Jon Bon Jovi was doing dishes at one of his two Jersey-based Soul Kitchens, when Dorothea, his wife of more than 35 years, snapped a picture. Asking him for an Instagram caption, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer replied almost reflexively, “When you can’t do what you do, you do what you can.”
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The Red Bank and Toms River restaurants are outposts to battle food insecurity with dignity for people in the community who need a little help. To sit down in a restaurant for a proper meal of soup or salad, entree and dessert, it’s a flat $20 or sign up for any volunteer position; either way, you can’t tell who’s doing which.
In that moment, the ear of the man behind rock classics “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “You Give Love A Bad Name,” “It’s My Life,” “Bad Medicine” and “Runaway” recognized something more than a clever caption. With New York and New Jersey in full quarantine and the rest of the nation in varying levels of COVID-19 response, the songwriter/front man who’s been a rock star since his early 20s tumbled those words over and over.
Bon Jovi, the group, represented the lightly hedonistic hair metal inflection point in the ’80s. But the kid from the Jersey Shore is now 58. He’s marshalled the band which bears his name through multiple re-inventions, personnel changes and shifting trends. It’s not that he grew up, but more the world kept seeping in.
“Everyone’s living it,” explains Jersey’s second-favorite son. “Never have we all lived something together as one. When 9/11 happened, which pulled us together as a nation, if you’re living in Kansas, you feel bad for the people in New York City, the Tri-State area or who lost people they loved, but it doesn’t hit you where you live.
“This … this has.”
Tonight they’re shutting down the borders
And they boarded up the schools
Small towns are rolling up their sidewalks
One last paycheck coming through
I know you’re feeling kind of nervous,
We’re all a little bit confused
Nothing’s the same, this ain’t a game
We got to make it through …
***Round here we bend but don’t break
Down here we all understand
When you can’t do what you
You do what you can***
— “Do What You Can”
While the U2-leaning “Limitless” feels like the 21st century update on Tommy and Gina, the couple working hard to hold together in 1986’s thumping “Livin’ On A Prayer,” 2020 offers deeper, more socially resonant work than one might expect from the nexus of hard rock, glam metal and MTV-style pop. In some ways, it’s not what Bon Jovi was expecting, either.
While 2016’s This House Is Not For Sale was a deeply personal album, in part sorting out Richie Sambora’s departure, the delayed 2020 looks outward, absorbing the insanity of an unthinkable year to create a record of what was happening.
“I set out to make a topical record,” he marvels on the phone from the Jersey Shore. “The first song was ‘Blood In The Water,’ two years ago. The names have changed, but the stories, the realities? They’re strangely still the same.
“It starts with Stormy Daniels — the line ‘a storm is coming’ wasn’t an accident — the immigration with kids in cages and Russian hacks, which I promise we’re going to see it again now …
“At one point, you wonder. When I started, the story was interesting to me, because of what it was. But now, it’s not just a moment. I wondered when I wrote it, ‘Would it be dated?’ It’s not just Stormy Daniels or Michael Cohen; at one point, it’s Rudy Guiliani or (Attorney General William) Barr, the people who’ve said he’s not lying, or misleading us. You have to wonder.”
I’m no cable news reporter
They got nothing new to say
I’m the voice of the new order
The star of “Anarchy Today”
I’m the comment you keep reading
At the bottom of the page
I’m real power, I’m a patriot
I’m a Russian hack by trade
— “Blood In The Water”
“Blood” isn’t just the Tower of Babel the press and our targeted-by-self-identification social media have become. The fate and state of illegal aliens, living lives for decades in our nation, and the political tricks and pardons each get a verse. The chorus offers a flat-line reality check: “The devil’s greatest trick was just to say he wasn’t real.”
“Blood” is the tip of the assessing. “Lower The Flag” is a roll call of mass shootings. “Do What You Can” sifts through the realities of COVID’s impact — an Arkansas chicken plant getting workers protective gear, but only after 500 more got sick, Skyping proms, hospitals set up in Central Park’s East Meadow — while “Brothers In Arms” tackles the religious hypocrisy of racism that goes unspoken.
Bon Jovi? Really?
What’s as intriguing is the posture. Rather than tilting the narrative to one side or the other, the raspy-voiced frontman believed neutral was the most radical perspective he could write from.
“You know my positions. There’s no need to go there,” he says. “But with something like ‘Lower The Flag,’ there’s the reality, ‘But what if this happened to someone in your family?’
I don’t know where to tell you to view the un-spun truth. Either side (of the political aisle), the news, the internet? All they want is to drive you to their argument, keep us polarized and fearful.
“We’re politically divided without even understanding why, or what is driving the argument. We’re unable to have testing for people, to wear masks for the reasons around our health; that’s not what it’s about. So what I tried to do — I don’t take sides, I’m just the narrator. ‘Lower The Flag,’ ‘American Reckoning’ – I don’t take a side, I just keep presenting the facts.
“It’s like that old TV show Dragnet,” he says, before dropping his voice into a flat pulp fiction detective tone. “Just the facts ma’am.”
He laughs a little. Not gallows humor, nor irony — there’s a sadness dusting the punctuation.
There’s also an awareness rising that can’t be outrun or avoided with a few more decibels of reverb.
Working with frequent collaborator and Sheryl Crow/Van Halen/Stevie Nicks/Nelly Furtado producer John Shanks, 2020 has a tension to its tracks. With room for the instruments’ full sonic impact, guitars buzz and expand as Tico Torres’ drums snap, punch and break the beats with crisp authority.
Terse, a bit of the swagger expected from rock’s leading heartbreaker tempers arrangements designed to manifest and support the lyrical thrust. This isn’t an album fueled by hormones, but the horror of every single news cycle.
“I was watching what happened in Dayton, then I woke up and it had happened again in El Paso,” he explains of “Lower The Flag.” “It was becoming so commonplace, it’s not even a news cycle. It’s just another story. Only I wasn’t becoming numb to it — and it was affecting me. I remember thinking, ‘I gotta go sit down.’
“Two or three days later, I realized I needed a list of all of them. Because it wasn’t just Sandy Hook or Columbine, Las Vegas or that club in Orlando. And they were happening so often, we were starting to not even remember each of the shootings …”
His voice trails off.
Jon Bon Jovi might not be the person you’d come to for political reckoning. A kid with a quick smile, raised on the Jersey Shore, he was swallowed whole by rock ’n’ roll at a young age. By 20, he was a gopher at New York City’s in-demand Record Plant studio. He had a band playing the local bars where Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes could still be seen making the scene.
Like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, he was a working-class kid with a local hero notion of the American dream. He remembers, “The only thing on your mind was being in a rock ’n’ roll band … I was astute enough by 18 to realize the future wasn’t in playing other people’s music. It was an epiphany, and what Asbury Park gave me was this sense you had to be your own you, rather than being lumped in with Bruce and Southside.
“We all loved them to death. There were a lot of them, so you’d run into ’em. But my friends and I never dreamed of KISS or Led Zeppelin, because we saw people doing it. And that meant we could, too.”
If “Runaway” put the band that bore his name into play, Slippery When Wet made the Jersey boys superstars. While Motley Crue embodied the scuzzy sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll depravity, Bon Jovi were the naughty boys you could take home to mother. Big hair, lycra and flashpots were matched by denim, leather and a working-class sweat.
Never the same kind of aware as U2’s Bono or the Edge, he realizes that was “the furthest thing from my mind when I was looking out windows building houses, but we grew up in a different place and time. They had the Orangemen marches (in Northern Ireland) in July, and I had Ronald Reagan, who promised two cars in every garage. I grew up in a middle-class town of immigrants – Italian, Irish, Polish, German – where both parents worked, trying to build a better life.
“And maybe it was my guilty Catholic upbringing, but I was never part of that (metal/hard rock) scene in that time and place. I was aware of it, but at 20, I was at the Record Plant, exactly where I wanted to be.
“Those kids’d get off the buses, and I’d be walking up to the recording studio. Because I had a place to go, and they didn’t …”
The rest needn’t be said. Kids sliding into a rough life wasn’t as simple as bad parenting, and he knows it. Not quite “woke,” as a young rocker he recognized the gulch in not taking opportunities – and later the hysteria – for granted.
When Sam Kinison filmed his “Wild Thing” video with Jessica Hawn, a summit meeting for porn stars, strippers and every marquis hard rocker from Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to Billy Idol and Slash emerged. Bon Jovi, who opens the slip, was scarcely seen in the raucous off-camera romping. Though testosterone-positive and estrogen-inciting, that Catholic upbringing served a respect for others.
Looking back at the double entendres, the sex-baiting marketing and what fires young people rocking out, the man who married his high school sweetheart says, “When you’re a young, young artist and you get fooled by a record company to make a certain kind of video, you figure it out.”
“Runaway,” the first hit, wasn’t quite the celebration of girls gone wild and parental oppression suggested. Inspired by those kids without options in Times Square, filming provided a watershed moment of clarity.
“When the director puts his niece in the video, when that’s the deal, you get stuck in a tough place. But as you get success, you can change the dynamic. You have more control.”
That control means a lot of things. “We used to say until it has cellophane on it, (the record)’s not done,” and for 2020, that axiom absolutely came into play. Acknowledging that “this record was done, mixed and mastered,” the release found a new urgency after the death of George Floyd.
Already stalled for COVID and not fueled by profit, the songwriter needed to unpack how something as horrifying as Floyd’s life being brazenly taken in broad daylight in front of a crowd of people saying “help him” could happen.
It wasn’t a simple song to write, nor was it a moment of pure inspiration.
“When George Floyd’s friend – the basketball player Stephen Jackson – said on the ‘Today’ show with his last breaths he called out for his mother …”
The superstar’s voice drops in volume. “Here, this big strong man couldn’t fight back, hands cuffed behind his back … he knew he was dying, and he cried out … for his mother.
“I was crushed by it.”
Thirty-five years after giving love a bad name, Jon Bon Jovi turned to a different kind of love. One of reckoning, one where “American Reckoning” was more than an elegy to stand with “Say Their Name” and “Black Lives Matter” in the realm of rock music.
“I just wouldn’t let go. It was important to me to get it right; I want to tell the truth, I want these songs to live and witness. I’ve learned that it’s not done just because a song’s written … At this time in my life, I go back and rewrite, read what’s there, try to get even closer.”
That meant vetting the song with many people. His wife, Dorothea, told him the verses were good, but the chorus was crap. Torres and Shanks informed him “I Can’t Breathe” couldn’t be the title. Everett Bradley, a black man and longtime Bon Jovi percussionist “who’s not afraid to tell me the truth,” said there were too many “I can’t breathe” lines.
America’s on fire
There’s protests in the street
Her conscience has been looted
and her soul is under siege
Another mother’s crying as history repeats
I can’t breathe
By the time, JBJ played “Reckoning” for his friends Springsteen and Paul McCartney, he knew the song was as lean and powerful as possible. The two, while pals, are daunting in a songswap – even when you feel strongly about such personal commitment.
“They’re two of the greatest songwriters who’ve ever lived,” Bon Jovi offers, demonstrating the intimidation factor even for him. “They’re also friends, and we get together and play songs. We talk about a lot of things, but songs are a part of it. So, there I am …
“I was very proud of (‘American Reckoning’) and willing to stand in the line of fire. After all, I believed in the song and what it says. I never once pander or kowtow to any point of view, though there is a call to action.
“I only wanted to be the narrator, talking to my listener. Or talking to my children, because I’ll never know what it’s like to have ‘the talk’ with them about (what to do) if you’re pulled over. I’ll never be that parent.”
Is this a moment or a movement
Is this the tide or a flood
Is our American reckoning
Our story written in blood
Or in love
Or in peace
— “American Reckoning”
2020 also contains “Beautiful Drug” and “Story of Love,” bookends exploring the four stages of love defined by Greek philosophy and explored by noted Christian writer C.S. Lewis. While romantic love is certainly part of “Drug,” the themes spread into familial love, love for friends and unconditional love for the world. Simply written, it suggests — without telling — the solution might start in our own hearts.
Even the PTSD/military suicide closing track “Unbroken,” originally written for the documentary To Be Of Service, considers how much veterans give, how strong their commitment to society is and how deeply their traumas impact them. Line after line, he builds their lives, then line by line erodes their solidity with the terrors they face.
Still, “Unbroken” offers love — the doc also measures the impact of service animals instead of Klonopin for the triggers — again as the answer. Written as a prayer, it’s a first-person “Sam Stone” with a potentially better outcome.
“In talking to some of the soldiers, they’d all do it again,” Bon Jovi marvels. “They believe either you’re broken, or you’re put back together. When they take off that uniform, something they’re so identified by and identify with, Superman’s cape is gone. And they’ve got PTSD, which is hard to explain.
“But give them a service dog, they understand each other.”
“Once we were boys and we were strangers
Now we’re brothers and we’re men
Someday you’ll ask me was it worth it
To be of service in the end
Well the blessing and the curse is
Yeah, I’d do it all again …”
Photo Credit: Ash Kelleher