Sun Sentinal- Nov. 1, 2000

It's their life 

As the 1980s drew to a close, it was no surprise to the members of Bon Jovi when they found themselves written off by critics -- pegged as little more than a good-looking hair band that would never amount to much. This was, after all, the age of "important" rock bands like R.E.M., U2, Guns N' Roses, even Van Halen. And that was before the critically worshiped procession of flannel-wearing alt-rockers exorcised every last bit of merriment from the American music scene.
But now, after nearly 18 years together and 14 years since hitting it big, it is indeed the handsome men of Bon Jovi who are still here, still cranking out hits, while bands of past eras struggle with revolving lineups and their own musical irrelevance.
With the hot single It's My Life, a huge new tour kicking off this week and their critically praised CD Crush doing platinum business, Bon Jovi seems more together now than ever, both emotionally and musically.
"Obviously there's a strong bond," Jon Bon Jovi says of his long friendship with fellow frontman Richie Sambora, and band mates David Bryan and Tico Torres. "That's why it works so well. Yeah, we've had our disagreements. But that's life in a band."
The group's founder and namesake is on the phone from his home in New Jersey, talking about the band's first album and tour in nearly five years, and what it's like to defy industry odds.
If he is deriving huge satisfaction from the demise of others amid his own triumph, he won't say. But proving he can still operate an old-fashioned, cohesive rock band that writes its own songs and can sell them in a teen-obsessed market does make him very happy.
"It's nice to have praise heaped upon you," he says of the critical plaudits for Crush. "But you know, I didn't worry when anyone pointed a finger and said you won't be here a year from now. The lows didn't get me low and the highs don't get me higher."
A few days later, in a separate phone call from his home near Los Angeles, Sambora says years of such ups and downs is what gives this band its edge.
"It's a rock 'n' roll kind of family. We went through some tough times and some dysfunctional times -- absolutely," Sambora says.
"But when you're fatigued and you're partying too much, that's gonna send you into an irrational place. That happened back in the late '80s when we were on tour for 16 months. It's not surprising that we had our differences.
"But once we were mature enough to get to the point where we could look at each other and say, `Hey man -- I understand,' that made it OK.
"That's what being in a band is all about. And Jon and I, as I guess the premiere weight-carriers in the group, do debate, and that's what makes us successful. If you got somebody kissing somebody's a-- all the time, you know, you're not gonna get anywhere [musically]. There's gotta be some kind of healthy debate going on."
But at the height of the group's raucous mid- to late-'80s Slippery When Wet and New Jersey heyday, there was little room for anything resembling good health. Living hard day and night, touring the world non-stop and indulging in all the usual rock excesses left band-members exhausted and cranky.
By the time they left the road in 1990, Jon had wisely sensed the pop market's changing tone and was already stretching as a soloist, writing and singing the No. 1 theme song to Young Guns II, while playing a cameo role in that movie. The following year it was Sambora's turn with Stranger In This Town, the first of his two solo albums.
And so it would continue through the '90s, as band members went separate ways. Keyboardist Bryan released two albums of his own. Jon began a movie career in earnest, but not before taking time out to fire bassist Alec John Such for transgressions he still doesn't like to discuss. Drummer Torres launched a successful side career as an artist and sculptor, while Sambora emerged as an engaging tabloid presence during high-profile romances with Cher and then Heather Locklear, who later became his wife.
Though the guys did come together periodically for albums, TV appearances and an extensive world tour in 1996, so much time apart kept the break-up rumors fueled.
Compounding all this was the pull of family life and the balancing of new priorities. Jon had married longtime girlfriend Dorothea Hurley in 1989 and later had two children. In 1997, Sambora and Locklear had a daughter. Soon after, he released a new solo album while she signed on with ABC's Spin City, requiring the family to leave California for a year in New York. (Now that Michael J. Fox has left the series, the show has relocated to Los Angeles, and the Samboras are back home).
Meanwhile Jon's acting career had taken off with the small, well-received film Moonlight and Valentino in 1995. Since then he has appeared in seven movies, including The Leading Man, the submarine blockbuster U-571 and the current Pay It Forward.
"I'm certainly not the first to balance movies and music. It's a difficult process," he says. "But it's easier when you've had success. I'm able to choose what I want to do when I want to do it. And I'm fortunate to be able to do both on a grand scale."
The band's new tour, which began overseas and kicks off in the United States on Friday in Charlotte, N.C., before hitting South Florida on Sunday, will offer Jon several breaks to make more movies. He may start shooting the first of two new films in January, but he won't say much about them. Only that "one is little and one is big."
"It's finding that equilibrium," he says of knowing how long to stay out on the road with the band, when to make movies and when all of it is too much.
But one thing is certain, says Sambora -- Bon Jovi is here to stay. "As Jon has said many times, this band is so past the point of ever breaking up. It's just about learning how not to burn out."
To that end both are diligent about the gym. They also eat and drink "smarter," they say -- ("better wine," says Jon) -- and they travel with someone they call a "holistic chiropractor" to keep them in one piece.
Their good habits haven't been lost on fans. Recent appearances on talk shows and at a concert for VH1's Storytellers had female fans panting as if it was 1987.
"I wouldn't want to look bad no matter what I did for a living, even if I was an auto mechanic," says Jon, 38. "It's not vanity. I wanna feel good. Today I got up at 7. I went to the gym. But it's not like I go to bed early. There are still things I could be better about."
To Sambora, 41, the harsh reality of show biz is that "you just can't eat everything you want. If you want to stay in this business, this is how it is."
Both seem musically in tune as well, so much so that they aren't beyond likening their long partnership to legendary rock teams such as Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
"Richie's got more god---- talent than anyone I know, but I'm the one with the record deal and so it's up to me," Jon says of when they write, record and tour.
Sambora says that's fine: "Right now it's Bon Jovi time. But if Jon does two movies in a row, then that means it's time for me to do a solo project. It's up to destiny."
Jon wrote 60 potential songs for Crush -- half alone and half with Sambora, who flew out to the Rome set of U-571 to do some of the songwriting.
What they came away with was an entirely hummable album that takes the band forward musically, but not so much that it no longer sounded like vintage Bon Jovi.
Some of the credit belongs to their young new producer, Luke Ebbin, who Jon says pushed them in ways they hadn't intended. "It was like, why not go left? And we said, `Left? Oh yeah, left.' 
"This kid just lit this spark and Richie and I turned it into fire."