The lowest moment of Richie Sambora's life was the night in 2008 when he was arrested for DUI with his then-10-year-old daughter Ava in the car.
Only a year after the Bon Jovi guitarist had left rehab for alcohol and pill abuse, he was pulled over in Laguna Beach after police saw him weaving on the highway in his Hummer. They booked and released him, and the Laguna Beach police described him as "quiet and cooperative and he didn't cause any problems."
The arrest capped a brutal year of personal trials: his divorce to actress Heather Locklear was finalized, his new relationship with Denise Richards faltered and his father died of lung cancer.
Most famous musicians would go out of their way to hide a night like that, or at least couch it in some traditional narrative of redemption on record. But on Sambora's new, unexpectedly bloodletting third solo album, "Aftermath of the Lowdown," he tackles that time in his life with plain-spoken, unsentimental rock music that doesn't whitewash or over-dramatize his failings.
"When I fell off that cliff, I realized who I was, unrelated to the band," Sambora said while on a sofa in the Palihouse lounge in West Hollywood. "I'd started to clean up five years ago, but I slipped, and made those amends. I'm lucky I wasn't a guy who lost his family or relationships."
It's a hard-won record from a very famous guitarist, one now recording for a scrappier, independent label — Silver Lake's Dangerbird Records. Their pairing is exceedingly unlikely, but "Lowdown" could show both parties in a new light: Sambora, the ferocious instrumentalist and tough-skinned songwriter, and a Dangerbird Records unafraid to follow its instincts all the way to the doorstep of '80s arena rock.
The first question about "Lowdown" — a collaboration that both Sambora and Dangerbird admit was unexpected — is how the two parties ever crossed paths at all. Dangerbird's Jeff Castelaz, better known for signing the shoe-gazey snarl of Silversun Pickups and the cosmopolitan soul of Fitz & the Tantrums, first heard about the record through Phil Cassens, a mutual friend and fellow cyclist who used to helm A&R; at Virgin Records.
Though Sambora actually had a history well before Bon Jovi — he played the CBGB circuit and an earlier band, the Message, was signed to Led Zeppelin's Swan Song imprint — Castelaz acknowledges that a personal connection was probably necessary to deflect his natural skepticism about the album.
"Phil told me about his friend Richie who had a fantastic record, and that he hoped we'd have some common ground," Castelaz said. "But growing up, I was a janitor and swept garbage at an arena where Bon Jovi played. They were a rock 'n' roll hit machine, and my generation railed against those guys."
But slowly, the recordings started to win him over. And though much of Dangerbird's cool-kid audience will run screaming for the fire exits at the thought of buying an album from a Bon Jovi side project, it's easy to hear what turned Castelaz into a believer. "Burn that Candle Down" kicks off with a psychedelic fuzz barrage that the Black Keys would be happy to call their own. If the piano-plaintive yearn of "Every Road Leads Home to You" got misfiled under Coldplay or Arcade Fire, radio programmers would salivate to play it.
"This is nothing like Bon Jovi," Castelaz said. "They make quality rock music, but this is vulnerable and real about his travails. When he first played 'Every Road Leads Home to You,' it blew my … mind."
The album's not a contempo-indie rip-off, though — bluesy swaggers like "Sugar Daddy" and power-pop such as "Nowadays" definitely bear Bon Jovi DNA. Sambora's in-studio band comes with a rock pedigree: Members of Paul McCartney and Beck's bands played all over it.
Some song titles like "Learning to Fly With a Broken Wing" and "Taking a Chance on the Wind" are almost defiantly un-self-aware of their author's stadium-rock heritage. But one pass through Sambora's dark-night-of-the-soul ballad "You Can Only Get So High" shows a rare skill among today's self-conscious songwriters — singing about one's mistakes without glamorizing or wallowing in them.
Gossip rags have detailed Sambora's DUI, his divorce and his rehab stint after slipping in his Jacuzzi and succumbing to painkiller addiction for his shoulder injury. But when he sings "Empty bottle, preach the gospel / another shot ain't coming close to saving me," over a classic-country slide guitar, it's a reminder that those things happened to a real person, one with a story a lot of regular fans can relate to.
"I had cleaned up my act about 85% five years ago," Sambora said. "But I was naive. I just wanted to drink as a stress reliever, and I slipped again. When I write, I'm speaking about me, but I'm sure that's a lot of people's [problem] as well."
"Lowdown's" abject sincerity — from a guy who has every right to go on hot-tub autopilot at this point in his career — is a big part of its re-inventive, trends-be-damned sincerity.
Sambora's still committed to Bon Jovi, a day job that he describes as a "mothership — you just get on and it goes." But after the band wrapped up its 2011 arena tour and is currently between album cycles, it's clear that "Lowdown" is his passion project and he can't wait to play it out live. After a few of the worst years of his life, Sambora feels like "Lowdown" is a song of experience — and innocence as well.
"I'm still learning; I still have a guitar teacher and a vocal teacher," Sambora said. "I've tried to maintain my innocence as a musician and be able to tell my story, and I'm realizing it's kinda everyone's story."