And the band plays on...

Thrilled by next Thursday's Times Square gig,
Bon Jovi renews pledge to give fans what they want


Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora could scarcely believe his good fortune when he was told that, for one evening, all of Times Square would be closed off so the band could play there.
"I thought they were b.s.'ing me when they first told us," Sambora recalls, amazement flitting across his tanned face. "I was like, 'Nah, it ain't gonna happen. And then it came through and I was like, 'Whoa!' "

After nearly two decades in the music business, in which Bon Jovi has packed arenas from Birmingham to Bogota and sold 92 million albums, it takes a lot to make Sambora and his bandmates lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, drummer Tico Torres and keyboardist Dave Bryan go "Whoa!"

"We'd really thought we'd seen it all," Sambora says.

That was until the NFL approached the group about headlining a free concert, one that would not only launch the football season but celebrate New York's resilience a year after the cataclysmic events of Sept. 11.

"We thought it was a natural fit," says NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "[Bon Jovi] are huge NFL fans, and they're also considered one of the New York area's biggest groups."

As in the city's New Year's Eve celebrations, all of Times Square will be shut down this Thursday for what's being touted as the world's largest tailgate party. It's already shaping up to be a media spectacle, with Enrique Iglesias, Alicia Keys and rapper Eve also on the bill.

After the pep rally, the band will be choppered to Giants Stadium to perform at halftime of the 49ers-Giants game. Like a child staring at a staggering pile of presents on Christmas Eve, Sambora finds it hard to contain his excitement when speaking about the event. "It's going to be totally intense," he says. "I can't wait."

"The only job that would be better would be being a team member of the New York Giants," adds Big Blue fanatic Jon Bon Jovi. "This is a great honor."

It's also a convenient way for Bon Jovi to promote "Bounce," its eighth studio album, which goes on sale in early October. Like Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," "Bounce" is heavily informed by Sept. 11. The title track, a call for New Yorkers and people the world over to bounce back from adversity, sums up the album's theme: Don't let the bad times beat you down.

"Bounce's" first single, "Everyday," with its driving guitars and rousing vocals, urges listeners to live each day to the fullest. "Hook Me Up," a high-energy ode to reaching out and touching someone, was inspired by a newspaper article about a Palestinian boy trapped in the Occupied Territories. But it's the song "Undivided" that's most shaped by last year's attacks. It opens with the haunting lines: "That was my brother lost in the rubble/That was my sister lost in the crush ..."

Though no group members lost relatives, Bryan's sister was in the north tower's lobby when the first plane hit. "A policeman told her to get out of there, and she ran for her life," says Bryan. "He saved her life."

Others weren't so lucky. "My best friend at the record company lost her husband a day after their first anniversary," says Bon Jovi. "One of my closest friends lost her brother."

RESPONDED TO TRAGEDY

Middletown, the New Jersey town 45 miles south of Manhattan where Bon Jovi's frontman and his family live, lost 32 people in the attacks. Rick Korn, a music and movie producer from the affluent area, was recently quoted in a Vanity Fair article about the town's widows. "I think Bruce [Springsteen], Bon Jovi and I are the only ones living around here who don't work on Wall Street," Korn said.

"Our county was hit the hardest in New Jersey," Bon Jovi says, "and from what I understand, we lost more people than we did in Vietnam."

He watched the towers crumble on television and then, from a nearby beach, saw the smoke rising from Ground Zero.

"When I was a kid," he says after a long pause, "the Army and the Marines would call, wanting me to enlist. I used to jokingly say, 'The day they invade Asbury Park, give me a call. Otherwise, the colors and the uniforms don't really work for me. And the hairstyle is a bit extreme.' "

He laughs quietly. "Here I am 22 years later, and I felt like, 'Oh, s-, this is the beach at Asbury Park and they're here.' "

Unable to volunteer at Ground Zero ("I didn't know CPR"), Bon Jovi and the rest of the group visited firehouses, one of them located around the corner from the NFL's headquarters at 48th and Park.

"This firehouse had lost eight men, including their captain," McCarthy recalls. "[The band] met with some of the firefighters and their families for an hour." Outside the firehouse, on a makeshift stage, Sambora and Bon Jovi performed "America the Beautiful." A tape of that acoustic rendition was played before NFL games last season.

"We received many calls from fans who appreciated the way that performance captured the mood of the country," says McCarthy. "We felt it was fitting, one year later, that we include [Bon Jovi] again."

In many ways, Bon Jovi is the perfect band for this uncertain period. The group's optimism has been a constant presence, even on its darker albums. "Take my hand and we'll make it, I swear," Bon Jovi crooned 16 years ago in "Living on a Prayer." It's this look-on-the-bright-side attitude that fans have come to expect. And the Tony Robbins of rock embraces its role.