Think Your Job Is Tough? Try Writing A Music Biography

The role of the rock biographer is a multidisciplinary one. You’re not just a writer. You’re a detective, historian, networker, archaeologist, and interrogator. You’re the reader’s backstage pass. You stand between the perception of these people crafted through their music and image, and the truth. It’s not just the many hats the biographer has to wear — it’s also about striking a tone of reverence while maintaining objective distance in order to give a full and worthwhile account. 

Bryan Reesman walks this line with his book Bon Jovi: The Story. His research-driven, interview-heavy approach is probably what earned its reputation as the most informative Bon Jovi book so far. 

Being fans of music biographies, we’ve always been fascinated by the process of writing a biography. The biographer gets behind the scenes of the music, but what’s behind the scenes of the book? We were lucky enough to chat with Bryan about what exactly goes into writing a biography, as well as some things learned along the way.

Was it helpful to write a biography about a subject that you’re passionate about, or is it better to keep objective distance? 

I was a casual fan [of Bon Jovi]. The book was being put together by a British company called Elephant Book Company. They had approached me about doing The Ramones book a year before. While I like a lot of The Ramones stuff, I knew nothing, really, about their history. Being a longtime hard rock and metal writer — I’m sure this applies to punk, too — if you write a book on somebody and it’s clear you don’t have a huge knowledge about them, you’re going to get crucified. There’s the people that are just gonna be like, this is BS, why did you bother? So I just let that go.

The next year they mentioned doing a Bon Jovi book, and I knew enough about their general history and career arc, having been around when Runaway came out, and when they were big in the ’80s, and then the comeback is more when I got into them.

So I was lucky because I kind of had both; I liked the music but I was objective enough to take a look at what actually worked about the music and what some of the other issues were.

What kind of workload are we talking for writing a music biography?

I had four months to do it. That’s not long for all the research. It was brutal. It was 50,000 words, which is about half the length of a normal book because we had about 150 photos. It was tiring.

I couldn’t really do a tell-all, and I didn’t want to. People have tried to do exposés before, but that camp is very tight-lipped.

I had a lot of people giving me really good interviews — I did about 40 interview for the book and I probably quoted about 20 or 30 other sources. It was a lot of work. Some of the interviews were up to one and a half to two hours, so that was just really tough, but it was great.

I found a lot of their really early bandmates. I found one of Ritchie’s early bandmates who gave him one of his first gigs. I got a lot of great stories that at least in the first few chapters that even the really hardcore fans hadn’t really heard much of. And then after that, I just had to get a perspective on it and try to write about them as a band rather than just about him.

A lot of Bon Jovi coverage seems to focus on Jon. How important was it to you personally to properly recognize the band as a whole?

Their official book isn’t great — terrible actually, in my opinion — because it’s got great photos but it’s got all these quotes about how awesome Jon is, and Jon’s not the only one in this band! It’s his name on the contract, but the interesting thing to me is that it’s a band that has other talented members. David Bryan is one of them, Ritchie Sambora — and Wayne Isham directed all those iconic music videos. I wrote about the whole band.

You had the fact that Jon‘s second cousin, Tony Bongiovi ran Power Station Studios, which was THE rock studio of the late ’70s early ’80s. Jon started sweeping floors there and then eventually became assistant engineer in some projects, but he had an in into the business. Yes he worked hard, and yes he had talent, and had talented people around him, but it’s not like he just came from nowhere. Even having your foot in the door makes a huge difference. If he was an idiot obviously it wouldn’t have happened. He’s very smart, he knew how to get the right people to work with, he was very clever that way.

I learned that he didn’t really write Runaway. The guy George Karak had written it and he made an agreement with Jon to write songs together. And they agreed to split the publishing, but by all accounts from other people, the song was already written and George claimed that it was co-written with Jon. It’s very clearly an outside influence. So i found out stuff like that. That’s not gonna be some big controversy at this point, his fans don’t really care, y’know, they love him regardless. But a lot of what happened is a result of other people. And rock people want all their bands to write their songs, but Bon Jovi’s one of those things where they’ve always had an outside songwriter.

Desmond Child also co-wrote some of their biggest hits. This is a guy that was hugely instrumental in their success. If he hadn’t have come along they wouldn’t have had the hits that they did. Billy Falcon’s been working with him for like 20 years, he’s been cowriting songs with him. So he’s another person that’s been coming in that very quietly behind the scenes.

There’s a lot of stuff like that in the book that was really fascinating and the fans really liked it. I have no idea what the Bon Jovi camp thought of it. I know he doesn’t like unofficial books, but I was a fan and I was also objective and said, “Hey, this is a group effort here.”

How do you ask questions that get the most out of your interview subject? Do you have a template, or do you go in just to have a conversation?

The best thing to do is always go in prepared, go in with some knowledge and make them aware of the fact that you know where they come from. I’ve probably done about 3,000 interviews over the past 25 years, I don’t really write down questions anymore. Don’t ask the most obvious thing that everyone asks, like an abstract question about their album. Ask something unique and cogent — if their album is taking on a new musical direction, ask about that. Find a line in to open a conversation. They’ll open right up and look at you and think, “Huh, you’re not an idiot.” Think about how this person connected to something greater. Don’t just act like you’re doing a job, act like you’re interested — you should be interested anyway. The more years of experience you have or the bigger geek you are, the more interesting interview you’re going to get.

Did you come across anything in an interview that you ended up not being able to use because someone wouldn’t sign it off in a fact check, or because it was an off the record comment?

I wanted to mention Ritchie Sambora was arrested on a DUI charge, which had been reported worldwide, but the publishing companies were skittish about putting that in there for legal reasons. They were very careful.

Even some of the stuff about the early days, I couldn’t corroborate what happened with more than one person who was like “this is what happened.” There are things that happened that I could probably say that’s that person’s point of view, but sometimes — even when i was dealing with the Runaway thing — just how I worded it to make sure I wasn’t saying “that person isn’t telling the truth.” You have to say, “This is how one person reported it.” “This is what the other person said.” “The consensus is that this is how it happened.”

A lot of people told me things off the record that were different than on the record. Jon’s reputation with his fans is great, but behind the scenes there are a lot of people who have issues with him. A lot of people don’t want to get in trouble by saying things. I talked to a couple of different producers who worked on one of the albums and they didn’t really want to comment on it.

There were a couple of these people. One of these producers, Max Martin who co-wrote a lot of hits for other people, co-wrote It’s My Life. It’s kind of funny, I found out something that you could prove. There’s a mashup online [editor’s note: listen to it here, it’s pretty amazing], which is essentially the Backstreet BoysLarger Than Life laid over It’s My Life. It’s pretty much the same song.

Max Martin co-wrote both of those songs. Bon Jovi didn’t have a hit with Crush, they needed a hit and that’s the hit that brought them back. They basically simplified it, turned it into kind of a big rock anthem. It’s got a very different vibe than what Backstreet Boys’ song. The Backstreet Boys’ song actually has much more intricate vocal harmonies in it.

One of his early bandmates had said some things that — they were criticisms that, even though it might have been true, I just couldn’t print it. Even if it’s not something really terrible, I had to play that game of having just cut it out. The DUI thing was a little weird to me, because it was reported everywhere at the time. Later on you could say it could be played down as a misdemeanor. People are very skittish these days about reporting anything that could get them sued. Everyone’s very litigation-happy.

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