“Livin’ on a Prayer” singer Jon Bon Jovi, 58, celebrates the new decade with 2020, his namesake band’s 15th studio album (releasing Oct. 2). It’s fortified with the kind of feel-good, stadium-rock anthems that Bon Jovi fans love and other songs dealing with the issues of today, including the COVID-19 crisis. Bon Jovi also runs three nonprofit JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurants in New Jersey, with the goal of building community and providing meals and training to those in need.
Why such socially conscious themes?
2020 is the most unique year that any of us has ever lived. Because of the pandemic, the state of political affairs and the divisions, it’s a distinctly different time than I have ever known in my lifetime. I’m at a place in my life and career that I can be a witness and write about it. “Do What You Can” is one of the songs that came out of the COVID crisis.
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The first track on the album, “Limitless,” is upbeat. Are you an optimist?
The cornerstone of Bon Jovi’s music was optimism, always. In the face of grunge music, we were the polar opposite. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is the ultimate optimist song. So nothing’s changed.
What has the pandemic taught you?
We have all been forced to reassess our lives, and maybe we don’t have to run on that treadmill as fast and as furiously as we have in the past. This quality time with my family hasn’t hindered my creativity; it’s helped me to be a little more grounded.
You work with son Jesse in his Hampton Water wine business. What’s that like?
Jesse and his college roommate came up with the idea and have had huge success. I jokingly say that if I’m going to be involved in my kid’s business, I’m much happier that it’s rosé than tube socks. I like the samples a lot more!
What are some of the social issues that you wanted to cover on 2020?
It was two years ago that I sat down and wrote “Blood in the Water,” so that was going to be one bookend. I started to cover issues, whether it was soldiers with PTSD with the song “Unbroken,” or a year ago when the back-to-back shootings in Dayton and El Paso gave me cause for alarm because they were horrific and I sat down to write “Lower the Flag.”
By the beginning of 2020, the record was done, it was turned in and we were going to go on the road in May. Then everything turned on a dime. I realized if I was going to have a record called 2020 and tell you that I was writing a topical record, how could I not address COVID?
And so, in light of what happened at one of our community restaurants—one of the JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurants, where I was washing dishes, my wife took a picture in order to tell our in-need population that the restaurant was remaining open. She said, “What should the caption of the photo be?”
And, honestly, what she probably was asking me was, “What are the hours of the days?” And I said, “If you can’t do it, you do what you can.” And I said, “Well, there you go, there’s a song. That’s what I do.” I realized to release a topical record, I had to write a song about the COVID crisis. Because if ever there was a time to write a song that everyone could relate to, it was the pandemic. So I wrote this empowering song, “Do What You Can.”
And then as that’s finished, the George Floyd incident happens and the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement takes place. And again, I would be remiss if I didn’t try to tell a story. As a witness to that history, I sat down to write what became “American Reckoning.” At that time, I said, “OK, enough. I’m mentally exhausted from the process of trying to capture moments in time that have happened over these last two years.”
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Two of the songs were written after the lockdown. How were they recorded?
We flew to California. John Shanks, our guitar player/co-producer for the last 15 years, has his own place, so we all agreed to fly out to L.A. for two days and knock the songs out. Phil [X] and John live out there, Tico [Torres] and Hugh [McDonald] took one private plane from Florida and I took one from New Jersey, and that was it. We spent the time, money and effort because I knew the songs were worth it, and we went to a private studio and flew right back.
The JBJ Soul Kitchen has been open during the pandemic to feed people. But it started years before. What was the inspiration?
I’ve had the JBJ Soul Foundation for 15 years now. For a decade and a half, we’ve built affordable housing from coast to coast, nearly 1,000 units of affordable housing for people from all walks of life. We opened the first JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey, more than 10 years ago now. Red Bank is where our New Jersey home is, and then we built another one after Super Storm Sandy in a place called Tom’s River, New Jersey, which encompasses even more, because under our roof, we have a food bank, a food pantry, a service provider and a culinary program. Having learned from our experiences in Red Bank, we knew that people needed service providing, and so we teamed up with several and brought them under our roof.
And then the third one is at Rutgers University because we were very aware of kids who are dealing with food insecurity at college. And so, through Rutgers, we embraced that model, and up until the pandemic we were operating out of Rutgers.
So we have three of these restaurants and it started when I started the foundation 15 years ago. And then in the economic downturn when we weren’t building houses, my wife’s idea was that we need to feed the people that you built the houses for, so it was her concept for us to build the restaurants, and, of course, that unique model didn’t exist anywhere and we created it.
You mentioned what you learned from COVID personally, but how do you see it out in the world?
I think that this class of 2020, these kids right now, high school and college graduates, are going to be our next great generation. I say that because they were born out of 9/11 and then they were forced through the pandemic to miss their prom, their graduation, turning of age and going to school. [The loss of] all the innocence and fun things is going to make them think harder and be more driven to prove that they are going to be ones to save us. I see a lot of that determination and I have faith in them that they’re going to be that great, innovative generation.
How have you changed from the beginning when you were getting your career established to today? It seems there’s a big difference in how you now portray yourself?
One of the things about me, and having been around as long as I have, is I grew up in public. I was 21 when I got a record deal, and I’m 58 years old. So if I were to pretend to be 21 years old today, I will have let myself down. And so, folks that have been on this journey with me, whether they were there in the beginning and their lives took them in a different direction or another generation came on midway through, the train kept rolling. People got on and off that train over, like I said, these nearly 40 years now, and this is just who I am today.
You’ve been involved with sports teams over the years. Are you the owner of a team now?
No. I was once upon a time. That’s how the foundation was born. Some 15 years ago, I was the co-founder and owner of an arena football team. We played indoors and it was on television. It was very successful and I enjoyed it immensely, but after five years with the economic downturn and its restructuring, I took that as my opportunity to sell my stake. I kept the foundation and my partner kept the team, and then my pursuits were different.
What is there in life that you don’t have that you want?
Time. I want more time. I’m starting to enjoy things even more, and I want more time.
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