Jon Bon Jovi - Still rocking the boat in roaring fifties
JON BON JOVI certainly enters the room like a rock star. He is wearing mirrored shades to mask the ravages of jet lag.
The first words he utters are a growled “F**k off”, when his PR informs him that he needs to have his photo taken.
He is preceded by his reputation — at least in the British and Irish press — as a sort of grumpy old man of rock. However, it soon transpires that, while Bon Jovi is still very much a rock star (perhaps even, if judged solely on album and concert ticket sales, the pre-eminent rock star of his generation), he is much less of a grumpy one these days. Today he is in full-on ‘charm’ mode; friendly and funny, with a habit of slapping you on the knee when he says something he’s particularly pleased with.
The night before our interview, he had appeared on The One Show, playing a glass armonica (an unusual instrument in which a series of spinning glass bowls produce musical notes) and looking slightly bamboozled by the show’s format (“We don’t have anything quite like that at home,” he says). Earlier in the day he had managed not to look too put-out when, at the press conference for the band’s July show in Hyde Park, many journalists ignored the band to ask a representative from the concert promoters AEG questions about volume levels (last year, several Hyde Park concerts were disrupted by poor sound). And after our interview, he and his band — the guitarist Richie Sambora, keyboard player David Bryan and drummer Tico Torres — will appear on Radio 2, playing their new songs live for the first time, despite a distinct lack of rehearsal.
“We’re still trying to remember the chords,” he says, smiling.
“Laughing about all the bands that rehearse eight weeks at a time. We are fearless!”
At this stage of his career, not much fazes the man born John Francis Bongiovi Jr. Over 30 years and 12 studio albums, his band Bon Jovi have sold in excess of 130 million albums and played to more than 35 million fans in over 50 countries. Unlike the majority of their 1980s peers, their unapologetically accessible pop-rock has survived grunge, Britpop, nu-metal and everything else the music business could throw at them, without resorting to anything more drastic than a growing country-rock influence and some slightly more sensible haircuts.
That durability means that today, Jon Bon Jovi can self-deprecatingly describe his band’s current status as being “the youngest of the old guys” (he’s still 19 years younger than Mick Jagger), and joke that, “When Britney Spears looks like an old lady, that’s when you know that you are getting old,” secure in the knowledge they still sell albums and move tickets at volumes that most younger, hipper acts can only dream of.
The one thing that has always eluded Bon Jovi is critical acclaim, particularly in Britain, where many critics have been unable to see past his hair (still remarkably lustrous for a 51-year-old) and teeth (still dazzling). Which is a shame, because the new album, What About Now, is actually rather good. The single, ‘Because We Can’ (not an Obama reference, “but I can see why you might think that”), may be a typically bombastic Bon Jovi flag-waving anthem, but songs such as ’I’m With You’ and the title track sound closer to Oasis or the Killers. Meanwhile, lyrically, he has been providing surprisingly incisive social comment, at least since 2002’s 9/11-inspired ‘Bounce’. “It’s a little more grown-up than it was when I was 21,” he admits. “But I don’t know what people would expect me to talk about at 50 years old.”
He admits that he romanticises poverty in his songs, from the band’s breakthrough 1986 hit ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ to the present day, but insists he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I get that it’s not always rosy, but it sucks to write that the glass is half empty,” he says. “I saw Les Misérables and it’s got those same optimistic choruses. I thought, ‘Oh, I get this’.”
According to Forbes, the band earned $60m in the year to May 2012, but he has never let his own affluence affect what he has to say about the impact of the recession, pointing out that he grew up in blue-collar New Jersey (his parents, John Francis Sr and Carol, were ex-Marines who reinvented themselves as a barber and a florist, respectively). “It was post-civil rights movement, and the dawning of the Reagan era of [adopts Ronald Reagan voice], ‘Oh golly gosh, it’s good to be an American’,” he says. “A band like U2 had Northern Ireland in their back yard. We had white picket fences, our parents were together and they worked hard.”
It’s the lack of such security in modern America that the new album primarily addresses, and Bon Jovi doesn’t exclude himself from such instability. Where once he described his role in the band as like being “the CEO of a major corporation”, such a claim rings slightly hollow at a time when so many major corporations — and rock bands — are going to the wall. “Record companies, car manufacturers, singers in pop bands…” he lists. “Business is consolidating and I don’t think those jobs are coming back. You have to reinvent yourself.”
That means keeping up with new developments in music. Until now, Bon Jovi have been pretty old-school when it comes to marketing strategies, but, with the CD market stalling, they are promoting the new record with an “augmented reality” app. Isn’t this a bit rich from the man who once accused the Apple CEO Steve Jobs of being ‘personally responsible for killing the music business’?
“The app is free,” he says with a shrug, stressing that his beef with Jobs was with the iTunes business model, built on selling single tracks rather than full albums, not with the man himself. “The iTunes model sells us a book without a chapter. Album art meant something to me, and iTunes took all that away from me. My babies don’t even buy the song any more. If it isn’t a video game, they don’t care.”
In this changing world, Bon Jovi is savvy enough to realise that his own remarkable career stats “don’t mean anything”, even if they are unlikely to be overtaken anytime soon. (“The kid band that’s coming out now ain’t going to sell 20 million,” he says. “It ain’t gonna happen.”) But despite dalliances with acting (from comedies such as Ally McBeal to Hollywood movies like U-571) and rumours of a move into politics, he says he has no intention of giving up the day job. “Politics is a thankless job,” he says, laughing. “Why would I want to be in that shit job? 50% of people hate you before you walk out the door if you’re a politician.”
But that’s not to say he isn’t an increasingly political animal. He scoffs at the idea that he is friends with Barack Obama (“Who would be so ridiculous to say they are friends with the President?”), although he knows him well enough to have travelled in both Air Force One and the armoured presidential limousine. He has campaigned vigorously for the Democrats at the last four presidential elections and, while he doesn’t rate Obama’s first term as a resounding success (“There were some things that went OK, and other things that weren’t so OK”), he blames this mainly on the Republican opposition blocking the President’s every move. “[the Republican senator] Mitch McConnell came out and basically said, ‘Our goal in the next four years is to get him unelected,’?” he says, seething. “Like, ‘I’m going to spend the next four years f**king with this guy.’ A politician swears allegiance to God and country, not his party. If we don’t become a nation of inclusion, we will follow in the footsteps of many a European friend who is falling flat on their face right now.”
Unusually, Bon Jovi is also prepared to put his rock star money where his political mouth is. “I don’t mind paying more in taxes,” he says, “because it’s not about entitlement, it’s empowerment. Maybe if there’s food in somebody’s belly, they’ve a little more time to think about where to go for a job that day. Or their kids aren’t going to be sick so they can attend school. It’s a commonsense approach, or else we become like Brazil, with armed guards driving you, and walls round your houses.”
In 2006 he established the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, a non-profit organisation that helps provide food and shelter for those in need. Initially linked to the community outreach programme of the Philadelphia Soul American football team (which he co-owned from 2003 to 2008), it now has projects all over the United States and runs the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Kitchen community restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey. Diners pay what they can afford for their meal, or have the option to work as waiters or dishwashers. The restaurant became a focus for the Superstorm Sandy relief effort after Red Bank suffered heavy floods, with Bon Jovi flying back from London to offer hands-on support. “My father, my wife, my kids, everybody was on the production line,” he says proudly. “Cooking, putting it in packages, shipping it out, driving it to places.” This wasn’t just for the benefit of TV cameras — “I go to the kitchen whenever I’m home,” he says.
Bon Jovi describes his philanthropic work as the most ‘bullet-proof’ thing he has ever done, but then his band have also proved pretty indestructible. Almost uniquely in the volatile world of rock music, only one original member has been jettisoned along the way — bass player Alec John Such was kicked out in 1994 for embracing the rock lifestyle a little too fondly. Their secret is that “we got over the internal strifes that can define a band,” Bon Jovi says. “We believed in what we were doing and we liked each other.” And, while his band mates have had their share of rehab stints and messy divorces, Bon Jovi’s own 24-year marriage to Dorothea Hurley, his school sweetheart, remains solid, despite him being the most lusted-after frontman of the groupie-heavy 1980s. They have four children — Stephanie, 19, Jesse, 18, Jacob, 10 and Romeo, eight — and live quietly in Manhattan. “I don’t like to visit Hollywood,” he says. “When I’m there I keep my suitcase packed and my door locked.” He has always seemed refreshingly unfazed by the ridiculousness of his own life, especially in an era when some stars seem to schedule a breakdown somewhere between their second and third album (“Thankfully I’m on my 15th album, so you get through that silliness,” he says with a smile). He enjoys a good wine (“I tell people I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just a drunk”), but he has never got seriously involved in drugs (“I stopped smoking dope when I was 15 years old — I just didn’t have the skin for it”) and laughs at the cliché of the addled old rock star. “If you’re 50 years old and you’re still walking around with a blow habit, did you grow up to be a good man? I don’t know if you did …”
All of which made the events of November last year, when his daughter, Stephanie, was rushed to hospital after a heroin overdose in her dorm room at Hamilton College, upstate New York, all the more surprising. “There’s a ****-up for you, right?” he says, ruefully. “It took us all by surprise. It happens more often than I ever imagined.”
Did you think that, because you had never got into drugs, your kids wouldn’t either?
“I hadn’t given any thought to it,” he says, after a pause. “You’re supposed to experiment when you’re a kid. God bless that she’s alive. She’s doing well.”
Despite such personal issues, it’s business as usual at the Bon Jovi corporation. A new album, which took the best part of a year to make, means that the next two years will be spent on the road, beginning a few hours after our chat with a performance at the BBC Concert Theatre. In front of a crowd composed largely of packs of screaming ladies of a certain age in coordinated outfits, the band run through the hits that made them famous with the minimum of fuss. But while some members of the crowd will have their tongues firmly in their cheeks as their fists punch the air, Bon Jovi’s never seems to be. Even on a song as palpably daft as ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’, he remains admirably poker-faced, as if he really were a cowboy riding on a ‘steel horse’ (although to be fair, he has ‘seen a million faces’ and ‘rocked them all’).
This lack of irony may be why the critics will never love Bon Jovi, but it’s also why the band are still headlining stadiums while many of their contemporaries are reduced to playing nostalgia package tours, if they’re lucky. Jon Bon Jovi sees no shame in believing in these songs, and consequently millions of people all around the world can relate to them too. “One thing I’m aware of if I’m coming to London or Germany or South Africa is, why should people care about what’s going on in my country or my world?” he says. “I try to write songs that become about the people that listen to them.” He gestures towards a woman in the Savoy bar where we have been chatting. “The opulence of this hotel is fantastic, but don’t think that young lady over there doesn’t have a completely different story than what’s in this room,” he says. “And don’t think that I didn’t come from that same place too.”
Appearances can be deceptive, he’s saying, and you have to look beneath the surface to get to the real person. “I don’t put on the air of the rock star,” he insists. “The cliché horseshit, the entourage that goes with it, the clothes or the bling. You have to be aware of doing something more than just singing in a rock band for a living, of utilising the power of ‘celebrity’ to do some good. If you’re 50 years old and writing ‘bitch’ on your belly and painting your fingernails black, you’re probably not hanging out with me.”
What About Now (Mercury) is out now. Bon Jovi play Slane Castle next week, June 15; For tickets see live.bonjovi.com/tour
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