Sex'n'drugs? More wine'n'weights

Rock star Jon Bon Jovi reveals how he became a ‘poster boy for marriage’

Despite my relentless probing, it is not often that my interviewees break into a sweat. But the oh-so-cool Jon Bon Jovi does. Admittedly, he is working out in a gym. A suite at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville has been set aside for us, but he prefers to multi-task in its health club. So I recline on an exercise bike as the 44-year-old rock star first pumps iron, then takes it out on a cross-trainer distractingly fitted with a TV screen showing a football game. As his thighs surge rhythmically, I consider how much this is wasted on me. A woman reporter, now she’d appreciate the sleeveless T-shirt, the tanned calves, the bicep with its Superman tattoo, the perspiration that is turning his crop of golden hair into an overirrigated rape field . . .
“I need forgiveness for last night’s sins,” he says, midpulley, explaining why we are here. What sins? “Bottles and bottles of fine wines. I come here seeking forgiveness. Man, we were taking full advantage of the grapes last night.”

By rock-star standards, fine wines hardly rate as sinful. But that’s Bon Jovi for you. He hasn’t taken drugs since he had a nasty experience with dope at the age of 14. What’s more, he has been married for 17 years to his New Jersey high-school sweetheart, now a karate instructor, who goes by the wonderfully Middlemarchean name of Dorothea. They have four children aged 1, 3, 11 and 13. He is keen, mind you, to let it be known that, in the past, women have in fact joined wine and song among the sins to which he’ll plead guilty. But it is a perfunctory admission. It is a confusing subject because he has, as he says, somehow become rock’s “poster boy for marriage”.

In the past he has messed with interviewers’ heads by saying that he a) has a very small penis, and b) more often resorts to masturbation than fornication. An excursion as an actor on Ally McBeal muddled his image still further. He played Victor, a plumber, and was initially the lawyer’s blue-collar pin-up. But as the story continued Victor was revealed to be a wimpish artist, capable only of “polite sex”. Additionally, he harboured a mildly fetishistic preference for cellulite on his ladies’ buttocks.

But good for him for playing the part, and it is sweet that he is boyishly eager to show me the “cut, scab and bruise” he got when he fell off a running machine the other day. The only trouble with self-deprecation is that it is not very rock’n’roll. Although Bon Jovi looks like a rock star and his music sounds like rock-star music, I sometimes wonder if he is, within the meaning of the act, actually a rock star. His subconscious may wonder, too. When his cumulative album sales passed 100 million in 2004, he released a box set entitled 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong . . .

Happily, he is about to win a gong that should remove any doubts. At Alexandra Palace in London tonight he will be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, bathing in the glory that has already been showered on Elvis, the Beatles and Bob Marley. What does it mean to him? A three-day vacation, he says.

“That part’s exciting but I’ve never been one to accept accolades all that well. I don’t think it’s, you know, going to change my life.”

Forced to choose between ennui and hype, I’d choose ennui every time, but I need to work surprisingly hard to get him even to accept that it is an honour. The Bon Jovi camp is beset by low-key cynicism this morning. This may be thanks to the fine wine consumption after the previous night’s country music awards in the city, or, possibly, the fact the Bon Jovi won nothing at them. At least, however, he doesn’t plan to give the accolade away, as he did in 1992 when MTV presented him with a lifetime achievement award and a girl he vaguely knew in the audience got to take it home. “I knew that it was a marathon, not a sprint. I had grander visions even then of how long I intended to be around.”

The feeling that he had got too much too soon had nagged at him before. He was 20 when his first single, Runaway, was played on air, 21 when he was signed by Mercury and only 25 when Slippery When Wet, with its classics Livin’ on A Prayer and You Give Love A Bad Name, sold 15 million copies. “It was our Thriller, our Like a Virgin or Born in the USA. And I only realise that looking back at it. When you’re in the moment you don’t realise. It was a shame: I didn’t get to enjoy it because it was coming at me in warp speed.”

Ten months after the huge Slippery tour ended, he produced a follow-up album, New Jersey. I suggest that two years would have constituted a more decent interval. “But the powers that be get you excited about things. Record companies, managers —they’re all trying to do their job, mind, but they’re on a roll. They’re like, ‘Come on, you can do it’. Well, we did. We had five Top Ten singles on New Jersey , it was a big record.”

By 1991, before he had hit 30, he was in mid-career crisis. Exhausted by his concert schedule, his eyelids propped open by steroids, he found himself speeding in a chauffered car to yet another engagement, and thinking, seriously, of flinging himself out of it. “That’s how low I got. Then I sought help and found it just wasn’t for me.” After 15 unsatisfactory minutes with a shrink, he went home and thought about what he needed to change. He sacked his manager and employed a mediator to talk the band through its needs — years, he points out, before Metallica did the same thing (and ended up laughing stocks in a documentary about the experiment). His own needs included separate careers as a solo artist (pursued with limited success) and an actor (ditto). In a symbolic cutting of ties with his past, he cropped his famously abundant hair so severely that it ended up merely very long.

It had been the crowning glory of a poster-boy look that was not his fault but his genes. His father was of Sicilian-Slovakian stock, his mother a German-Russian Playboy bunny turned florist. “I’m a mutt,” he says. When did he realise that he was a beautiful mutt? “I’ve never really realised that shit. It doesn’t hold any weight with me. I never came across it.”

Come on, I say. “I’m aware of it now obviously, but a lot of it has to do with being a singer in a rock band. I don’t pay attention to it. It’s not a big deal to me. Everybody has somebody out there who finds them incredibly sexy. Rosie O’Donnell’s got a girlfriend who loves her, and Brad Pitt’s got a girlfriend who loves him, so who cares?”

Something sporty happens on the telly. “Those sad-sack Raiders. F*** ya. That’s what I want to do, buy the f***ing Raiders.” He owns a football team in Philadelphia, I point out. “But to own an NFL team: that’s the dream.”

Do I take it that his looks irritate him as a subject? “It was not woe is me, but the truth is that it is every kid’s dream to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. So a reporter comes, when Slippery When Wet was record of the year, and she’s like, ‘Take your coat off. Take your shirt off’. I said, ‘Listen honey, are we here to f*** or talk about the record?’ ” He stops paddling. “It was heartbreaking. Every kid wants to write that song and make that record, then to have that record and be brought down by a girl who’s more concerned with trivia! So, yeah, it was tough. But then the body of work started to speak loudly on its own, so you could have the last laugh.”

Perhaps, I think, it is after all better that a bloke is conducting this interview. “If Rolling Stone asked at this point,” he adds, “I wouldn’t do an interview. I couldn’t care less.”
Yet the trivia lingers on. Even Ally McBeal turned on Victor’s hair, accusing each strand of having its own stylist. Bon Jovi laughs long when I repeat the line to him. “I’m just glad I still have some,” he says when he stops.

The original Marie Antoinette do was actually an invention of his father, John Bongiovi, who owned not so much an old-fashioned barber shop as a new-fangled salon. A funny second career for a Marine, I say. But, Jon says, those were the times. Even in working-class New Jersey people were dressing better, dreaming bigger and getting the hair they wanted. “Was a plumber’s son from New Jersey supposed to grow a goatee and wear a leather jacket and run a beauty shop? Probably not. But he did.”

His songs have been hymns of possibility to his constituency of blue-collar fans ever since. They are, he says, “all about endless optimism”. But did America honour the promise of that era? He considers this carefully. Every Dick Tracy gadget his generation lusted after is now a reality, he says, yet 25 per cent of the population of Philadelphia, where he supports a homelessness charity, lives below the poverty line. “[The gap between rich and poor] is getting greater every day. They’re eliminating the middle class in this country altogether.”

He was a friend of Al Gore and the musical support act for John Kerry’s campaign two years ago. The title song of his last album, Have A Nice Day, is a sarcastic reference to Kerry’s defeat. In the end the only Democrat he backed all the way to victory was the fictional Matt Santos on The West Wing. Might he do an Arnie and run for office? “I will never say never. All the things I’ve done in my life I would have never predicted. I mean, Nashville! Going to the country music awards! I never thought I’d own a football team. But my intention’s no. I can get more done with a social conscience as a philanthropist than I can in politics.”

So personal morality comes first? “Trust me, I’m no saint. That’s another thing: skeletons in my closet.” How many would there be for the political press to find? “I’m a singer in a rock band. What do you think?”

I say that it must have been hard not becoming an arsehole. He pauses long enough to give the impression that he is checking to ensure that he hasn’t. Choosing to stay and live in New Jersey helps, he says. So does Dorothea. “She’s much less grand than I am; she could live in a box and be content. It’s my craziness that costs us money. It’s not her, ever. I’ll say, ‘We’re taking my plane to England’; she’ll say, ‘You arsehole’.” And he backs down? “Um, I consider her input and decide accordingly. Do we row? Rarely, to be honest. I just truly like her so much and admire her. I’m her biggest fan. She’s the reason I have four, I think, sane kids. It ain’t me. I am sitting around and going to the studio. She’s the one doing it all. So God bless her for it. I wouldn’t want to f*** it up.”

Paul McCartney has said his marriage to Linda worked partly because they never spent a night apart. “Is that true? Wow! I think part of our incredible relationship is that I have the freedom to go do what I need to do. And she’s a very independent woman. She doesn’t need to call five times a night. It helps.”

He says he needs to shower. I don’t disagree. I wait for him in the lobby. Once each strand of his hair has been attended to personally, he reappears, in a too-cool-for-school leather waistcoat, black jacket and gold sunglasses. He doesn’t exchange a word with me and vanishes after five minutes. Bon Jovi, I decide, is just rock’n’roll enough. He deserves his induction.