A new album was not in Bon Jovi’s plans last year.
After the platinum success of 2007’s “Lost Highway” the roll-out of a documentary, “When We Were Beautiful,” Jon Bon Jovi and his bandmates expected to record a few new songs for a greatest hits album, and then maybe take it easy and start to think about what they wanted to do next.
So “The Circle,” which came out in November and became the group’s fourth No. 1 album, was something of a surprise — but a pleasant one in Bon Jovi’s world.
“We went into the studio in September (of 2008) to fulfill that commitment for the greatest hits album,” Bon Jovi, 48, recalls. “There wasn’t a heck of a lot to write about ... The stock market was still booming, everybody was living high on the hog.
“Then, come October, the world changed dramatically and you opened your eyes and your ears and there’s a lot of subject matter. And October leads into December and the Bernie Madoff kinds of things and the stock market’s plunging and Detroit’s shutting down...
“So we started writing a different kind of song.”
Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora wrote a lot of them, in fact. “We started to write songs and not worry about fulfilling any commitments or writing hit singles or what have you,” Bon Jovi explains. And in January of 2009 he found himself in Island Def Jam president L.A. Reid’s office, playing a half dozen new songs and proposing something considerably different than the hits collection they had agreed upon.
“We sat down and had an honest to God, old-fashioned record company talk,” Bon Jovi recalls. “And he said, ‘My experience is if an artist really has something to say and you shelve it, the time will pass and it won’t be as timely. So go about your business. Do what you want to do the way you want to do it, and we’ll figure it out.’ ”
That proved to be the right decision, of course. “The Circle” followed “Lost Highway” in debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and also topped charts in Japan, Germany and Canada. The album has sold more than a million copies worldwide. The group also made a bit of history with a unique Artist in Residence on NBC that featured the band on everything from the morning “Today” show and “Saturday Night Live” to “The NBC Nightly News,” sporting events and even an appearance on the subsidiary Bravo channel’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”
And it’s currently on a world tour that will stretch throughout the year, including three shows at the new Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in May and a 12-show run at London’s O2 arena in June.
“We’re far beyond the concept of thinking about, ‘Oh, how do we get on Top 40 radio?’ ” says Bon Jovi, whose band — which also includes keyboardist David Bryan and drummer Tico Torres (bassist Alec John Such left in 1994) — has had 20 Top 40 hits and sold more than 120 million albums worldwide since it formed in 1983 in Sayerville, N.J.
“We’ve been around a long, long time now. We are — for the better, I think — very well-established, so we can afford to focus on the work and the kind of quality we want that work to have.
“That’s the most important thing to us now, and it’s great to have the luxury to follow that.”
Sambora adds that, “It’s just really about growing up. Obviously on (‘The Circle’) there’s not a lot of boy-girl songs. It’s not like we’re singing about being on the road and girls and cars and things like that. This is an album that we couldn’t have written if the world wasn’t in the state it’s in.”
That manifests itself in songs populated by everymen (and women) who declare that “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” reminisce about simpler days gone by “When We were Beautiful,” hope to “Live Before You Die,” seek “Work For the Working Man” and try to live by a credo that “Love’s the Only Rule” — more often than not to catchy anthems with speaker-shaking beats and the kinds of choruses that sound best when sung by a stadium full of fans.
It’s a sound that has both muscle and meat, as well as “a thread of optimism” that Bon Jovi says he tries to instill in all his music, from the down-but-not-out 1986 anthem “Livin’ on a Prayer” through to “The Circle.”
“When I was 25 and we wrote ‘You Give Love a Bad Name,’ we were the kids with the long hair in the mall — sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, all that kinda stuff,” explains Bon Jovi, who was ranked No. 7 on Billboard magazine’s Sexiest Men in Rock list earlier this year. “You were a cowboy and you were gonna ride into town and be wanted dead or alive. That’s who I was at the time.
“I’m not that anymore, you know? But even back then, I knew I was never gonna be 50 still painting my fingernails black and painting ‘bitch’ on my belly. Even when I was 25 I knew that. I didn’t know where I was gonna go with it; I just knew I wasn’t gonna be that guy. I wasn’t gonna write ‘moon, June and spoon.’ The thought of that ... rang hollow.”
And, Bon Jovi acknowledges, “I wanted the respect of my peer group. Even if they were my elders that I looked up to, to have them say, ‘Yeah, good song.’ That says something.”
These days, however, Bon Jovi — who will appear on an upcoming Kinks tribute album — is after more than just the music. He’s been involved with Habitat For Humanity since 2005 and has been named the organization’s first Founding Ambassador after spearheading building drives in Philadelphia, Louisiana and other locales. He was part of the all-star “Everybody Hurts” Haitian relief single organized by Simon Cowell earlier this year and he’s active in President Barack Obama’s United We Serve, using The Circle Tour to promote the service initiative via a two-minute video that will be shown at the concerts while volunteers from several nonprofits will be on the concourses with information.
Bon Jovi also plans to visit shelters, food banks and other sites in the cities on the tour’s itinerary.
“Not that it comes as any great surprise, but I’ve come to realize there’s a world out there outside of the hotel rooms and the arenas and airplanes and tour buses,” he explains. “Instead of just watching CNN in my room, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to go and see what’s going on for real in the community we’re in, y’know, and see what opportunities there are to help make things better for people.”
But he also understands the music provides the mantle for him to do that — and there will be more music in the future. Bon Jovi still plans to release the greatest hits album, probably this fall, with three new songs that the band will review during the tour. “The last ‘Greatest Hits’ was 15 years ago, in ’94, so this one will be different,” says Bon Jovi, who splits time between New York City and his native New Jersey with his wife and four children. “I’m sure we’ll end up having to put ‘Livin’ On a Prayer’ on it, but you won’t have a lot of the early stuff ’cause’ there’s been more hits since then.”
And, he hopes, more hits in the future.“It just keeps going, and I can only be grateful,” Bon Jovi says. “I’m past the point of trying to analyze it or understand it, and I’m happy for that. Just making the music is hard enough, y’know?”
Bon Jovi and Dashboard Confessional perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 17, at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $29.50-$129.50. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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