Bon Jovi: On Music ... and Being "Elvis Cruise"
The problem with Bon Jovi is that they make the "art" of creating hit records look too damn easy. After all, the group took a musical hiatus for over four years, over which time their brand of melodic hard rock became as rare as a New York Giant first down in Super Bowl XXXV. Then, amidst all the bubblegum teen pop and rap/metal rock fury came Bon Jovi's new album, Crush, with their true-to-classic-form lead single, "It's My Life" and the Top 40-ready ballad, "Thank You For Loving Me." The end-result: It's like they never left.
And in Jon Bon Jovi's eyes, they didn't: "I'm grateful for all the support on the record, but I don't know if I'm surprised about its success, because we're so na´ve," he says. "We didn't think being out of the market [for so long] meant anything. We didn't realize that rock careers are measured in dog years and [not putting out a record in] five years is a lifetime in rock. But it's not like we weren't doing anything in the interim. After we toured in '95 and '96, we did solo records and I had a movie profile. So it was strange when people said we've been gone so long."
So much for the perception that the band was in creative hibernation. "Here's the story," Bon Jovi says. "First off, we didn't break up. In 1995, we released These Days and a greatest hits record that, combined, did 20 million in sales worldwide. It was a glorious year, but we had nothing left to say lyrically [as a band] after that. So [guitarist] Richie Sambora and I did our solo records and I did a bunch of movies from '96 to '98. At that point, we decided to return to the studio. By September of '98, I had written 30 songs. We were ready to go. Then Universal bought Polygram, which threw a wrench into the works. We decided to be cautious and wait to see where we'd fit in. Once the label transition was done [and they were confident that they'd be "a mantelpiece trophy" act for Island Def Jam Music Group], producer Bruce Fairbairn passed away, so we had to find another producer, which delayed the record even more."
From Curves To Fastballs
Despite what seems like a hugely different and foreign musical climate since their last recording, Bon Jovi felt no inclination to jump on the latest trend bandwagon for Crush. "If there is anything we've learned over the years, it's that we are what we are," he states bluntly.
"We first learned after Slippery When Wet came out and we tried not to duplicate that on the following albums. Although they were all successful, none of them were anywhere near [as successful]." Bon Jovi career synopsis, take two: "Slippery When Wet was a phenomenon, a miracle," he states. "We did New Jersey as a follow-up, then diversified for the '90s. We did our socially conscious record, Keep The Faith. Then came These Days, which I thought was upbeat, but when I look at it now, it was very dark lyrically. Destination Anywhere was purposely introspective, our 'art' record. We didn't even want [to put out a] single. "Our approach with this record, right from jump street, was to go back to the basics of upbeat, optimistic rock. The initial title was 'Fastball' because everything was going right down the middle. This is what stadium rock is supposed to sound like." In fact, the delay in recording proved to be beneficial: "On top of the 30 songs I wrote prior to [the label merger], I wrote 30 more songs with Richie [during the delay]. We had plenty of time to develop the songs."
Those tunes melded the band's classic sound with Bon Jovi's early musical influences. There are Tom Petty-ish influences in "Two Story Town" and "Mystery Train" as well as Bowie/Mott The Hoople glam-pop on "Save The World" and "Captain Crash & The Beauty Queen From Mars." "I'm a child of the mid-'70s," he says. "That's when I when found rock. I grew up on Bowie and Mott The Hoople, as well as a lot of Springsteen, Petty, Alice Cooper and Aerosmith. I go back to those classic records, so it's [inevitable that they'd] come up on my new stuff." Some relatively new influences found their way on the record, too. "Although I obviously love the Beatles, their music was never on the front burner of my influences," Bon Jovi says. "I was always more into the gritty '70s rock stuff, but over time [The Beatles'] influence has come out, as it did in 'Say It Ain't So.' It started as a mid-tempo rock song with a witty, Sheryl Crow-ish lyric. But when I first played it for the band, it sounded too much like a pop single and they didn't want to hear it. Fortunately, [new co-producer] Luke Ebbin turned it around to where it was based around a big guitar lick, so we could approach it as a two-guitar rock band. It was a different approach that gave the song a new life."
Bon Jovi also lauds Ebbin for the tasteful orchestration on the current single, "Thank You." "In the past, we used David Campbell to orchestrate our rock songs. We'd just send him tapes and they'd come back great. We did that with 'Thank You,' too, but Luke said, 'Give me a chance to redo this; I'll make it even better.' Having him do that would be a pretty expensive proposition--we'd be hiring an orchestra for unproven guy-but we decided to let him [do] both 'Thank You' and 'Next 100 Years.' He did a great job. You've got to have faith in the people you work with and we certainly believe in Luke's ability."
Nowadays, Bon Jovi has no desire to maximize sales by releasing a lot more singles. "After 'Thank You' runs its course, [the next single] will either be 'Just Older' or 'One Wild Night' and that's it," he says. "I don't want to whore the record out. I just want to do the right thing and move on. The big question is which way to go. We just did a single mix on 'Just Older,' but 'One Wild Night' would be better for the summer. We just added juice to '...Wild Night.' Luke, Richie and [songwriter] Desmond Child just beat the hell out of it. They put in a bunch of loops, noises and horns. It sounded great over the phone, so I encouraged them to keep beating on it."
Cruise and Costello
Bon Jovi isn't sitting on pins and needles waiting to see how well "Thank You" and the next single, whatever it might be, perform. In fact, he's currently in Mexico, on the set of his next film, which he describes as "a cowboy movie where vampires are the bad guys."
Ironically, Jon Bon Jovi, the actor, has seen his reputation outpace the success of his films. He has appeared mainly in small movies, with his biggest roles so far being in Pay It Forward and U-571. The critical raves he has garnered are even more impressive, considering the film community's inclination to snub rockers who launch acting careers. Yet Bon Jovi takes it all with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of irony. "I'm the Tom Cruise of rock, where critics don't like our records, but they're commercially successful," he says. "Yet I'm like the Elvis Costello of movies, where critics have been very kind, but my movies haven't had much success."
One aspect of his film work that has been commercially successful is soundtrack music, a la Young Guns. "We're capable of doing more soundtrack work," he says. "This is an interesting medium. When they hand you a script, the story for the song is right there. It's really pretty easy to do."
But acting isn't about money. "I'd make more in one night [on the road] than I do in three months on this movie, so money is not my motivation," he says. "It's more about being an artist and doing things I want to do. Now it's an obsession and I want to do it all the time."
From here on out, Jon Bon Jovi has to satiate two appealing--and competing--interests, both of which he intends to satisfy. "It's an interesting balance," he admits. "I would've made a big mistake if I was in this [situation] back in the '80s. I would've toured myself into the ground and brought a big wheelbarrow to fill up with money. But I don't want a wheelbarrow now. We're not about 'keeping up with the Joneses' anymore.
"In fact, we turned down a spot at the Super Bowl pre-game show," he adds. "After this movie we'll do a very succinct tour and regardless of the album's eventual success, there will be no more dates after that. We'll end it on June 27, when we'll play at Giants Stadium again. That's where we want the tour to end-in New Jersey."
by Jeff Silberman