There is a house that Jon Bon Jovi has visited in his mind many times over the past few years. Its windows are shattered, its foundation is made of deep tree roots and it stands tall and proud, alone in a vapid landscape. “When I stumbled upon a photograph of this place, that’s when things started to take focus … it gave me a voice,” the singer says of a stoic black-and-white image that has become the cover art for Bon Jovi’s new album, “This House Is Not For Sale.”
BON JOVI When: 7:30 p.m. March 26 Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison Info: ticketmaster.com
The picture is the work of 20th century photographer Jerry Uelsmann who captured it in 1982, just a year before Bon Jovi and his eponymous band formed as a fledgling hair metal act from the borough of Sayreville, New Jersey. They would, over the next three decades, become one of the biggest selling American rock bands of all-time with a bag full of radio-juiced power anthems, centerfold good looks and a nonstop touring cycle that has built a fan base 35 million strong.
But if Uelsmann’s picture eerily foreshadowed the strong edifice of Bon Jovi, its discovery also came at a time where it could have well crumbled.
In the middle of the “Because We Can” tour in 2013, long-time guitarist Richie Sambora shocked everyone when he unexpectedly left the band for unspecified reasons (Bon Jovi says there was “no conflict” and both parties have affirmed in countless stories there is no bad blood). The departure was around the same time Bon Jovi was dealing with unsure label renegotiations. “That led to me sitting 2014 out,” the frontman admits of a yearlong period where he went completely dark with music.
While Bon Jovi says there was “absolutely no” thought of putting the band to rest, he actually credits the tough transitional period with shaping “This House Is Not For Sale.”
“I had to process a lot of life, love and loss …but I actually don’t know what I would have said lyrically, or what we would have done musically had there been a smooth transition,” he says. “This whole period ended up being very good for me. I’m more positive about [music] than I’ve been in a long time.”
The album, which was released in November after a renewed contract with Island, quickly shot to the number-one spot in the U.S. and has been critically applauded for its honest grit and technical polish. From start to finish, there is a purposeful story arc of reclaiming your place (the sing-a-long title track), rebuilding (“Labor of Love,” “God Bless This Mess”) and opening new doors (“New Years Day,” “Come On Up to Our House”), all neatly packaged in a retrospective of Bon Jovi’s myriad styles—the heart-throbbing ballads, the more recent country flirts and the hard pop rock swagger that made them famous.
The band has been celebrating its release with the first substantial tour since 2013 (stopping at United Center March 26), where new material is matched with hits like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” (from their 1986 breakout “Slippery When Wet”). Bon Jovi is joined by long-time members, keyboardist David Bryan, drummer Tico Torres, bassist Hugh McDonald and Sambora’s replacement Phil X on lead guitar, alongside a bunch of new faces opening each date. As with tours in 2006 and 2010, Bon Jovi has offered a contest for regional unsigned acts to join the bill (that includes Iowa’s 35th & Taylor on the Chicago stop).
“I want to pay it forward, to give young bands that shot,” Bon Jovi says, reminded of the band’s own formative gig opening for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden in 1983. “It was a 30-minute set, but we performed it in 20 because the songs were rather fast,” he says, laughing. The opportunity was after the barely 20-something recorded a demo of early single “Runaway” and brought it to WAPP 103.5 in New York City, which became a domino moment in their success. “Fortunately the station was so new, they didn’t have a receptionist and I lucked out.”
While stories like that are rare nowadays and even Bon Jovi himself laments that the era of the larger-than-life rockstar has come and gone, he’s still hopeful that one day it could resurface. “I am still positive that with the Internet, [bands] have the opportunity to not be restricted by radio playlists and formats and that the next true voice of a generation can be heard.” In that, he also hopes there will be a surge of social cause music again, praising the importance of artists like Bob Dylan.
Though Bon Jovi rarely uses the stage as a personal pulpit, he has often been on the campaign trail for candidates, most recently Hillary Rodham Clinton, and was previously appointed by former president Barack Obama to serve on the White House Council for Community Solutions. He also has been a force behind many humanitarian missions, including founding the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation eleven years ago to “assist families and individuals in economic despair.” To date, the foundation has supported the building of 500-plus affordable housing units and established a series of do-good restaurants called Soul Kitchen that have served 55,000 communal meals—those who can afford it support the cause and those that can’t volunteer time for the same three-course meal.
“Homelessness and hunger are dilemmas that anyone and everyone can relate to, and something that can be fixed with sweat equity and caring,” Bon Jovi says, originally moved to act after seeing a homeless man sleeping on a grate while visiting Philadelphia when he owned the Soul Arena League Football team. The story of coming home has permeated his art ever since.
“I know that every day is an opportunity to write a song, if you’re reading the paper, watching the news or you just living your life,” he says. “It’s there to be had if your eyes and your ears are open.”
Selena Fragassi is freelance music writer.