Saturday, October 31, 2009
Interesting article from The National in UAE, Abu Dhabi.
'The visit to Abu Dhabi marks the future for us'
Jon Bon Jovi tells Michael Odell why his band’s new documentary begins with a concert in the UAE: it’s all about the ‘hunger’ in the crowds. Local fans won’t be disappointed by the band’s latest album, The Circle.
How important is Abu Dhabi to Jon Bon Jovi’s remaining plans for world domination? Answer: Very important. In fact, the way Jon Bon Jovi sits forward in his high-backed gilt hotel chair, he might be a general talking about establishing a bridgehead in a soft-rock war.
“That’s why we got it in the film, right up at the front. The visit to Abu Dhabi marks the future for us. That’s where rock music needs to go. The hunger out there is amazing.”
The film in question is the new Bon Jovi documentary When We Were Beautiful, which was made during the band’s Lost Highway tour of 2008 to mark their quarter century together. Put together by the director Phil Griffin to coincide with the release of their new album, The Circle, it does indeed waste no time in showing us Bon Jovi living it up in the UAE. Here is Jon swanking through the lobby of the Emirates Palace hotel. There he is with the band serving up blue-collar anthems to a sea of pumping fists.
“Our old manager Doc McGhee used to have this saying, ‘We’ll play anywhere where they have electricity. And even if they haven’t, we’ll bring our own.’ But it was more than that going out to the UAE. We still have the appetite for a new challenge. Who just wants to play stadiums across America where you know you’re going to get 60,000 lighters in the air and a singalong? That’s great. But taking your show somewhere completely new and seeing the hunger and love is just incredible. I’m still just a kid at heart and I love that feeling of ‘Wow! I’m in the Middle East playing songs I wrote back in New Jersey!’ And, you know, those fans came from Jordan. They came from Lebanon. That makes me very proud and moved.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Some of the tougher parts of the UAE experience were left on the cutting room floor. Which means we don’t get to see Jon Bon Jovi, the multimillionaire rocker, philanthropist, actor and entrepreneur thrashing about in a single bed the night before the show wondering where the rest of his band is.
“When I say we like exploring new countries and cultures, then I mean it, but I’m totally a selfish rock star and I like to do things right. We were booked into this palace of a hotel in Abu Dhabi. The other guys went a day early and I flew in after. We’d been promised a royal suite – unimaginable luxury, gold-leaf toilet paper, the works. I arrived very late from Paris that night and they show me to this room with an Ikea bed and a lamp. Next morning I meet the guys for breakfast and start moaning: ‘It’s not so great here is it?’ But they’ve had a ball – servants, peeled grapes, masseuse… It turns out I’d bedded down in the service wing. I’d slept in the servant’s room!”
Hence the Abu Dhabi show was done on a just a few hours’ sleep, drawing on Jon Bon Jovi’s deepest reserves of professionalism. But then again, this is not just any old rock star. In fact, at one point in the film he looks up from his portable office and says so: “I’m not just a rock star. I’m the CEO of a major corporation.”
Then he launches into a snitty diatribe about how all the other band members get to go off and do nice things while he mans the phones and executes band “business”.
Today is no different. I meet him in one corner of a vast suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge, London. He is boyishly trim and flashes his rock idol’s smile at staff whenever possible. His hair, the subject of so much speculation, looks thick and primped, but the days of the mullet are long gone.
It soon becomes apparent that this isn’t any old rock singer come to drawl a few lines about his influences. This is a chief executive unveiling a new product, keen for me to experience all its features up close. He has just flown in from New York and wastes no time telling me that he has personally brought the new album in his overnight bag, having only just finished mastering five of the tracks the night before. The hotel, of course, has its own stereo. But this is not sufficient. His staff have installed their own sound system in the suite. Before our interview, he asks that I listen to the new music at a volume that threatens to take out the hotel glazing in a single shock wave.
“We’ve aimed to go back to our core values on this one. Anthems. Songs that are ready- made to be played in stadiums,” he says afterwards. I can personally attest that the new set couldn’t be more stadium-ready if it came with its own queue for the toilets and a hot dog stand.
While he talks amiably about his music, it occurs to me that the key Bon Jovi asset is actually his personality. With all its can-do charm and down-home grit, it’s this that underpins his music, as well as ventures as diverse as his American football team (Philadelphia Soul), his restaurant (the Blue Parrot in East Hampton, New York), acting and what he calls his “philanthropy”.
There are some nice moments on The Circle. We Weren’t Born To Follow will be a drive-time staple across global freeways for ever. When We Were Beautiful successfully clones the epic U2 sound of the late 1980s. But if anything captures the midlife mood of Bon Jovi, it is Happy Now, in which he expresses the generational relief that a black man has finally been elected president of the US.
“For me that song is about how I and millions of others felt the day after the [US presidential] election. Finally, can we relax a little? Can we get back to being America again? It’s been like waking up from a bad dream but then you realise some of those bad things really did happen and someone has to fix them.”
Bon Jovi has met the president a couple of times, but hasn’t yet had a chance to play him the song. On the other hand, Work For The Working Man – a track so determinedly blue-collar and oil-grimed you expect it to come with a free set of rivets – has already made an impact at the White House. The song deals with the emotional impact of unemployment and was inspired by a TV documentary Bon Jovi saw on the closure of a DHL processing plant in the American mid-West.
“I sent the lyrics to my friend David Axelrod [a senior White House adviser] and he has them pinned to the wall of his office. He says it’s important to read them every day, which is touching.”
The Circle is big and earnest. But the album also contains some of the elements that have made Jon Bon Jovi the rock star that fashion forgot. The band formed in 1983 and seemed to combine several contradictory styles: heavy-metal hair with a Springsteen common-man sensibility, hard rock and pop appeal, which meant they didn’t fade with other bands of the era such as Skid Row.
Like any good chief executive, Jon Bon Jovi diversified. As an actor, he gave noted performances in the submarine drama U-571 and TV shows such as Sex And The City and The West Wing, and won the critical respect that eluded his band.
“I am the Tom Cruise of music and the Elvis Costello of film,” he says, one of his favourite career-defining aphorisms. “Tom makes great movies but he doesn’t win awards. Elvis makes music the critics love but he doesn’t fill stadiums.”
Perhaps his notable achievement has been building this multidisciplinary career while maintaining a stable marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Dorothea.
“In this line of work you soon learn to distinguish between the people who are going to stick around and have longevity and the ones who are going to burn brightly and fade away. Good-looking girls are everywhere. Good women are not.”
Bon Jovi have sold more than 120 million albums and toured in countless countries. However, when you watch the documentary it takes precisely 12 minutes for Jon Bon Jovi to address the fact that still niggles: the critics have always hated them. And this is not simply a case of a mega band like U2 coming in and out of vogue over a long career. This is the story of a band forced to duck a volley of critical rotten vegetables for so long that they could be forgiven for thinking the world actually smells of bad cabbage.
“I have an ego. Of course I would like our band to be gaining plaudits and a little respect. That’s been the case for years. But I think about it far, far less than I used to. I think there is definitely an element of snobbery at work.
“It is very hard to sell millions of records and retain any sense of the mystery and edginess that critics like a band to have before they start putting them on a pedestal. Like I say in the film, when you get a signed guitar from Bob Dylan, or you hear that Leonard Cohen thinks your version of Hallelujah is the best one he’s heard, then that really means something. I’ll take that over a good review any day.”
One of the most poignant moments in the film comes when Bon Jovi assesses his personal artistic dilemma. He has been famous for a quarter of a century and has seen other, more credible rock acts achieve commercial success while still being considered edgy. But when he tries to write more personal and meaningful music, critics don’t like it.
“Perhaps some people would disagree with my choice. Perhaps I should have gone my own way. I know some artists pride themselves on ruling audience reaction out of the equation. But I guess that’s not me. When I go on tour, I like to walk into a stadium and see a few faces there. No, I like to see a lot of faces there! And I can write the songs which bring those people to the shows. It’s a deal we have: I write the songs and you turn up. Not so bad, is it?”
And so Bon Jovi have ploughed their own furrow. It is, he says, no longer about trying to prove their credibility. When We Were Beautiful is about the survival of a band who have encountered the usual panoply of rock star problems: Tico Torres’s drinking, Richie Sambora’s divorce and ensuing alcohol and painkiller addictions. You know it must have been pretty bad when someone mentions that the band had an on-stage margarita machine while touring Mexico. It was the intervention of the rock therapist Lou Cox, recommended by the manager of Aerosmith, who finally saved the day.
“It’s not magic. He just got us to talk,” says Bon Jovi. “In a successful band it can be the hardest thing sometimes to admit you are unhappy or angry.”
Things certainly seem OK now: on the film, band members discuss these issues from, respectively, a golf cart on a sun-dappled links and the stern of an expensive-looking yacht.
Sambora and Bon Jovi clearly share a close bond. The former says to the camera that he sees it as his job “to make Jon happy”. Keyboard player David Bryan sounds a more dissenting note when he says the band is a “sexless marriage”, and that it has been hard to live in the shadow of the same boss for 26 years. He then adds, with almost schoolboyish, end-of-term giddiness that he has written a stage musical that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the band.
Did Bon Jovi find it hard hearing that?
“Of course not. These are talented guys and there are times when they feel they should have more say. My report card definitely says, ‘Does not play well with others’. I certainly have the lead singer’s disease. I think it’s ‘Me, Me, Me’ sometimes and that must be a pain. But I think, given these frictions, surely we can say that we all get enough out of it and there is enough room for everyone to breathe.”
In fact, The Circle refers to the idea of the brotherhood that has survived through thick and thin, and the film is full of backstage birthday cakes and the Bon Jovi tradition of handing out diamond pendants to loyal crew.
“Everyone wants one, but not all get,” he says with a smile. “Even our producer, who has just done his second album, hasn’t got one, though he keeps asking. Yeah, when you’re in, you’re in. I only know of one guy who sold his pendant. People get very emotional about them. Take [producer] John Shanks. This is his second record with us and he’s begging me for one. I say ‘No’, you’ve got to wait till the end of this tour before you qualify’.” Bon Jovi’s life spans the excesses of the rock star and the concerns of the selfless philanthropist. No wonder he has been talked about as a possible politician. There are those who would like him to bring that “man of the people”, can-do ethic to Democratic politics. He has the contacts. He has the popular touch. But, no, he checked out the job with a presidential friend and didn’t like what he saw.
“It’s a thankless job. Thankless. One time I was on a private jet with president Clinton going to some horse race. Just five of us. The guy whose plane it was said, ‘Whose job is best? Yours or the president’s?’
“I said, ‘Mine, because I get to keep the jet and the house.’ Of course, you’re the president of the United States. But when it’s over, you get a Secret Service guy and a book deal. It’s harsh.
“The responsibilities are absolutely terrifying, you carry the weight of the free world on your shoulders and yet... you don’t get the rewards. It’s taken me a while to realise that my true love is my first love: music.”