An Interview with Jon Bon Jovi: Opposite Methods Result In Hit Songs

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Songwriting partnerships are a lot like love; sometimes opposites attract. Such is the case with hit songwriters Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. Though each tunesmith has a somewhat different approach to the craft of songwriting, once they sit down together to write, no one can deny their power to churn out the hits. “You Give Love A Bad Name,” “Livin’ On A Prayer,” and “Bad Medicine” are just a few of the songs that have catapulted Bon Jovi to the multi-platinum stratosphere. Consequently, other pop/rock luminaries such as Cher, Paul Young, Loverboy, Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent have tapped into the Bon Jovi/Sambora muse for hit tunes.

Both men say they decided early that songwriting would play an important role in their musical careers. “I was in cover bands until I was 18 years old,” Jon recalls settling onto the sofa in his dressing room backstage before a Nashville concert. “Right around my eighteenth birthday I realized it was a dead end street and I joined as the singer in another guy’s band that was playing all originals, but nonetheless I was learning a whole new avenue from these people.”

Bon Jovi put what he learned performing other people’s original material to use and soon began writing and recording demos of his own tunes. A song he wrote titled “Runaway” became a part of a local radio compilation album, and became a hit, garnering airplay in Detroit, Denver, Tampa, Minneapolis and New York in addition to the young artist’s native New Jersey.

Jon then hand-picked the musicians for his band – drummer Tico Torres, bassist Alec John Such, keyboardist David Bryan and guitarist Richie Sambora. At the time Sambora was a musician and entrepreneur with his own group, Message, and his own label, Dream Disc Records.

Like Jon, Richie felt songwriting was an integral part of his career as a musician. “I started writing as soon as I could play,” Richie says recalling his songwriting roots. “I started to come into my head for songs. Sometimes I think you open yourself up and it just comes through you. Maybe it’s God, maybe your experiences, but I guess eventually it’s God.”

“The first memory I ever had in my life was my Dad coming home with a little victrola and two singles. I was about six years old. He said ‘son, I want to give you this, this is your music. It’s your own.’ It was my first possession. It was “Love Me Do” on Veejay Records by the Beatles and “I Should Have Known Better” on Capitol. I was the coolest kid on the block cause I had my own music. And it’s really funny because I’m 30 now and today I listen to those records as a producer and songwriter and I still get inspired and still find more in them. Even though it was a simple four-track recording, their writing and stuff has a lot of depth; twenty four years of depth actually because I still listen to those records and it still drives me and inspires me to write more.”

After Richie joined the band Jon asked if he wrote and when Sambora replied in the affirmative the creative wheels were set in motion.

Soon the two realized how effectively they worked together and the hits began flowing. “The best collaborators are people that can pick up on somebody’s better qualities and use that to his or her advantage,” Jon says.

“There’s an understanding of the objective and the goal,” Richie adds. “That’s important. Also, a respect and a non-egotistical look at your own material.”

Jon says people who watch them are sometimes surprised at the flow between them when they write. They met Holly Knight in a Los Angeles restaurant and the three began a conversation that led to the writing of “Stick To Your Guns,” one of the cuts on the New Jersey LP.

“The title came from Holly. It was something her mother used to tell her,” Jon says. “I said ‘stick to your guns’ is right up my alley.”

Jon compares the way he and Richie wrote that song to the workings of a fax machine. They just hummed along with the lyrics coming so quickly they felt as if they were writing forward and backwards on the lines.

“It was just so simple to write and Holly just sat there,” Jon recalls. “She told me later ‘I was just in a state of shock. I had no idea you guys read each other’s minds. You knew exactly what you were doing and you just went boom, boom, boom.”

Though Sambora and Bon Jovi are undoubtedly on the same creative wavelength when they write together, in talking to the two writers it’s obvious their approach to their craft is somewhat different. While they both admit to having very little time on tour to write, Richie says he tries to write a little everyday. He makes notes, records riffs, and catalogs every idea, line and melody he comes up with. When he and Jon sit down to write he has a backlog of ideas to draw from.

On the other hand, due to the demands of being the group’s lead vocalist and front man, Jon finds little time to write on the road and relies mostly on his memory to keep track of the inspirations that hit him while on tour.

“Jon’s a little different from me,” Richie says. “I write all the time, if it’s just riffs, titles or a verse here or a chorus there. I try to write on a daily basis. Writing is just like anything else you get good at it by practice.”

Jon admits, it’s hard to find time to write on the road. Does he get any writing done on tour? “Very Rarely,” he comments.

I started scribbling down a couple of titles which may be used. Things I scribbled down on the last tout, we used quite a few of them. But we’re not really sitting down saying ‘okay, let’s start writing for the next album.’ My day is too eaten up by what’s going on with the tour.”

However, when the tour is over Jon and Richie get together and write incessantly until they’ve got enough to fill several albums, then they narrow it down to the tunes for their next project. “For the New Jersey album, everyday Richie would come over to my house in the afternoon and I’d have to make him something to eat and then he’d write ,” Jon says. “On the Slippery album, I’d go to his mother’s which was where he was living at the time, and we’d lock ourselves in a room for about six or eight hours a day at least five days a week, maybe more and write.

And we’d come out of there with a good part of a song a day, sometimes two songs a day. “Wanted Dead or Alive” and another song were written in a day. “Blood on Blood” was written in a day and then there’s the bitches, “Prayer” and “Bad Medicine” took a while. Those we’d rewrite, we’d fix.”

Jon and Richie attribute their success to writing people-oriented songs that strike a nerve. Their songs are slices of life, they’ve lived, and other people can relate to their experiences. Since singing with PolyGram in 1983 the group has released four albums – Bon Jovi , 7800 Fahrenheit, Slippery When Wet, and New Jersey. At press time Slippery had sold 12 million copies and New Jersey had sold 5.4 million. They’ve also made history by being the first U.S. band to have their music distributed in the Soviet Union.

“With the Fahrenheit album I was a novice in the field,” Jon states. “The first album takes your whole life to write. The second album you’ve got six weeks. I read in a magazine how artists X,Y, and Z would shelter their tapes, lock them up in a closet so no one could hear them. So I said ‘that’s what you’re supposed to do.’ I never played the second album for anyone until it was done. Big mistake.”

Many of Bon Jovi’s songs are autobiographical tunes populated with characters from Jon’s New Jersey upbringing, such as “Blood on Blood,” a tune on the current album that chronicles his friendship with childhood pals, Danny and Bobby. “Living on a Prayer” was also written about friends of Jon’s.

“‘Prayer’ is about a guy and his wife who got married as soon as they got out of high school,” Jon relates. “I remember getting out of school that summer and going to a wedding and losing my mind because I was gonna be a rock star and he was gonna be on the New York Yankees. He never even played a season. He’s got two beautiful kids now and a nice job, but the glove hangs in the closet with those pinstripes forever.”

When asked if his spring marriage to his high school sweetheart would impact his writing, he replied, “I’m sure it will. I don’t think I’m going to do Tunnel of Love next year,” he said referring to Bruce Springsteen’s post-marital disc. “It will have to have some influence on me because ‘Sin’ was my diary. It was me.” [‘Sin’ refers to the song “Living In Sin” on New Jersey].

A few of Jon and Richie’s songs, such as “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Stick To Your Guns,” have western themes and phrases. When asked why a couple of guys from New Jersey sometimes write cowboy songs, Jon smiles and admits he’s a big Clint Eastwood fan and also likes country music. “I love Hank Williams and Willie Nelson,” he says. “I love country music. Country music has the best lyrics. Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” I’ve worn that tape out I’ve played it so many times.”

Jon says he likes “Wanted Dead or Alive” because he sees himself as a modern day cowboy. “Take Nashville for example, we get in at 5 PM, I do a sound check, sing a couple of Elvis songs, now I’m doing an interview. I’ve got to meet contest winners and all this kind of thing. I’m busier than hell between now and the time I hit the stage. I hit the stage, I’m off the stage. I take a shower, get in the van, and I’m gone. It’s like riding into town, robbing the bank, drinking the booze, stealing the women, and leaving before the sheriff gets here. It’s really what I do for a living. I’m a cowboy.”

Richie says that song was carefully constructed to give the listener the feeling of the old west and being a cowboy.

“At the end of every song there is one emotion that you should feel. Rock & roll especially is more an emotion than a form of music. When I write I see a picture. With a song like “Wanted Dead or Alive” when you hear the intro, the wind comes in and you get cold and all of a sudden you feel the wind chimes, that’s cohesive. You see images of a cowboy hat on the video and it all comes together.

“You’re seeing it through sound just like in the movies. There is a sound for fear, a sound for eeriness, a sound that makes you feel cold. All those things are important. They create the picture. Good music creates a picture. The cohesiveness of a song and production and lyrics is what makes a song good in my opinion.”

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