Not many musicians have stood before audiences of tens -- sometimes hundreds -- of thousands of people and heard words that they had written recited back to them by heart. Not many have inspired hundreds of cover bands, drunken karaoke exhibitions, and the undying affection of an entire state (amongst many others). And not many have had the same wife, same band, and same record deal, or sustained their popularity, relevance, and output, for 30-plus years.
Suffice it to say, Jon Bon Jovi is not like many other musicians.
Recently, I had the opportunity to pick Bon Jovi's brain over dinner following the Chicago International Film Festival world premiere screening of Stand-Up Guys -- the first film for which he has composed original songs in 22 years -- and then again the following morning during an exclusive 35-minute on-camera interview.
The 50-year-old -- who, as you can see in the footage of our conversation (above), looks about 20 years younger than his age -- says that he has never been at a happier place in his life or career. That might explain why he was willing to talk, at such length and in such depth, about his past, present, and future. Of course, he was most excited to discuss "Running" and "Old Habits," the two songs that he contributed, free-of-charge, to Fisher Stevens' low-budget indie, onto which Oscar winners Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin signed after he had already agreed to pen the tunes.
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THE EARLY YEARS
When people think of Bon Jovi, they tend to also think of New Jersey. The Sayreville native hasn't even lived in the Garden State for the last few years -- he's now a New Yorker -- but he says that he totally gets it: New Jersey is less a place than a state of mind, and one that he continues to share with its residents. He explains that growing up in Jersey, in the shadow of New York -- "close enough to the center of the universe, but far enough away where nobody was really watching" -- tends to leave a bit of a chip on one's shoulder. "You don't know if you can get in the ring or not."
For young Bon Jovi, getting in the ring always meant only one thing: a career in music. "There was no second choice," he says. Growing up in the late 1970s, he listened to all kinds -- Mo-town, soul music, R&B (the roots of which come from Jersey Shore), and, of course, rock 'n roll. And, as he took his first steps into making it -- learning to play the guitar and piano at 13, and subsequently forming his own cover band and then joining another guy's band -- it was clear where his strengths lay. "I was always the singer," he smiles. "I just gravitated toward it. I loved it more than it loved me, but eventually I learned the craft."
A pivotal moment came when Bon Jovi realized that there was no real future in performing other bands' songs. He started writing original tunes, got a day job as a gopher in a recording studio, and would stay late many nights to record demos. He always wanted to be a part of a band, though, not a solo act, so he would assemble various guys to perform at little showcases with him, or serve as the opening act for bigger bands, or just entertain friends at backyard barbeques. When high school came to an end, most of Bon Jovi's classmates didn't head off to college, but instead joined the service or went to work in factories. He decided to stick with music.
THE BIG BREAK
In the early eighties, Bon Jovi penned a song with which he was pretty pleased called "Runaway." It got no response from any record company, so Bon Jovi -- who at that time still spelled his last name Bongiovi -- decided to do a little direct lobbying of "the loneliest man in the record business," the radio DJ, who at that time wielded more power than ever. He walked into WAPP, a radio station in New York that was so new that it didn't even have a receptionist yet -- which he says is "probably the key to my success," because he was able to walk right up to the DJ booth and schmooze the DJ. As a result of that visit, "Runaway" wound up on a compilation album of local talent that got wide airplay throughout the country, generated great interest in its singer, and, in 1983, led to a record deal as a solo act. Bongiovi -- now Bon Jovi -- was just 21.
Soon thereafter, Bon Jovi began to put together a band of his own -- to be called "Bon Jovi" because of his newfound name recognition -- for what he thought would be just three weeks. Keyboardist David Bryan, a childhood bandmate of Bon Jovi's, signed on first. Then came drummer Tico Torres, who was in a band that had a record deal. Next was bassist Alec John Such was in a successful cover band. And then came guitarist Dave Sabo, Bon Jovi's childhood neighbor and bandmate -- although he soon decided to go back to college and was replaced by Richie Sambora, who had his own independent record out and was touring as Joe Cocker's opening act.
As Bon Jovi recalls, "We started to gel and we liked each other," so they extended their arrangement beyond the three weeks. In 1986, their album Slippery When Wet -- which included the songs "Livin' on a Prayer," "You Give Love a Bad Name," and "Wanted Dead or Alive" -- proved to be a massive hit, spending eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard 2000 and becoming the top selling album of the year. Bon Jovi says it "was our Like a Virgin, Thriller... we just hit that rocketship to fame at that time." And, 26 years later, the band is still together and going strong.
In the eighties, few would have predicted that the band would still be a major force on the music scene decades later. Bon Jovi says, "For good or bad, we were lumped into a musical genre because we were young, and had long hair, and that's what the times were. I get it. But," he bursts out laughing, "I always said I was never gonna be 50 years old, painting my nails black, and writing 'bitch' on my belly!" He adds, "There was just so much more to life than that kind of a thing. And that peer group is what it is now."
So what has been the band's secret for success and longevity? "I think that our core values have never changed," says Bon Jovi. "They were always optimism, loyalty, truth, faith. And for a long time that was a very lonely place to be, because there weren't a lot of other musicians that were writing about that kind of optimism. There was a real negativity for a decade; there was a lot of that kind of shoe-gazing and 'I hate the world' and 'I don't want to grow up to be anything.' And we were on the outside then. And I just always felt that there was an opportunity to lift people's hopes, and dreams, and aspirations... They just want to have a safe-haven for their kids to grow up in, and put food on their table, and they want to believe in something. They want to believe in themselves." He adds, "It may seem to some naive or romantic. Then so be it, you know?"
This worldview may explain the recurring presence in Bon Jovi songs of characters named Tommy and Gina, working-class people who struggle to make ends-meet and maintain their marriage. "Tommy and Gina were born in a world of fiction, but based in a world of truth," says Bon Jovi, adding that the characters are based on real people with different names that he knew in his twenties -- "close friends of mine" -- whose "lives were already going in a much, much different direction... and I thought, 'Wow, if I had to change direction because of these kinds of decisions, what would happen to me?'" He adds, "Anyway, that's again a part of who we are, where we come from, why we do what we do... I knew more about what those people were, and what they were going through, and what their dreams, and hopes, aspirations, and shortcomings were. And that's where we stayed."
THE LIFE OF A ROCK STAR
As the years have passed, and the band members have grown older and created families of their own, the band has spent a little less time on the road -- but still way more than most touring acts. They used to 240 shows back-to-back, "and it almost killed us," Bon Jovi recalls. Nowadays, the number is closer to 100 -- 150 for the last tour. Constantly performing, traveling, eating out each night, and being away from the wife and kids can make for a grinding experience, he admits, but "If you learn how to do it, you can do it in a way where you're not physically drained."
The life of a rock star -- and the accompanying fame, fortune, and life on the road -- has been depicted endlessly in autobiographies, documentaries, and movies. Bon Jovi, however, says that his experience has been unlike any of the stereotypes: "I live a very, very normal life. It's a fallacy that you have the big entourage and that you live that kind of a lifestyle where you don't know what a gallon of milks cost. It's not what made me. And maybe that's part of the success, is that we never fell victim to that. I stayed at home. I still have the first wife -- I got it right the first time -- and it's never gonna change... It's not a big deal."
What drives him, now as much as ever, is creating things. When the band's most recent tour came to an end in August 2011, he had a long stretch of time ahead of him in which he could relax. But he grew antsy and was back at work just a month later -- "I just couldn't help myself," he says. "I was having a great time at home, I was doing everything I'd like to do, but I immediately delved into writing again... I just couldn't help it." And the 16 months since have proven to be "a re-energing kind of a period for me," he says, during which his output has been nothing short of prolific: he wound up writing a lot for himself and the band; the last song on the last Beach Boys record ever; a couple of country covers; a song with a girl from The Voice; and then, to even his own surprise, he got back into the business of writing songs for the movies.
THE RETURN TO THE MOVIES
Not many people remember this, but 22 years ago Bon Jovi -- the man, not the band -- wrote the song "Blaze of Glory" specifically for the 1990 western Young Guns II. The song was part of his first solo album (of the same title), and it became a phenomenal success, placing #1 on the Billboard charts, winning the best original song Golden Globe, and earning a nomination for the best original song Oscar. It lost at the Academy Awards to Stephen Sondheim's "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from the film Dick Tracy.
In the time since, Bon Jovi has done only one other solo project, largely because he has been so busy with his band. But, during his "streak of writing" over the past year-plus, it occurred to him that he might attempt another if the right project came along. He recalls, "I called my manager and I said, 'I'd forgotten, but a long time ago I wrote this movie soundtrack. Do you have any great scripts out there?' And he mentioned one called Stand Up Guys, and he said that it hadn't begun shooting yet, but they had high hopes for the picture [which recounts the story of several former partners in crime -- played by Pacino, Walken, and Arkin -- who reunite for one last night together years later], and he thought that, thematically, it was something that would like an original song and that I could feel comfortable writing. And so he sent it to me. That was a Monday that I called him. I received the script on a Tuesday. Wednesday I wrote it [the end-title song 'Old Habits']. And Thursday he had it to play for the director Fisher Stevens and for [producer] Tom Rosenberg -- I sung it into my iPhone on my acoustic guitar." Stevens and Rosenberg, who were still over a month-and-a-half away from commencing production on the film, were ecstatic.
How was such a quick turn-around even possible? Bon Jovi explains, "Fortunately, for me, in the process of writing for movies -- specifically for movies -- I'm able to channel those characters. I'm able to take those words and make them my own. I'm able to even, you know, grab a line or two, so that you can see what on the screen came from the page came through my pen, and I'm able to then relay it back to you in a song." That's precisely what he did with "Old Habits." He laughs, "The first line of the song is the first line of the movie, 'You look like shit.' To me, as a songwriter, I'm immediately engaged. If you have a song and the first line of it says, 'You look like shit,' I'm gonna go, 'I want to hear what this song is about!' It's obviously not a moon-june-and-spoon rhyme scheme!" Consequently, "It fell off of my pen onto the page, and I loved it, and we loved it, and it's just so related to what these guys were." (He mistakenly assumed that Pacino was playing one character and Walken another, when in fact their roles were actually reversed, but he feels now that doing so only made the song even better.)
After production began, Bon Jovi was invited to visit the set. He did so, but elected to keep a low-profile. "I didn't even introduce myself to the actors," he remembers. "I stayed out, and I looked through the monitors, and it all started hitting me. I said, 'I could write ten of these [songs for the movie]. I could do this all day long.' And Tom said, 'I could use one more.' And I said, 'I've already got it.' And I left there now with a visual of what the two guys looked like." He went back east and wrote "Running," and when Stevens and Rosenberg and others heard it they told him that they liked it even more than "Old Habits." The song, which was written for a scene in which Pacino and Walken have literally suited-up and are heading for a climactic encounter, certainly does pump-up moviegoers -- at least those with whom I saw the film. And it won at least one major fan amongst the cast: Bon Jovi, almost blushing, shared with me, "Mr. Pacino writes me this letter and he says, 'It's the best movie song I've ever heard and it really makes the movie.' That's pretty humbling -- I mean, it's Al Pacino!" (Bon Jovi and the filmmakers recently decided that "Running," not "Old Habits," will be the track that they will submit for consideration for this year's best original song Oscar. The short-list of contenders, from which five nominees will ultimately be chosen, will be released in December.)
Having turned in these two original songs, Bon Jovi had just two requests of the filmmakers. Firstly, he recounts, "I said, 'Fisher, if you'll allow me, I want to take a cut, and I want you, the editor, the temp music supervisor, and the scoring person to all be in the studio, and I'm gonna sing it and play it to picture. Because whatever vocal I may have delivered recording the record may not have fit the emotion of the scene and the breath so that it could be place properly. So they all came over, and we recorded to picture, and edited the song accordingly so it would be able to fit." (This is the same rationale for why Tom Hooper recorded his actors singing live for Les Miserables, another presumptive Oscar contender this year.) Secondly, he said that he would like to go to Nashville and make a record and music video of his songs for the film so that they could put out a soundtrack -- and also because, he admits, "The artistic side of me wants to share all six verses of these long songs that don't get to be in the whole film." They couldn't have been more delighted. And, clearly, the same can be said Bon Jovi.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Over the course of his long career, Bon Jovi's regard and appreciation for his unique position in the world has clearly evolved. He reflects, "You know, the first time you're driving in your car and you hear your song on the radio, you want to go fast and get pulled over you can tell the cop, 'Look, that's me!' [Then it gets] to the point where, you know, you would turn it off because, 'All right, enough already.' [But now there is] true appreciation, when you realize that it wasn't one or two or five or even ten albums; there was a body of work. And when you start talking about an honest to God body of work, then you realize how, you know, it's become a patchwork of American pop-culture, and you're pretty proud of it. There's a lot of people that have sung those songs for a lot of years. You know, it's humbling."
As we get ready to part, Bon Jovi emphasizes this point: "The dream for any kid that strums a tennis racquet is to be a rock 'n roll star. But once you get to that level, then you've got to deliver. And if you can deliver on a level where you've been around for a long, long time, on the kind of level that we've been at-- it isn't a nostalgia tour when you're on a Bon Jovi tour -- it's pretty wonderful."
For as long as he can, it seems, he plans to just keep, well, running.
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BON JOVI SUPERLATIVES
If someone could only hear one Bon Jovi song, which would you like it to be?
"Livin' on a Prayer."
Which Bon Jovi song do you think audiences connect with the most?
It's a toss-up between four: "Livin' on a Prayer," "Wanted: Dead or Alive," "It's My Life," and "Who Says You Can't Go Home?"
Which Bon Jovi song do you most wish audiences connected with as much those?
"Oh, I got 20 of those! There's 20 times when I've stood up and said, 'This is the one, folks!' and it fails miserably. No, I've had 20 of those heartbreakers!"