Jon Bon Jovi is singing Livin’ on a Prayer to me. No, this is not another crazy lockdown dream; it is actually happening.
“Tommy used to work on the docks …” he begins, strumming a guitar he produces out of nowhere, his still impressive bouffant (“I’m the only man in my field brave enough to let it go grey!”) bouncing in time to the music.
I later look up how much it would cost to hire Bon Jovi for a private party. “More than $1m” is the best estimate. All I did was ask if he was tired of being asked about his 1986 megahit. The answer, apparently, is no.
“Union’s been on strike, he’s down on his luck …” he continues.
Going from the zero of lockdown to the zillion miles an hour of a Bon Jovi private performance is a helluva ride and I tell him I might pass out. He laughs the laugh of a man who is neither unaccustomed nor averse to female adoration.
“That song, God bless it. But my God, who knew? Not us, I can assure you. It was created on a day when none of us had any ideas, we just had a conversation and it came out of that. I’m sure happy my name’s on it!” Bon Jovi grins.
So he didn’t know it was a hit when he wrote it?
“Not at all. I remember walking out of the room with Richie [Sambora, his band’s second most famous but now former member] and I said: ‘Eh, it’s OK. Maybe we should just put it on a movie soundtrack.’ Richie looked at me and said: ‘You’re an idiot – it’s really good.’ I said: ‘I just don’t know where it’s going.’ But it didn’t have that boom boom boom bassline yet, so it sounded more like the Clash.”
Did it buy him a house?
Bon Jovi looks at me as if I had asked about the woods-based habits of bears.
“It bought a lot of people houses,” he says.
Bon Jovi, 58, is talking to me on Zoom from his house in New Jersey. “I am the crown prince of New Jersey,” he declares, which is probably true – he named one of his biggest-selling albums after the state and has stayed firmly loyal to his home turf. (Although I think we both know that if Bon Jovi is the prince of New Jersey, its king is Bruce Springsteen.) From the tiny amount I can see, his house looks lovely – wood-panelled walls and not over-flashy. “My life is much more normal than one would imagine,” says the sixth wealthiest rock star in the world, sandwiched on that list between Sting and Elton John. “There are no platinum records hanging anywhere in my house. The trappings of rock stardom were never a part of my home.” He and his wife of 31 years, Dorothea, have four kids: Stephanie, 27, Jesse, 25, Jacob, 18 and Romeo, 16, and for a long time, he says, “my younger kids weren’t quite sure what I do”.
We are talking today because the latest single, Story of Love, from his album 2020, is about to be released in the UK. Anyone whose image of Bon Jovi is still locked in the Livin’ on a Prayer era – the big guitars, the bigger hair – will be somewhat taken aback by 2020. It is a thoughtful look at the past year, addressing gun control (Lower the Flag), the coronavirus crisis (Do What You Can) and the Black Lives Matter movement (the disarmingly beautiful American Reckoning). Perhaps you are thinking that you don’t especially need Jon Bon Jovi’s thoughts on BLM, but reason not the need: as he has done throughout his near 40-year career, he offers solid music and heartfelt lyrics, and, really, hats off to the man for engaging with the moment because Lord knows he doesn’t need to do anything at all any more. When lockdown hit, instead of running off to a house on the beach, Bon Jovi washed dishes every day in JBJ Soul Kitchen, one of the two community kitchens he set up near his home, where meals are provided through donations or volunteering. As celebrity efforts go, that probably beats posting a video of yourself singing Imagine.
But just singing about the human cost of the US’s gun laws will count to many as taking a side. Does he worry about alienating any of his fans? “There are men on my stage who see things differently, but I don’t let our differences come between us. I never wanted to become a captive to the stage. How I live my life’s up to me,” he says.
When we first speak, Bon Jovi is 48 hours from performing in a televised celebration for Joe Biden’s inauguration. This is his second inaugural event, after singing for Obama in 2009. Bon Jovi first started palling around with politicians when “a governor by the name of Bill Clinton” contacted him in the early 90s, and he has been actively involved since. “If Al [Gore] had got in I’d have been secretary for entertainment,” he jokes. In 2015 he allowed the Republican and then New Jersey governor Chris Christie to use his music in his presidential campaign. Springsteen has repeatedly rebuffed requests from Christie, a superfan, to play at his events. Does he disapprove of Springsteen’s refusal to reach across the aisle?
“I don’t know how Bruce has treated Chris, so I can’t comment on that. But I would be a hypocrite if I told you I write songs that claim to be a witness to history, and then don’t listen [to the other side],” he says.
Would he let Donald Trump use his music?
He recoils as if physically attacked. “No! No no no! On every issue we wholeheartedly disagree, from how he handled the Covid crisis to immigration to the Paris accord – everything! No! No!”
Bon Jovi and Trump have an extremely weird history. Back in 2014, the singer, along with some Canadian investors, tried to buy the NFL team the Buffalo Bills, outbidding Trump. But there was suddenly strong anti-Bon Jovi feeling in Buffalo, NY, with “Bon Jovi-free” zones and negative graffiti, stemming from the rumour that he and his partners would move the team out of the city. Bon Jovi fiercely denied that, but the Bills ultimately went to a third bidder and that was the end of that – until three years ago, when it emerged, inevitably, that the anti-Bon Jovi campaign had been started by Michael Caputo, a political strategist, who had been hired by Trump.
“I was really shocked at the depths [Trump] went to. He wasn’t even qualified to buy the team, because you have to submit your tax returns, and he never filed the paperwork. Instead, he did this dark shadow assassination thing, hoping to buy the team at a bargain basement price. But I just couldn’t understand how this misinformation was being put out there. It was seriously scarring,” Bon Jovi says, eyes wide.
After Trump failed to get the team, he stomped off and ran for president. Maybe you should have just given him the team, I say.
“Yeah, for the sake of the world, he definitely should have got the team. Oh well,” he chuckles.
Caputo later worked for Trump when he was president and was questioned as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was reported last September that Caputo had orchestrated a pressure campaign for official reports into the Covid crisis to be altered to be more flattering to Trump.
“I guess we lived a page of Trump’s playbook in Buffalo,” says Bon Jovi.
How did it feel to see his nemesis become president only two years after the battle in Buffalo?
He hesitates. “Well, like all Americans, I have to support the office of the president – look how political I’m sounding! I’m trying to stop myself from bullshitting. The truth is, I was really disappointed.”
Often in interviews Bon Jovi can sound a little monotone and bored, talking about the same things he has been talking about for decades. But today he is strikingly engaged and I ask if that’s because we’re mainly talking about politics rather than music.
“Ha! Well, everyone’s an armchair quarterback when talking about politics,” he says.
So he’s not thinking of pivoting to politics, spending his days arguing with Republicans such as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell?
“Or Chuck Schumer,” he adds, naming the Democrat leader in the Senate for balance. “It’s a shit existence – selling yourself and your soul. Hell no.”
John Bongiovi Jr was born and raised in New Jersey, the son of two former marines. He started making music as a kid and wrote Runaway, which would be his first hit, when he was 19. By 21 he had a record deal and a band, of which he was the name, the face and the boss (“More like a benevolent dictator,” he insists). Initially they were marketed as a hard rock band. They certainly looked the part – big hair, tight trousers – but Bon Jovi had a different plan.
“I said: ‘I want a tour with the Cars and Bryan Adams and all these pop groups,’ and my manager said: ‘No. You’re going to learn how to play with Judas Priest and Kiss and the Scorpions. Those audiences are loyal; pop audiences are fickle,’” he says. So they were packed off to open for Judas Priest, “a heavy metal band I’d never listened to,” Bon Jovi says. They won over audiences but he must have cut an unusual figure backstage: unlike pretty much everyone else on the 1980s hard rock scene, Bon Jovi never suffered from substance abuse issues. This has obviously worked in his favour: even aside from his unusual, maybe even unique career and marital stability, Bon Jovi at 58 looks like a man who spent his youth on yoga retreats as opposed to hanging out with Aerosmith. But how did he resist when he was so young?
“To be honest with you, I didn’t have the capacity to handle drugs. I didn’t find joy in it, and I didn’t need to bury myself emotionally, so what was the purpose?”
Was that because he had a reasonably stable childhood?
“Mine was as fucked up as anyone else’s, but not enough to start using drugs. I saw a lot of friends die or there was havoc in their personal lives, but I just didn’t have the need or desire,” he says.
When the band made their third album, Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi was “so over” being marketed as something he wasn’t that he took back control and worked on telling stories. The music was still rock, but the lyrics were about Tommy and the docks. The public loved it, and Slippery When Wet sold gazillions, its singles You Give Love a Bad Name, Wanted Dead or Alive, Never Say Goodbye and, of course, Livin’ on a Prayer becoming the inescapable soundtrack of the mid-80s. This was followed by New Jersey (Bad Medicine, I’ll Be There for You, Lay Your Hands on Me), and then the shift to the 90s, when Bon Jovi cut his hair and softened the rock a little (Keep the Faith, These Days) and became increasingly known for his ballads (In These Arms, Always). He sold more than 100m albums, at which point he moved into acting, which he was unexpectedly good at, in Moonlight and Valentino (hunky painter), Ally McBeal (hunky plumber) and Sex and the City (hunky photographer). Did he mind being the rent-a-hunk?
“Hell no – I never went to the Shakespeare Company!” he laughs. “Nobody had been able to do both [music and acting]: Madonna, Sting, Phil Collins – you tried and failed. I was so anxious to get work I said: ‘I will do the small role, the hunk, just to get enough of a résumé.’”
Yet he hardly needed the money. He talks about wanting to learn “humility” and (of course) “loving the craft”, all of which sounds like a euphemism for just needing a change. Producers told him that if he quit making music they would give him bigger parts but Hollywood’s appeal had already waned.
“I got the house in Malibu, saw the guys who are looking over your shoulder to see if they should go talk to someone else. That whole lifestyle was so vapid to me. I couldn’t wait to get away from it,” he says.
Critics sneer that Bon Jovi – the band and the man – have become too corporate, too cheesy. This isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s missing the point about why Bon Jovi – the man – is such an enduring phenomenon. He has always been a control freak, over himself and his band, as he admitted in his 2000 hit It’s My Life, and he knows what’s needed for his band to survive. His very un-rockstar-like stability has helped. He married his high school sweetheart, and has been with her more than 40 years. “She sat down next to me in history class, and that was it,” he says. His bandmates Tico Torres and David Bryan have also been with him since the beginning. Disruptions to plans upset him inordinately: he says the Buffalo debacle took him five years to get over. The departure of Sambora in 2013 upset him so much that he said he was plunged into “a dark place” for three years. Are he and Sambora in touch now?
“No. He chose to do what he did, but my heartbreak is I personally loved having him in the band – I loved my band. But there was not a chance in the world that we would discontinue because of his inability to go on,” he says, the sensitivity still audible.
At Bon Jovi’s suggestion, we talk again two days later after the inauguration. To many people’s surprise, instead of relying on the band’s back catalogue, he performed the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. “I never felt like I needed to sing a song more. It was cathartic,” he says. Initially I missed the usual Bon Jovi bombast, but as the sun rose behind him as he sang, there was no denying that the man knows what works in the moment. But the recording of my private performance of Livin’ on a Prayer? That will last for ever.
Bon Jovi’s album 2020 is out now. The new single, Story of Love, will be released on Friday 29 January. Visit bonjovi.com.