Jon Bon Jovi Reflects on His Star-Making Moment in 1980s Vancouver: "It Was the Wild West"

The frontman discusses the "best record we've made in 20 years" and why his vocal cord issues won't make him retire

Photo: David Roemer

BY Alex HudsonPublished Apr 25, 2024

Bon Jovi are synonymous with their home state of New Jersey: they're friends with Bruce Springsteen, their frontman proudly wears a "New Jersey vs. Everybody" T-shirt, and they even named their smash 1988 album after the Garden State. But their big star-making moment actually occurred on the opposite coast, in Vancouver, BC.

"When we went there, it was really the Wild West," Jon Bon Jovi tells Exclaim! over a Zoom call. "The Expo was there — it was 1986. You couldn't get there without a connecting stop on an airplane. There was no such thing as cellphones or computers."

Into this isolated music market, Bon Jovi arrived just as their star was ascending. They had released two moderately successful LPs and were a regular opening act for arena rock bands, but it wasn't until they came to Vancouver that they recorded the huge hits they're known for today.

"There was a young engineer by the name of Bob Rock, and an established producer by the name of Bruce Fairbairn," Bon Jovi remembers. "But the magic happened when all of us came together in that place at that time."

They recorded three albums in YVR: 1986's Slippery When Wet, 1988's New Jersey and 1992's Keep the Faith, yielding songs like "Livin' on a Prayer" and "You Give Love a Bad Name."

"That archive came alive," chimes in Gotham Chopra, a filmmaker mostly known for his sports documentaries. He helms the band's new 40th-anniversary docuseries Thank You, Goodnight on Disney+, and says that the behind-the-scenes footage from Vancouver is some of Bon Jovi's most electrifying: "They had video in the studio. Of vast mountain of archive that exists across 40 years, it was some of the most fun stuff to stumble upon."

While the four-part Thank You, Goodnight chronicles the giddy highs of the band's time in Vancouver (and the global success it yielded), it also exposes some of the lows — namely, the singer and namesake's vocal cord issues, which resulted in him getting surgery in 2022 and have put the group's touring future in jeopardy.

But when I suggest that the title of Thank You, Goodnight implies that retirement might be imminent, he is quick to dismiss the idea.

"That's an assumption on your part. It's not," Bon Jovi asserts. "There is uncertainty in the film, but that's based on my health issues. But there's no uncertainty when it comes to my ability to write songs and make records, and so I can be clear: I very much can sing."

There's a defiance in the 62-year-old's manner. I had expected Bon Jovi to be exude his signature man-of-the-people warmth — but, perhaps irked by my line of questioning or understandably tired from a day of back-to-back interviews, he's more brusque than friendly during our conversation.

"It's not nostalgia. It's a look ahead as well," he says of the documentary, assuring me that the proof is in the band's new album, Forever (out June 7), and its lead single: "'Legendary' is a hit single right out of the box, and wait to hear the rest of the record. It's, truthfully, the best record we've made in 20 years. It's chock-a-block of hits."

Bon Jovi's self-belief is undeniable, and it's clear that, even after 40 years as a rock star, he still has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Even though I'm a little disappointed he never shows me that mega-watt smile, I can't help but admire the veteran's obvious hunger.

"When I boil it down, the talent is incredible, but it's the work ethic," points out Chopra. "This doesn't happen by accident. This doesn't happen because he's just born with the gift. This happens because of the relentlessness, the perfectionism, the undying endurance and resilience. And that's the legacy, to me. The albums, the hit songs, but it's like — man, this band is still going strong.

Chopra speaks about Bon Jovi like one would an athlete, making it clear why the sports documentarian connects with the bands story. He adds, "Watch Jon — I'm sure he worked out this morning and did his voice lessons. Not a day goes by [when he doesn't]. This incredible run, when you boil it down to genetic coding, is just an unwillingness to let go, to give up."

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