Jon Bon Jovi talks about Sambora, songwriting and living the dream

By Brian T. Atkinson / Source: Statesman.com

Bon Jovi’s “What About Now” offers a dozen trademark rock anthems both pointed (“Because We Can”) and pensive (“The Fighter”). The New Jersey quartet — minus lead guitarist Richie Sambora, who recently exited the tour — supports the new collection Wednesday at the Erwin Center.

“I think Richie’s doing all right, (but) I haven’t spoken to him,” lead singer Jon Bon Jovi says (Phil X has replaced Sambora for the rest of the tour). “We were surprised. It was 3:30 on show day on Tuesday and we got a phone call that he wouldn’t be there. It’s a personal matter.

“Don’t believe what you read on TMZ because it’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

American-Statesman: Explain how ‘What About Now’ took shape.

Jon Bon Jovi: I consider this record a snapshot. I started the writing process while Richie was doing his solo record (2012’s “The Aftermath of the Lowdown”) and the guys were taking some time off. It was a post-first term Obama America (story) compounded by what was going on in our collective lives. I do believe it captures that moment in time.

Tell the story behind writing ‘Because We Can.’

It was one of the last (written), one of the socially conscious songs. I want to make a point to say that the songs weren’t political. I was aware of what I’d witnessed between the consolidation of corporate America or the unemployment rate or what was going on in the forthcoming election, but toward the end of the process and Bon Jovi being what it is — an optimistic songwriting partnership — I felt like the song could be utilized in a way that could be uplifting.

Optimism seems fairly essential in your lyrics.

I think it is to my life. I’ve always been that kind of guy, but there’s realism in the optimism. It’s not unicorns and rainbows. Read the lyrics to “What’s Left of Me”: “For 30-odd years, I was a newspaper man.” The paper lets him go. The song “I’m with You” is saying, “I understand what’s going on out there,” because I actually do. The Soul Kitchen and all the things I’m very actively involved in are all on the ground level. “What About Now,” the album’s title track, is a call to action.

You’ve said you won’t make the stage a political platform. Why not?

Republicans buy records, too (laughs). I have no ill will to people of opposing political positions. I’m always open-minded to listening and hopefully learning. Our governor in New Jersey (Chris Christie) is a great example of someone who turned me 180 degrees. I absolutely support the actions of our governor and people say, “You’re a staunch Democrat.” I go, “No, I’m just really a concerned guy like you.” If I have a different political opinion I’ll voice it, but not from the stage.

Should all songwriters be socially conscious?

No. Absolutely not. “Land of 1,000 Dances” was not. “Twist and Shout” was not. “She Loves You.” Absolutely not. You define how much of that voice you want in your music. I wouldn’t want to be rewriting “You Give Love a Bad Name” 27 years later because it was a No. 1 single. It wouldn’t ring true, but at the time we wrote it and I was 25 years old and you’re living the dream of being in a rock band, it made a lot of sense to me to write it.

What elements make a great song, then?

Let’s underline “Twist and Shout.” What’s more important to pop culture, that or what you think is one of the most important songs of the 20th century? I happen to think that “Blowin’ in the Wind” is Mount Rushmore. It’s heaven and the stars combined. Bob Dylan should be celebrated everywhere he goes like we celebrate presidents and kings, but “Twist and Shout” has it’s place, I gotta say.

What other songwriters do you draw from?

It’s a wide array. I just downloaded (David) Bowie’s record to listen to that. I just bought a Bruno Mars record before that. Influences? (Tom) Waits. (Leonard) Cohen. They’re huge lyrical influences. For rock bands, I look to the Stones, who at least show me where the bar is so you know how far and how high I gotta jump.

You know, a 25-year-old probably wouldn’t have written ‘The Fighter.’

Thanks. My kids started talking about their dad and really wanted to know more about who I am. They have this skewed notion that I’m that guy they hear on records and hear parents of their friends talk about. We had to have a long conversation in the last year that that’s just what they see. It’s not anything to do with who I am. One day I just sat down and I wrote that song as though it were a letter to the kids.

It’s the only solo writing credit on the new album.

It is. Everything on these records tends to turn into collaborations. I’m good at both and I’ve had hits both ways, (but) this is a “we” band not a “me” band.

Tell the story behind writing ‘Livin’ on a Prayer.’

With the third record (“Slippery When Wet”), I thought we should be talking about stories, even if they were fictional. It was Richie and me and a guy named Desmond Child who co-wrote that song. Everybody brought something unique to that picture, but as we completed it, I remember Richie and me jumping in a cab and my saying, “I don’t think it’s very good. We should give it to this movie soundtrack” that was looking for songs. His head practically just fell off his shoulders. He said, “You’re an idiot! This song’s a monster.” I’m glad I listened to him.

How does that album hold up more than a quarter-century later?

It holds up very, very well. I still have no problem (playing) “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Those songs are part of the patchwork of American pop culture at this point. What is it, 27, 28 years later? I’m knocking on wood every day. I still have No. 1 albums and the biggest tour on the road. I’ve been blessed.