Five men. Rock guitars. Pop sensibility. Stirred up in a melting pot called Bon Jovi. The story of the biggest pop-rock peddlers since KISS began when lead singer Jon Bon Jovi was a janitor in a recording studio. His is a story that has come a long way, busting out of New Jersey in the early 1980s and breaking into the charts with the multi platinum Slippery when Wet, which put pop and rock in a sizzling concoction of guitars, synths and pop harmonies. It was big, bold pop sound that kick-started the hair-band and spandex movement. Bon Joviís rock wasnít about rebellion, it was about good times and optimism, it was about ... living on a prayer.
These rock íní roll boys, or should we say millionaires donít really need to sing for their supper any longer considering Bon Joviís superstar credentials in the music scene. But Jon Bon Jovi (vocals), Richie Sambora (guitar), David Bryan (keyboards), Tico Torres (drums) and unofficial fifth member Hugh McDonald (on bass) were still the buzz of the week when they delivered a playful set at the Heineken Music Centre in Amsterdam, Netherlands last week.
The sold out occasion was cheekily titled the ďworldís biggest listening sessionĒ to promote the bandís new album Have A Nice Day, the first new music from the five-piece in three years.
And that was what it was Ė rather than being a full on rock íní roll show, Bon Joviís one-hour odd gig seemed more like a big sound check that 6,000 people were invited to. The show was a fun, laid-back affair and the fans loved it.
Call it tuneful metal or poodle rock, Bon Jovi has been fairly consistent hit-makers and become a lean-mean touring machine, while other hair bands have fallen by the wayside. The ultra-prolific band has claimed to have written more than 500 songs.
The band, barring a couple of mini-line up changes (Hugh McDonald now handles the low notes) are still together after all these years, overdosing on optimism with their new offering Have A Nice Day, their ninth studio album, barring greatest hits packages and live albums. The first single is the title track from the new album and feels like an offspring of Itís My Life; a feel-good pop nugget that basically says ďLive life!Ē
Any Bon Jovi new album is worth, at least, a cursory listen. But Have A Nice Day seems to be an album that reflects signature Bon Jovi Ė with its big choruses and inspired energy. Itís also the second single thatís going to garner the ďoohs and aahsĒ from the fans. Called Welcome To Wherever You Are, it is the bandís most poignant song to date.
Uplifting, yet reflective, the song serves as perfect tonic for a mid-life crisis. Not too bad an effort since most in Bon Jovi are pushing into their mid-40s, and starting to seek personal and band redefinition in already illustrious career.
No trip would be complete for a Bon Jovi event without the main man himself taking time to talk about the new music. A day before the bandís gig, lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, 43, looking pleased as punch walked into a room for casual chat at the Amstel Intercontinental hotel. He was in a good mood that afternoon Ė exuding an ďall-American-guy-done-goodĒ aura rather than rock-star godliness.
ďWelcome!Ē was the first word to greet this writer. Dressed in brown corduroy jeans and jacket, Jon was affable and obliging.
It also helped that Jon was a curious interviewee, taking a moment to check out the recording kit on the table.
ďWhat is this?Ē he asked, before figuring out himself: ďWow, technology! Youíve got cool toys, man.Ē Incidentally, he was rather fascinated by a camera that also records audio. Oh well, enough distractions, then.
In person, Jon looked smaller than he is in his videos Ė but thatís camera angles for you. Also looking younger than his age, he was smiley and fun (full of ďya da ya da ya dasĒ) throughout the interview that ranged topics from acting to music to politics. After half-an -hour with him, you could tell this bloke (even with a Superman tattoo on his arm) was the real deal.
When you were seven, I read that you got a guitar from your mum but you threw it away ?
I threw it down the basement stairs. That was because I was forced to clean up the TV room and I didnít want to do it. There also were these stinking guitar lessons that I didnít want to do ... because they had no soul. When they were teaching me how to play guitar, it was just Ďbraaaaang (hums a scale)í and I was falling asleep while my guitar teacher smoked his stinky pipe. So, there was this guy, smoking a pipe, making me play scales and I thought, Ďthis thing sucks!í. I threw it down the steps and liked the sound of it. I broke the tuning peg and it sat there for six years.
Back to the new album Have A Nice Day, whoís the smiley face on the record?
Itís a self-portrait, canít you see (laughs)? The album went full circle to get back to that single title (Have A Nice Day). I wanted to call the album, Kings of Suburbia. The band liked it but the management hated it. I thought it was funny, it reminded me of the tongue-in-cheek of Slippery When Wet. So we settled on Have A Nice Day and thought about how to get a picture to correlate to this title. So, we thought weíd do a smiley face as a trademark. One thing that excited me was the prospect transcended the language barriers. Whether you put it in the alleyway or the flag in your canal, you really know what it is. We get the point across ... Have A Nice Day!
Who actually is the face?
I call it Hugh, so the bass player finally gets some recognition around here (laughs)! Itís a lot more cynical than the original smiley face. The original 1970s face was a lot more peace and love. This is a lot more cynical.
What was the most stressful album that Bon Jovi had to record?
The second (7800 Fahrenheit) wasnít easy. You have your whole life to write the first one. On the second one, you still donít know who you are. We had no real voice yet. In retrospect, thatís my least favourite album. Slippery and Jersey came easy. But Keep The Faith was a lot of hard work because we knew it was time to change. It was the 1990s and the grunge movement was kicking the pants of our peer group. We toiled over that record. We spent a good six months and recorded 30 songs for it. That was the last time it was hard.
There was no fighting or inner tension within the band?
Coming into Faith, there was no fighting but there a real uneasiness about how to proceed. We hadnít spoken steadily considering we hadnít made a record from 1990 to 1992. Prior to that we made records more regularly, in 1985, 86 and 88. It could have been deemed tough when I did the first solo record Young Guns, and there was this uneasiness on whether I was going to come back and have the band. Of course I was! We just knew we couldnít write Bad Medicine again, and when Kurt Cobain was writing Smells Like Teen Spirit, we knew we had better find a new voice. Motley Cure and Def Leppard were not having the kind of success that they were accustomed to but we were lucky that people got it (the Keep The Faith album). Some of the bands from my genre, jumped onto the grunge bands. They went from spandex to looking like grunge. We didnít do that; we had to find our own voice.
You seem to be increasingly aware of the world by playing benefit concerts. The band played on a VH1 special for Hurricane Katrina victims and also on Live8.
Itís a continuing evolution. After Keep the Faith, we thought weíd have to be aware of social causes. Between 1992 and 2005, I grew up even more; I had a bunch of kids and got married. My viewpoints have changed as a guy whoís travelled the world and gotten involved in causes. I like to utilise my celebrity (status) to make a difference if only to feel good about what it is that I do. I never professed to be living the cliched rock íní roll lifestyle. My peer group wanted to be on the cover of Circus, I wanted to be on the cover of Time, I knew there was a bigger world out there. For (Hurricane) Katrina, we played on the VHI MTV telethon, but we also wrote a million dollar cheque. We want to do something and make a difference.
This question is related to your acting career. What roles would you like to play?
Iím more attracted to drama than comedy. I would like to find a movie like ? Iím trying to think of the title of this one ... Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise?
You mean A Few Good Men?
Yeah! I could do lawyer stuff like that. Itís real piece to sink your teeth into. I got this thriller coming up called Cry Wolf. It looks like itís going to do pretty well. Itís hard because I donít commit enough time to Hollywood. Itís true Iím facing the fact that you canít really do both movies and music. People have told me that in order to get my acting career going, I have to quit music. Well, I guess Iím not ready to walk away from this. Even Will Smith, he puts out records, but he canít tour like I do. Thatís the problem ... unless youíre going to be Elvis or Sinatra and do both but that was in a different era.
Is Bon Jovi now more an album type of band than a hit singles band?
Itís harder to get on Top 40 radio these days. If we do, I donít think itís really our sound. Radio is closed to what its play lists are, so I canít play that game. You have to write songs that are good for you and the audience is going to like. You canít think about Top 40 radio. You want to have success only if it relates to what is you do. Iíd love the new alum to sell 100 million copies and have it be the biggest record of the year, sure. But Iím very aware that there only are a few stations in the country that can play Have A Nice Day. Weíre not going to get on the rap and urban stations. The format that plays our kind of music is very little.
What are your views of the political climate in the US? You did get behind John Kerry.
The systemís broken and thatís the reality of it. But I did put myself on the line going out and campaigning for John Kerry. The polarisation of the country is something that I realised. The US shouldnít become blue states and red states. Everybody should become purple. Youíll never hear me belittling the president out of respect for the office. Itís not that Iím a fan (of Bush) but with all my countryís flaws, I still love my country. I was a huge Clinton supporter and I thought the system was more benevolent. Iíd rather pay more taxes for social services for the less fortunate.
How did Bon Jovi manage to stick it out for over 20 years?
Weíve been up and down. A lot of it has to do with being true to what we are. I didnít get rappers, I didnít start scratching, I didnít go to Seattle and I didnít learn boy band moves. We did what we did. We stayed on. You could like it or not like it, but at least it was honest. I think that being open to working with Desmond Child or Max Martin helped as well. My ego wasnít big enough to say that I wouldnít collaborate. Iíve written enough songs myself or with Richie and my song writing is what it is.
Being open minded and being true to ourselves as individuals does help (from solo stuff and movies, whatever it is that floats your boat). So when you come back into the band, youíre not pissy (about being with the same people). Individual projects do fortify the friendship. I remember we were living out of a suitcase from 1983 to 1990. Back then, weíd sit around just having dinner and weíd have nothing to say to each other.
These days, when we come back into the band, we can actually say, ďGuess what I did?Ē Also, not getting the part or being in a film that goes straight to video brings humility back to me (laughs). Otherwise you could believe the hype. Iíve seen other great bands implode because they didnít allow each other solo projects. Steven Tyler (from Aerosmith) should be out doing solo records. Eddie Van Halen should have done a solo record. It could be really great for the band.
The song Welcome To Wherever You Are from the new album seems a very poignant statement.
Iím very proud of it. I like the song a lot. Itís a song of inclusion if thereís anything I learnt from the republican campaign last year is the idea that Christians, Muslims and Jews are in this world together. We have to get over our differences and move on. You have to be happy in what it is you do and what you are. To compare oneís life to another and think that it was better than the other is so shallow-minded. I was witnessing that in America; just because someone has darker skin, heís profiled like a terrorist and I thought, my God! Is this what this country has become? Welcome To Wherever You Are means you donít judge a book by its cover. Because you never know whatís inside. You could meet the most brilliant mind of the future with a kid who has a pierced tongue and pierced nose, thank you.
Is Living On a Prayer this generationís Born To Run (a Bruce Springsteen classic)?
Oh Christ no! Whatís interesting about that song was that it was a number one song in America but never anywhere else. It seems to have gotten stronger as the years have gone on. Iím very surprised by that. I knew it was a number one song but I just didnít know it was a great song when we wrote it. I wanted to leave it off the album. (Jon reportedly said it was too soft to be a rock song). But now, you hear the stories that itís the biggest karaoke song ever ... I was in Vegas in a nightclub and they turned the volume down when the song was playing and 3,000 people sang along. You kind of forget how the song has impacted peopleís lives. But I donít know if itís Born to Run though.