In the bowels of Capitol Records, a landmark building on
Hollywood and Vine designed to look like a stack of vinyl 45s, Bon Jovi are
playing songs from their new album. Behind the glass wall of the subterranean
Studio A is a small audience of excited competition winners who arrived by limo
to see their idols and are being bossed about by a man from Clear Channel. He’s
telling them to turn off their phones, keep quiet during the recording and take
a bathroom break now or forever hold their peace. Amid a tangle of wires, the
rest of the room is a hive of technical activity, dominated by a
larger-than-life character called Mitchell, with orange hair under a big
bandanna and a voice from the subdivision of central casting labelled “camp
showbiz stereotypes”. He’s ostentatiously conducting proceedings through the
glass wall that separates us from Bon Jovi, observing his cameramen’s moves
through six monitors and issuing directions loudly through a headset.
It’s easy to know when he’s happy with a take. He yells: “That was hot!” During Jon’s interpretation of the Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley classic Hallelujah, he gets so involved that he slams down his fist on the mixing desk – and all six monitors go blank. Oblivious to the technical hitch, the band play on and the cameras keep rolling as Mitchell, unperturbed, improvises through the glass, directing his cameras like a classical conductor until the wires are plugged back in. “That was freakin’ ridiculous!” he shrieks with glee.
I’m guessing that’s “ridiculous” as in “bad” or “wicked”, because the days when Bon Jovi were widely considered ridiculous are long gone, along with the poodle perms and tight trousers. These days, they are a smooth-running global brand who would be capitalised in the same sort of economic bracket as a modest multinational corporation. With album sales of 120m and the economic forecast looking bright after a recent expansion into the lucrative country sector, they remain one of the biggest bands in the world.
They’re also one of the least critically acclaimed – a topic that used to keep Jon Bon Jovi awake at night (though he could probably get quickly to sleep by counting his platinum discs). Now, at 45, he seems to have mellowed into a kind of early-middle-aged contentment. You can see it in his laid-back attitude as he saunters nonchalantly into a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, his just-out-of-bed hair a sun-kissed shade of bottle-blond, contrasting with the carpet of greying chest hair that sprouts from a lavishly embroidered and unnecessarily unbuttoned shirt. You can sense it in his readiness to talk about parenthood, politics and the problems of nasal hair and middle-age spread. And you can hear it on Lost Highway, a new album, out tomorrow, that wears its midlife concerns of death and divorce on its sleeve.
But never fear, because much of Lost Highway rocks like – well, like all those other pop-rock anthems (Livin’ on a Prayer, You Give Love Bad Name et al) that you just can’t help liking, if only as a guilty pleasure. The title track, for example, is tailor-made for driving along an open road, with its compelling image of a “plastic dashboard Jesus”. Whole Lot of Leaving marries a bit of Sheryl Crow-style country-rock to a sentimental story about the death of loved ones, and Any Other Day is the sort of slow-burn storytelling saga that invites Richie Sambora to supply one of those plangent guitar solos. It is, in other words, another Bon Jovi record.
The thing about Bon Jovi is that, as soon as they appeared in the early 1980s, you knew exactly what you were going to get from them: feelgood pop-rock anthems with uplifting choruses and lyrics that celebrated blue-collar American life. It was a formula built for success, and it’s been succeeding ever since. Which is why the BJ message boards have been abuzz with apprehension in recent weeks at the sacrilegious suggestion that their favourite band is going to “go country”. Rest assured, Bon Jovites; it hasn’t happened. “I think I am guilty of making a mistake in misrepresenting that we were going to Nashville to make a country record,” Jon admits with a rueful grin. “I think I can better describe it by saying it’s a Nashville-influenced Bon Jovi record. We’ve just twanged up the sound a little bit.”
There’s clearly a bit of “repositioning” going on, an attempt to appeal to the more middle-aged, middle-of-the-road, conservative country crowd. Is that deliberate? “That’s part of it,” Jon concedes, before embarking on the long story of how he “accidentally” came up with last year’s idea of rerecording an album track as a country duet after a chance meeting in the hotel gym with the country-rock superstar (and new Mr Nicole Kidman) Keith Urban. In a stroke of marketing genius, Jon “twanged up” a track off the last album with fiddles and mandolins, hired a sexy young country starlet, Jennifer Nettles, to duet with him, shot a populist video full of families, firefighters and construction workers, and found himself on top of the US country charts – the first time a rock band had ever reached such a lofty position. No surprise, then, that the ever-shrewd singer is eager to exploit that on Bon Jovi’s new album. “It may open some eyes, ears and doors that were there, only we didn’t know it,” he says. “So, yes, it’s partially about reinvention.”
The other significant departure for the new album is its introspective lyrical content, inspired by the unfortunate personal circumstances of two of Jon’s bandmates. Both Sambora and the keyboard-player, Dave Bryan, went through painful divorces in 2006, on top of which they both lost their fathers. Inevitably, this brought about a reassessment of priorities for the band. “I had no plans to make a record this year, because I had nothing to say,” Jon says. “But then I realised I could help Richie and Dave through what they were going through – both of them having to start a whole new page of their lives at a time when they didn’t intend to deal with this turmoil.”
There’s certainly a more personal, reflective feel to the new album’s lyrics. You can’t help wondering whether Jon, the archetypal rock star, has finally grown up. “I think in your twenties and thirties, you’re trying to build your legacy,” he replies, “and from your mid-forties on, you’re trying to leave one. I read that somewhere and it’s become my mantra.” Most rock stars, you imagine, would have claimed the quote as their own.
Jon has been doing a lot of work for charity. Since his stint entertaining the Democratic troops on John Kerry’s campaign trail, he has devoted much of his time to philanthropic work in New Orleans and Philadelphia, where he owns an American football team whose profits go to a foundation set up to provide affordable housing in one of the city’s poorest areas. Not that he’s having any kind of midlife crisis. “I don’t think it’s a crisis. I think it’s a great discovery not to be the self-centred singer in a rock band, and to do something for the common good,” he says. “I think everyone goes through this. It comes with age and wisdom and experience.”
Of course, age and experience bring their own problems, too: although he still works out every day, he confesses that he can’t throw a ball any more, due to bursitis in his right shoulder, and constantly struggles with his weight. “It’s hard, man, really hard. I’m up now,” he grumbles, patting the kind of washboard stomach any other 45-year-old would die for. And while the hair on his head remains a thing of wonder, it’s starting to make unwelcome intrusions from other orifices. “Yeah, man, the ears and the nose,” he groans. “Dealing with it. But it ain’t easy.”
Jon is about to uproot his family from Middletown, in his home state, New Jersey, and make the culturally enormous but geographically small leap across the river to Manhattan with Dorothea, his wife of 18 years, and their four children, Stephanie, 14, Jesse, 12, Jacob, 5, and Romeo, 3. He says it’s “for the stimulation”, particularly for Stephanie, who aspires to a career in fashion and will be starting an intern-ship with Interview magazine. But he’s determined that his children won’t enjoy a privileged lifestyle, and hopes that Stephanie’s work experience will mirror his own apprenticeship at his cousin Tony’s New York recording studio. “Believe me, it wasn’t all that romantic. It wasn’t like Mick Jagger said, ‘Come on in, sit down’. He said, ‘Get me a f***in’ cup of coffee and get out.’ I’m intending for it to be more like that for her.”
Jon’s own parents, John Sr and Carol, who are still alive and still together, are the template for his own approach to parenthood. “My mom and dad weren’t necessarily strict, but they weren’t too lenient,” he says. “It was your typical 1960s1970s kinda upbringing. I really admire that my parents stayed together; they toughed it out, the good and the bad. Everyone worked hard, you came home, you drank your six-pack of beer, you watched TV and you went to bed and did it again the next day. Sunday, you went out the back-yard and barbecued, maybe you played golf.”
He says he tries to keep his kids as down to earth as possible: they don’t have credit cards and, until recently, they didn’t have their own mobile phones. “If they see my work ethic, maybe that will instil that in them. I work hard at whatever I do, whether it’s the football team, the philanthropic work or making records.”
And what, finally, do the Bon Jovi kids think of Jon Bon Jovi the rock superstar and his music? “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I do sometimes corner them in the car on the way to school and ask them what they think about a mix of a new song, but I never make them listen to a whole record. I’ve heard Richie and Dave say they played their kids a DVD of our old concerts from 20 years ago, and they were laughing. But I’ve never done that.” Just as well, really. They would probably laugh at his 1980s hair. “Sure they would,” he smiles. “I laugh at it – it’s part of growing up in public.”