Bon Jovi can find artistic refreshment. "I have friends who would let me truly get back to basics. I do the sleeping-in-the-spare-room thing and go bar-hopping, doing maybe three, four or five in a row and sucking up the sounds of the city. It's inspiring when you can just go from one to the next and hear real songwriters. I drink, write and go see artists." He laments that the same sort of scene used to exist in New Jersey, but no more; he blames the raising of the drinking age to 21 in the early Eighties.
Performing still turns Bon Jovi on – particularly the one, brief "magic moment" on a concert night. "The 60 seconds between when the house lights go out and you hit the stage are the most important moment of the day. If something were to go wrong in that minute and blow your psyche, that could ruin your whole show. But if the cylinders fire, you think you can leap whole buildings, you get that look in your eye. You don't see anybody. I wouldn't see you in front of me now." Once the concert gets going, he can achieve a different level of being. "Truthfully, if it's going so right and I am in an out-of-body experience and – this is not some rock-star exaggeration – I am not thinking about where I am going out for a drink afterward or what's on TV. I am gone, not even there. If one of the guys asks after, 'How did I do tonight?' I'm gonna say, 'I don't fucking know, I didn't even know you were there.'"
Is it the ovations of the fans that keep him doing it? "I'm not an applause junkie. I know many an artist who can't go home, they just can't be out of the spotlight. They play continually on the road and when they are not playing they are in the bar doing it again. When I am not on the road it's the furthest thing from my head. Just walk the fuck away from it." That means walking home to his wife of 18 years, a high-school sweetheart, and his four children, the youngest of whom, Romeo Jon, is only three years old.
What fires him up, he says, is getting it right on stage, in the recording studio and in writing the songs. And the performing isn't the most rewarding part. Nor, he insists, are the millions of dollars he has earned along the way. "Sure, I've got more money than I had ever dreamed in a thousand lifetimes. But that was never the motivating factor to begin with. It's the search for that perfect song. It's writing that song. More than recording it and certainly more than touring it. That's the tree for me: writing, recording, seeing if the song comes to fruition. And then you want to share it with people." Happily, he can say that he has found that perfect song a few times. If not "Dead or Alive", then perhaps "Livin' on a Prayer". It is why his UnPlugged concert will be shown in the US later this month, not just on MTV, but also on VH1 and Country Music Television. It's also why on one episode of the last American Idol series, contestants sung only his songs. "The biggest TV show in America playing nothing but Jovi songs, that's pretty cool. I guess some of those songs really did touch a lot of people."
Bon Jovi, who was John Bongiovi before his music career, has never hidden his interest in politics. His 2002 album Bounce was a celebration of America's resilience after the attacks of 9/11, while the hit 2006 song, "Who Says You can't Go Home", which took him to the top of the US country charts and won him a Grammy, spoke to his philanthropy in building houses, both in Philadelphia, where he also owns an indoor American Football franchise, and further away in post-Katrina New Orleans. He once surprised Oprah Winfrey mid-show by giving her a record $1m for reconstructions in the city. Last year he was also named an official ambassador for the charity Habitat for Humanity.
Right now, however, he betrays disenchantment with his country. Its political system is broken and "I don't know anyone out there who can fix it," he admits. "It's the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire if we don't straighten up." While Bon Jovi may have gleefully joined Gore on the election trail in 2000, he made similar appearances beside John Kerry in 2004, "because Gore told me to". As for 2008, he will only be available publicly to support the Democrat candidate if he actually believes in them. "I have to do my homework this time, because I am not just showing up." He says he knows and likes Hillary Clinton ("Mrs C") and is looking forward to meeting Barack Obama. "I am ready to be swept off my feet." He wishes Gore would get off the fence and run for President again, but he is not hopeful. "I think the needle is closer to an absolute 'No' than it is to a 'Yes'. That is the way to phrase it the best, and I talk to him a lot."
But the new album is not about politics or America. It's about the band and its members hitting rough waters in their lives. That means Sambora as well as keyboard player David Bryan, who also recently lost his father. "People may find it revealing because it became an internal record rather than an observational one," Bon Jovi explains. "I was the narrator. It's easier to write about someone else's pain rather than yourself. But it became cathartic for Richie, especially, to express them through me." If it turns out be a hard sell, so be it. "We weren't writing to sell tickets or even to go on the road." Nor, indeed, for radio stations who increasingly don't know whether Bon Jovi is rock or country. "We were writing music from a different place and that's when the magic could happen. I am not saying it will, but it could."
It's hardly a secret that the music industry has changed and that Bon Jovi is now a bit of a throwback. "The way it used to be is long-gone, when you would break out of a little regional area, have a DJ who was your champion and have record company guys that got it." That was a time, he elaborates, when people cared as much about "track seven" on an album as they did about the title song. In other words, the art still mattered. "I have been screaming this from the mountain top for years. It's about track seven. I always worked hard on track seven and I still do," Bon Jovi says, adding that he never gave in to label executives who wanted him to duet with a rapper just to boost radio play and sales, to go to Seattle to do the grunge thing, to have a scratcher in his studio or even – heaven forefend – collaborate with a boy band. "They were the hot things to do. But I never did. Stay true to what you do."
He may be verging on old-fashioned. It is possible, even, that his label indulges him a little, but Bon Jovi seems still to be doing something right. As for tomorrow night's gig, best we can tell, the O2 arena will be ready for him. At the time of going to print, moreover, the band's publicists are insisting that Richie will be relieved of rehab, too, and fit to play with his old friend. So hang on to those tickets if you have them. Because Bon Jovi is a class act.