Jon Bon Jovi is sitting in the office of his Manhattan home, an air purifier spouting plumes behind him, doing video interviews to promote his political new album, 2020.
It’s 19 years to the week of 9/11 and the memory of that tragedy hangs heavy on his mind. “I’ve only been back in the city for the last few days,” he says, assessing the mood in New York after months of lockdown. The city is in transition. But it was in transition 19 years ago this week after 9/11, and it was in another transition period in 2008 during the economic downturn. “One thing about New Yorkers is that they are resilient. They find a way to come back and they did in both those other crises – so I don’t ever count New York out.” After four decades in music, Bon Jovi looks and sounds galvanised by America’s current turmoil. The singer – best known for decade-defining Eighties anthems like Livin’ On A Prayer – is almost as well known for his philanthropic work these days. The 58-year-old spent the first weeks of lockdown helping to feed those in need at the JBJ Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant in New Jersey, part of an initiative he founded in 2006.
Describing himself as the “hall-of-fame dishwasher”, he was captured on camera by his wife, who posted the photo on Instagram, captioning it: “If you can’t do what you do, do what you can.” The line inspired a song, recorded the same week, which became the glue that holds 2020’s disparate themes – Black Lives Matter, the plight of veterans, Covid-19 – together. The video for Do What You Can sees him traipsing through the empty streets of a pandemic-struck Manhattan.
“Every day is an opportunity to write something,” he says of lockdown. “It’s just how receptive you are on that day. In this time I found it fruitful. I had much more to talk about being witness than I cared to talk about in the personal.
“I thought that the last record was what I needed to say at that time,” he adds, referring to This House Is Not For Sale, the band’s first album since long-standing guitarist Richie Sambora’s departure. “I needed to make a band statement record. I needed to clear the air on how I felt about where the band was going. But I didn’t feel the need to reiterate that now. I would rather not have had a record, because I had said it.
“And so there was nothing else in that book to write. Now I needed to find other topics and the world around us was genuine.” American Reckoning, which deals with the death of unarmed black man George Floyd and subsequent global anti-racism protests, forms a kind of centrepiece. “In the day or two after the death of George Floyd, a friend of his, who was a professional basketball player, came out and was describing to a local journalist on national television how, in his last breaths, this big man, who was face down in cuffs on the ground, was crying out for his mom. And that just hurt my heart and I welled up. It led me to sitting in my room and picking up the guitar and starting to piece together my emotions in a song.”Jon Bon Jovi (Clay McBride/PA)
Bon Jovi is aware that he writes from a place of privilege. “I know that I am fortunate,” he says with a sigh. “I know that, as a white, older, affluent male, who happens to also be a celebrity, chances are if I can getting pulled over by a cop it’s to get in the motorcade on the way to the show. So I get that and I don’t take that for granted. I am lucky.”
You would expect Bon Jovi and his hard-touring band – currently David Bryan, Tico Torres, Phil X and Hugh McDonald – to be missing the live circuit. And they are, but the singer is philosophical about being unable to share these songs with a stadium full of fans. “I don’t think it is frustrating because the songs will live forever,” he says. “Whether I get to perform them in 2020 or 2022, they are there now. And the reason I am releasing them is to share them so that the time when we do get to perform them again, they just might not be as current.“By the time that touring gets back to what it was in 2019 it might be 2022. I might have another record by then. Who knows? All I care about today is talking about the record. And here it is.”
The album title, of course, refers to the fact that 2020 is an American election year, and a showdown looms between Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. “This is going to be a tumultuous fourth quarter,” Bon Jovi offers. “This is the calm before the storm. Either way the political landscape in America is going to cause conflict, whether it’s verbal or physical I don’t know. There are sparks flying already. You can just see it. View this post on Instagram We're in Times Square! Thanks for all your support @spotify! Listen to 2020 (Deluxe) this weekend, which includes the bonus tracks Shine, Luv Can, and Do What You Can w/ @jennifernettles
A post shared by Bon Jovi (@bonjovi) on Oct 9, 2020 at 8:09am PDT
“Everybody always says this election is the most important of their lifetime but this is probably the most division certainly that there has ever been in my lifetime, and maybe since Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860. This is truly a choice in the direction of America, which will again have some influence on the rest of the world.“When the electorate speaks, that will be the future. That’s who they are. So we will find that out. But sparks are flying no matter which way it goes.”
2020 by Bon Jovi is out now.
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