American Rocker! - Parade
By James Kaplan
Published: July 1, 2007
To say that Jon Bon Jovi has an American flag hanging on the front of his house understates the case considerably. This is one very big flag.
It’s also an extremely large house. And ever since Jon and his wife Dorothea built their sprawling, French chalet-style, Central New Jersey mansion in the late ’90s, the flag has been hanging proudly over their front door. “My wife insisted on putting it up,” he tells me. “It’s there all year-round except for Christmas—then we have a wreath.”
A huge one, no doubt. But then, life on a grand scale is nothing new to the 45-year-old rock ’n’ roller: From its formation in 1983 to today, his self-named band has sold more than 120 million albums. Bon Jovi fans love his rough-voiced, blue-collar anthems of love, loss and growing up. And with a new album, Lost Highway, hitting the stores, as well as a prominent appearance as a mentor on American Idol, Jon Bon Jovi is bigger than ever.
But something very simple and human happens when we encounter two of his sons: 3-year-old Romeo and 12-year-old Jesse. (Jon and Dorothea also have a daughter, Stephanie, 14, and a 5-year-old son, Jacob.) As I shake Jesse’s hand, I can see that he is neither oppressed nor impressed by his opulent surroundings—he’s just a sweet-faced, normal kid. It suddenly occurs to me that while it’s great to sell all those albums, Jon must really be doing something right.
Don’t try to throw too many compliments his way, though. When I mention what seems like the remarkable durability of his 18-year marriage, he makes a face. “Look,” he says, “for some reason, I’ve become the poster boy for marriage—which I gladly will accept, because I am contented with this life, and I wouldn’t trade it.”
He’s reclining on a distressed couch in his palatial office, looking every inch the rock god at home: fancy untucked white shirt, faded jeans, pointy black boots. His features are chiseled, his teeth very white, and every once in a while he blows away that legendary, carefully unkempt blond hair from the side of his face.
With it all, however, he manages to come across as a regular guy—impressively well-spoken, not particularly full of himself.
“I think people see the cliche of the Rock Star,” he tells me. “We’re supposed to get married every three years, trade in, trade out—I don’t even want to dare say trade up!” He smiles. “I made a good deal the first time,” he adds. “If Angelina Jolie came in today, I wouldn’t trade.”
Dorothea Hurley was literally John Francis Bongiovi Jr.’s high school sweetheart. He copied her test answers in history class at Sayreville (N.J.) War Memorial High. They broke up for a short time in the mid- ’80s, and Bon Jovi (who unofficially changed his name after he started the band) briefly dated actress Diane Lane—an interlude that’s rumored to have inspired his song “You Give Love a Bad Name.” He decided to return to his Jersey roots. He won back Dorothea by going to her parents’ house, standing on the lawn and calling to her that he wanted her to be at the Meadowlands arena that night when the band would be presented with a gold record. Just like something out of a Bon Jovi song.
When I ask how he has managed to avoid the obvious pitfalls of a touring rock star, he smiles wearily. “Oh, look,” Jon says. “Have I been a saint my whole life? No. But I never liked drugs, so I could easily resist that.”
His bedrock values were formed in Sayreville, 20 miles north of his mansion, where he grew up as the oldest of three sons. John Bongiovi Sr. and Carol Sharkey met when both were in the Marine Corps in the late 1950s. “Tough woman. Strong woman. Independent woman,” Jon says of his mother. After leaving the Corps, she was a Playboy Bunny in New York City. John Sr. was going to follow his father into the plumbing business, but Carol talked him into going to hairdressing school instead. “My parents were firm believers that anything you want to have, you can have,” Bon Jovi tells me. “That was one great gift they gave us—a sense of optimism.”
Young John had no problem deciding what he wanted to do with his life. By 16, he had a band; by 18, he was gigging at New Jersey bars with Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny. At 21, he landed a record deal and never looked back.
“I think, honestly, any man in his 20s or 30s is trying to build his legacy, and in the 40s and beyond, you’re trying to leave one,” he tells me. “In my 20s, I wanted to be a big rock ’n’ roll star. And, fortunately, hard work and persistence and good luck gave me that opportunity. But even at a young age, my aspirations were different than a lot of my peer group. I just saw a bigger, brighter world out there that was full of opportunities to help those in need.”
In 2003, Bon Jovi bought an arena football team, the Philadelphia Soul. At first, his focus was the sport itself—he’d always been a rabid football fan. “But Philadelphia was also the birthplace of the country—the streets that Washington, Jefferson and Franklin walked on,” he says. He was standing at a hotel window there one night, he adds, “and it all came into focus. I’m looking out at the statue of William Penn on the top of City Hall, and I’m seeing a homeless guy sleeping on the street, and I said, ‘I got it.’”
He began looking for ways to channel some of the Soul’s profits into charity and to convert the team’s visibility—and the owner’s—into attention for Philadelphia’s poor and homeless. This led him to groups like Habitat for Humanity. Bon Jovi and his band began contributing money to build two duplexes in North Philly; post-Katrina, they’ve also partnered to build 28 new houses in Houma, La.
But besides building houses, Jon Bon Jovi has been learning ways to help build communities. “More than sanding the walls or painting them, I tell people, ‘I need you to help your kids do better in school,’” he says. “I need the kids to go out and know what taking care of that home is about, because their parents are struggling to a keep a roof over their heads.”
Later, when Bon Jovi walks me out, I turn to say goodbye and see him standing under that big flag. And I think: He may not have had to struggle to put a roof over his family’s heads, but who better understands the importance of a home?