Jon Bon Jovi bonus Q&A: What he learned while opening for ZZ Top and mopping floors

Emilee Geist

Before he became top-selling international rock star, Jon Bon Jovi was a New Jersey teenager who played in bar bands, mopped floors and worked as a go-fer at Power Station, the famed New York recording studio co-founded by his cousin, Tony Bongiovi. “What a place to cut your teeth while […]

Before he became top-selling international rock star, Jon Bon Jovi was a New Jersey teenager who played in bar bands, mopped floors and worked as a go-fer at Power Station, the famed New York recording studio co-founded by his cousin, Tony Bongiovi.

“What a place to cut your teeth while you’re still honing your craft in bars with your own band,” Bon Jovi, 58, said of his Power Station days. “When you’re 19, you’d pay money to go fetch coffee (for musicians recording)! It was the greatest thing I could have asked for while I was still playing in bars and just out of high school.”

The veteran musician and the band that bears his name have just released a new album, “2020,” which features the most topical songs of his career. He discusses it at length in today’s Union-Tribune Arts+Culture cover story, Bon Jovi digs deep with new “2020″ album: “As you see the world and its injustices, one would hope you grow”

In this bonus Q&A, conducted on Sept. 11, Bon Jovi’s leader discussed an array of other topics. They included just how badly things went awry when his then-fledgling band opened for ZZ Top in 1983 and how close he came to replacing Garth Brooks to sing the national anthem at the 1993 Super Bowl. He also talked about the impact of COVID-19, which was contracted this year by his 18-year-old son, Jacob, and two of his Bon Jovi bandmates, keyboardist David Bryan, 58, and percussionist Everett Bradley, 57.

Q: The coronavirus pandemic has hit close to home for you, personally and professionally. Based on your experience, what might you say to people who don’t take the pandemic seriously?

A: Well, because we were so close to it, we can honestly say it’s very real, whether it’s the (bad) cases my bandmates had, the mild case one of my sons had, or our friends. We lost three people I knew directly, so we believe it to be very real and we’ve been very cautious.

Q: A recent Billboard magazine story referred to you as “the glam metal artist.” Even in the days of your 1986 album “Slippery When Wet,” I am not sure you qualified as a glam metal artist, or that you even wanted to be. Did you?

A: We were thrown into that. The truth is, we all judge a book by its cover. And in that era, that was the easy thing to do. They said: ‘You go over in that pile.’ And, if you looked like A Flock of Seagulls and U2, you went in that pile. If you looked like Madonna, you went in another pile. And if you looked like Michael Jackson, you went in a different one. Those piles were the three definitions of the ‘80s. But the truth was, if you were going (to last), you had to have a catalog of music that would represent you differently. So, we were always on our own path to try to be true to who we were and create our own way… That’s the goal. With the Rolling Stones, you can say that they stole from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and then they became The Stones. The Beatles’ first record was a cover, and then they became The Beatles.

Q: Can rock ‘n’ roll grow old gracefully? And if it can, is it still rock ‘n’ roll? The Stones seem indestructible.

A: I think the Stones are a great example. For me, though, I wish they’d retire for one reason: At least then, I’d know where the end zone is! They are still an amazing live band. You brought up Bruce (Springsteen) earlier, and he’s obviously a great entertainer. (Paul) McCartney is still touring all the time and had a new album out last year. If you want to think of U2, who are our age, they are obviously a great touring rock band. The Eagles are another great example of a touring band that is still singing and playing great. So, yeah, I do think rock can grow old gracefully.

Q: I interviewed you back in 1989 — when we were both in grade school — and you told me then: “I’m not in a limo with a chauffeur. I’m in an old van, just looking for a cheeseburger right now. I don’t have a big entourage. You can’t ever think of yourself as being more than just one of the people.” Then, commenting on your stardom, you added: “I think everything has really stayed the same. That’s why I’m calling you from the back of a van. Today’s our day off. I went to a movie, hung out at a record store and went to a bookstore and bought a bunch of (Charles) Bukowski books. I got a new copy of ‘Hot Water Music,’ because I lost my original copy when I was half-way through it. And that’s my day. Tonight, I get to see Eric Burdon play, and I’ll be a groupie! I’ll ask him if I can sing a song with him, but he’ll probably say, ‘No’.”
So, did you sit in with Eric Burdon?

A: I have. Whether I did that night, I don’t recall.

Q: How much has everything stayed the same for you since 1989, at least in terms of keeping your feet on the ground?

A: Well, I’d like to think it’s all the same. I still have the same wife and same record deal; I just have four kids to go along with that. Right now, I’m on my way to New Jersey, still just driving in my car, so it is what it is. We never ‘went Hollywood.’ It just didn’t appeal to me.

Jon Bon Jovi is shown performing on Central Park's Great Lawn in New York on July 12, 2008.

Jon Bon Jovi is shown performing on Central Park’s Great Lawn in New York on July 12, 2008.

(AP Photo / Jason DeCrow)

Q: You worked in your later teen years at the Power Station, your cousin’s New York recording studio. What did you learn there that has stuck with you?

A: A lasting lesson to remember I learned, coming out of there, is: “The bigger the star, the nicer the person.”

Q: Reading between the lines, that would suggest the inverse is also true?

A: Yeah, a lot of guys who aren’t around today are the ones who were the most demanding in the studio, and to the staff and record company. I remember the Stones being an example (of the former). I remember them having this incident with paparazzi while I was getting out of a cab with my band. We were paying for the cab ride, with change, as the Stones were going in the studio. This was in the early months of 1981, if I’m not mistaken.

Because we were getting out of the cab, we sort of got in the way of the paparazzi and protected the Stones, and they took great pleasure in chuckling about it. Mick (Jagger) posed for a picture with me and my little band, and he said: “Yeah, this is my new band, The Frogs!” We took the picture and the Stones asked us: “How’s it going? How are those demos of yours going?” You never forget something like that.

Q: How do you know when a song or a record is done?

A: I don’t know if you know when your recording. It’s more likely when you’re doing the mix, and I’ll say to the engineer: “That’s not necessary,” and the faders get pulled down so that it (the song) tells the story in an economical manner, gets the point across and — when you perform it live — will sound and look the same (as the record).

Q: Do you experience the musical phenomenon of the “happy surprise,” where you are aiming in one direction and something unexpected happens that improves a song?

A: Yeah, yeah, it happens. Let me think if it happened on this new record. It happened on the last record, “This House is Not for Sale,” and I can cite examples. I’ll have to think on this (new) one. Give me a second. I think I can truly tell you that, with “2020,” I had this record in mind when we went in the studio, the songs were written and this is what it would sound like.

But on our last record, there was a song called “New Year’s Day,” written in ¾, kind of a waltz. And the band was saying to me: “The lyric is saying one thing and the music sounds like another thing.” Tico (Torres, drummer) cited an example by playing 4 on 4 with his kick drum. I was able to sing over that and I felt that energy, and the guys followed that and it became an energetic change that represented the title “New Year’s Day.” Surprises are why you have a band and are not a solo artist. When you go in there with a band and create something from scratch, that’s where the magic lies.

Q: The San Diego band Switchfoot opened some Bon Jovi stadium shows in Europe last summer. Switchfoot’s leader, Jon Foreman, told me it was a real learning curve for the band to connect with such a large audience that was so far away from the stage. He also said that, in Europe, the audiences were very attentive and arrived early enough to hear the opening act, not just the headliner. What did you learn when Bon Jovi first played arenas and stadiums as an opening act?

A: You’d go out there and you had to win hearts. We would play with a wide spectrum of acts. We would open for Judas Priest and 38 Special in the same year. We would open for the Scorpions and Kiss. We would go anywhere and perform with anybody and try to win a crowd over. That’s sort of how you went from being a bar band to being a headliner in an arena and getting to a stadium level, because you know how to play to a crowd — and how to go in front of a crowd that doesn’t know your language or your music.

Q: You attended the 1993 Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl. Shortly before the kick-off, NFL officials approached you and asked if you could be a last-minute replacement for Garth Brooks to sing the national anthem at the start of the game. How close did you come to doing it?

A: The year of the Super Bowl when they came to get me (to sing)? That was real, that happened. I said: “Sure, I’ll do it. Just give me a minute to make some noise and warm up in a back room, and let’s go!” I had got out of my seat, put down my gear and was walking down toward the field. Then Garth changed his mind and he did it.

Q: Have you ever sung the national anthem solo, a cappella?

A: I haven’t done it it. I never have. It’s a hard song. Yeah, I was pretty fearless back then when they asked me.

Q: Would you sing it if you were asked to now?

A: No, thanks. Hard song. Tough song!

Q: What’s the worst gig Bon Jovi ever did? And by “bad,” I don’t necessarily mean you were bad, but that the circumstances were bad.

A: (Laughs.) Whew! There’s been a few that come to mind. One was at Madison Square Garden, in 1983, opening for ZZ Top. We were virtually unknown, other than our song “Runaway” being on the radio. Richie (Sambora) was meant to start the first song, but his guitar was dead. The crowd went from mild applause into a very raucous chant of: “ZZ Top! ZZ Top!” We played our 30-minute set in 17 minutes!

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