Ever since Jon Bon Jovi implored fans to take his hand, with jacket-fringes flying, mermaid hair wafting, and dimples dimplin’ – Livin’ On A Prayer being just one of the delights in the chocolate box of hits that is 1986’s Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi’s third and break-out album – the global public has obsessed over the New Jersey vocalist in every fashion fathomable.
But despite the runaway success of his band – 130 million albums sold, consistently top-grossing worldwide tours, and a 35-year career – at 58, Bon Jovi finds ultimate pleasure in turning the adoration he’s received back out onto a world he sees is in need of unity and love.
“It’s not a political record, but 2020 is unlike any year I can remember,” the musician says of this month’s Bon Jovi 2020, the 15th album from the group. “I was moved to write these songs as a witness to history, [because] I believe the greatest gift of an artist is the ability to use their voice to speak to issues that move us.” Join us as we look at the new record under three banners of inspiration: photos, film and family.
The concept for the album’s cover image – shot by the celebrated Clay McBride – came to Jon as he contemplated an image of former US President John F. Kennedy, captured by photographer Michael Ochs (most well-known for his massive archive of rock-related images). The photo depicts the then-POTUS deep in thought, prior to addressing a California crowd in August 1962. JFK is reflective both in mien and quite literally, as we see his audience mirrored in the lenses of his sunglasses. “I saw this photo and wondered what the president was thinking,” says Bon Jovi. “Since there are so many socially conscious songs on the record, [along with] my admiration of the photo of JFK, I asked [McBride] to capture it as the cover of Bon Jovi 2020.”
In Jon’s version, he stands outside the New York City courthouse.
A second photo, which inspired one of the most important tracks on the album, wasn’t taken by an artistic luminary at a huge event – quite the opposite, and that’s what makes it special. Snapped by Bon Jovi’s wife Dorothea, it presents the musician at his non-profit, volunteer-based community project JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey, simply helping wash dishes.
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The Soul Kitchen is just one of the many brilliant arms to Jon’s JBJ Soul Foundation, which aims to “rebuild pride in one’s self and one’s community” by breaking the cycle of hunger, poverty and homelessness. Bon Jovi posted Dorothea’s pic to his Instagram on March 19 with the caption: “If you can’t do what you do, you do what you can.” This quote became a lyric within the moving Do What You Can, which describes the adaptable American public facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
To Be Of Service is a 2019 Netflix documentary film which follows the lives of war veterans who, having returned from combat, find themselves battling a new and shadowy demon – post-traumatic stress disorder – and how service dogs can change their lives. Bon Jovi wrote the album’s closing track Unbroken especially for the film. “It was a difficult song to write because I had never served, and I wanted to honour those who served, in a very honest way,” he explains. “I wanted to write something those men and women could be proud of.”
The result is nuanced and sensitive. “I was looking for a twist in the lyrics where the soldier – who is an idealist – comes back and finds that once they hang up the uniform, the thing that they’re so identified by is no longer what identifies them,” Bon Jovi says. “These men and women come back and have to adjust to being a civilian. They are certainly never going to be the same.”
“What if it was your loved one lying on the ground?” asks Lower The Flag. Purely musically, the track is a masterclass in simple beauty – comprising just Bon Jovi and his guitar – while conceptually, it lays bare the shocking fashion in which the news cycle whizzes through gun-horror after gun-horror before there is even time to lament each massacre. The track finishes with Bon Jovi listing the places still grieving the loss of their people: Las Vegas, Nevada, Sandy Hook Elementary, Orlando, Florida, and Columbine. “I was thinking,” says Jon, “What if it was my own family?”
The thought of one’s family is, of course, not just about comparable heartache – it’s also the biggest source of joy in Bon Jovi’s life. The Story of Love opens with the line: “Fathers love daughters like mothers love sons,” and Bon Jovi admits he began the track as an ode to his children – Stephanie (27), Jesse (25), Jake (18), and Romeo (16). From there, it expanded. “I realised I was writing it about my entire family: my children, my wife and my parents,” says Jon. “From ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’, that’s the story of love.”
Bon Jovi 2020 by Bon Jovi is out October 2 via Universal.