- 14 Feb 19
32 years ago, the New Jersey band's hit song reached the top of the US singles charts - and stayed there for four weeks. 'Livin' On A Prayer' has since become Bon Jovi's signature song, and was certified Triple Platinum in 2013. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Stuart Clark's classic interview with the band, originally published in Hot Press in 2001.
It’s official … I have no shame! Asked by Bon Jovi’s tour manager if I’d like to join the boys on stage for a couple of numbers, I should have fixed him with my best Johnny Rotten stare and snarled, “I don’t do stadium rock!” Instead, I knock back a double Mescal for Mexican courage, and treat the 50,000 punters at El Foro Sol baseball park to the mother of all air guitar displays. I wouldn’t profess to being the Noo Joisey rockers’ biggest fan, but when you’ve got that many people roaring ‘Livin' On A Prayer’ back at you, you can’t be anything other than blown away.
Crowds round these parts have a reputation for going mental and, sure enough, by the end of the night there are dozens of Latino longhairs dangling off the floodlights. Not to be outdone, their pitch-level counterparts engage in a mass mud fight, which has dry-cleaners the length and breadth of Mexico City rubbing their hands in glee. Unfazed by the re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme that’s going on in front of them, Bon Jovi keep belting out the hits with the cocksure swagger of a band that knows they’re giving everybody their money’s worth. Oh yeah, and that there’s a Lear Jet at the airport waiting to take them and their six-figure pay cheque back to the States.
Rewind eight hours and a disgustingly tanned and fit looking Richie Sambora is recalling the days when rock’n’roll life wasn’t nearly so orderly.
“Man, there have been several points in our career when we completely lost the fucking plot”, he admits in between sips of mineral water. “The worst would have been at the end of the Slippery When Wet/New Jersey period when we’d done more or less three years of back-to-back touring. Exhaustion’s bad enough on its own, but add drink and drugs to the equation, and you’re talking serious human meltdown. There were a couple of occasions when, honest to God, I was hanging on to sanity by my fingernails.
“The amazing thing is that, through all of this, we were still able to function musically.
“Everything we had left was going into the shows, which was good on one level and bad on another ’cause it made it even harder to justify pulling the plug. Our management should’ve gone, ‘Time for a rest’, but they were too busy oiling the money-making machine to consider the effect it was having on our health”.
The full extent of their late ’80s woes was revealed last year when Jon Bon Jovi spoke of contemplating suicide. Was Sambora aware of how low his friend had sunk?
“No”, he answers baldy. “What energy I had went into hauling my sorry ass out of bed and getting to wherever it was we needed to be. No shitting, we were so burned that we couldn’t even speak. When communication was required, we’d grunt at each other in our own primordial language. It was like coming to and finding you’re on the Planet Of The Apes”.
Realising that they were inching ever closer to the mortuary – “What kept us out of there was luck and not being dumb enough to stick needles in our arms” – the band sacked the people who were supposed to be looking after them, and set about enjoying the fruits of their labours.
“It should’ve been the holiday to end all holidays, but unfortunately I picked up a parasitical infection in Chile which almost killed me”, grimaces keyboard-player David Bryan. “At that point I didn’t give a shit about the band, I just wanted to live. Six months down the road, though, it struck me that I was part of this wonderful thing which done right could be a lot of fun. The other guys arrived at the same conclusion, and here we are now in as good a shape as we’ve ever been”.
It’s no idle boast with One Wild Night currently top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic. A live ‘Best Of …’, it chronicles their evolution from third-rate Mötley Crue wannabes (‘Runaway’) to a band who on top form are capable of giving REM a run for their money (‘Older’).
“I look back at old photographs and think, ‘Oh my God, what’s with the haircuts?” Richie Sambora laughs throatily. “Forget Mötley Crue, our ambition back then was to sell as many albums as Ratt! Once we’d done that it was, ‘Okay, where can we take this?’ We mightn’t have been as groundbreaking as REM or U2 – I mean, I really can’t see us making a dance record – but I like to think that we’ve demonstrated the same integrity and respect for our fans as them. Where we’ve always excelled, though, is playing live. Put us on stage and we’ll give anyone you care to name a run for their money.”
A “high testosterone rock’n’roll record with very, very loud guitars”, One Wild Night includes a surprisingly frisky cover of ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’, and a Bob Geldof-assisted ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ which made it into the shops the same week that Brenda Spencer was paroled.
“The girl who did the shooting’s been let out? Man, I didn’t know. They talk about Columbine like it’s something new, but there’s always been that darkness in American society.
“What would I do if Brenda Spencer turned up backstage at one of our gigs? Smile politely and tell her I fucking hate the start of the week as well.”
Rock’n’roll traditionalist that he is you’d expect Sambora to pick something like The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out as his favourite live album, but nope, that honour goes to Wings Over America.
“I was in the studio mixing One Wild Night and guess who moves in across the hall? Paul McCartney. We’d jammed together at a Songwriters’ Hall of Fame gig with James Brown, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Neil Diamond and Carole King, but it was so crowded that we didn’t really get to talk.
“Anyway, as somebody who wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for The Beatles, I march in there and say, ‘Hey man, how you doing?’ The next thing I know he grabs my guitar, turns it over ’cause he’s left-handed and starts playing away. (Adopts worst Liverpudlian accent ever) ‘Me and John used to switch guitars all the time’.”
What’s the etiquette for meeting a Beatle?
“Try not to faint”, he deadpans. “Fortunately, we share a friend in George Martin who I’d worked on a couple of projects with, and then ran into when my wife and myself were vacationing in Hawaii. He’d obviously told Paul I was cool, so we sat there talking about all sorts of stuff.
“I’m like a kid for the rest of the week, popping in whenever I can for a chat and generally making a nuisance of myself. Anyway, I’m back mixing, look around and there’s Paul McCartney nodding his head to one of our songs. Fuck me, this is the guy who sung ‘Yesterday’!”
I remember Noel Gallagher saying to me that, no matter how hard you try, there’s always one Fab Four question which seeps out.
“I can totally relate to that. In my case, it was the need to tell him about this kid from a dead end street in New Jersey who, every day, used to stand in front of the mirror and make believe he was in The Beatles. It was listening to those records, again and again and again, that taught me everything I needed to know about songwriting and the economy of arrangement. Rant completed, he looks at me and goes, ‘So which one were you?’ My answer to that was, ‘Never Ringo and rarely George’.”
Has it ever struck him that, as we speak, there’s a kid from a dead end street in Liverpool standing in front of the mirror and making believe he’s in Bon Jovi?
“I’ve always looked at it as this communal musical knowledge, which every generation refines and adds to. The Beatles are an obvious link in the chain ’cause we grew up with them, but they’re no more or less important than James Brown, Albert King, Muddy Waters and the Reverend Gary Davis. These people changed the face of modern music and for that we are eternally grateful.”
At this point, Jon Bon Jovi sticks his head round the door, gives us one of his Ultrabrite smiles and disappears into the bathroom where much gurgling and chain-pulling ensues. Although spared press duties today, the singer recently reflected that, “We’re beyond the point of breaking up because we’re not relying on it. If we get tired of touring, we pull the plug and I go do a movie. Richie does a solo album, Tico has his art.”
Is that how the rest of the band see it?
“Pretty much,” David Bryan confirms. “People said when Jon released his first solo record that that was it, but obviously there’s still a part of him which needs to be in a band. One of the benefits of him doing movies is that I’ve had time to work on my own instrumental album. It’s called Lunar Eclipse and you can buy it direct from www.rounder.com. There’s a version of ‘In Your Arms’ on there, which might surprise people.”
The cheeky blighter appears to have scammed himself a free advert. Whatever about Bryan’s solo pursuits, one suspects that if he wasn’t riffing his life away with Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora would have to find himself another band. Like Kiss, for instance.
“You’ve been doing your homework,” he laughs. “A mutual friend mentioned my name to them, and a call came through one day saying, ‘Come to California and show us what you can do.’ My chances of getting the gig went out the window when they realised I wasn’t a huge fan who’s in awe of them. They wanted someone who’s desperate to wear a codpiece, whereas I’m from the same school as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. Fate definitely played a hand, ’cause the next audition I went for – and got – was Bon Jovi.”
So no regrets?
“About joining Bon Jovi? Fuck man, no. Going on stage every night and playing with one of the best rock’n’roll bands on the planet – how could you ever regret that?”
Revisit 'Livin' On A Prayer' below: