UNCASVILLE, Conn. - On a new song called What's Left of Me, one of the world's biggest rock stars channels the voices of a farmer, a factory worker, a military veteran, even an unsuccessful musician - ordinary folks, all struggling to adapt to changing circumstances in our country.
The star, in case you're wondering, is Jon Bon Jovi; the track is from his band's 12th studio album, What About Now, out March 12. Like many of Bon Jovi's previous hits, it has a do-or-die spirit that evokes both frustration and invincibility, urging us to strive hard and dream big. But for the singer/songwriter, there's also a topicality that's typical of the album - "a strong social overview," as he puts it.
It's late afternoon, and Bon Jovi and his bandmates are taking a rehearsal break days before launching the group's Because We Can world tour (named for Now's driving first single) at the Mohegan Sun resort and casino. Lounging on a sofa in his dressing room, Bon Jovi seems relaxed and fit. He turns 51 on Saturday, but he still has the movie-star smile and luxuriant hair that made him one of rock's reigning sex symbols in the '80s.
Granted, the locks are shorter and more tastefully layered than they were back in the day, befitting a star whose image has evolved in ways that few who once dismissed his group as a "hair band" would ever have predicted - and not just in the musical arena. In recent years, Bon Jovi has drawn attention for his political and social activism, campaigning for Democratic presidential contenders dating back to Al Gore and, in 2006, starting the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, aimed at helping families and people who face economic hardship.
In 2010, President Obama appointed the singer to the White House Council for Community Solutions, where his focus is on helping underprivileged young people find jobs. More recently, as one of New Jersey's most famous sons, Bon Jovi played a very public role in the recovery following Hurricane Sandy, touring the damage and performing at a pair of high-profile, all-star benefit concerts that raised a combined $74.5 million for relief efforts.
There are signs that the old stigmas still chafe, though. When references are made to the social consciousness of fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen and U2's Bono - two icons to whom Bon Jovi also has been compared musically, and not always in ways that flatter him - he asks, "What have they done?"
The question seems like a joke, but Bon Jovi isn't laughing, or smiling. "I'm not being facetious. Really, what have they done?"
Springsteen's own campaigning on behalf of Obama is mentioned, along with the support that the recent MusiCares Person of the Year has given, through benefit concerts and personal contributions, to everyone from Amnesty International to local charities. Bono's philanthropic projects are cited, particularly his work on behalf of international debt relief and AIDS awareness, through which he has reached out to a diverse assortment of politicians and world leaders.
Bon Jovi pauses, weighing his response. "There are those who advocate, and those who do," he says. "I'm not trying to slight my peers, but there is a difference between using a soapbox and actually getting your hands dirty
. I've spent not only years and millions of dollars but hours and hours and hours of my time doing what I do, and that's very different from what anyone else is doing."
He points to his foundation's Soul Kitchen, a non-profit community restaurant in Red Bank, N.J., where those who can't afford to pay for meals volunteer to prepare and serve food, set and bus tables or wash dishes, as Bon Jovi has done himself. "I had to stop washing the dishes after a while - not because I didn't really, truly get joy from standing in the back participating, but because we realized that I was taking a job away from a person who could find dignity in that, who needed that sense of empowerment."
Sister Mary Scullion, a Philadelphia-based nun who has earned wide praise for her work combating homelessness, another key concern for Bon Jovi, is a board member, and describes him as "an extraordinary leader and person who works as hard as any of us. It's not just about writing a check with him; he helps us strategize and can leverage his leadership by getting other corporations to bring attention to the plight of people in need."
Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis notes that there has always been "a strong aspirational element in Bon Jovi's music, and now that's being manifested in other areas. His band has earned longevity, and some better reviews, and there's a sense that he also wants to establish himself as someone taken more seriously outside of music."
Such ambitions seem to inform the material on Now, for which Bon Jovi teamed with frequent collaborators such as band guitarist Richie Sambora and musician/composer Billy Falcon, as well as uber-producer John Shanks, who worked with the group on 2005's Have A Nice Day. There are the usual arena-ready anthems, with crowd-pleasing platitudes such as "You want to start a fire, it only takes a spark" (from the title track), or "There's devils in heaven, there's angels in hell" (That's What the Water Made Me).
But Bon Jovi maintains that the songs were specifically influenced by events that transpired as he was writing them, between December 2011 and last July. "We were heading into the end of Obama's first term, and America was in recovery but still teetering. Europe was teetering, too; austerity plans were or weren't going to take effect. So it's sort of a snapshot of that period, though I hope it will also be timeless."
He had finished writing before Sandy rolled in last October. "I was in London when it hit, and I hadn't heeded the warnings," he admits. His Jersey home wasn't affected, but his downtown Manhattan residence lost water and power, requiring family members to relocate to a hotel. "The tragedy some of our neighbors suffered was unbelievable, but, as always, people came together in a real New York/New Jersey way - a way that's typical of Americans, too."
Despite his history of endorsing Democrats, Bon Jovi has only kind words for his state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, after watching him work closely with Obama in Sandy's wake. "I have forever changed my opinion of our governor, because his approach was totally non-partisan. He wasn't concerned about politics; he was just protective of the people of our state, trying to do as much good as possible."
In fact, like Bono (if he'll pardon another comparison), who has appealed to some notably conservative voices in his humanitarian efforts, Bon Jovi doesn't insist on shared ideology in enlisting, or providing, support. He has contributed money to a Republican congressman from Ohio, Jim Renacci, whom he describes as "like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He could be making a lot more money in the private sector, but he wanted to go to D.C. to right things that he thinks are wrong, and God bless him for it."
For all his engagement, though, Bon Jovi insists that he harbors no political ambitions himself ("That would be a thankless, miserable job") and that he'll never make the concert stage a platform for his views ("That's not the time or the place to talk about things like that").
What fans can expect from the Because We Can tour is "a big rock show, with a catalog of music you're sure to know. Chances are your mom knows the songs, and your kids do, too. We've been doing this for 30 years now, and I feel flattered and humbled by that."
Indeed, while Bon Jovi doesn't occupy the same pop stratosphere that it ascended to after 1986's Slippery When Wet, which according to Recording Industry Association of America figures has sold 12 million copies, the group remains a huge concert draw. And the past two Bon Jovi albums, 2007's Lost Highway and 2009's The Circle, respectively surpassed platinum and gold status -- nothing to sneeze at for a band of their vintage in an era of declining sales.
Sambora attributes the group's endurance in part "to the fact that we all have individual outlets. I just did a solo album (2012's Aftermath of the Lowdown) and tour, which were very enriching." Drummer Tico Torres paints, and keyboardist David Bryan has forged a career as a musical theater composer: He won two Tony Awards in 2010 for his songs and orchestrations for the Broadway hit Memphis, and is now working with Memphis collaborator Joe DiPietro on a show about the Brill Building songwriters of the early '60s, Chasing the Song, for which he has written 25 original tunes.
Bon Jovi himself hasn't released a solo album since 1997's Destination Anywhere, though he did earn a Golden Globe nomination this year for Not Running Anymore, recorded for the film Stand Up Guys. But the group's face and voice seems less compelled to venture out on his own, reasoning that its collective efforts "are at least as much my solo projects as they are band records."
He pauses again, perhaps not wanting to sound immodest. "Obviously, everyone contributes to what we do," Bon Jovi says. "And we all feel great about where we're at, and where we've been. And where we're going. We give thanks - we really do."