When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Bon Jovi unveiled in January a plan to get back on the road — with the hopes of staying out on it for a solid month, for the first time in more than two years — its outwardly fearless leader was inwardly holding his breath.
After all, the announcement of the group’s 2022 tour had been made in the face of the omicron surge. And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that a whole lot can happen in three months’ time.
Eleven weeks later, COVID numbers are drastically lower. Yet with the almost here …
“I gotta tell you, I’m holding my breath right now,” the band’s frontman, Jon Bon Jovi, told the Observer last week during a phone interview. “We finished rehearsals last Wednesday. On Thursday, I found out that (someone) the organization had it, and then, since then, my assistant, my sound man, and the guitar tech all have it.
“So four people right now have it. They were all vaxxed, and everybody’s protected, and, and, and. But it just — it was a blow. It was an absolute blow. Because, God forbid, if I get it, show’s canceled. End of story. You know, because of the spread, because of insurance, because of getting others sick. It would break my heart.”
He’s been through that kind of heartbreak once already, back in October, when — despite being fully vaccinated — he tested positive for the virus, forcing the cancellation of a hotly anticipated fan event in Miami Beach.
To reduce the risk of a similar disappointment, says the singer, “We are going to be in a bubble. I’m not happy about it … but I’ll take the bubble over not being able to perform.”
Assuming the April 1 launch of the tour goes off without a hitch, this will represent Bon Jovi’s first time out on the road since the band wrapped the “This House Is Not for Sale World Tour” in October 2019. It also will mark Jon’s first set of shows since he celebrated his 60th birthday at the beginning of March.
Here are highlights from our conversation with the man who helped write some of the most iconic rock songs of the ’80s and ’90s. Remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
On rehearsing for ‘The 2022 Tour’
“It was almost a foreign word to me. We are not famous for our rehearsals. … I used to hear about these bands that rehearsed for three weeks and a month. I said, ‘What the hell do they do there for a month?’ I never really understood it. My guys have always walked in the room knowing the songs perfectly. This band was always like, ‘If you don’t know these songs by now…’ ‘ he says, chuckling.
“But in light of COVID and how long it’s been since anyone’s done this, we went into an arena for three weeks and had rehearsals, and it was the most joyous thing I may have ever done in my life, career-wise. Just the idea of getting out there again on a big stage is surely different than singing in your studio … or in the shower. So being in one place for that long — with the stage, with the band, with a PA system — it was good.”
On creating a setlist
“I’ve been blessed. I’ve released 17 albums in my career. That’s a lot of music. … You go, ‘Oh, this one would be nice to pull out again.’ And it’s not an easy task, because the audience wants to hear Song X, Y and Z. … You gotta do all the obvious hits. … You’re not gonna not play ‘Livin’ On a Prayer,’ and ‘It’s My Life,’ and ‘You Give Love a Bad Name.’
So it’s just how far into the ‘Bed of Roses,’ and ‘Always,’ and then ‘I’ll Be There for You.’ ‘Oh yeah, that’s three ballads. Gee, I can’t fit three. But they’re all hits!’ Believe me, it’s a good problem to have,” Bon Jovi says, with a laugh.
“But yeah, the hits take up 70%, and that leaves you with 30% for new material and obscure tracks. That’s the kind of breakdown. (So it leaves) you with X amount of slots for your artistic, you know, ‘listen-and-look-at-me’ moments, when it’s just about ‘I don’t care if you don’t wanna hear this song, I wanna play it. I’m allowed one or two of those,” he says, chuckling again.
“Then I have the benefit of changing it on a nightly basis. … If somebody hears ‘Always’ one night and ‘Bed of Roses’ the next night, it’s cool. It’s all acceptable.”
“Truly, it is like a very simple (process),” Bon Jovi adds, “but nonetheless a Rubik’s Cube.”
On the band’s ‘2020’ album
“It was the only time in my 17 albums that in essence I put it out into a black hole. Because I didn’t go promote it, I didn’t get to perform it in front of large crowds, I didn’t get to really work it. Yet it was such a moment that I felt that I needed to write about,” says Bon Jovi, whose album was released in October 2020 and included “Do What You Can,” an inspirational song about standing up to COVID, and “American Reckoning” ,” a protest song in support of Black Lives Matter.
“I don’t know in truth if it’s part of my being this age and this experience at that time, but as an observer of what was going on around me, I reported it as though I was just … that observer. I was reporting on the topical messages that became the songs. ‘American Reckoning’ was a direct correlation to George Floyd — and obviously about him, and what I’m witnessing on… television.
“Or when by accident I spit out the title … ‘Do What You Can,’ while I saw a photograph of myself washing dishes at the Soul Kitchen (a nonprofit community restaurant run by his charitable foundation). My reaction was, ‘If I can’t go and sing, well, I gotta help out. I’ll do this. I can wash these dishes.’ … The songwriter in me came up with a lyric. Then boom, you write about it.
“It wasn’t a time to sit down and write ‘You Give Love a Bad Name.’ There was more to do and say. Now, is it a product of where I’m at in my life? I don’t know. But I was paying attention.”
On adding those two tracks to the album last-minute
“Those songs were timely and topical. That was the only moment in time I could release them. You had to put ’em out into the world. To hold those kind of songs for two years, the relevance was gone. So they marked a moment in time.”
On performing ‘2020’ songs on tour for the first time
“I’m anxious to see how they work. … Like any record, when you make it, you think it’s the best work you’ve ever done. It takes some time until you can move away from said record, to look back at it objectively. I can look back at it objectively as a writer, but because I’ve never performed it in front of a big crowd, I still need to finish my sentence.”
On selecting a local band to open for them in each city
“I think it’s become a tradition for me to find local talent. If you really go back, once upon a time I found a band in the garage called Skid Row and another one called Cinderella. Relics of my era. But since then, I’ve given hundreds of bands the opportunity to go out on that stage.
“And I remind each and every one of ’em that the way I went about getting a record deal all those years ago was so unique to the system. I went to see a DJ with a cassette tape. So what I tell these kids now is the traditional way might work for somebody, but think nontraditional — like this, getting yourself the attention that you’re gonna garner from it. Maximize it. Call the reporter. Call the TV news. Call the radio. Try to get your song on the radio. You know, giving ’em that playbook.
“I’m giving ’em an opportunity to go and win.”
On ‘It’s My Life’ gaining a new life as a Ukrainian resistance anthem
“Humbling,” Bon Jovi says, when asked about the viral video of Ukrainians getting ready to defend against Russian invaders to the strains of his band’s 2000 anthem.
He says it made him reflect on “the power of song. The generations who have taken songs — whether they’re mine or others throughout the history of music — and redefined the lyric to make it their own. That’s the sign of a good song. When it doesn’t matter that a language separates us. The lyrical content still means something to somebody, and … I’m proud of it. I’m absolutely humbled by it.”