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Jon Bon Jovi’s Long Journey Back: ‘Life Has Happened’

How the kid phenom of Jersey rock has handled 40 years of fame — and the potential loss of his most precious instrument: his voice

VIDEO: Jon Bon Jovi Risked Rare Vocal Surgery to Tour Again

In the spring of 2022, Jon Bon Jovi led his band on what they hoped would be a triumphant return to live performing after a two-year pandemic break. They had booked a 15-city U.S. arena tour. By the third or fourth show, however, critics were asking, “What’s going on with Jon Bon Jovi’s voice?” Known for the power, range and precision of his hard-rock belting on hits like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive,” on this tour the singer was often flat, reedy, choked. The band’s longtime keyboardist, David Bryan, who’d been playing with Bon Jovi since they were 16, says: “Something was wrong. It was scary as hell for all of us and for him.”

Legendarily driven, Bon Jovi pushed on with the tour. But after a show in Nashville, he came offstage and his wife, Dorothea, told him flat out, “It wasn’t great.” Jon and Dorothea had met and started dating in high school; they married in 1989 and have been together ever since, a remarkable feat in the music business. He knew he might be staring down the barrel of retirement, the end of a career he had worked extremely hard to build.

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It was a fate he could not quite accept. That June, Bon Jovi underwent surgery on his throat, which gave him, and his band, considerable hope. Since then, they have recorded a new LP, Forever, their 16th studio album, released this June during the band’s 40th anniversary year. But when — or even whether — Bon Jovi’s voice can withstand the rigors of another multicity arena tour remains up in the air. His doctor is hopeful. Dorothea knows that her husband has the grit to confront the challenge — as she makes clear in a new four-part Hulu documentary titled Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story, which chronicles not only the band’s rise to fame but Jon’s vocal struggles. “He’s used to controlling everything,” Dorothea says. “I always say, by sheer will, he will make it happen.”

I met with Bon Jovi in late February, a few days before his 62nd birthday. He greeted me in the kitchen of his home, a French château–style house in New Jersey. As he prepared us some tea with ginger honey (“My crack,” he said, flashing his billion-watt smile), he immediately off-footed me with an unexpected show of modesty. I complimented him on more than 1 billion Spotify streams of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and he waved away the praise, saying Taylor Swift and The Weeknd regularly rack up more. (For all his diplomacy, Bon Jovi holds his own in such company, with worldwide record sales of more than 130 million.)

We sat in his personal office, which was crammed with memorabilia and musical instruments. Dressed in a pale blue T-shirt and faded jeans, he looked fit and healthy. He has allowed his hair to go gray, and his once Teen Beat–pretty face is all the more handsome for its smile lines and wrinkles. His speaking voice is grainier than it used to be, and he is careful with it. There’s an awful lot riding on those vocal cords.

spinner image Jon Bon Jovi walking on railroad tracks
Photograph by Gavin Bond (Producer: Anthony Moschini VP Industrial Color; Wardrobe Stylist: Deborah Watson at Walter Schupfer Management; Groomer: Loraine Abeles)

We Can Be Heroes

Bon Jovi’s struggle has perhaps been particularly hard on a man who, by his own admission, has been extraordinarily lucky. He was born John Bongiovi in 1962, the eldest of three sons, and raised in the modest suburban community of Sayreville, New Jersey. His parents — dad, a hairdresser; mom, a florist — had met in the Marines, and they encouraged his rock ’n’ roll dream from the start. “They were like, ‘You can do this,’ ” he recalls. “And you believed it.” At 16 he formed his band the Atlantic City Expressway, and they landed a regular gig at the Fast Lane, a bar on the Jersey Shore where his heroes Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes had cut their teeth. He jumps up and shows me a photo of the band in matching satin tour jackets. “Look at those jackets!” He laughs with irony and nostalgia. “Emulating Southside Johnny!”

Skipping college (“There was no plan B,” he says), he was working as a gofer at a Manhattan recording studio when he wrote “Runaway,” his wide-eyed response to the teenage streetwalkers who thronged the Port Authority bus terminal on his commute into the city. Recorded after hours at the studio, the single was picked up by a local radio station and was soon being requested at affiliated stations across the country. Record labels scrambled to see the band live. But there was no band. Bon Jovi reached out to acquaintances that included a guitarist and songwriter named Richie Sambora, for what all of them assumed would be a short promo tour. It would extend to four decades.

In 1983, he signed with the Mercury label of PolyGram Records, which suggested a name change from “Bongiovi” to “Bon Jovi” because it looked like “Van Halen.” After releasing two passable albums, songwriters Bon Jovi and Sambora sought fresh inspiration from the pro Desmond Child, who pushed the pair to extend their themes beyond “hot girls and cars” to tell actual stories. The trio pumped out “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” — irresistible sing-along mega anthems that powered the band’s third LP, Slippery When Wet, to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. Global arena tours ensued. Asked about the moment when he first realized, Wait, I’m an actual rock star, Bon Jovi shakes his head. “You always say you’re a rock star. I played in that club in that satin jacket, and I thought I was a rock star.”

Many of the songs Bon Jovi writes are strikingly inspirational, with soaring choruses: songs about the underdog prevailing, the long-shot triumph, the star-crossed lovers who defeat the odds. And then there are songs like “Bed of Roses,” off the band’s fifth LP, Keep the Faith (1992), which hints at the temptations of living out of lonely hotel rooms on the road. It includes the lyrics: “ ’Cause a bottle of vodka’s / Still lodged in my head / And some blonde gave me nightmares / Think that she’s still in my bed … ” He and Dorothea were married when he wrote those words, which begged a nosy journalistic question.

“Those lyrics to ‘Bed of Roses,’ ” I start to say, delicately, “are very — ”

“Honest,” he cut me off. “I don’t hide behind anything. I’ve never lied to my wife’s face. We were 18 when we met and started dating. Life has happened.”

Keep the Faith was released at the height of the gloom-laden grunge movement led by Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden — a style of indie rock music that made big commercial pop bands like Bon Jovi obsolete overnight. Many of Bon Jovi’s contemporaries (then in their 30s) adopted the look, sound and attitude of grunge. “I watched my peer group suddenly buy flannel shirts and run to that,” Bon Jovi recalls. “I said, ‘This is a big mistake. Why would you chase something?’ ... I realized: Be who you are, tell your truth.”

The band survived and was still charting in 2013, when its 12th studio album, What About Now, instantly went to No. 1 and spawned the year’s top-grossing tour. But there were problems brewing — problems that would ultimately end up impacting Bon Jovi’s voice. Sambora, who had been in and out of rehab over the previous decade, quit the band suddenly during the first leg of the tour. Together, Bon Jovi and Sambora had been a powerhouse vocal team. Bon Jovi found himself “singing for two” for the rest of the shows, he recalls — some 80 dates. “It was after that when everything started to go south,” he says. “I couldn’t figure it out. Was it psychological, was it physical — what was it?” He was especially mystified because he had, since his teens, always taken assiduous care of his voice, performing not only warm-ups before concerts but also cool-down exercises after shows. He had long eschewed drugs and smoking, in part to preserve his voice. But after the 2013 tour, an increasing breathiness, diminished volume and moments of uncertain pitch made singing increasingly fraught for Bon Jovi. He got through tours from 2015 to 2019, but upon his return to performing after the pandemic break, he discovered that his voice had further deteriorated — to the point where Dorothea had to speak up.

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spinner image Jon Bon Jovi leaning on a wooden post
Photograph by Gavin Bond (Producer: Anthony Moschini VP Industrial Color; Wardrobe Stylist: Deborah Watson at Walter Schupfer Management; Groomer: Loraine Abeles)

Rock Star vs. Aging

Singing is a mysterious activity. It has mystical connections to the deepest part of ourselves as individuals and as a species. For a book I wrote in 2021, This Is the Voice, I spoke with Julie Andrews about the botched vocal surgery that destroyed her singing voice. Singing, she said, had afforded her an “ecstasy” that was unbearable for her to think “would never come my way again!” Another former singer, an opera tenor forced to retire because of vocal cord scarring, told me, “When you sing, you’re giving voice to your soul.” For Bon Jovi, the potential loss was devastating. “People had to talk me off the ledge,” he says. “Because you’re like, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong! What’s wrong?’ ”

Lip-syncing to a prerecorded vocal track in concert was out of the question for him. So was relying on Auto-Tune, a digital technology that can tweak voices to perfect pitch in live performance. “I’d rather get hit by a bus on the high­way,” he told me.

It was not until he spoke to singer Shania Twain, who detailed how she overcame her own voice problems in the February/March 2020 issue of this magazine, that he found hope. Bon Jovi consulted Twain’s voice doctor, Robert Sataloff, a leading voice surgeon in Philadelphia. Sataloff was struck by the care Bon Jovi had taken of his voice.

How to Protect Your Voice

Some vocal aging — in the form of weakness, breathiness, quavering or raspiness — may be inevitable. Still, there are things you can do to keep your voice strong and clear longer.

Tone your core. Being able to draw in and expel a good amount of air depends on the muscles that drive respiration. Regular core-strength exercises, such as push-ups and squats, can help. So can aerobic exercise like walking or running.

Hum a tune. Speech pathologists have an array of exercises for keeping the vocal membranes strong and pliable, including humming into a straw. Note: If your voice changes suddenly, see a laryngologist to rule out growths on the vocal folds.

Hack these habits. Smoking and alcohol rob the vocal folds of crucial moisture and hence pliability. Drinking plenty of water is key. Fried foods, hot spices and (again) booze can cause reflux, which harms the delicate organs of speech.

Take it easy. Overuse can age the voice. And to go from zero (silence) to 60 (“O sole mio!”) in an instant is to risk vocal fold bruises that can cause a permanent rasp. Thus it can be said of vocal health: everything in moderation, even speech and song.

“Jon has worked, throughout his career, harder and more diligently than most of his fans would ever have guessed,” Sataloff told me. But now Bon Jovi was facing something he could not control through hard work alone: the natural aging process. “Eventually it catches up with all of us,” Sataloff says. Despite the overwork on his 2013 tour, there is no specific vocal injury that Bon Jovi suffered, no disease or illness. His voice problem is mainly the result of aging, and like all aspects of aging, some people are more susceptible to vocal diminishment than others. Over time, Bon Jovi began to experience the thinning of his vocal cords — or, as they are properly called, vocal folds: bands of tissue composed of muscle, mucous membranes and connecting structures.

When singing or talking, we produce sounds by bringing our vocal folds together across the opening of our windpipe and blowing air through them, like blowing a Bronx cheer through our closed lips. Our fluttering vocal folds actually chop the airflow from our lungs into pulses that we hear as a musical note or a spoken vowel. A strong, clear, effortless-sounding voice results from vocal folds that meet flush and firmly across the top of the windpipe but can also vibrate freely and symmetrically. However, with age the folds can lose mass, just like the muscles in the rest of our body.

“When that happens,” Sataloff says, “the vocal folds fail to meet firmly. People naturally and unconsciously work harder to squeeze their vocal folds together so they can get a strong voice. However, that kind of excess muscle tension is counterproductive, inefficient. It causes muscle strain that makes it more effortful to talk or sing and leads to fatigue of the voice and sometimes to the vocal fold injury.” All the more so if your job involves singing to packed arenas every night. That muscle strain can also lead to the flattened notes that Bon Jovi was suffering from — as well as an overall physical exhaustion. Most people don’t know that we sing with our entire bodies, from planting our feet, to using our diaphragms to compress the lungs, to engaging our abdominal and back muscles to sustain a note, to manipulating our neck and throat muscles to shape its tone. A seemingly tiny problem in a single vocal fold can lead to a cascade of compensatory muscular exertion that affects the entire body.

For Bon Jovi, Sataloff recommended a surgery called thyroplasty, in which a shim of Gore-Tex is placed in such a way as to move the vocal folds closer together. Surgery alone, however, was not sufficient to restore Bon Jovi’s voice to its former power and precision. Post-surgery, Bon Jovi follows a gym regimen to keep his core and back strong, and works with speech-language pathologists and singing-voice specialists to retrain the muscles of his vocal tract. Of his own accord, he also undergoes regular laser treatment in hopes of promoting blood flow through his vocal folds and the nerves that control them. Sataloff and Bon Jovi are optimistic that the singer’s voice will continue to strengthen — so optimistic that Bon Jovi is eyeing a return to touring at some point. “Whether or not I can ever do a 100-show tour again, I don’t know,” he says. “But if I can have joy on the stage on night one, that would be great.”

spinner image Jon Bon Jovi wearing sunglasses with a vehicle passing behind him
Photograph by Gavin Bond (Producer: Anthony Moschini VP Industrial Color; Wardrobe Stylist: Deborah Watson at Walter Schupfer Management; Groomer: Loraine Abeles)

Lessons From a F---ing Beatle

Along with his vocal struggles, Bon Jovi has faced the conundrum of how to age gracefully in a young person’s game. In this, he has some help; some of his friends have set an inspiring example. Bruce Springsteen, who is 13 years Bon Jovi’s senior and a longtime mentor, has never sacrificed his integrity as a musician. (The two take regular drives together to talk.) Another is Paul McCartney, who has, to Bon Jovi’s delight and astonishment, become a close friend. The rocker shows me a recent photo of the two of them eating and talking animatedly at a picnic table on Bon Jovi’s property in East Hampton, New York. “We do this all summer,” he says, his tone tinged with disbelief. “I’m sitting there with a f---ing Beatle. He comes to my house often, I go to his beach house often, and our wives are very close.” What most impresses him about Paul is the enthusiasm and love of songwriting that the Beatle still possesses. He slips into an imitation of McCartney’s Liverpool accent and childlike enthusiasm: “ ‘Oh, I’ve got new stuff!’ he tells me. At 81. Crazy.”

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Bon Jovi may well keep writing into his 80s, too, because he has seen how aging has deepened his songwriting. “I have a grander palette to write from,” he says. “More life experience. I think that every record reflects somehow who I am at that time.” The band’s last studio album, 2020, covered tough subjects like COVID, school shootings and the killing of George Floyd. It was overlooked by critics, perhaps because the band could not tour to promote it. Still, “I think it’s one of my better records,” Bon Jovi says.

The new record, by contrast, he says, “is about joy” — although the first song he wrote for the album is one that, to my ear, sounds uncharacteristically despairing. “Hollow Man,” sung in a low rumble, has brooding lyrics about a man bereft of inspiration. Bon Jovi casts an entirely different light on it, one that reflects his spirituality. The song, he says, is an appeal to God. “It says, ‘Fill me up. I’m a vessel. What do I want to say? And how do I say it?’ ”

Another song on the album, “Kiss the Bride,” also reckons with age and change, dealing, as it does, with how parenthood inevitably makes us aware of the passage of time. He and Dorothea have four children: three sons and a daughter, ranging in age from 20 to 31. “Kiss the Bride” is about giving away their daughter at her wedding and stepping aside.

“Cried writing it and cried recording it,” he says.

Is the whole album about aging? I ask.

“Most definitely,” he says. “ ‘Don’t try to be what you used to be.’ I don’t want to be the kid from Slippery When Wet. I have no desire to be that kid.”

spinner image Jon Bon Jovi sitting on a motorcycle in a garage
Photograph by Gavin Bond (Producer: Anthony Moschini VP Industrial Color; Wardrobe Stylist: Deborah Watson at Walter Schupfer Management; Groomer: Loraine Abeles)

Who Bon Jovi wants to be is who he has become — who he has, by force of will, turned himself into. He points to the album’s opening track, “Legendary.” The lyrics evoke the audacity of his own dream of escaping his blue-collar beginnings (“Who are you and who am I / To think that we could ever fly?”) and offer an ecstatic celebration of dear friendships and his long marriage. “Got my brown-eyed girl / And she believes in me,” he sings — a line he rhymes with a single word made all the more emphatic because the band drops out and he sings it into silence: “Legendary.”

Bon Jovi had debuted his post-surgery voice in live performance just a few weeks before our meeting, when he was honored by MusiCares at an annual event in Los Angeles that acknowledges the philanthropy of musicians. (For 13 years, Bon Jovi’s Soul Foundation has run JBJ Soul Kitchen, a restaurant for paying customers and those who can’t afford to pay, with four New Jersey locations.) To a packed audience in the Los Angeles Convention Center, Bon Jovi sang a duet with Springsteen, a version of Bruce’s “The Promised Land.” McCartney was in the audience. For Bon Jovi, the performance represented far more than just a good show. It was a return to himself.

We — all of us, singers and nonsingers alike — identify with our voices to a degree we rarely acknowledge. A voice’s pace and timbre and volume, its accent and texture, are all a result of physical attributes and innate and acquired habits of temperament and personality that are as unique as a fingerprint, instantly recognizable to all who know and love us. For two difficult years, Bon Jovi lost that acoustic signature and gained a head full of negative thoughts about his future as a performer.

The best thing to come out of the MusiCares event, for him, was the silencing of those thoughts. When he was onstage, he tells me, “Doubt wasn’t there. Fear wasn’t there. It was just the old me.”

And even if he has no desire to be his “old” young self, he wasn’t sorry to catch a fleeting glimpse of that long-lost kid. “Ohhh, I liked seeing him,” he says. “It was good.”

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