It’s something unheard of in the modern PR junket, but Jon Bon Jovi interviews are running early. Breaks have been built into his day but he doesn’t want them. He’s somewhere in this suite at the Savoy Hotel in central London: remnants of black tea steam in a delicate china cup next to a recently vacated chair. Soon his compact frontman’s frame appears in the doorway, stomach flat as an ironing board – and to my dismay it becomes apparent that this will be a sunglasses interview. They’re removed just once, 30 minutes in, for a weary pinch of the nose.
It’s been a terrible three years. “Turmoil”, as he put it, to Jo Whiley the previous afternoon during a three-minute chat at an album launch. He didn’t get time to say why but everyone knows. His compadre Richie Sambora – partner for 30 years, co-writer of their four No 1s, fellow New Jersey boy and guitarist in one of the biggest bands in the world – is gone: he stopped showing up for work in 2013 and now tours the world with his girlfriend in an act he describes as “Sonny and Cher on steroids”. Jon, who has played to 32 million people, launched a new album cautiously with a string of gigs that could be described as boutique. Neither mentions the other on stage.
Other things went wrong for Jon Bon Jovi. The band fell out with their record label. And two years back, he tried and failed to buy the American football team the Buffalo Bills. He already had one team – and when it was rumoured he would move the Bills from Buffalo to Ontario, Canada, there was uproar. Whole areas of the struggling city declared themselves “Bon-Jovi Free Zones”. His music was banned from bars and strip clubs. It must have been painful for the man who’s spent 30 years, like a kind of blockbuster Springsteen, reflecting the blue-collar worker in the American musical psyche. He and Richie’s biggest hit, “Livin’ on a Prayer”, followed the fortunes of a young couple during the union strikes of the Reagan era. Fans debated whether the song’s fictional Tommy was a strike-breaker. “No, no, Christ no. He just lost his job – it wasn’t that he crossed the picket line!” said an anxious Jon in 2009.
In discos, dives and weddings across the planet, floors still fill to his anthems’ opening bars. From the philanthropy career (he builds homes for low-income families) to his campaign work for Al Gore, John Kerry, Obama and both Clintons, Jon Bon Jovi has been a model citizen. He spent two years on the White House Council for Community Solutions, which, he assures me, actually “meant we had to show up for meetings and do things”. He has said, however, that he’d never go into politics full time “because 50 people hate you before you’ve even walked out the door”. He called it a “shit job”.
“No,” he qualifies. “They asked me who had the better job, me or Bill Clinton. I said me, because I get to keep the house and the plane.” So he’ll never run for office. What about Springsteen?
“Bruce isn’t a politician,” he says. “Bono is more of a politician than Bruce.”
He stands up and moves across the room, throwing open the floor-length windows that look out over the Thames. Tour boats are moving up and down the river, and he’s been bugged by a particular one all morning – someone is singing through a Tannoy in a high, male voice. “Did you hear that? At first I thought it was someone falling off the bridge. I thought it was someone jumping. Heh heh.” His gloominess is strangely performative.
“Here’s my take on Trump,” he says, getting back to work. “The one demographic he’s currently leading in is the white, older, somewhat educated male. That demographic are coming from a place of disappointment and fear. Fear because they don’t know where their pot of gold went. Disappointment because they have now realised the American dream isn’t going to happen.
“Hillary has to embrace the voices of the Sanders millennials who are resolved to the fact that they are not going to own a home or have two cars, but are very concerned about the environment and their own futures. The Trump demographic, they’re probably non-believers in global warming because they’re uneducated and they’re not paying attention. With regard to the Republican candidate, I wish there were a better mouthpiece to speak up on behalf of those people.”
When Jon Bon Jovi was 26, he was hurt by a review that made fun of his inspirational music, which celebrated the simple values of loyalty and friendship and, as the writer put it, appeared to believe in Rocky Balboa running up the steps in Philadelphia. Then Jon had a realisation: “I live that life,” he said. “If I went to Washington tomorrow I could probably meet the president. I was Rocky.” The American dream happened for him.
Rock’n’roll was not an impossible fantasy for the son of two ex-marines growing up in Sayreville, New Jersey. “Thirty miles south from where I lived is this beach town [Asbury Park] that Bruce was able to make famous – the biggest places he could play at that time were literally a 3,000 seat theatre. He made the unattainable accessible.”
In 1973 the state of New Jersey lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18, largely to allow soldiers returning from Vietnam the right to purchase alcohol. He says the new drinking age helped him break into the music scene. “At 16 or 17 I could get into bars and play.” His parents were supportive, he explains: “They said, if you’re going to be in a bar until three in the morning, at least we know where you are.” Like most of his peer group he had no college aspirations. His cousin Tony ran a recording studio in Manhattan where – sweeping floors, like a hair-metal Kris Kristofferson – Jon was able to cut some demos. He got a record deal at 20: “Then it got a little bigger, and a little bigger until it got to the place where I am, and no one had dreamed of that.”
Like any good Italian boy, when he started making money, he tried to put a bit back. He bought expensive things for the family – such as holidays and cars. He warned them about a trip to Italy a year in advance so they could plan time off work. How long did it take his family to get used to their son having more money than them?
“They didn’t get used to it,” he says grumpily. “They still aren’t happy with it. They’re still resentful of it sometimes. They were like, of course I want it – then they got it and they were like, I hate this f***ing house. Really? You don’t have to stay here. . .” At several points in our conversation, he slips into imaginary dialogues.
“We weren’t the first and we’re not the last. Elvis did it 50 years ago and I’m sure that Harry Styles did it two years ago. It’s a confusing time when you become that guy and have the ability to share with your family the fruits of your labour. People think that money makes you smart. It doesn’t. It makes you rich.”
His cousin Tony sued the band, claiming he’d had a part in developing their sound. His brother – another Tony – worked within the touring entourage in the early days. “Two of my brothers, actually,” he corrects. Are they still employees?
“Yes and no . . . Sorta . . . Anyway.”
It’s not fashionable in the UK to talk about your rock band as a business. Sambora once explained that Bon Jovi “created 42 markets” by touring 42 countries. “I think you’d be hard pressed to get someone to even f***ing name 42 countries,” he added. In 1989, they were guests of honour in Gorbachev’s Russia. I ask Jon to recall his experiences of this historic moment. I can see his eyes through his shades and he’s staring into the middle distance.
“Records were still on the black market – even having a list of the records you owned could get you put away. The hotel rooms were definitely bugged. The bottled water was very salty and the meats were dried.”
He is starting to enjoy this. “The entire Aeroflot fleet had glass noses so they could be converted at any moment into military aircraft. And they didn’t have brooms. They’re trying to sweep out the stadium on the first night, and it was a bunch of sticks tied together. I’ve not been back since.”
Jon Bon Jovi sees himself – as his bandname would suggest – as “the CEO of a major corporation”.
The group is not, and has never been, a democracy. Once, the band’s curly-haired keyboard player, Dave Bryan, was asked whether this bothered him and he said, “I’m semi-bothered about it but not enough to ruin my life. You can’t fight City Hall.”
Jon says it’s the Henry Ford theory of management: someone’s name has to be at the top of the paper. However, the group’s appeal was always a double act – that brittle romance between lead singer and guitarist that lies at the heart of many classic rock bands, from Mick and Keith, to Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, who may grow to loathe each other but stay together for the sake of the songs. Sambora – multi-instrumentalist and a flamboyant guitar hero – explained his role in the band like this, in 2009:
“I’ve always had it in my head that the success of our band was going to be our leader being very, very happy – and I tried always to be there for him as a friend, and from a musical level, and from a business standpoint. If I can help Jon be in a great mood as much as possible, I’m going to do it and that’s what I’ve put on myself as a responsibility.”
Jon, who is clean-living, and Richie, who is not, kept it going for a long time. In the early 1990s, Bon Jovi nearly split but were saved by group therapy at the hands of the psychologist Dr Lou Cox, who runs a company called EgoMechanics in New York.
Brittle romance: Richie Sambora with Jon Bon Jovi
“It was fabulous,”says Jon. “We got the idea from Aerosmith. He wasn’t like Brian Wilson’s guy [the svengali Eugene Landy]. He got his hourly fee and he left.”
I called Cox at home: he was a kind, avuncular voice on the end of the phone. He told me he made Bon Jovi act out their feelings for one another: “I would have them be angry at each other in a kind of role play, just to find out they could do it safely and not kill each other.” He talks about family dynamics being laid down early – certain prohibitions against “speaking up”. And about the honeymoon phase in the life of a major rock band “when they are literally in love with each other . . . Then you have your first fight and the air goes out of the balloon. How do you manage, going forward, when it isn’t all wonderful feelings?”
They have not spoken in three years. On 3 April 2013, Sambora failed to turn up to a concert in Calgary because of alcohol problems. Jon donated £100,000 to Calgary’s homeless to atone for his partner’s behaviour. Richie was told, sources claimed, to clean up or get out (he was also told, in the source’s words, to lose his “stream of Hollywood bimbos”). So he got out. And the turmoil began.
“Would you like a cup of tea or a glass of water?” he says. He stalks out of the suite and returns with a cup of green tea and a cup of black tea in two more fine china cups. Then, standing above me, he executes a strange stretch, arms above his head, and says, a deep yawn in his voice, “I’m sorry. You were saying. Turmoil and stuff…”
The cover of his new album, This House Is Not for Sale, the first he’s ever recorded without Sambora, depicts a striking black-and-white photo of a gothic house with colossal roots going deep into the soil.
“The house is a metaphor for my band and my life. This big, proud, rock of a stone house with deep roots that’s in disarray. It’s tired, it’s beat up – this was symbolically me. Milk and sugar?”
Did he think, when Richie left, that Bon Jovi would end?
“Absolutely not. In all deference, God bless my friend Richie, there was never a question. No. No. We wrote some great songs together, and I love the guy, and our voices together were absolutely magic. But there is a very definitive line between wanting somebody in the band and needing somebody in the band.” Ouch.
What about the mechanics of physically writing songs without him?
“It’s of no consequence to me. I have either written or co-written every song we have ever done. There’s never been a question of: am I able. I’ve written No 1 songs on my own [the theme from Young Guns II]. I know how to do this. There is no question that I know how to write a song.”
It is part of the business plan of all the biggest rock bands to stay together –
– no matter what –
“– I know. And you know something? It is beautiful to be in a band when you are a young man. But when the day comes that you choose not to share your art any longer, then, amen! I’m OK with it!”
But he’s not finished.
In his younger years, he tells me, optimism was a “cloak I felt comfortable wearing”. He’d be so pumped with adrenalin, he once said the reason he couldn’t stand still on stage was that if he did, he’d soil himself. Does he still benefit from that kind of stage fright?
“I’m not scaaaaaaared . . .” he muses. “I’ve never been scared. I was so über-focused on wanting to be 101 per cent that you could probably drive yourself mad. But never fear. Life for me was never ever motivated by fear.”
What was the motivation?
Long pause. “The exuberance of youth gave me blinders,” he says. “But that exuberance could be perceived as cockiness, when it’s really just confidence. Not cockiness.”
Does he still have it?
“I don’t lack for confidence . . . No, wait. [Really long pause.] Maybe I do lack a little of my old cockiness. I should get a little more of that swagger back. I’m a little different now than I used to be.”
Shortly after Sambora’s departure, his drummer, Tico Torres, needed an emergency appendectomy before a gig in Mexico (“No big deal. I mean, we’ve got 100-plus people on the crew who had to be sent home for a couple of weeks but fine . . .”). The rescheduled date came around – and Torres had a gallbladder attack on the way to the airport.
“Imagine what was going through MY f***ing head,” he breathes. “Richie doesn’t show up, and then I turn around and there’s no drummer either? And it’s just me and Dave? I feel like I’m the monkey and he’s the organ grinder. God. F***!”
He sighs deeply. Then pushes on.
“Think of the backbone it took for me to play 12 stadiums like that. We were in Rio – and I was one night, and Bruce was the next night. But I was like, yeah, let’s f***ing go. I ain’t afraid of any band. And we went out there with a drummer from a cover band, and a guitar player that I barely knew, and I said, ‘Let’s f***ing go, 80,000 people!’ That takes backbone. I should have cancelled. But there was not a chance in hell. The shit that I had to go through on that last tour. I have earned this grey hair.”
The Jon Bon Jovi/Richie Sambora dynamic was extremely physical. They would occasionally kiss on stage. Jon spent three decades with an arm draped around Richie’s neck. He drapes his arm around the neck of the new guy now, but it doesn’t look right. He struts and whirls a bit less, seems more aware of himself. How did it feel to look up and see that Richie was no longer there?
Did you miss him?
“Yeah. I swear on my career, and on my children, there was no fight. He has [he waves an imaginary bottle] issues and he can’t deal with them. There’s obligations. You’re not 20. You have to show up. Get help, OK? I’m here to help. You don’t want the help? I can’t force anybody to make lifestyle choices.”
Increasingly, pop stars pull out of gigs for reasons of personal chaos. Last month Justin Bieber walked off stage because fans were annoying him. Zayn Malik cancelled shows due to anxiety issues.
“There is a generation of anxious young men and women who are being diagnosed for the first time – and maybe it was always there,” Bon Jovi begins. “I get it. But let me give you a little education, motherf***er. Jane just saved up for three months to buy that ticket. She travelled on a train to get there. And she is not going to be able to get a refund for her hotel room, or her travel, or the day she took off from work, or the babysitter she paid for. And the 120 families that are affected when they didn’t get their pay cheque at the end of the week because you didn’t show up for the f***ing show . . .”
A few weeks later, on the other side of town, Richie shows up for his own gig at the O2 Arena, as part of the BluesFest weekend. The performance is spontaneous, to say the least. He stops to tie his shoelaces, swigs from a mug and switches his famous hats at random. He brings on Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist Steve Van Zandt for “Livin’ on a Prayer” and they screw it up. (This is downtime for Steve: Springsteen, at 67, has recently started doing four-hour shows.)
Richie’s hair is wild like a bird’s nest. His girlfriend, the guitarist Orianthi – who was booked to play on Michael Jackson’s doomed final tour – is a strange figure under a red hat, polished but remote. There are 26 years between them: whether it’s a full-on Sid and Nancy affair or a business arrangement, no one quite knows. Sambora roars out blues standards he learned as a boy. “Steve is playing again afterwards! Come! I’ll chip in for tickets! I’m playing too by the way!”
There is a certain chaotic freedom in it. He kicked off this tour by saying he intended to go without underwear. “Richie is pushing the need to be his own separate self,” the psychologist told me. The band came back to him for help again when the “Richie thing” got to a certain level. “We had meetings and tried to work that through . . .” They went as far as they could. Perhaps, when your therapy and your rehab all comes as part of the package offered by the company you work for, the only way of changing your life is by becoming unfit for service.
For Jon Bon Jovi it all seems to have come a bit too soon. The future feels uncertain. There is always politics, if he can get his head around not being liked. I ask him whether he will get a role in Hillary’s council. He has appeared at half a dozen campaign events with her and is currently on the cover of Billboard magazine with Bill.
Do they call you Mr B?
I ask him if he knows Trump personally.
“I’ve met him a number of times,” he says. “He’s always been like that. He has played this like an episode of The Apprentice. All he had to do was get rid of the other contestants, and like the host of any TV show he doesn’t have to know a lot.”
“This is my fear,” he says, standing up and addressing me with great focus, as though preparing to drop the mic. “My president, Al Gore, was SO much smarter than George W, but everyone walked away and said I’d rather have a beer with that guy. Holy f***. If that happens on Tuesday morning, it’s the end of the world.”
“This House Is Not For Sale” is out on Friday