UNCASVILLE, Conn. - On a new song called What's Left of Me,
one of the world's biggest rock stars channels the voices of a farmer, a
factory worker, a military veteran, even an unsuccessful musician -
ordinary folks, all struggling to adapt to changing circumstances in our
The star, in case you're wondering, is Jon Bon Jovi; the track is from his band's 12th studio album, What About Now,
out March 12. Like many of Bon Jovi's previous hits, it has a do-or-die
spirit that evokes both frustration and invincibility, urging us to
strive hard and dream big. But for the singer/songwriter, there's also a
topicality that's tythpical of the album - "a strong social overview,"
as he puts it.
It's late afternoon, and Bon Jovi and his
bandmates are taking a rehearsal break days before launching the group's
Because We Can world tour (named for Now's driving first single)
at the Mohegan Sun resort and casino. Lounging on a sofa in his
dressing room, Bon Jovi seems relaxed and fit. He turns 51 on Saturday,
but he still has the movie-star smile and luxuriant hair that made him
one of rock's reigning sex symbols in the '80s.
Granted, the locks
are shorter and more tastefully layered than they were back in the day,
befitting a star whose image has evolved in ways that few who once
dismissed his group as a "hair band" would ever have predicted - and not
just in the musical arena. In recent years, Bon Jovi has drawn
attention for his political and social activism, campaigning for
Democratic presidential contenders dating back to Al Gore and, in 2006,
starting the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, aimed at helping families and
people who face economic hardship.
In 2010, President Obama
appointed the singer to the White House Council for Community Solutions,
where his focus is on helping underprivileged young people find jobs.
More recently, as one of New Jersey's most famous sons, Bon Jovi played a
very public role in the recovery following Hurricane Sandy, touring the
damage and performing at a pair of high-profile, all-star benefit
concerts that raised a combined $74.5 million for relief efforts.
are signs that the old stigmas still chafe, though. When references are
made to the social consciousness of fellow New Jerseyan Bruce
Springsteen and U2's Bono - two icons to whom Bon Jovi also has been
compared musically, and not always in ways that flatter him - he asks,
"What have they done?"
The question seems like a joke, but Bon Jovi isn't laughing, or smiling. "I'm not being facetious. Really, what have they done?"
own campaigning on behalf of Obama is mentioned, along with the support
that the recent MusiCares Person of the Year has given, through benefit
concerts and personal contributions, to everyone from Amnesty
International to local charities. Bono's philanthropic projects are
cited, particularly his work on behalf of international debt relief and
AIDS awareness, through which he has reached out to a diverse assortment
of politicians and world leaders.
Bon Jovi pauses, weighing his
response. "There are those who advocate, and those who do," he says.
"I'm not trying to slight my peers, but there is a difference between
using a soapbox and actually getting your hands dirty. I've spent not
only years and millions of dollars but hours and hours and hours of my
time doing what I do, and that's very different from what anyone else is
He points to his foundation's Soul Kitchen, a non-profit
community restaurant in Red Bank, N.J., where those who can't afford to
pay for meals volunteer to prepare and serve food, set and bus tables or
wash dishes, as Bon Jovi has done himself. "I had to stop washing the
dishes after a while - not because I didn't really, truly get joy from
standing in the back participating, but because we realized that I was
taking a job away from a person who could find dignity in that, who
needed that sense of empowerment."
Sister Mary Scullion, a
Philadelphia-based nun who has earned wide praise for her work combating
homelessness, another key concern for Bon Jovi, is a board member, and
describes him as "an extraordinary leader and person who works as hard
as any of us. It's not just about writing a check with him; he helps us
strategize and can leverage his leadership by getting other corporations
to bring attention to the plight of people in need."
contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis notes that there has always been
"a strong aspirational element in Bon Jovi's music, and now that's being
manifested in other areas. His band has earned longevity, and some
better reviews, and there's a sense that he also wants to establish
himself as someone taken more seriously outside of music."
Such ambitions seem to inform the material on Now,
for which Bon Jovi teamed with frequent collaborators such as band
guitarist Richie Sambora and musician/composer Billy Falcon, as well as
uber-producer John Shanks, who worked with the group on 2005's Have A Nice Day.
There are the usual arena-ready anthems, with crowd-pleasing platitudes
such as "You want to start a fire, it only takes a spark" (from the
title track), or "There's devils in heaven, there's angels in hell" (That's What the Water Made Me).
Bon Jovi maintains that the songs were specifically influenced by
events that transpired as he was writing them, between December 2011 and
last July. "We were heading into the end of Obama's first term, and
America was in recovery but still teetering. Europe was teetering, too;
austerity plans were or weren't going to take effect. So it's sort of a
snapshot of that period, though I hope it will also be timeless."
had finished writing before Sandy rolled in last October. "I was in
London when it hit, and I hadn't heeded the warnings," he admits. His
Jersey home wasn't affected, but his downtown Manhattan residence lost
water and power, requiring family members to relocate to a hotel. "The
tragedy some of our neighbors suffered was unbelievable, but, as always,
people came together in a real New York/New Jersey way - a way that's
typical of Americans, too."
Despite his history of endorsing
Democrats, Bon Jovi has only kind words for his state's Republican
governor, Chris Christie, after watching him work closely with Obama in
Sandy's wake. "I have forever changed my opinion of our governor,
because his approach was totally non-partisan. He wasn't concerned about
politics; he was just protective of the people of our state, trying to
do as much good as possible."
In fact, like Bono (if he'll pardon
another comparison), who has appealed to some notably conservative
voices in his humanitarian efforts, Bon Jovi doesn't insist on shared
ideology in enlisting, or providing, support. He has contributed money
to a Republican congressman from Ohio, Jim Renacci, whom he describes as
"like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He could be
making a lot more money in the private sector, but he wanted to go to
D.C. to right things that he thinks are wrong, and God bless him for
For all his engagement, though, Bon Jovi insists that he
harbors no political ambitions himself ("That would be a thankless,
miserable job") and that he'll never make the concert stage a platform
for his views ("That's not the time or the place to talk about things
What fans can expect from the Because We Can tour is
"a big rock show, with a catalog of music you're sure to know. Chances
are your mom knows the songs, and your kids do, too. We've been doing
this for 30 years now, and I feel flattered and humbled by that."
Indeed, while Bon Jovi doesn't occupy the same pop stratosphere that it ascended to after 1986's Slippery When Wet,
which according to Recording Industry Association of America figures
has sold 12 million copies, the group remains a huge concert draw. And
the past two Bon Jovi albums, 2007's Lost Highway and 2009's The Circle,
respectively surpassed platinum and gold status -- nothing to sneeze at
for a band of their vintage in an era of declining sales.
attributes the group's endurance in part "to the fact that we all have
individual outlets. I just did a solo album (2012's Aftermath of the Lowdown)
and tour, which were very enriching." Drummer Tico Torres paints, and
keyboardist David Bryan has forged a career as a musical theater
composer: He won two Tony Awards in 2010 for his songs and
orchestrations for the Broadway hit Memphis, and is now working with Memphis collaborator Joe DiPietro on a show about the Brill Building songwriters of the early '60s, Chasing the Song, for which he has written 25 original tunes.
Bon Jovi himself hasn't released a solo album since 1997's Destination Anywhere, though he did earn a Golden Globe nomination this year for Not Running Anymore, recorded for the film Stand Up Guys.
But the group's face and voice seems less compelled to venture out on
his own, reasoning that its collective efforts "are at least as much my
solo projects as they are band records."
He pauses again, perhaps
not wanting to sound immodest. "Obviously, everyone contributes to what
we do," Bon Jovi says. "And we all feel great about where we're at, and
where we've been. And where we're going. We give thanks - we really do."