Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

Bon Jovi: 'We're not supposed to be here'


Jon Bon Jovi on 25 years in music

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Backstage at New York's Madison Square Garden, Jon Bon Jovi gathers his bandmates together and makes a speech.

"Twenty-five years ago, almost to the week," he begins, referring to the group's first show at the venue, as a support act for ZZ Top.

"We are not supposed to still be here."

It's one of several moments of black humour in the band's new documentary, When We Were Beautiful.

Zip forward 13 months from that concert - the last date of the band's Lost Highway tour - and Jon Bon Jovi is in London to meet the press.

Where, then, does he think the band are supposed to be at this stage?

"I don't know!" he confesses. "I never envisioned what the road should look like 25 years later.

Jon Bon Jovi
The group, formed in 1983, have played more than 2,600 gigs

"My vision only took me as far as the year 2000, when we were going to be living in space, and I'd be 38 years old.

"I thought life was going to end in 1999. To think that 10 years later, I'd be sitting here with another album is truly astounding."

The telling part of this answer is not the superstar's gratitude for his success - it's that, back in 1983, when he was working part time in a women's shoe shop, Jon Bon Jovi had a career plan that took him right up to millennium eve.

And it worked: Bon Jovi sold more than 100 million albums during those first 16 years, the sort of figure that the music industry is unlikely ever to see again.

'Happy and excited'

This is partly because the singer takes his job very seriously indeed.

Several times in his documentary, he calls himself the "CEO of a major corporation who has been running a brand for 25 years".

It helps that, like the blue-collar characters that populate his songs, Bon Jovi believes in the redemptive power of work.

It seemed overnight that the world changed
Jon Bon Jovi

When his friend and colleague Richie Sambora suffered the double blow of divorce and the death of his father, the singer's advice was to get back into the recording studio.

"It gave him solace to take his mind off the rest of the world, which was causing him pain," Bon Jovi explains. "He didn't really want or need to be alone at that time.

"Two years later, he doesn't even look like the same guy. I'm so happy and excited for him."

Those sessions produced 2007's Lost Highway - influenced by Nashville but never straying too far from the band's stadium rock comfort zone.

After touring that record, the group were supposed to take a break, releasing an updated greatest hits to coincide with the documentary - but events overtook them.

"It seemed overnight that the world changed," Bon Jovi explains. "Both the economic bubble burst and a new president was elected in America. It was a big, seismic shift.

Bon Jovi
The bands hits include Livin' On A Prayer, It's My Life and Always

"We started to focus not on writing a couple of pop songs for a greatest hits, but to really open our eyes and ears to what was going on around us, and this album fell into place.

"Then the problem was that we had this group of songs and we had to determine if they were going to be released in a timely manner or if we held on to them for the sake of our own sanity."

Sanity, it seems, was not an option.

The band released The Circle this week, and it is one of their loudest, most heartfelt albums in a long time.

Inspiration came directly from America's 24 hour news channels. Work For The Working Man is based on a news report about a small town in Ohio, whose local economy was destroyed when shipping company DHL closed its local depot.

"Everything was gone," Bon Jovi recalls. "Even the jobs that weren't directly related were indirectly related - the restaurants that supported the workers, you know?"

"Here you had a healthy workforce who wanted to work, but all the jobs were gone. That's been repeated time and time again in the States over the last year."

Rather than an angry lament, the song is a typically rousing Bon Jovi anthem. The chorus sees the singer "raise a hand" to offer assistance - while the verses portray a down-on-his-luck worker holding down two jobs, and making ends meet "by the grace of God".

White House walls

Surely, with 7.2 million US jobs wiped out by the current recession, it's disingenuous to suggest there is always light at the end of the tunnel?

"I try to see the sun shining through the clouds," the singer bats back.

"I'm a realist, but there's no need to be down if you've got your health and determination."

Bon Jovi
Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora were inducted into the Songwriters' Hall Of Fame this year

To prove the power of his message, the singer informs me that President Obama's chief adviser David Axelrod has hung the lyrics in his White House office.

"He's had them framed, before the album's even out, as an inspiration to the work they're doing every day," he says with an understandable degree of pride.

Bon Jovi sang at the President's inauguration in January - "it was a memory I'll keep forever" - after taking time out to join the campaign trail last year.

We speak on the day that Jimmy Carter claims racism lies behind the vitriolic backlash against Mr Obama's healthcare plans. I wonder if this most American of rock stars agrees?

"That's the America I know," he says with a weary sigh. "Yes, it is.

"There are a segment of people who can't get over the fact he is half African-American.

"And, yes, it upsets me. As a world citizen and a traveller, I was always much more open minded to other cultures and belief systems. Even socialised medicine.

"I thought that we made great progress with the election of this president. We've made some, not as much as I'd have liked to think."

It's a sombre note in an otherwise upbeat interview - but, like the plucky characters who populate his songs, Bon Jovi won't give up without a fight and some ol' time philosophising.

"There's no reason why you can't turn things around," he says. "All I try to do is pave my own road. If people find a message of optimism in these songs, then so be that.

"I'm not on the soapbox preaching, I'm just trying to make my world a little better."

The Circle and documentary film When We Were Beautiful are out now on Mercury Records. An accompanying book is also available via Harper Collins.

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