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Bon Jovi: How the New Jersey album nearly killed the band

In 1988 Bon Jovi were living with the pressure of following up Slippery When Wet. Fifteen years on, we discovered how recording New Jersey and the tour that followed nearly spelled the end

His back is turned to the camera, and he’s wearing a full-length coat: it seemed that Jon Bon Jovi, the man who had craved fame and respect through his music – and got it in bucketloads with the band’s 1986 breakthrough album Slippery When Wet – now wanted to escape the adulation and glory that he had once wanted so passionately.

That photograph appears on the inside sleeve of Bon Jovi’s fourth album, the one intended to capitalise on the phenomenal success of Slippery...: it was called New Jersey. And it was very nearly their last.

“In retrospect, I can see that I was trying to hide,” Jon admitted to CR some 15 years later. “This is what I wanted to do, to still be here in 20 years’ time. It’s what I aimed for back then.” (And it follows that he succeeded, given that he and his band were back in the UK that same June for another one of their monster arena tours, culminating in a one-off show in London’s Hyde Park on June 28, 2003.)

But let’s backtrack for a moment. It’s 1986, and Bon Jovi are about to release their third album. They didn’t know it at the time, of course, but it was a record that would change forever the course of the lives of the quintet from New Jersey.

“It was time. The third record was going to be make-or-break time,” Jon Bon Jovi said. And he was right. That 86 third record was Slippery When Wet: the multi-million-selling album that catapulted the band into the kind of fame that kids in bands can only dream about. But Bon Jovi’s success surpassed even those wildest fantasies. On the tour that the band undertook to support Slippery..., they had played to somewhere in the region of four million people – an incredible feat in its own right.

The album had gone stratospheric, no doubt helped by the heavy MTV rotation of slick videos that accompanied Livin’ On A Prayer and You Give Love A Bad Name, and the frontman’s charismatic good looks – tailor-made for posters that would adorn the bedroom walls of countless teenage girls. But there was more than that. Bon Jovi worked on the myth that they were buddies, a good-time band. Not for them the socio-political rhetoric of U2’s Bono or the wit and wisdom of Dylan. No, Bon Jovi were, by their own admission, a glorified bar band who wanted to entertain, but in an honest, blue-collar way that had more in common with fellow New Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen than with the sex, drugs, then more sex ’n’ drugs and a little bit of rock’n’roll of the Mötley Crüe gang. Bon Jovi were a long-haired rock’n’roll band that didn’t scare your parents, craftily bridging the gap between teenage pop and harder rock. Who knows how many people got their introduction to the harder side of the rock spectrum via bands like Jovi? I know I did.

Fast forward to summer of 1988 and the release of Bon Jovi’s New Jersey album. To the untrained eye a two-year gap had elapsed since the release of Slippery..., but really it wasn’t like that. The band hadn’t stopped. As a result of (and no doubt boosting the success of) Slippery..., Bon Jovi remained on the road for nearly 18 of those 24 months, finally bringing the tour to a close in January 1988. Jon recalled at the time: “The turnaround was incredible. We went home, wrote it, recorded it. There wasn’t time to piss. We were determined to make that album work, too. I was determined that people wouldn’t be able to say that Slippery... was a fluke. We wrote and wrote until we had it.”

The Slippery... tour, for all its glory and fanfare, was also a tough one for the band, and cracks were already starting to appear before they even got off the road. By the time the band released the final single from the album, Wanted Dead Or Alive – complete with its atmospheric promo clip – there were hints that all wasn’t entirely rosy in Bon Jovi's world. We got a glimpse into their on-the-road life via that video.

“There was nothing contrived about it whatsoever,” drummer Tico Torres recalled. The director, Wayne Isham, had free reign to film the band at his whim. “He was on the road with us – and he actually had keys to all the rooms. He’d literally walk into your room and start shooting, it was that candid.”

It was also getting to the point where the band had been living in each other’s pockets for far too long. They needed a break from the road, and from each other. But they weren’t going to get it. Once they returned home from the gruelling Slippery... trek, they took barely enough time off to come up for air before heading straight back to work: “We really didn’t do anything for three or four weeks,” said Jon. It was a scant amount of time to recover from such an exhausting tour.

Then the phone calls between Jon and Richie Sambora started to alter: “They changed from ‘What’re you doing today?’ to ‘I got this really neat hook!’.” But, as Jon confessed at the time, although their creativity was buzzing, there was still something missing.

“We demoed the first batch of songs, 17 in all... We really started to feel the pressure because we didn’t have the amazing song. I panicked, to be honest. I really wanted to do it again. Not for the monetary reasons, but it was such an amazing feeling to have done what we’d done... I’m walking around the house yelling: ‘I gotta pay for this place, we’ve got to write some fucking hot songs!’.”

While Slippery... had brought the talents of songwriter Desmond Child to the forefront, Bon Jovi and guitarist Sambora were quick to team up with him again, for four songs this time, notably the album’s first single, Bad Medicine. As a songwriting team they seemed to bring out the best in each other. And Sambora and Bon Jovi didn’t use just him this time, they also enlisted the help of LA songwriters Holly Knight (Aerosmith, Kiss, etc.) and Diane Warren (everybody), both of whom have a co-author credit on one song.

Adopting the methodology of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, recording for New Jersey took place in Vancouver from May 1 to July 31, 1988, and the band joined producer Bruce Fairbairn and engineer Bob Rock there with nearly 30 brand new Bon Jovi/Sambora compositions. It even looked at one point like the band would make New Jersey a double album. But their record company was having none of it; Jon was quoted at the time that Polygram fought him “tooth and nail” from the moment it was even suggested. A huge success didn’t need a double album to consolidate it: look what happened to Fleetwood Mac when they followed Rumours with the widely experimental double set Tusk. So it’s understandable if the powers that be might have been a little concerned. The band compromised, and ended up recording an album that clocked in at just over an hour.

There were other firsts for Bon Jovi, too, including the addition of female backing vocals on Lay Your Hands On Me, the album’s lead-off track and the Jersey tour’s set opener.

Originally New Jersey was going to have a title that reflected the good-natured double entendre of Slippery When Wet. The band toyed with such titles as Sons Of Beaches and Sixty Eight And I Owe You One but, as Jon said: “It parodied Slippery... and would have left us pigeonholed... Sons Of Beaches was great for the hands-up-in-the-air anthem stuff, but maybe it didn’t say: ‘Christ, these guys have got a hell of a lot better at writing songs’.”

And the truth was that they had got a lot better. Nearly two years on the road had made the band tighter, and Richie and Jon were changed songwriters – the development is tangible on the record. Where Slippery... had converted the promise of Bon Jovi and 7800 Fahrenheit into 10 slices of premier, radio-friendly arena rock, New Jersey took the Slippery... template and ran with it. The songs were longer, more mature, the sound of a band growing up. The sound of a band that had a sense of identity.

The idea behind opening track Lay Your Hands... was Jon’s attempt to say that, despite Bon Jovi’s stratospheric success, they were still accessible – that you could still get close to them, you could still touch them. There were two cases that supported this, too. Not least was that the band furnished the fan club members with Super 8 movie cameras to compile the footage for Bad Medicine. While recording Slippery... the band had taken early demos of the songs to a local pizza parlour to get the kids’ views on the new material.

As it had been successful for Slippery..., they opted for the same idea once again. After all, it was going to be the kids, not their record company executives, actually buying the records. The results were surprising, and two songs that were not planned to make the final cut got pushed forward: Stick To Your Guns – an epic about self-belief – and Wild Is The Wind, concerning the transitory nature of the road (and of the mythical ‘cowboy’). Again, this was another New Jersey song that lent itself well to the live arena – anthemic, and crying out for a singalong, just like Lay Your Hands On Me. When taken into the live arena, the extended drum intro heralded the band’s arrival on stage, and the extended breakdown allowed Jon the privilege of inviting the arena crowd into his ‘church’, and before you knew it 10,000 voices were singing as one and JBJ had them in the palm of his hand.

The standout songs on New Jersey also owe a lot to another of the Garden State’s musical artists – Bruce Springsteen. Blood On Blood is a case in point: a narrative extolling the virtues of childhood friendship and loyalty; expansive in musical terms, with its format differing from the Jovi ‘standard’ of ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’. Live, the song was turned into an extended jam, with Sambora taking over lead vocals for the middle section, emphasising the bond between them. But by the end of the tour they were about to undertake, the reality of the Bon Jovi brotherhood was fracturing around their ears.

As Jon told Classic Rock: “I should have gone fishing. I should have gone home for a year. But I couldn’t wait to get another record out; I couldn’t wait to show people that we hadn’t been lucky with the last album, that we could do it again. So we went on tour from October 1988 to February 1990. And that almost killed us.”

The first show of the Jersey Syndicate tour (as it was dubbed) was in Dublin on Halloween. And the band caught both themselves and their audiences unaware with their swift return to the road. But that’s where everyone wanted them – management, record company, the fans, and even the band themselves. What they didn’t realise at the time was that going on tour again so soon after the last one nearly brought about the end of the band.

Jon later admitted that he had dreaded the moment of returning to the stage for the New Jersey tour after the insanity of their previous one: “I was on steroids, I had grown a beard for two weeks, there were black circles under my eyes,” he recalled. “We really shouldn’t have done that. I was like: ‘Stop, please, I’m dying.’ And they said: ‘We’ve still got to go to Australia, to Europe again...’. And, holy fuck, I just wanted to crawl into bed and die.

“I hated it towards the end of the last [Slippery...] tour. I was tired. I love going out there, but I hated it. It almost killed me. And I didn’t realise, because you just run on adrenalin... I look at the pictures that were taken then and realise how sick I was. I’ve really gotten in shape for this, physically and mentally.”

They were brave words, but the same problems that occurred on the Slippery... trek were going to manifest themselves to an even greater degree this time around. What Jon had said about adrenalin was true, though, so much so that he even played about six weeks of the ...Jersey tour with a leg fracture. “I broke it on stage, I cracked the tibia and I got it taped up so I could still bounce around on it.”

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The tour for New Jersey lasted for nearly 17 months and took in all four corners of the globe. It was around the beginning of the tour that Jon incurred the wrath of New York shock jock Howard Stern. Up until this point, Stern had been a supporter of the band. “He went on a rampage for about a year, saying what scumbags me and my organisation are,” Jon said. And the reason? “Because I couldn’t go to his radio station the week Bad Medicine came out. He literally went on a tirade for a year, and it really upset me. I was a true friend of his...”

In August of 1989 Bon Jovi made a famous trip to Moscow, headlining the inaugural (and, as far as we know, only) Moscow Music Peace Festival. In April of that year their manager Doc McGhee was convicted on charges of smuggling $40,000 worth of marijuana into the United States. Instead of being thrown in jail, the infamous manager received a $15,000 fine and a five-year suspended sentence. However, as part of his deal McGhee had been instructed to form an organisation that would aim to educate people about the dangers of drugs and other substance abuse. And although the charges against McGhee concerned an incident that occurred back in 1982, prior to any involvement with Bon Jovi, the band helped him out of this sticky mess.

Calling it the Make A Difference Foundation, McGhee organised two massive shows at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow. Alongside Jovi, the shows were to include sets from The Scorpions, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne and Russian rock band Gorky Park. The shows, despite being something of a debacle for the performers involved, kept McGhee from going to prison. They also meant Bon Jovi kept their manager. And also kept Bon Jovi on the road. The more money Jovi earned from being road dogs, the more McGhee got – it made sense to keep them busy.

At the time, Jon told UK music paper Sounds that he thought the Moscow festival was “a great idea. It was a Godsend because it turned around something that was bad and hit millions of people with a message.” Which is all well and good, but the truth was far from that. But Jon wasn’t going to admit that then; everything had that positive Jovi spin. In reality it was totally different, as Jon admitted to Classic Rock years later: “That festival was a nightmare – everyone’s ego, every band,” Jon told us. “I was the guy who didn’t get high. But the plane that took the bands over... they found needles on it, for Christ’s sake! I was so jet-lagged that I was out of it in bed, but all the band were out there pounding vodka, fighting people. Ozzy wouldn’t let Mötley Crüe go on above him; we insisted on finishing the show...”

This period obviously led to serious cracks in the relationship between Jovi and McGhee.

There was another occurrence in 1989 that had ramifications for the band, and that was Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s involvement with a young New Jersey band called Skid Row, which included Jon’s childhood friend Dave ‘Snake’ Sabo, a guitarist who had spent a short time with Bon Jovi prior to the arrival of Sambora. Jon essentially took Skid Row under his wing, encouraged them to be signed to McGhee’s management company, helped orchestrate their record deal, and then took them out as an opening act on several legs of the ...Jersey tour.

But this wasn’t a wholly selfless gesture on the part of Sambora and Bon Jovi; they were to receive a cut of the royalties from Skid Row’s first album as payment for their assistance and work on the band’s behalf. However, it all ended strangely and in court, and needless to say there was a huge falling out between the bands – specifically between Jon and Skid Row’s volatile frontman Sebastian Bach. It was just one more thing to add to the catalogue of stress that was piling up on the shoulders of Bon Jovi. It also seems strangely out of character for a man who at the time was promoting an album that spoke of brotherhood, friendship and loyalty.

Jon went on record as saying that he didn’t understand Bach’s reaction, but managed to rationalise it: “The Skids are wonderful guys, though. I just spent a week’s vacation with Snake and Rachel [Bolan, bass]. I still love them very much – and Sebastian’s probably a good kid too. I don’t spend enough time with him to find out.

“It’s tough for him to grow out of my shadow. I mean, every fucking interview they were saying Jon did this for you, Jon did that. I’m sure he got sick of it, like ‘Fuck Jon!’. I understand that.”

The seemingly endless New Jersey tour was also significant in that it saw changes to the band members’ personal lives. Richie Sambora was involved with Cher. Jon, meanwhile, married his childhood sweetheart on April 29, 1989. “We went out and got very drunk in Las Vegas, went to a tattoo parlour and got myself a new tattoo, went gambling in a casino and won lots and lots of money, and I said: ‘Hey, let’s get married!’. So we went and we did that, and then got back to the hotel before the bar closed.”

Jon’s long-term relationship had been addressed in oblique terms on New Jersey, whether on Living In Sin (written by Jon alone) or on the epic ballad I’ll Be There For You. But now Jon had grown up enough to consider making an honest woman of his partner.

Bon Jovi the band were growing up, but they were also growing apart. Richie had had enough – as they all had. “I had to sleep until the moment I left. That's how fucked up we were. You can imagine, two 16-and-a-half-month tours back-to-back,” he told Classic Rock. “We never stopped, we were riding the rocket ship of success. We stayed on the road forever. We were so fried.

“But they were the days of wine and roses, and everybody (actually, not everybody) was indulging in the pleasures of the day. It was a more promiscuous time and we were having a blast, and then it just got really fucking tired. It was really hard to be able to take care of anybody else but yourself. And we always used to look out for each other – still do. But everyone was struggling with their demons, and no one was talking, and that’s when you get isolated.

“We couldn’t understand why we weren’t liking it or each other, but we knew we were tired of it,” Jon admitted. “Everything was exploding around us, and so were we.”

The final show of Bon Jovi's Jersey Syndicate world tour (show No.237, fact fans) took place in Mexico in 1990. While a student riot was raging outside the venue, the band were going stir crazy inside. The riot ended up delaying the show. Video footage of that time exists, but it’s not something that the band recall with any great fondness:. “Oh, that footage, man... Bloated, drunk, tired, steroids, no voice...” Jon Bon Jovi told Classic Rock a little over two years ago, a decade after the event.

“It was no one’s fault, if truth be told. They – management, the company, the agents – were only doing their jobs. But in retrospect they were all more than happy to make a buck on it. McGhee should have had the faith in us to say, this is not a flash in the pan, go home, we don’t need to make any more money. But he didn’t. None of them did.

“We spent Christmas at a hotel together in London,” Jon continued. “That’s no way to spend Christmas.”

Later on, Jon would admit that 1990 was a seriously low point in his life, and it all stemmed from the pressure that both he and McGhee were putting on the band: “I was as low as I could imagine myself being. I was out in California, drinkin’, being miserable, wanted to seek help, jump out of my car when I was driving,” Jon recalled. “I was a mess. It took everything out of it that I loved. Until I took control, it sucked.”

Jon eventually parted company with Doc McGhee and did take control of the situation and of his band, but that was another couple of years down the road.

Meanwhile, in 1990, it really looked as though it was the end of the road for Bon Jovi; the British tabloid press might prove the final straw. When Classic Rock’s Mick Wall asked Jon just after the release of Blaze Of Glory in 1990 whether there would be another Bon Jovi album, the conversation went as follows: “I hope so.” But you don’t know so? “I don’t know so and I can publicly say it, to you. We were in Mexico, at the end of the tour, with nothing but wonderful things happening. We were finishing the tour doing stadiums, which is just how we wanted to end, and we were feeling real good. Then Kerrang! says Tico [Torres, drummer] is leaving the band. Suddenly we got drummer tapes and pictures and everything coming in. It was like: ‘Hey, Tico, you quitting the band?’. He was like: ‘First I’ve heard of it, man!’.

“That was amazing. That’s when it started. But we pushed it away. I threw the magazine out of the window because I knew it wasn’t true. I think the quotes were like, the drummer’s quitting and the band is breaking up. I thought, what the fuck is this?”

But, as is inevitable in media circles, the British tabloids grabbed hold of the story (or non-story, according to Jon) and went into full, headlines-before- evidence mode; The Sun ran a piece with the headline 'It’s All Ovi For Bon Jovi'. Which, of course, whether the story of Tico leaving, the band splitting or anything else had any truth to it or not, only added more fuel to the fire.

“It [The Sun] said that Sambora was out and there were money problems, that he wasn’t happy with his cut and he was leaving for Cher and all this shit,” Jon recalled. “I’m reading it out of the fax thinking, what is all this shit?

“Then the phone calls start coming in – people telling me they want the gig. I’m not entertained by it any more. It’s got to this point because the five of us haven’t been in the same room together since before the last show and it’s added fuel to the fire. So now all of us are believing there are problems. I can’t tell you what the problems are about, but we think we got problems.”

The erstwhile solid bond between Richie and Jovi seemed to be crumbling. When asked outright whether the two of them had grown apart, Jon answered: “In the state of things at this time, yeah. Right now, in July 1990, yeah. Things aren’t happy in the Bon Jovi camp, that’s for sure. They’re not happy at all."

“I don’t want the band to break up, 'cos the five of us... I want to keep it together, 'cos these are the guys that seven years ago were here when we sat on this ledge for the first time, when we didn’t have enough money for a pretzel across the street, and no one knew whether Bon Jovi was a [brand of] jeans or what the fuck it was. We had to fight for everything we got. And we had to fight even on the New Jersey album to prove that we were gonna be around.”

Despite all the grief, the ructions and whatever other potentially explosive situations that were around them at that difficult time some 15 years ago – and whatever other problems they have had to deal with since – in 2003 Bon Jovi were still around, arguably bigger than they'd ever been. The good times for the band, it seemed, were here again.

Which is pretty much where Jon said they would be when, back in 1990, he was asked where he thought the band would be in 20 years time: “I want us to be together,” he began. “It’s really been my love, and I feel a loyalty to those four guys that I only feel toward my immediate family.”

However, he added: “I’ll only keep it together if it’s fun. I can’t do it for money and I can’t do it to keep the record company happy. I can’t do it unless it’s going to be a good time.”

In 2003, it did finally look as though they were having that good time.

From the archive

This was published in Classic Rock issue 55.

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