Jersey Versus the Grunge Machine : Jon Bon Jovi's response to the ascendancy of Seattle bands is his most introspective, pop-oriented album yet--but his rocking days aren't over

Dennis Hunt is a Times staff writer.

"It's going down in a sea of grunge, man."

That's how a good-natured Jon Bon Jovi described what's happening to his brand of rock, which has faded commercially since the success of Seattle's grunge-rock bands, such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, reshaped rock in the last two years.

In the mid-'80s, Bon Jovi--the name of the band he leads--was one of the biggest-selling acts in the business. The 1986 album "Slippery When Wet" led the way with sales of 8 million copies, followed by 1988's "New Jersey" with 5 million. Critics scoffed, but the uplifting anthems about youthful frustration and desire seemed to touch a chord with the group's audience.

Then came the burnout, with Bon Jovi and bandmates David Bryan (keyboards), Tico Torres (drums), Richie Sambora (guitar) and Alec John Such (bass) taking a three-year vacation from each other. With his hit album "Blaze of Glory" in 1990, featuring music from the movie "Young Guns II," Bon Jovi seemed to be laying the foundation for a solo career. But he and the band, formed in 1983, reunited last year to record the current album, "Keep the Faith."

Bon Jovi's response to the grunge threat is his most introspective, pop-oriented album. Measured against his past hits, "Keep the Faith" is widely viewed as a commercial disappointment, despite surpassing the 1-million sales mark and yielding two hit singles, including the current "Bed of Roses."

The album is just one part of an upheaval in the Bon Jovi world. The 30-year-old rocker from Sayreville, N.J., not only cut his famous long locks last year, but also fired his managers, lawyers and agents.

One thing hasn't changed. Always known as a touring band, Bon Jovi just hit the road, beginning a yearlong tour (including a March 12 date at the Forum) armed with an unshakable goal: to prove that this music isn't obsolete and the band isn't in decline.


Question: "Keep the Faith" is a departure from your harder-rocking albums--more mellow and romantic. Why?

Answer: I'm in a different place now. I'm not this wild, angry kid from New Jersey. Don't get me wrong. I haven't gone soft. I can still rock with the best of them, but musically I want to explore other things, to explore myself more.


Q: What do you think about grunge and the Seattle sound?

A: I like a few of the bands. But some of the music is too negative for my tastes. I'm an optimist. Too much negativity brings me down.


Q: Do you think grunge will last?

A: Things are cyclical in music. Things will come around again to my kind of music. There are a few good bands playing that music, but that's all. A few of those bands will survive--the really good ones--and the pretenders will fade.


Q: What's your audience now?

A: The average age is early 20s. In the past it would be 14 to 16. That audience in the "Slippery" days has grown up. Some young kids now don't know who I am. I'm an old man to them. They're all into Nirvana.


Q: Can you relate to the kids of today?

A: Yes, if they like good rock music. But in some ways I can't relate. I see anger and disappointment in the kids of today that wasn't there even when I graduated high school. I understand it, but I'm not going to pretend to be part of it. The truth is I'm beyond that now. I'd be lying to the kids if I told them I was 16 and angry at my mom and dad. They wouldn't believe me anyway. I have to sing about what I know about and where I am mentally. And now it's not about anger.


Q: What are the details of the burnout the band suffered after the "New Jersey" tour?

A: It began with the "New Jersey" album, trying too hard to live up to being up on a pedestal after the "Slippery" album. We were on such a high that we didn't want it to end. For it to keep going, the "New Jersey" album had to be a killer, in sales and quality. It did well, but it didn't outdo "Slippery," though we nearly killed ourselves trying. I was consumed with that whole effort.

We toured constantly, like maniacs, trying to prove we were worthy of being on a pedestal. I drove the band into the ground. I never knew it, and they never said no. Looking back, it was crazy, but I didn't see it then.


Q: After "Blaze of Glory" hit, it seemed like you were going to go solo and the band would never play together again. Why did you decide to work together again?

A: We never split up, we always kept it open. We needed a break from that whole superstar-band thing. From 1983 to 1990 we lived out of a suitcase. Two guys got a divorce, and Richie (Sambora, who also made a solo album) didn't know if he was coming or going. My brain was fried.

We started to work as a band last January (1992). It was time to try it again. It took three months to get back to where we used to be, to clear out the bad memories of the old days. I realized how much I missed the band when I was working with other musicians on the "Blaze" album.


Q: What was the reason for the shake-up in your business team?

A: The days of the big machine are over. The machine was getting too big and unnecessary. Things had to get more simple. It's silly to act like this big superstar with tons of people working for you. I was simplifying my life in other ways, so I figured to do it on the business side too.


Q: How about critics? They seem to be gunning for you.

A: There will be those guys who say, " '80s commercial successful rockers, may they die a slow death." What I do isn't the taste of most critics. That's the way it's always been. I accepted that long ago. Any artist likes adulation from fans and critics. But I don't fret over critics not liking the band. I can't force them to like us.


Q: If you're putting your albums on the record player, which would you put on?

A: People might think I'd say "Slippery" because it's my most successful. But it's the third place out of my six albums. I'd put the "Blaze" album on if I wanted to listen to one of my records. I like the music, the lyrics, the feeling I get when I listen to it. Then I'd put on "Keep the Faith"--then "Slippery." But I never listen to my stuff on a record player anymore anyway.


Q: When you're listening to other artists, who do you listen to?

A: I'd put on a Tom Waits record. Have you heard "Bone Machine"? He's an unbelievable poet. Those are my influences--the great lyricists, not the great rock 'n' rollers. If I could write one song as good as any 50 Waits has written, I'd be like I died and went to heaven.


Q: Your passion for music seems to be intact. Has it changed at all?

A: It's still there but it's different. I'm not driven to compete with other bands or to be the king of the hill. I'm not in overdrive or driven for no real reason. My passion is for the music, not for my place in this business. I look at my career differently now.


Q: How so?

A: It's not about being bigger or better. Those days are over. It's not about money--though I've never been driven to pile up as much money as I could. For now it's about taking my music to the people and seeing what happens.

I look at audience acceptance differently. If they're not into it and this tour doesn't work out, I can live with that. But I'm going to continue to make music. I'm not going to run away or drop out because of a slump. I know I can make music that someone will like. The day I quit is the day the fans don't care about me anymore.

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