Bon Jovi: ‘We’ve sold millions of records – but people just want to talk about our hair’

Jon Bon Jovi: 'That chip-on-your-shoulder attitude fuelled us. We were the kids from nowhere'
Jon Bon Jovi: 'That chip-on-your-shoulder attitude fuelled us. We were the kids from nowhere' - Karwai Tang/WireImage

“Our band always had a chip on the shoulder attitude”, Jon Bon Jovi tells me. It was “integral in the early years… it fuelled us”. It powered his band from New Jersey bars to stadiums around the world, yet here with them in a London hotel room, the singer flanked by drummer Tico Torres and keyboard player David Bryan, it’s as if it never left. At times, despite the plush surroundings, it can feel like you’re in the back room of a bar trying to explain how a garbage sack full of cash meant for Tony Soprano ended up in the trunk of your car. “We interrupt you like you’re American,” says Torres, “just to make you feel at home.”

They’re in England for the launch of a four-part Disney+ documentary, Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story, which traces their astonishing rise from “kids from nowhere”, as Bryan puts it, to the very top, and the many trials they’ve faced along the way – from the manager who was arrested for smuggling 20 tons of marijuana into the US to their lead singer’s well-publicised battle to recover from vocal cord surgery.

That chip came from growing up “in the shadow of Manhattan” and not being recognised for what they were, a band with a gift for blending hard rock with huge choruses in a way that recalled Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow but took it to a whole new level, creating indelible anthems such as You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ on a Prayer. Instead, critics harped on the elements of their sound that owed something to their Jerseyite forebear Bruce Springsteen (you can hear it on classic album tracks such as Blood on Blood), while TV hosts focused on the singer’s looks and his hair.

The documentary has a whole sequence of them asking him about his decision to go from long to short locks. In it, he looks increasingly p---ed off. “Disappointed,” the 62-year-old says, with feeling, when I ask him about it. “Imagine being that one-in-a-million success story, not only getting a record deal, but having a [multi-Platinum-selling] record like Slippery When Wet and New Jersey and [solo album] Blaze of Glory, boom, boom, boom and, we want to talk about a haircut – you’re like, ‘you don’t have a deeper question about how we got here than that?’”

I have a similarly deep one for him about his friendship with Prince Harry (Bon Jovi sang on a record the exiled royal made with the Invictus Choir in 2020). “I don’t have an opinion of his moving to the States,” he says. “We even as Americans are still in awe… I think our respect for the Queen was immense.” He extends that respect to “King Charles now, having met William and Harry, and many of the family over the years”. Bryan, meanwhile, having forged a second career as a Tony award-winning composer, wrote the music for Diana the musical. Is marrying into royalty “the worst job in England”, as its lyrics suggest? “It was an interesting story,” he flat-bats. 

For a period in the 1980s, Bon Jovi was as famous as the late Princess. He was, undeniably, a sex symbol, one of the most visible men on the planet. “I don’t have a messiah complex,” he says in the series, which sounds a little like he’s been accused of having one. “Well, people think that because you’re this pin-up… it’s just another generation’s pin-up, you know, Harry Styles, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, all the way back to Frank Sinatra… I was the boy of the moment. And then everyone thinks, ‘Oh, he believes his own press.’ I didn’t. I believed in the next record. The rest of it was of no consequence.” What about the adulation that came with those global concert tours? “It was never the motivator ever,” he says. “To this day. I know guys that are journeymen, who live for the applause. For me, adulation was never a drug.”

The singer is famously clean living and has been married to his high-school sweetheart, Dorothea Hurley, since 1989. As the series shows, the rest of the band embraced the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle, as drummer Ticco Torres puts it, “like kids in a candy store – you just go, ‘Wow!’” He looks over at keyboard player Dave Bryan, “I remember the first time he came home, David, his mother started crying when she saw him…” Bryan laughs. “I weighed one pound, I slept for 15 minutes in six years, but I had the best f---ing time I ever had in my entire life.”

Jon Bon Jovi and his band
Jon Bon Jovi (front centre) and his band, including Tico Torres (front left) and David Bryan (front right) - Disney+

How thin is the dividing line between hedonism and excess becoming a problem, as it was for original bassist Alec John Such, who was sacked from the band in 1994, and guitarist Richie Sambora, who walked out in 2013, after several stints in rehab? “I had a blast, but then I knew how to back off on the gas pedal,” Bryan says. “It’s still a job, you got to show up for work,” says Bon Jovi. (There was no heroin involved either, Bryan interjects.) “We weren’t strung out on the street corners. We got the job done. The rest of it is… you can’t write that [rock’n’roll] cliché about us because it really wasn’t that.”

The departure of Sambora was a shock. In the series, Bon Jovi is asked when he realised, “this is permanent”, to which he responds, “I still haven’t.”

Does that mean there’s an open door? He wants to be clear, he says. “There was never any fight. There was never any animosity. We’re literally in the midst of the tour in 2013… there was a show that night. And he didn’t show up. And, you know, we’ve been through this a number of times with substance abuse and rehabs and stuff. But there was a show… so, you understand that sentence? There’s 20,000 people and five hours from now, OK, we’re gonna go on, we’re gonna play, we can certainly pull the show off. The next night, you didn’t show up. The next night, you didn’t show up. So there was never any fight. But, you know, the show goes on.”

'The show goes on': Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi performing in 2018
'The show goes on': Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi performing in 2018 - Jeff Kravitz

“We’ve always said that being in the band’s not a life sentence,” adds Torres, who describes Sambora as “the sweetest guy in the world” – “But I guess the way it happened was a little odd for us.”

How much did it mean that Sambora apologised to the fans in the film about the way it ended? “That’s the first time that he’s done that publicly,” Bon Jovi says, “so yeah, it was touching.”

So, an open door? “Of course, I mean, life’s too short to be mad at somebody, but it has been 11 years…. But there’ll be no reason not to allow him to come back,” he adds. “He knows three quarters of the songs.”

That bridge, should they ever come to it, may depend on the outcome for Bon Jovi’s voice. He’s made it clear that he’ll give up live performing if he can’t get back to the level he demands of himself. Bob Dylan, I tentatively suggest, has carried on with a voice not quite what it was, although it may never have managed some of Bon Jovi’s vocal pyrotechnics. Is there a level of fallibility he’d be prepared to accept? “I’m not there yet, so I don’t know,” he says. “But I doubt it. You know, I’m not seeking perfection, just… you’re always in the pursuit of excellence.”

Jon Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea Hurley, in 1985
Jon Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea Hurley, in 1985 - Vinnie Zuffante

Are we looking at the twilight of the rock gods? “I think the world is always cyclical,” says Bryan. “One door closes another one opens, but it seems like rock and roll will never die. You know, you can have everything on all the social medias that you want, but you still got to step on stage and sell your wares door to door, you have to play.”

I mention Abba’s avatar show Voyage. “Yeah. Now we’re talking,” Bon Jovi says. His enthusiasm suggests that this isn’t the first time it’s crossed his mind. “It keeps the music alive,” he says. “The song is always going to outlive the artist. But to see it, to have a visual aspect of it, I think, is interesting.” It has other advantages, Bryan notes, “I would love to sleep while the other me is working.”

Thank You, Goodnight: the Bon Jovi Story is on Disney+ from Friday 26 April