Sometimes it takes an artist to reflect an event back at us, so we can truly see and feel it. It could be a photo taken by a journalist or a witness, like the Falling Man from 9/11. Or it could be a film, like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, which brought home the reality left in Katrina’s wake. This year, Jon Bon Jovi’s trying to show us who we are with his new album 2020, which tackles the pandemic, political divisiveness, and police violence, among other fractures in the current American landscape. It’s his attempt to, as he puts it, “bear witness to history.”
This is Bon Jovi’s second record since longtime writing partner and guitarist Richie Sambora abruptly left the band during a world tour back in 2013, amid some personal challenges and family struggles. He talks about 2020 as his first time stepping out from behind the rock star person, and it’s a more personal, less glam record than we’ve heard from him before.
But this is still Jon Bon Jovi: 2020 opens strong (first words: “Wake up!”) and grabs you immediately with its straightforward pop-rock clarity. The album is unusual and maybe necessary and inspiring—it became a kind of personal musical life raft this summer during a difficult stretch for my family. When I watched Jon perform ‘Do What You Can’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ for a benefit he organized for first responders and front-line workers in his home state of New Jersey this summer, it felt as if Bon Jovi could connect the dots between the different voices struggling to be heard in America, and help lead by example through this tumultuous time.
Bon Jovi has also put his money where there were suddenly more mouths to feed than ever and fewer hands to do the work. Since March, both he and his wife could be found most days at the two community restaurants and massive food bank supported by his foundation near his homes in hard-hit New Jersey and Long Island. During the unending months of lockdown, he helped support thousands who needed it, and now he’s delivered a credible soundtrack of American life this year. GQ spoke to Bon Jovi about 2020 and 2020.
GQ: What was the process for this record, now that you’re calling all the shots?
Jon Bon Jovi: Well, I turned the record in and then Covid happened and shut the world down. So I knew that if I was gonna have a topical record in 2020, I better write a Covid song. That’s ‘Do What you Can.’
I was inspired by the health care workers, the students who sacrificed, the grocery store clerk who became an essential worker, the caregiver, the unsung heroes who stepped up to help their neighbors and those who simply wore a mask, not because it was a political tool but because it was a sign of respect for their fellow man.
Then of course the George Floyd incident hit, BLM, so then I sat down to write ‘American Reckoning’ and, finally, at that time I said Amen, the album is now complete. I took the two, let’s call them love songs, off the record and put on ‘Do What You Can’ and ‘American Reckoning’ and I said now there is my 2020.
You say that as if it’s easy to write pop songs about a pandemic and systemic racism and police violence.
I think experience has probably given me that ability, to be honest. Now I find that I have nothing left to really prove, and I have nothing to hide. And the world is in such a place that I felt that I could bear witness to history, as long as I was willing to be that witness. I am but a witness to history.
The events I touched on in 2020 touched me. Topics such as veterans dealing with PTSD, gun control, inequality, racial injustice, and many others have an unbiased seat at this table. I didn't take sides on any of these important issues. I just reported on them factually. That was my technique throughout the process. Make it very obvious what the song is about and where I stand, but don't wave a finger, don't be accusatory, that was what I set out to do.
Truthfully, I'm at a point in my career where I know what I do for a living but it doesn't define me; it’s just what I do.
Do what you can. So, what does define you, as a man?
Well, being a father, being a philanthropist. Being the guy that was working in the food bank today and needs a shower desperately and probably should see a doctor for the fuckin hernia that I’m sure I have [laughs].
The model at my restaurants, JBJ Soul Kitchen, is that those in need volunteer for their meals and earn a certificate that will feed up to four family members. Due to the pandemic, we couldn't have any volunteers work. But we still had mouths to feed. So Dorothea and I worked five days a week for two months before we went to Long Island and opened a food bank that fed 6,000 people a month there.
From May through the summer, we worked there every day we were open. We’ve been working since the pandemic began, whether it was at the Soul Kitchen or at the foodbank here on Long Island, giving the food to seven pantries that myself and our foundation have been funding.
When you consider the people who are hungry, they dont give a shit that I play music [laughs]; they’re grateful that I'm the guy that’s giving them the palette of food every week. They never ask me about a record. They ask me about, you know, “Is the egg noodles coming next week?” “Are we getting more fruit?” And that’s what I did this morning, from about seven o’clock today till about noon.
The lyrics include what seems like fairly religious imagery: “On a night like this, one prayer, one wish,” “Is there something more? There is an open door, What are you waiting for?” Was that intentional or connected to all this somehow?
I came through that very Catholic upbringing. I went in and out of Catholic school a couple times and did have a problem with what had become the organized Catholic church, the stuff with the priests and altar boys. Not personally mind you. It was from the outside looking in, I wasn’t touched by it. We were removed from it.
Eventually I found spirituality. And now I think that I revert back to, whether it’s just prayer and my connection, for a yearning for that kind of simpler time of my youth? But I do it more now than I ever did. I look toward some kind of higher power.
Someone else I interviewed recently told me he’d finally started trying to “pray into himself.”
Yeah, I think that’s right. You know, shine a light within and that will shine outwardly and enlighten your actions and how you reach the world around you.
Like the line “shine a light” in “American Reckoning.” Who is the record for?
Me! [laughs] For me. I did this record to get back to the reason why I wanted to do it again. I’d been going through a tough period. In light of what happened with Richie and his kids, his leaving us like that, and not staying to talk. It was very hard for all of us. And it took its toll on me.
The band is a family inasmuch as we had grown up together, done everything together, we had ups and downs, but we never deserted the ship. Whether it was work, or the death of parents or divorces or fame or confusion. We had alcoholism, it got to the point where we had to make decisions that weren’t in the interests of the band, that was for sure.
And so anyhow we came through it. And This House Is Not for Sale [the first release after Sambora left the band] was a kind of waving my fists in the air, saying “I refuse to let my house crumble,” but it’s tough finding people who want to go out there and then showing them how to play the songs and write the songs and have something to say.
It certainly wasn't going to be a big pop record because I’m just not in that place. So then I needed to get in touch with that gift that I have for writing songs. So I’ve worked very hard, whether it was on the record or lately on myself or my relationship with Tico and Dave, so that we got stronger as a unit. And it turned out to be really great, because we got tighter and as a result we felt we, the collective we, did no wrong.
In a strange way my forgiveness for Richie allowed me to grow, and David to grow, and Tico to grow into who we are today. Because we were forced down a different road. You don’t blame someone for that, you sort of have to say thank you, because it helps you continue your little journey. Sometimes someone has to get off an exit in order for you to continue this journey.
There was no fourth leg on the table. And by the way, we had 80 more shows left on that tour. But we did it. And it was very successful.
Having been through this personal rough patch, I really want to know: What’s your philosophy of life these days?
Philosophy? I think that my goal is just to try to be a better version of myself every day. Just try to do something to better yourself. Even if that something is just... sleep. You know? Just something to make yourself better, I don’t mean a better singer or a better rock star. A better person.
That’s important, especially now. I’ll be honest: I’ve had a very tough year myself. Middle age is rough. You got the kids to take care of, the parents getting older—you’re in the “middle.”
Yeah. How old are you?
A lot happens between 48 and 58. I sort of joke that 50 is the last decadent birthday, but by 58 you have a different kind of perspective. And I’m not old enough to start thinking about mortality, I think that’s still another ten, twelve years ahead of me, but the idea that we’re not the kid in the room anymore.
48, 58—you’re sort of accomplishing or have accomplished the great things that you’re gonna do, and that’s all well and good, but what matters more is what you’re building with your family. Because those two chapters, you can’t fuck up either one of those or they’re gonna scar you.
Fix those circumstances and get them right now, start writing your own chapters. Live with them. Make them something worth reading again.
How are your kids?
No real problems. Stephanie is doing well and works in television. The youngest is fully committed to playing the guitar and wanting to learn how to write. He just took a step where he can really play the guitar. That’s what came out of Covid for him, six months in the wood shed. Jake is gonna go to Syracuse for acting. He spent the past year studying. And Jesse has the wine business—very successful, if you like a good rosé.
We talked about family, religion, music—Jersey law requires me to ask you about football and politics. I know you’re a fan of at least one of those things. But you seem to code switch between worlds and get along with lots of different people.
I don’t think that I get along with lots of different people [laughs]. But yeah, football was something that was a common thread in our house, whether it was my father or my uncle, you could find them Sunday watching the Giants. And then my relationships through my celebrity allowed me to meet people on the Giants, which then led me to my relationship with a young man who is now an old man by the name of Bill Belichick. Last night I had dinner with Robert Kraft, who is one of my dearest friends.
Is he still mad at Tom Brady?
He’s not mad at Tommy! No!
Unlike football, politics is not anything I ever grew up with. My family was not involved at all. My wife’s family was probably more involved in politics. And we’ve met a number of politicians over the years. Whether the current governor, or the previous governor, Chris Christie.
I’m friendly with Chris. Although we didn't have to agree with each other’s politics all the time, we could certainly talk as fellow New Jerseyites with things in common that we wanted to do for people there. So you could have a conversation with somebody, regardless of what side you’re on.
Do you think people are still listening to each other? Are you worried about the current political climate? You have a song on the record, “Blood in the Water,” about it.
I think the division that’s evolved in the last four to six years is an America that I'm afraid for. Bickering among political themes has become something that’s dividing families—parents and kids, husbands and wives. I’m worried about how we come together as a country. [A silent pause.] I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m scared.
Yeah. Me too.
When I grew up, the idea of the middle class in Sayreville, it was hardworking, blue collar, really white, but a really good hardworking solid town made up of second-generation, primarily European immigrants. Believed in this kind of John Kennedy mantra of we can do anything we wanna do, we can go to the moon, and so I grew up in this very innocent wonderful kind of time. And then I came to be old enough to vote and Ronald Reagan was telling everybody that there should be a car in every driveway and a chicken in every pot, telling Gorbachev to tear down that wall. It certainly wasn't the day and age my kids are growing up in now.
But it also allowed us to dream ridiculously big, because we didn't know any better. You know I’ve told this story many times before: Bono grew up thinking about the Orangemen marching, and we grew up thinking about Little League and Pop Warner. It was many years after the race riots, many many years after the work of MLK, RFK, Malcolm X. It was a different era.
Now my kid just graduated from college. Those poor kids missed out on graduation, the prom, turned 18 at home, given one hour of outdoor time, they were born out of 9/11. That’s a shit hand to be dealt. But on the other hand, I think they’re going to be that next great generation, because they have to be. Are they going to have the same opportunities? What are the chances they’re going to have a chance to sell 130 million albums?
Is that possibility even out there anymore? How different are things now?
The pandemic changed lives. Everyone has their own story. And hopefully out of a crisis comes the next generation’s innovators, inspired, and engaged, ready to lead by example and move into an era of ‘we,’ not ‘me.’
This interview has been edited and condensed.