How The West Was Won. Like some 20th century cowboys,
they rode into town, grabbed the gals, robbed the band, then hit the trail
six-guns blazing. Now, in a world exclusive, BON JOVI talk Classic Rock through their wild days. Tall in the saddle: Philip Wilding
It's autumn in New York City, the year is 1983.It's getting slowly colder as the light dims and the city lights up. Madison Square Garden is a sell out; ZZ Top are headlining and a little-known band from neighbouring New Jersey called Bon Jovi are opening. It's their debut show at the Garden and the backstage area has broken some kind of record for having more friends and relatives shoehorned in there than any other opening act. Out front, the audience is sparse but includes management heavyweights Doc McGhee and Stuart Young (AC/DC, Billy Squier), and promoter John Schear (the Allman Brothers and, latterly, Vertical Horizon), who have arranged for Bon Jovi to open the show as part of his pitch to manage them. The band have put together a 30-minute set and as guitarist Richie Sambora strikes the opening chords to their first song his amp suddenly blows up. "Oh God, I remember that" says keyboard player David Bryan 18 years later. It's December in London in a sparsely furnished function room that's been stripped back for a photo session. "Richie's amp blowing up on the first chord and then the chanting started - Zee Zee Top! Zee Zee Top! All these people jeering, it just sucked. But we turned it around. We've always been the underdog, I think in a way that we always will be. I don't mind it, I think it's good that you've got to start over and climb that hill once
more." "We did that show as fast as we possibly could, we finished the set in something like 18 minutes." drummer Tico Torres says with a smile. "But it was a bunch of kids up there on stage. It's like the firs time you have sex, you know, fucking like rabbits. And, ultimately, you're only as good as the band you're in, so it doesn't matter, you're a unit, you're a five-piece trying your best to make that fist. So we got through it." Jon Bon Jovi laughs. He's almost 39 now, he was 21 then. "Yeah, fastest set of all time, we did a 30-minute set in 18 minutes. It was pretty empty in there as I recall, people started coming in towards the end because they heard noise in the venue. And all those managers there making their play for the band, that was the night we hooked up with Doc McGhee, after that show." Last year's "Crush" was the seventh Bon Jovi album, not including 1994's Crossroad Best of collection. By the end of last year, Crush had already sold seven million copies world wide, while it's debut single "It's My Life" had proved such a longstanding hit in America that the band had to bump it's planned follow-up "Say It Isn't So" for the ballad "Thank You For Loving Me" as Christmas approached. "It's My Life" is now the
crowd-pumping anthem of choice for those who attend matches played by the German national football team, basketball's LK Lakers and gridiron's Dallas Cowboys. As the band once worked with songwriter Desmond Child to create hit records that really did circumnavigate the globe, teaming up with writer and producer Max Martin (Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys) to co-write "It's My Life" - and then leaving the writing credits off the album, though admittedly his name is on the single - seems so shrewd as to be calculating. "No one's got any credits on the album, I wrote half the record without anyone and half the record with them. I didn't need the accolades, didn't need you to decide who got the credit for it..." Jon tails off with a shrug "I don't deny that the kind [Martin] was brilliant, he's like 27 and he was telling me that we were like the first band that he ever saw and I was "Whoa, I'm getting on!" He kept saying that our anthems were inspirational to him, asking us to write another '...Bad Name....' But as me and Richie said, we could do that all day, we don't want to do that anymore." "And you have to remember that this was two years ago that we hooked up with him. I was in Malta doing the U-571 movie and an A&R guy called me and said he'd met this guy called Max Martin and that he'd really like to work with [me]. I was like 'Yeah, who wouldn't?' Pissed off, you know. At that point, Britney's first record was just out, but no one knew who she was either." "But [Max] came into the studio and kicked me and Richie in the pants. He hadn't worked with a rock band before so he went off to Sweden and put these loops and stuff in and
sent them over, and the background arrangement was really fucking great, and we went in and used the loops and that arrangement of the backing vocals, give the kid all the credit in the world. And now those teams have picked up on it, that now or never thing in the lyric, it's great."
Someone once said that rock'n'roll years are like dog years; you get maybe five to 10 if you're lucky and that's a lifetime. Bon Jovi are 17 years into a career that started with 1984's Bon Jovi album. A year later they made their worst album ever '7800 Fahrenheit' and a year later still made 'Slippery When Wet' and became the biggest rock band in the world. 'New Jersey' followed in 1988 and by the end of its 17-month world tour the band had very nearly broken up. They reunited for 'Keep The Faith' in '92 and despite the onset of grunge and the supposed death of 'hair' bands, they sold another 10 million copies. Even the dark, brooding 'These Days' which followed three years later, would manage to sell over seven million. If I told you how many their 'Best of...' had managed in between you'd laugh and turn the page derisively. Almost everyone you know has a Bon Jovi album or can hum one of their songs or pick Jon's remarkably sculpted face out of a crowd. A certain stuttering flamboyance may have fronted the band out on those early albums but these days - excuse the pun - Bon Jovi
are a household name with the kind of cross demographic of fans that makes marketing directors wake up in the night struggling with the idea of cloning their elusive, widespread appeal. Their Wembley Stadium shows last year - they closed the twin towers - were home to entire generations of families in tour shirts that travelled from present day back to the late 80's. Dads, mums, teens and toddlers sweltering in the afternoon heat waiting to raise their hands in synchronised awe on Jon's command. It's a bafflingly rare spectacle and one that promises to repeat itself come the band's UK festival shows this summer (with the Milton Keynes show now moving to June 16, see last issue's Big Picture for full details) One more thing and I'll be finished, when Jon cut his hair at the beginning of the 90's he made headlines on CNN - that puts him up there with natural disasters and celebrity deaths. This is serious stuff, how did it happen?
First impressions can be powerful things. "At the time I was fronting my own independent label called Dreamdisc Records, I was in a band called Message and I co-owned a bar called Poor Willies and Jon used to play showcases there for labels and stuff." recalls Sambora "When I first saw him, I said 'This guy's a star' I just got this cool feeling off him and he was a smart business guy too, but mostly he exuded this star quality." "I'd just finished a nine-month tour with Frankie and the Knockouts, who Richie auditioned for one time actually." remembers Torres "We'd lost our deal with our label and decided to call it a day. I suppose it was 1980 and I was getting calls from people like Ozzy Osbourne and Ritchie Blackmore to go out and play with them. But I was married at the time and I'd been away for months, so I figured I'd better cool it. And then Alec [John Such, original bassist] called me up and asked me to meet Jon. They played me 'Runaway' and I jammed with them and then you'd see it live and the chicks were going crazy. Jon was like a maniac on stage, there wasn't a nook or cranny he wouldn't hit. I remember going home to my wife and saying there was something to it, the band, and we argued because of the financial situation at the time. I was 29 and I'd just turned down two big gigs. So I ended up doing session work in the day to pay the bills and we worked at night. The nice thing about the band was that we were always working, we toured extensively, which was also the demise of my marriage. Everyone's actually. Touring wasn't difficult to me, I'd been on the road since 1975." On their first album tour, they played 29 shows in 30 days as support to Eddie Money, shared a motel room so they could each get a shower and slept on their amps covered in blankets. "I was 20, or 21, I was like a kid in a fucking candy store, we all were." says Jon. He's still got leading man good looks and teeth that could advertise chewing gum. Today he's dressed in a V-neck jumper and jeans with a pair of expensive tortoiseshell sunglasses hanging from the neck of his top. He's slumped more than sitting, but Sambora's right, he gives off a sense of success and stardom and it's nothing to do with X million albums sold either. He's almost inscrutable. "We were playing high school gyms and we thought we'd made it. Those were great days, glorious days. It was every kid's dream to be in a rock'n'roll band. And there was no fear because we didn't know any better. No one could tell us anything, like I couldn't tell a young band today what to do, you have to live it yourself. There wasn't any money in it, I was still sleeping at my mother's house. The second record was the same thing, I didn't get my own apartment until some time during 'Slippery When Wet'. "Then we came off the road and went back into the studio to work on our worst record '7800 Fahrenheit' I remember those 10 tracks on there were our only 10 songs, to be honest. We were rehearsing at the....hold on I can remember this....the John F. Kennedy Democratic Puerto Rican Club, yeah! That joint - Tico's mother owned the building and some guys broke in through the roof there and stole all of our gear, $40,000.00 worth. We had to really go out knocking on every door to sell the album. It did eventually go gold, but it took a lot of work. "It must have been 1985 and we were out in the States supporting Ratt, imagine our envy, you know, looking at them and thinking that we were a better band and they had success and we had none. And they were headlining and making money too. We were talking about this the other day, we found out that they had hot food in their dressing room and we were like, 'Wow, hot food!' [Ratt drummer] Bobby Blotzer had a Rolex watch and we were 'Ah, man, they've got everything!' "But in October we supported them at Meadowlands [Arena] in Jersey and we got our gold discs there for the first two albums and you smelled it there that night, because an awful lot of people at that show had come to see us, you just knew it. It was time, the third record was going to be make or break time. Then the miracle happened...." While critics would later be quick to cite the collaboration with songwriter Desmond Child for the real reason behind their sudden success, as keyboardist David Bryan rightly attests, 'Slippery When Wet' was the album "where Jon and Richie really began to click as songwriters". The band had moved up to Canada to record the album with producer Bruce Fairbairn (and his engineer, future Cult and Metallica producer, Bob Rock) after admiring his work with the now long forgotten Black N Blue. "Remember them, lead singer looked like Dee Snider?" says Jon warming to the subject "there were some great background vocals on that record and we were like 'Wow, this is so cool!' and [A&R guru] John Kalodner asked Bruce to consider working with us. And just around then, I think '85, Bryan Adams had broken through after writing that song for Tina Turner [It's Only Love] and getting up and playing it with her. So we were like 'Jeez, we should write a song for someone' but we didn't know how to do it. Then an A&R guy said he knew Desmond Child who'd written with Kiss, and I knew him from his posters down in the Fast Lane club in Asbury, as Desmond Child and Rouge. They used to play there all the time. So we were like 'Let's write a song with him and sell it.' We had two gold records so we didn't think we needed to work with anyone on our stuff, and then '...Bad Name' and 'Livin'....' came out of those sessions and we were suddenly like 'I don't think we should really give these songs to Loverboy or whoever' We'd already written 'Never say Goodbye' and 'Wanted Dead Or Alive' so we knew we were on to something with the album." When the phone call came saying the album had gone to No.1 in the US, in October 1986, the band were out on tour supporting .38 Special. "I can tell you exactly where I was" shrugs Jon "how could I not know? We were in Sioux Falls,
South Dakota, at the Holiday Inn, it's all still very clear in my mind. We were out there celebrating and I remember that Doc McGhee had missed his connecting flight so he chartered a jet to get him out there, and as our gift he let us take the plane to the next city. "So we get there and we go up to the promoter and go 'What a glorious day, we go to number one and we flew on a private plane!' And the promoter said 'I'm going to give you a gift, I'm going to pay for the next flight for you.' We were like smart spoiled kids. So we went to the next promoter and said 'Guess what your competition just gave us?' So for the next week we had the bus driving on the road and us in the air and after that we never got on a bus again." With 'Slippery...' the band set the template for commercial hard rock that would remain the standard until the end of the decade. They scored their first American No.1 singles with '..Bad Name' and '...Prayer' and both previous albums re-entered the Billboard chart. Director Wayne Isham's gritty black and white video for the third single from the album 'Wanted Dead Or Alive' also proved its worth. Filmed on the road in Japan, it spawned a generation of copycat remakes that clogged up MTV for months. You can still see its motifs in videos today. Flicking through late night cable TV recently, I came across it on VH-1, and it still looks remarkable, almost raw. For a band supposedly hinged on image, it is recklessly stark; brave even, given the times. "The only reason that video endures is because it was real." says Torres "There was nothing contrived about it whatsoever. Wayne [Isham] was out on the road with us and he actually had keys to all the rooms. He'd literally walk into your room as you were waking up and start shooting, it was that candid. There were times we were drunk and there were times we were angry, you know. You can't fake real." As for the actual song - their first hit without the guiding hand of Child in the background - "It came together like this!" Torres adds, snapping his fingers so loudly the photographer across the room spins round. "It was there, it was meant. When a song comes that simple and easy and it's a good song, it stands the test of time. It's still my favourite." Yet credit for their achievements hardly matched the album sales. A year later, with the album still selling as strongly as ever, Jon and Richie were invited to play at the MTV Music Awards. They chose to perform acoustic versions of 'Livin' On A Prayer' and 'Wanted Dead Or Alive' Shortly afterwards, some bright spark at MTV came up with the idea of the Unplugged series. "Yeah" drawls Jon. "What about that? What can I say? The best revenge is that we're still here." Sambora shrugs when I mention the band's legacy and how it appears to be matched only by their lack of critical respect. "That's true. It's a hard thing to reckon with, but we've always felt that we had to go our own path and, look, how lucky can a bunch of guys be? I don't think we pay attention to it anymore. We're lucky, but you don't sell out stadiums and you don't stick around for 20 years if you don't have the goods, so we know we've got that." But if the guitarist is willing to shrug it off with a wave, it's no secret that Jon still craves respect as an artist that have so far evaded him and his band. "I've seen it a lot more this year. We won Best Video at the VH-1 Awards and as I got up there, everyone gave us a standing ovation, Bono to Metallica to whoever. I was like 'Wow, how do you like that?' Then we played at the LA Forum two nights later, and we never get great live reviews either, but we got the most stellar fucking reviews. I couldn't have written them [better] myself. And bands like Vertical Horizon and Creed have all been 'Can I have a picture with you? You're a huge influence.' "It's a treat to be this year's Aerosmith" he adds ruefully "It's a nice thing. Maybe now you're going to see the tide change. People are going, well, we tried to kill you and you didn't die and now we're getting some kind of respect." 'New Jersey' was released in 1988, which, on paper, looks like a respectable two-year break between albums, but the reality of their still escalating success meant that the band were on tour for the better part of 18 months. They finally came off the Slippery When Wet tour in January 1988. By October of the same year, they were back out on the road with a new album under their belts. In retrospect, the schedule looks insane.
Jon; "We went home, wrote it, recorded it. There wasn't time to piss. We were determined to make that album work, too. I was flipping out, I was determined that people wouldn't be able to say that 'Slippery...' had been a fluke. We wrote and wrote until we had it, until we knew it couldn't be another '...Fahrenheit.' "Then we were out in Dublin on Halloween doing the first show of the tour and someone said 'What are you doing here?' And I was like, 'Man, we're on the road!' But looking back now, that was the smartest thing anyone could have said to me. I should've gone fishing, I should have gone home for a year, but I couldn't wait to get another record out, I couldn't wait to show people that we hadn't been lucky with the last album, that we could do it again. So we went on tour from October '88 to February 1990 and that almost killed us." Things threatened to come to a head with the Moscow Music Peace Festival in August 1989. Earlier that year, Doc McGhee had been convicted on charges of smuggling $40,000-worth of marijuana into the US. He had been fined $15,000 and given a five-year suspended sentence. Judicial lenience taken to its extremes (up there with Vince Neil's notorious slap on the wrists for 'vehicular manslaughter' in terms of mind-boggling plea-bargaining) part of the deal involved McGhee promising to help form the non-profit-making
Make A Difference Foundation to fight 'substance abuse'. With all the money supposedly going to Make A Difference, nevertheless, the two shows at Moscow's 140,000 capacity Olympic Stadium were tainted before they even began. With the entire bill, barring the inclusion of Ozzy Osbourne, made up of mostly McGhee controlled artists (aside from Bon Jovi, who headlined, Motley Crue, the Scorpions and Gorky Park also played) McGhee may have put a Who's Who of hard rock together, but it didn't ensure that the bands themselves were willing to play along with the principles that the organisation had been founded on. "Saved Doc from going to jail, yep." says Jon, not unkindly "That festival was a nightmare, everyone's ego, every band, Ozzy's going home....poor Doc. I was out there going to High Schools writing letters to judges, anything to help out. I was the guy who didn't get high. [But] the plane that took the bands over, they found needles on it, for Christ's sake! I remember Dave [Sabo of Skid Row] saying it was the Make A Different Drink Foundation. I was so jet-lagged that I was out of it in bed [but] all the bands were out there pounding vodka, fighting people. Ozzy wouldn't let Motley Crue go on above him, we insisted on finishing the show..." "The Scorpions were on before us and on that first night they kicked our ass, fucking beat the shit out of us. We went out and our whole thing was about talking, all the magic was about telling the stories. Of course, they couldn't understand me, so we died a
miserable death. On the second day, I d ecided we needed a trick and that's when I got the Russian soldier's uniform and we came in through the back of the stadium and walked through the crowd to the stage. That was the night that [Motley Crue drummer] Tommy Lee went at Doc...." Lee allegedly accused him of favouritism towards Bon Jovi. "I heard he punched him, but Doc says he pushed him. Whatever, but it was a nightmare, it was a terrible experience." Video footage of the very last show of the Jersey Syndicate world tour, as they self-consciously dubbed it, shot in Mexico in 1990, is now legendary; the band climbing the walls backstage as a student riot goes on outside, delaying the show that would finally end another year and a half on the road. At one point, Torres looks grimly up
at the camera; "This could only happen to us" he sighs. "Oh that footage, man...bloated, drunk, tired, steroids, no voice...." is how Jon sums up that night. "It was no one's fault, if truth be told they - management, the company, the agents - were only doing their jobs. But in retrospect
they were all more than happy to make a buck on it. McGhee - which he'll apologise for now 10 years later - should have had the faith in us to say, this is not a flash in the pan, go home, we don't need to make any more money. But he didn't, none of them did." "I remember Richie at that pointtelling me 'I need a valet to pack my suitcase'! That was the last human action that anyone had to do, you know? But that was all we knew, we spent Christmas  at a hotel here together in London. That's no way to spend Christmas." "I had to sleep until the moment I left." says Richie with a smile, playing mock hurt when I bring up the valet story "That's how fucked we were, you can imagine, two 16-and-a-half-month tours back-to-back. We never stopped - we were riding the rocket ship of success. We stayed on the road forever, we were so fried." "But they were the days of wine and roses and everybody - actually, not everybody - was indulging in the pleasures of the day. It was a much more promiscuous time and we were having a blast and then it just got really fucking tired. It was really hard to be able to take care of anybody else but yourself. And we used to always look out for each other, still do. But everyone was struggling with their demons and no one was talking and that's when you get isolated. I remember coming off the tour and I had nowhere to live. I had to go and rent a place, it was all so strange." "We couldn't understand why we weren't liking it or each other, but we knew we were tired of it." Says Jon with a sigh "Everything was exploding around us and so were we." It was 1990. Jon bought a second house in Malibu, California, and started hanging out in Hollywood. He was, by his own admission, drinking his face off. Being a rock star was a dream he'd once had, but
now it was just sour memories of wearying physical work. David Bryan had picked up a parasite in Mexico and would be laid up for the better part of a year; Sambora was off making his solo album; Torres had stopped listening to music and Alec had gone to ground. The biggest rock band in the world had simply come to a stop. Jon wrote 'Blaze of Glory' the soundtrack to 'Young Guns II' which went to No.1 and earned him a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination. But he admits now that not having a band to share the success with eclipsed the moment. At the time of writing the soundtrack, Jon had visited the film set and was thrilled by his new environment. But when he mentioned the idea of acting to Doc McGhee, he poured scorn on the idea. "McGhee went after 'Blaze of Glory' because he thought me doing that soundtrack was a bad idea." says Jon "And then when I went out to the set he was like 'Stop this, don't do this anymore.' And
I went 'No, you're wrong.' And he'd started doing things like taking the band on vacation and not me, then he'd tell Richie something, tell Alec something, you know, build things up the way he wanted it to be and it wasn't necessarily a good idea." "Around that time [then Aerosmith manager] Tim Collins introduced us to a guy who this sort of a mediator. He wasn't that exactly, but he wasn't a shrink either. He didn't want anything from us, but he just sat us all together in a room and said what are your complaints? Doc shouldn't have done that, instead he was 'Alec, you don't need him' or 'Tico, you don't need him' it wasn't what we needed to hear at that time." McGhee's departure followed soon after. With Doc gone, the band took over their own management and set about working on what would become 'Keep The Faith' Sambora, eager to rekindle the band's early years, persuaded Jon to recreate their original working environment; posters on the wall, lit candles - just jamming in their own space. "We were in my basement with the candles and the lava lamps, you know, Richie's like 'We have to take this back to ground zero, like teenagers again.' We were trying to create a vibe and be friends again. And I was there thinking, why don't I like this? I just want to go to bed. of course, we've no windows in there, all these candles are sucking the oxygen from the room and we're all nodding off!" He laughs and shakes his head. Bon Jovi snuffed out by a candle, imagine the headlines. Released in Autumn 1992, just as grunge was taking off in earnest, 'Keep The Faith' (featuring a new short-haired Bon Jovi) again confounded the critics and yet exceeded commercial expectations. The sales spoke for themselves and while former fellow multi-platinum travellers like Motley Crue and Poison lost their record deals, the 1993 Bon Jovi world tour was another resounding sell-out success. And then, just as the 'Crossroad' selection proved Bon Jovi would, after all, survive the 90s intact, long-serving bassist Alec John Such quit the band. Or was pushed. Depending who you speak to. "Shit man, I lost my virginity in Alec's house." says Tico with a wide grin "his parents had gone out and our band had thrown this party after a show we played and it all happened there. We'd been playing together in bands since the 60s but I probably helped implement getting him out of the band. I actually chose his replacement, Huey McDonald. Jon said 'You're the rhythm section, you go get him.' But when it came down to it, I'm a hard worker, I respect my craft and I think Alec had got to the point where he wanted to do other things. I understood what Alec wanted and that was the only thing that made it okay for me to lose him." "Jumped or pushed? A little of both to be honest" says Jon now "He was burned, he couldn't do it any more, he was 10 years older than us, remember. It got to the point where he was 'I don't want to play on the records, I'll just tour' I'd be like '...wait a minute...' When your bass player can't play and Dave's having to cover for him and there's a big glass of whiskey on his amp and I have to go by and, you know...'Sorry, didn't mean to knock that over..." "He was the most loyal guy [but] when he quit the business, he really quit the business. he's living out on a houseboat in Corpus Christi, Texas. Sold his house, his guitars...he's back with his wife that actually left him on the first record. He was offered the chance to appear on VH-1's Behind The Music [who did a documentary on the band last year] and didn't want to, turned it down. When he had his estate sale, the press contacted him and all he said was 'I love the new record, I wish them well, that's it for me, I'm out of the business.' That's a pretty fucking loyal thing to do, he could have easily gone the tabloid route, appeared on radio shows, all that stuff, and didn't. He's a good man." At the end of 1996, Jon chartered "the biggest fucking boat you've ever seen, it had a crew of 17. Spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and invited family and friends to go sailing for a week. "I sat with Richie looking out at the sea and we were both like, what are we going to say? The tour was great, we're getting on, we're happy, let's have a break while we're happy, we've got nothing to be down about. And it took me back to writing the title track of the album, that line, 'Ain't nobody left but us these days...' And that was when I knew that all our peers were falling by the wayside and we were just growing, growing. And it's a good line to sing at night, you know, you can be out there on your own and really pound your chest and say, fuck it, we've been through everything and back again and
we're still here." He sits back and allows himself a smile."