Cover Story: Bon Jovi

13 December 2013 Doug Wallen

Cover Story: Bon Jovi

Photograph by David Bergman for Bon Jovi.

Doug Wallen, Ed#446, November 2013

Over four decades, Bon Jovi have filled stadiums round the world with their anthemic rock, writes Doug Wallen. The hits keep coming, though some of the hair has gone. And now the hard-working band is back in Australia.

The singer takes to the stage, lights radiating heat from above. The song strikes up and those classic words begin to flow: Tommy used to work on the docks/Union’s been on strike/He’s down on his luck/It’s tough, so tough.

Soon the chorus rears up to meet the singer head-on: Whoa-oh, we’re halfway there/Oh-o, livin’ on a prayer / Take my hand and we’ll make it, I swear / Oh-o, livin’ on a prayer.

Victory is his.

So goes one of the more memorable karaoke choices of my uni days, when my housemates and I would crowd into the same Pennsylvania bar every Friday for happy hour. As fun as it was stepping into the oversized heart (and hair) of Bon Jovi’s 1986 classic ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’, no doubt I made an off-key embarrassment of it.

But that didn’t matter. Few songs felt as right on stage as that one. It’s one of the great anthems of stadium rock, a perfect set-up for fist-pumping and shouting-along-with en masse. Whether in the karaoke arena or uniting fans in an actual venue, it transforms the average nobody into a bulletproof star leading the charge of an anthem everyone in the room knows by heart. That’s the power of Bon Jovi.

For cannon-strength inspirational impact, the song is hardly alone in their catalogue. Just check out ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ and ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ from the same album, Slippery When Wet, the band’s commercial breakthrough release. Also include ‘Bad Medicine’ (1988), the power ballad ‘Always’ (1994) and ‘It’s My Life’ (2000). Although it was a solo tune, Jon Bon Jovi’s single ‘Blaze of Glory’ (1990) also ticks all the same boxes: life-or-death themes, a soaring chorus and a teeth-gritted earnestness that refuses to be shaken.

Those are merely the more prominent highlights in a career that’s still going strong today. Bon Jovi’s 12th album, last March’s What About Now, was their third chart-topping entry in a row in the US. It also debuted at #1 in Australia, Canada and several other countries. The band’s Because We Can Tour has been running to packed arenas across the globe, and will finish in Australia with seven stadium concerts throughout mid-December.

Compare that to many of their late-1980s hard-rock rivals. Def Leppard haven’t put out a new album in five years, while Guns N’ Roses took 15 years before releasing Chinese Democracy in 2008, and have become notorious for frontman Axl Rose’s repeated no-shows. Mötley Crüe have announced plans to retire soon, while acts like Warrant, Whitesnake and Cinderella are left to join together for themed package tours that still can’t match Bon Jovi’s draw.

It’s not just the scale of Bon Jovi’s original hits that has kept them ahead of the pack. Because the band has regularly released albums (six in the past 14 years), they’ve kept their sound as modern as possible, embracing changing rock values rather than one-note nostalgia. While the songs of What About Now are still about overcoming obstacles in that stubborn all-American way, the stories have changed with the times – and so has the production. Co-produced by Jon Bon Jovi, lead guitarist and contributing songwriter Richie Sambora and veteran producer John Shanks, What About Now takes cues from modern country acts, who have long mingled downhome twang, blue-collar storytelling and stadium-filling rocking out.

That’s the secret right there, career-long Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres explains on the phone from the US. “Do a record that’s current every time,” he says. “If we had just stayed in the ’80s, our audience would be our age and that’s it. [But] the songs are current, the sounds are current.” That means three generations of fans flocking to them. “When you look at the audience,” he continues, “you have young, medium age and older. I think that’s the key to longevity, without a doubt, in any group.”

We’re also talking about a band that – despite their continuing heartthrob status – are more clean-cut family men than self-destructive rock stars. Torres, Bon Jovi, keyboardist David Bryan and bassist Hugh McDonald are each married, and all but McDonald are fathers. Jon Bon Jovi alone has four kids with high-school sweetheart, Dorothea Hurley, his wife since 1989. It’s downright wholesome.

Sambora has more of a bad-boy reputation, having entered rehab in 2007 and 2011 and been arrested for drunk driving in 2009, yet he’s a devoted father to his 16-year-old daughter with ex-wife Heather Locklear. In fact, he stepped away from touring in April to commit himself more to fatherhood, with fill-in guitarist Phil X taking over his duties – including for the Australian dates. “I just needed to be home,” Sambora told the Today show recently, lamenting just how much his tour-heavy lifestyle has kept him away from family obligations. Ironically, Sambora was in Australia recently – for the Melbourne Cup racing carnival.

“It’s a personal situation,” says Torres of Sambora’s absence. “It’s important for people to do what they need to do in life. It’s not definitely a sentence: ‘You have to go on the road and do this.’ Certain things in life take precedence, and we respect that.”

 

                           

                                                 Photograph by David Bergman

He contrasts the band to the hard-partying stereotype: “We don’t live la vida loca. We had those times when we were younger. Sometime you just gotta grow up.” Part of that growing up for Torres and his bandmates has been giving back however they can. Torres founded the Tico Torres Children’s Foundation to help children struggling with hunger, disease, homelessness, neglect, abuse and illness. He’s also on the board of the non-profit Amazon Conservation Team. In 2005 the band helped build homes for low-income Philadelphia families through Habitat for Humanity, as documented in the video for their 2006 single ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’. After Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005, the band gifted $1 million for aid through Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network charity; they donated the same amount to the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund in 2012. Since 2006, the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation has assisted those in need of food and shelter, including the creation of a community restaurant in New Jersey.

“If you have children,” Torres says, “you realise if there’s something that can be done to help them, you certainly try. You use your name or your situation to advance that.” Reflecting on the growing destruction wrought by hurricanes, he doesn’t mince words. “You have to look at climate change. You have to see that this is a reality. You have to pay for what you do to the planet eventually.”

That degree of moral conscience is apparent in Bon Jovi’s songs, despite non-fans dismissing the band as mere pretty boys. On What About Now, the lyrics of ‘What’s Left of Me’ survey the modern tribulations of a journalist, a Marine and a punk band, finding a common thread in those disparate examples. It’s a song about not giving up on your dreams, even when the rules of the game have been changed on you overnight. I’m a teacher, I’m a farmer, I’m a union man/It’s gettin’ harder to make a livin’ in this heartland…

The romantic single ‘Because We Can’ is less specific – I don’t wanna be another wave in the ocean, starts the reliably big chorus – but there’s still that everyman quality that Bon Jovi do so well. The band might not inspire the same critical accolades of Bruce Springsteen, but they’ve developed their comfort-food appeal into a fine art. A listener feels at home in a Bon Jovi song, embattled archetypes and all.

Just don’t ask Torres about the lyrics. “I’m the worst,” he admits with a laugh. “I don’t listen to the lyrics at all, to this day. That’s the honest truth. What I do listen to are the melodies.” He adds that it’s best to go into the studio without having an album’s themes mapped out in advance. “It’s hard to go in there with pre-conceived ideas,” he says. “It’s like having a baby: you don’t know if it’ll be a boy or a girl until it comes out.”

What separated What About Now from other Bon Jovi records was the band playing the songs live before the album had come out – a first for them. “It was experimental for us,” says Torres, “to play songs that nobody’s ever heard, just to see [the reaction].”

Now that the album is a success, it has added to an already impressive back catalogue to choose from on stage. “We have a wide repertoire,” Torres says, but that doesn’t mean skipping over the expected highlights. “There’s nothing worse than going to see a band and waiting for that one song and they don’t play it.” In the case of Bon Jovi, of course, it’s not “that one song” but at least four or five, even for the most casual fans. “Plenty to pick from,” he agrees.

Because of their longevity, Bon Jovi have been playing some of those songs live for more than 25 years. Surely there’s an element of fatigue to revisiting the biggest hits time after time? Not so, says Torres. “If we’re feeling even a little tired, what gets us up is the audience. We’re there to get them up and, in turn, they get us up. It gives us a good show and makes us have fun.”

He says Australia is especially reliable on that front: “It’s always a very lively crowd. They like to party a lot. It gets us happy. We feed them, they feed us.”

Still, despite the refusal of those stadium-filling fans to thin out with the passing decades (and the example of the Rolling Stones, rocking on into their golden years), surely the Bob Jovi boys have pondered the idea of retirement. From their early days bonding over the high church of hard rock, to their MTV glory days, to their endurance as a brand-name force in music, there can’t be many summits left to conquer.

“You just take it day by day,” Torres responds. “One tour at a time. It’s hard to put a time limit on anything. [Given] the fact that we’re all family guys, when you get off the road there’s things you want to do with your life, family included. “To be honest with you,” he confides, “it’s safe to say we’re here now.”

When the day does finally come when they’re no longer here, we’ll know just where to find them. Not the guys personally, but the collective Bon Jovi. Still reigning over music collections (whatever the format), still commanding eyeballs with their videos and, yes, living on forever in the earnest battlefield of karaoke.

Victory is theirs.

» Doug Wallen is The Big Issue’s Music Editor. Follow him on Twitter, @wallendoug.

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