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The Last Word: Richie Sambora

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens
A founding member of one of the world’s biggest bands, Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora is also guitarist royalty. Jon Bon Jovi’s right-hand man for almost three decades, Sambora and his signature fretwork can be heard all over the upwards of 130 million albums sold by the New Jersey rockers currently crisscrossing the globe on their Bon Jovi Live tour. When the boys passed through the Bell Centre this year, we sat down with the 51-year-old rock icon to find out just how big a sports nut he really is, and what’s next for one of the most enduring acts in music history.

What is it about Montreal and the fans that make you guys enjoy playing here so much?
RS: I don’t know what it is about Canada, but we’ve definitely had an affinity for the country since we made Slippery When Wet when we were living in Vancouver. We actually lived in Vancouver while we were recording three albums: Slippery, New Jersey and Keep the Faith.
By now you can pick a preferred Montreal delicacy: smoked meat or poutine?
RS: I’ve had both and I’d say it’s definitely smoked meat. I’m more of a meat guy.
Is there one thing you make sure to do or see when you guys come back to town?
RS: Not necessarily. I mean, we’ve been here so many times by now that we’ve done all the touristy stuff and seen it all. I don’t think anyone is a big shopper in this band, so we’re not out strolling on Ste-Catherine street or anything. (laughs) And if it’s cold out, we usually stay indoors. You don’t want to catch a cold because you always want to put on the best show you possibly can. We’re not getting any younger, either, so we go to the gym all the time and we have a trainer and a chiropractor out here with us. This is the longest tour that we’ve done since the late-80s so looking at it from a different age perspective you have to take care of yourself. You want to look good, you want to feel good and you want to get out there and enjoy it. When we were younger, it was a bit more about living that rock star lifestyle and the music was always in the forefront, but now it’s really all about the music. It was easier to maintain that lifestyle when we were younger and could bounce back quicker.

Do you remember your first show here? Was it at the Forum? Was there an instant connection?
RS: It would’ve been in the early ‘80s so it was probably a small club nearby, actually.
Richie with Philadelphia Soul guard Phil Bogle after winning ArenaBowl XXII.
Did you play any sports growing up in New Jersey? How about hockey?
RS: I played a little bit of hockey at home, but I was more of a football guy as a kid.
Speaking of the gridiron, you were part-owner of the Philadelphia Soul with Jon when the Arena League was around.  If you could pick any team in pro sports to invest in, which one would it be?
RS: It would be a football team, for sure. Jon is actually more involved in that these days – he’s looking around at options. I had a great time with the Soul and we won the championship in 2008, but the league kind of fell apart. We really had passion about it. Jon was more hands-on than me; I was more the minority investor. (laughs)
Growing up in New Jersey, were you one of those sports fans that jumped ship and became a fan of the New York teams or did you stay loyal to your roots?
RS: I was a Yankee fan, a Met fan, a Rangers fan, a Jets and Giants fan – you have to root for the home team. But oddly enough, I was actually a Green Bay Packers fan growing up. I loved Bart Starr – it was hard not to like the Packers.
You may be a Packers fan, but your recent hit "This Is Our House" debuted originally as an anthem played exclusively at New England Patriots games. How did that come about?
RS: [Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick is a good friend of ours. It was written as that kind of song where it’s almost like an anthem – when we come out on the stage, or a team comes out of the tunnel – and it could’ve been an anthem for any sport. We wrote it with that big concert feeling and it applies to the band, too. You walk out and it’s just blazing “This is our house!” and for that night, it is our house.
Bart Starr turned New Jersey native Sambora into a Packers fan as a kid.
Everyone has one, so what’s your favorite Bon Jovi song?
RS: It’s impossible to say. Obviously Wanted Dead or Alive and Living on a Prayer have to be right up there. It’s My Life and Have a Nice Day are up there too. The songs that get to the people are my favorites. I mean, if you ask me if I’m going to go back to my room and play Living on a Prayer for the umpteen-thousandth time, I’d say probably not, but when you do it in front of an audience it becomes a contact sport and a spiritual experience, and that never gets old. 
At this point, there must be hits off the Slippery When Wet or New Jersey albums you’re getting tired of playing now over two decades later, though, right?
RS: No, actually. I mean, the first two albums I could do without playing, and we don’t really play much from those two records. Jon and I were really just coming into our chemistry then; we met six months before we started writing that first album and we ran into some producer problems with the second album. I didn’t think the songs were ready or the alchemy of our writing was there yet. When Slippery came, we really discovered stylistically who we were and it kept on evolving from there. Every album sounds completely different from the last one. We’ve taken some chances and we’ve evolved and I think that’s why we’re still around today. Not getting out of what we are and becoming what we’re not. I mean, we’re not going to make a Pink Floyd record, you know what I’m saying?

There’s a whole new generation of fans who are getting to know your music thanks to games like Rock Band. Have you ever played any of your own songs in a video game?
RS: (laughs) Of course! I play with my daughter – she kicks my ass. I sometimes play guitar but she kept beating me, so I switched it up and do vocals or drums or whatever. It’s a great family thing.

Hockey players are pretty particular about their sticks. How picky are you when it comes to your guitars?
RS: I like to change it up. I try different guitars for different songs all the time. That’s the fun of it – keep it fresh, man. I have like 30 guitars out there with me on stage to mix it up. Sometimes I’ll play two guitars on one song if there’s a break and I have time to change it up.
Richie and Jon rocking out.
A lot of pro athletes also often have some specific pre-game rituals to get them ready for a game. Do you guys as a group or personally have anything you do before you hit the stage?
RS: There’s nothing really superstitious we do. We have a vocal coach that gave us this warm up, so we do that and then you play a little bit because there are always a few different songs we’ll add to a set list that night so you go over those. I’ll work out the solos, but after all these years, they come back pretty quick.
Hockey has changed over the years with new teams and new rules added to the mix. How different is the music industry now compared to when you guys first started in the ‘80s?
RS: Oh God, it’s completely different. From computers to Napster to iTunes, the landscape has changed completely. The record business is in such a state of flux at this point. Who knows where it’s at? We’re kind of the exception to the rule. We sold two and a half million records in basically two months before Christmas on our Greatest Hits album. I was really surprised about that. Traditionally, those don’t sell that well. You have to figure that everybody who’s a fan already has those songs and it’s not an economic time that’s going to support that. For a band that’s been around for 20 or so years, to have a greatest hits do that well in such a short amount of time, I was impressed. I’m impressed we have the No.1 tour in the world again – that’s pretty crazy! It’s been wild. Before Christmas, within a six week period of time, we were in about 17 countries. We were all through South and Central America and Mexico. Then we were over in Europe to do a promotional tour for greatest hits, over to Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
Richie is one of Lady Gaga's biggest fans.
Have music fans changed, too?
RS: I don’t think so. I think music itself is a constant. Musicians are making great music – there are a lot of great song writers and great artists out there, but music is so much more accessible for free that it’s harder to make a living. It’s harder for a young band to come out and sustain themselves. I don’t know if there will be another Bon Jovi or another Rolling Stones or another U2, only because sustaining yourselves from a business perspective is so hard to do for a young band. But a great song will always find its way and a great artist will always find their way. I mean, look at Lady Gaga; she’s got a real shot because she’s an entertainer but she’s also a very talented song writer, performer and singer. She can play – she’s not lip synching out there. A girl like that has a real chance to stay around for a long time. 

You’ve been touring for so long, it’s hard to believe you’ve missed any major cities, but is there still somewhere you’re dying to play that you haven’t yet?
RS: There are a bunch of places we haven’t played. We tried to get to China this year, but it’s all logistics. We’ve played Taiwan and Hong Kong but never mainland China. We tried to get to Israel this year, but there were problems. I’d love to play Cairo – maybe not right now, obviously. There aren’t many, but there’s a couple cities left to check off our list.

A lot of people will claim that their first slow dance was to one of your songs. Do you remember what song was playing for yours?
RS: I don’t, but I remember my first kiss – it was to “Bell Bottom Blues” by Eric Clapton.
Be honest: Does thousands of women screaming your name show after show ever get old?
RS: Nope. (laughs) Every time I walk out on stage I’m still amazed, like, “God, after all these years, all these people are still here and more.” It’s something we don’t ever take for granted and I think that’s why we’re still around. We leave it on stage every night; we walk off exhausted and that’s what people love to see. They also love to see we’re still together – that’s an anomaly. It’s like a marriage staying together, really. (laughs)
Follow Richie’s every move on and keep tabs on the band on and Bon Jovi will return to the Bell Centre for yet another sold-out show on May 4 – check out for potential late-addition tickets.

This article, written by Shauna Denis, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 25 No. 4.

See also:
The Last Word: Amar'e Stoudemire 
The Last Word: Owen Wilson 
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