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The Music Man - David Bryan
06/30/2009 - By Tobi Drucker Tesoriero
Photos by Linda Rowe Photography
Rock Legend David Bryan Gives His Regards to Broadway!
The energy is palpable. The anticipation builds. The crowd quiets down, virtually holding its breath as one giant mass. Then…a finger pad presses down on a key. A soundwave is created. There’s no stopping now…the catalyst of the impending reaction has been set in motion. The soundwave reaches the ears of the audience in the form of a musical note and the crowd erupts. The connection has been made and that energy is funneled and erupts into a roar. The master who pressed that key is none other than David Bryan, founding member and keyboardist for the world-renowned and New Jersey’s own band, Bon Jovi.
For more than 20 years David has thrilled millions (perhaps more accurately billions) with Bon Jovi; their recordings and performances have become part of the fabric of our culture, and his music has helped express our feelings and dreams. This success is just one component that is David. His energy, ability, creativity, and drive seem limitless. Through the years David has written music for his own solo album, “Lunar Eclipse,” as well as songs for other recording artists such as Curtis Stigers and fellow Bon Jovi band member, Richie Sambora. He has also written several musical shows.
One of his musicals, Toxic Avenger, just won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best musical! It is currently playing in New York City at the New World Stage (www.thetoxicavengermusical.com). Simultaneously, his other show, Memphis, is headed for Broadway at the Schubert Theater, and is slated to open in October 2009 (www.memphisthemusical.com).
David is also a dedicated dad and is involved with numerous charities. He remains true to his Jersey roots, and proudly calls Colts Neck home. Living In Colts Neck was fortunate to have an opportunity to meet with David, who was kind enough to share some great stories about Bon Jovi, his creative process, his work credo, and his amazing life journey.
LICN: Starting with the obvious, most of our readers will immediately know you as one of New Jersey’s foremost iconic figures, a member of Bon Jovi; can you give us a brief account of the band’s formation?
DB: I went to JP Stevens High School with Jon’s cousin, Joseph Bongiovi. In ninth grade he said, “Hey my cousin is looking for a keyboard player in a band.” Joseph told his cousin Jon that I had a big van, a big Hammond organ, and a big grand piano. So I asked, ?Where does he live?’ “Sayreville.” I said, ?Okay, over the bridge.’ I grew up in Edison [so] I drove over the bridge, brought all my [stuff] down into the basement, and it was a 10-piece band – 5-piece horn section, 5-piece rhythm section. That was it. That is where it started. I was 16 ½ [and] had my drivers permit. It was a Springsteen/Jukes cover band with originals. I knew “We are Having a Party” and “Born to Run” and I knew I could play classical, so I figured I could figure out any other song they threw atme. They asked if I knew all these songs by Springsteen and the Jukes, and I said of course I do. They asked what key it was in (laughs). I figured [if] I could figure out Chopin I could figure out Bruce.
LICN: Are there any favorite places that the band likes to play in?
DB: Giant Stadium. The ultimate. That the place we saw growing up. I am a Giants fan. I have season tickets and go to all the games. I am great friends with Michael Strahan. I love playing Europe.We are huge overseas as well as here. The only place we have not played is the Mid-East, but we did perform at Abu Dhabi.
LICN: Which of the band’s songs is your favorite, and does the band have a favorite song?
DB: I still love “Living on a Prayer.” Sometimes we open with it; sometimes we end with it.
LICN: How does it feel when you hit that first chord and the crowd reacts to you?
DB: Pretty excellent. The band has been together 26 years; Jon and I…31. The thing that is great about the band is that we always strive to be current.We always want a song on the radio that matters. There are only a couple of bands that do it. There’s us and U-2. That is about it…Aerosmith a little. They have not had a hit record in a while. Hey, Jon still can shake his butt and get the 16-year old girls to scream (smiles). We remind him that his daughter is 16. We keep ourselves in shape, take it seriously, try to be the best we can be, go as long as we can. It is fun! You get out there and play.
LICN: Have you ever done a demographic background on fans?
DB: There are 7-year olds; there are 60-year olds. It is the fans we had at the beginning; then teenagers and kids. I go into my third grader’s class, go da, da, da (makes musical sounds) and the class yells out “It's My Life” [and] you are like 'Wow. How do you know that from a key board riff?’ We do everything you can to give a great show. The thing about Jon is we started as a bar band. You can either stare at your shoes or involve the audience. We came from the bars and always like to involve the audience. That is our brand.We always want participation; that’s something great. Jon and I were the last generation of the kids at clubs, then the drinking age was changed. We could see Bruce when we were 17; you could see Edgar Winter…so many great bands.
LICN: In your genre today who are the top bands you like to listen to?
DB: I love U-2. I always say if bands could be like sports teams and you could get traded…I would think it would be fun to be traded. I always tell Bono if he needs a keyboard I’m there. I am a big fan. John Lord from Deep Purple was amazing. I loved him. The Beatles, The Stones, Elton…
LICN: We have heard that you’ve been playing piano from age 7. How did you start with that? Why piano?
DB: I started classical training with Emery Hack. He was a Juilliard graduate [and] led the NBC orchestra for 15 years. I auditioned for him at 7; I didn’t just study with him.
LICN: Why piano? Did you choose that or was it chosen for you by your family as an “activity”?
DB: My dad was a jazz trumpeter; he played with Hot Lips Page. His parents told him to get a job (smiles). He [dad] taught me trumpet when I was 5. They found out about this teacher, Hack. My father brought me to him. When I heard that unbelievable sound coming out of his piano I said I’ve got to do that. I studied every Wednesday for 13 years.
LICN: Are there any other instruments you play?
DB: I play everything I get my hands on. I play piano; I studied trumpet in school; I played violin for a little bit; I played bass violin ’til my mother said it was too big (laughs), because I could read the bass clef. They said they needed someone and I said, ?I can do it!’ I also took guitar lessons. I surprise people by being able to play the guitar.
LICN: Any other artistic pursuits?
DB: Composing. I always loved to write. I still put out a couple of solo instrumental piano records. There is one with me singing on one of the tracks…one of those songs I wrote when I was 7. I remember sitting down, and the white keys (since they were easy) made a little tune happen. I always remember everything I write. I don’t know why.
LICN: Do you remember it, hear it, visually see the notes? Do you know how it comes to you?
DB: I don’t know how it comes to me. It just comes out.
LICN: So when you remember it, how does it manifest itself?
DB: For some reason I just know when it’s right. It usually takes a little bit of wrong to get to right. I tape it. I have a gazillion tapes in my life. Digital is great. I use my I-phone. I have a little keyboard on my phone. I think of a melody and write a little thing and e-mail it to myself.
LICN: In terms of perfecting your craft, did you have any unusual or unorthodox training, or was it pretty much practice, time, and patience?
DB: There is no substitute for practice. I have a lot of the same friends I did growing up; my friend Sal, the cop from Edison – he is a lieutenant –we are still great friends. He says, “Thank God your mother would make you come in and practice.” They would come by and say “…can’t you come out and play football?” And I would say I need another half hour; my mother is making me practice. Sometimes I wanted to, sometimes I didn’t, but I always did it. I believe there are two kinds of artists in the world – one that gets hit by the God stick, like bam…I am Mozart and I am 7; and then there’s bam…you are still just 7 but a hard worker. I have a little natural talent. I am not a Mozart. For my audition for Juilliard (I always practiced a couple of hours a day and I was always playing with the band), for a 10-minute audition, I practiced 2 years for 8 to 14 hours a day. I averaged 10 hours a day for 2 years.
LICN: Well, I think that passion and commitment is the way to success in any field.
DB: Definitely. No one pitches a ball 100 miles an hour without throwing it 10,000 times. No one just sits down to a piano; they make it look easy, but it takes years and years. The greatest thing I love about an instrument, which ties into the other stories and organizations like Save the Music and the charities in which I am involved for children – especially for music – it is the most honest thing in the world. It doesn’t get better and it doesn’t suck…you do. You did your lesson [and] there is no faking it. It is probably the one thing in the world you cannot lie about. If you don’t practice you are not good. It [music] teaches you goals; you learn how to work with people when you are in a band. There are relationships, listening skills, all these things happen. But really, your instrument, the 88 keys (it had been 84 keys pre-1880 for a couple of hundred years; then they added four more keys, and it’s been 88 keys since) it doesn’t change.Actually, if you want some good information, right after the 1880 piano they created the double action on the piano. Before then, like duringwhenMozart, Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven played, itwas single action.You pressed the key, the hammer hit, and you had to wait for the hammer to come down to press the next key.
DB: After 1880, the second you come up, that millisecond, it resets for the next note. The piano became a hundred times faster. So you play Chopin and you think, this guy was on a beast of a piano. It is almost impossible that these guys were able to do what they did. I can always tell a piano by just pressing on the keys. I can date pianos in a minute.
LICN: So if I win on “Jeopardy” now I have you to thank!
DB: (Laughs) I will take double action-pianos for $400! I was actually at the Edison Museum; they had an old Steinway there…my passion. The park ranger there said tome as I walked up to it, “Don’t break it.” I said I wouldn’t. I pressed the key and knew definitely…double axle. I knew it had to be post-1880 but before the 1900’s because I know my piano serial numbers, and I looked at the serial number. The ranger pulled out a receipt from when Edison bought it in 1892.
LICN: Which leads us to the next component of your artistry – performing. Live versus studio? Can you share your processes – intellectually, emotionally? How do you approach each?
DB: Recording and live [performing] are two different animals. Recording is making art in a controlled space; it is its own art form. It has nothing to do with live. There are parts, constructing around a sound.When you take it live (Deborah Heart Fund was one of my first performances), outdoor parties, getting out in front of people and not being nervous…that’s a craft you learn as well. Getting into a club and doing it and doing it, getting in a band, getting into a bus and doing it every second of the day…you become part of a unit of guys. We always approached it as a band; it is almost like a sports team. You always have to put out 110%. For me, one of my personal goals is, I respect the stage. I respect everybody who has ever walked up on a stage before me. I never did it when I was messed up. I do it with honesty. I do it with respect.We are musicians. I am the keyboard player in the band because I was better than other keyboard players.We were all the best guys and [we] respect each other.
LICN: Do you think that professionalism and approach has helped the band become such a long-lived entity?
DB: Yes. It is the dedication. Never letting yourself down; forget about anyone else. If you have a broken ankle, a 105° fever, a stomach virus, a death, a divorce… you forget it, walk on that stage, respect it, and do what you have got to do. You have to be committed. I take it seriously. I take my work seriously. Instead of the path of medicine where I could have saved lives, I, through music, save souls. People pay money for the ticket and expect a good show. There are no excuses.
LICN: We touched upon writing music. Do you hear it, does it evolve, or do you have an idea and then try to get the sound? Is writing different for each project, for example, for your albums or shows versus writing for another artist?
DB: Sometimes for me direction is easier.When you are writing for yourself it is your hopes and dreams; it’s all from me.When I’m writing for a character it’s still me; they are my and my, partner Joe DiPietro‘s, creations. I am the ultimate
optimist. In our musicals there is always this tinge of optimism; there is always light at the end of the tunnel.Whether it is a comedy or a drama I am a glass half-full kind of guy. If you can dream it you can make it happen. For me, writing for other artists is a little easier. The fascination is creating something out of nothing. The top of the food chain here is when you create something – something people are singing is part of a story – that is great.
LICN: Which leads to the next question…in terms of that feeling, that satisfaction of someone singing your music, do you remember recognizing that moment you had arrived in the music business? Was it a recollection or an ah-ha moment?
DB: I think the first time I heard my songs on the radio – the first Bon Jovi record – I said ?Yeah! Hey, I matter. Here I am. I am on the radio, I have got a record.’That was the ultimate sense of satisfaction. Then, writing for the band, writing for another artist led me to musicals. I wrote [a song] for Curtis Stigers, probably about 15 years ago called “This Time.” Clive Davis called me up at my house. Clive Davis is the song guy of song guys. He said, “Listen kid. It is the best song I’ve heard all year. I am stopping Curtis’s record and I am going to make that the first single.” I had a top 40 hit. This was something outside of the band. I really liked that. It is a really hard process to get people to cover your songs. I had a lot of great songs that Iwrote that I couldn’t get covered and that’s when the musical work came in. I told my publisher I was starting to get bummed out. I had 30 songs sitting on the shelf. 'Why do I want to write #31 when you can’t sell the first 30?’ My publisher said, “How about musicals?” I said, 'What are they?’ “That is something where you can get 20 songs covered eight times a week.” I said 'Now we are talking.’ Now people can hear my songs and I don’t feel like I am working in vain.
LICN: Did you first get involved in Memphis through your publisher?
DB: Yeah…my publisher John Titta. I’m getting the Outer Critics Award for best musical for Toxic Avenger.
DB: So I will be thanking him. He was at Warner Chapel. I give him credit, as I was not a musical fan. Once I got into that world I met a wonderful partner, Joe DiPietro, who wrote I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Since I partnered with him I write the music, he writes the book, [and] we co-write the lyrics. I need to know what the character is to write. He doesn’t play an instrument but has an idea what the music should feel like.He writes poetry in the way we write songs. We just clicked. Now instead of just writing the song I can come onto the other side and think what the character would do; it is fun. You create characters. You are giving them a song, creating a 3-D make-believe person that has to be real. Then when you are writing those lyrics you do it for the character. It is a great art form…it is fantastic. There is a character on stage.
LICN: You’ve given them life.
DB: Yeah. It’s great, and I don’t even have to pay for college (laughs)!
LICN: Any other thoughts on the collaborative process?
DB: For me it’s a whole new chapter. A show on Broadway…it takes a lot of hard work to get lucky. Three years ago I had Memphis, and then Toxic Avenger came along. I had a 2-year break from Bon Jovi so I said 'Perfect. Let’s go!’ In 2 years it was done. Do a musical, break, tour, another musical…it has been an insane ride.
LICN: Do you approach the music for the show from the subject matter? Like Memphis is historical. How does that play into your composing?
DB: Memphis is about African American music on the radio. I had done a project before that – Sweet Valley High – which will never die, because I won’t let it; but sometimes things take forever. It was based on the book series… this was in ‘98; we were in Goodspeed, Connecticut. I wrote all the lyrics. It was just rock and roll. Broadway was not ready for rock and roll at that time. Now Broadway is ready for rock and roll, All Shook Up, Spring Awakenings… it’s still not modern rock. For Memphis it’s contemporary songs put into the ’50’s. It is not Grease. I look back through modern eyes at what it should be; that is the fun part…looking at the character and bringing to it a sound that you want.
LICN: And your other show?
DB: Toxic Avenger is a rock and roll comedy. There is a four-piece band.Memphis has a nine-piece band. It has a horn section, closer to the first band which I played in with Jon –Atlantic City Expressway. This one is four-piece with Bon Jovi-style rock: guitar, bass, drums, keyboard. I approach it as I would write for a rock band. I demo the songs myself. I have a studio downstairs. I write them, put it in a drum machine, put the keyboards in, the bass, play the organ, suffer through the guitar (usually I get a guitar player in as I am not that good), and I sing it and sing the background vocals, so at least I have an idea where I should be.
LICN: Where are the shows’ venues?
DB: Right now Toxic Avenger (www.thetoxicavengermusical.com) – we won best musical – is at the NewWorld Stage in New York City. I put a cast record out. It is not a recording of the show; it is a record of songs that came into a musical, not a lot of dialogue on it. It is on Time Life®.
LICN: Does Memphis have a slated location yet?
DB: Memphis (http://www.memphisthemusical.com) has a soft opening date in October 2009, at the Shubert Theater.We just started group sales. It is amazing for me to have these two worlds collide, to have these two shows in New York. It almost looks like I know what I’m doing (laughs).
LICN: Are you pinching yourself?
DB: I am. With the band it’s been great, and then 1990 was a break for us. Richie did a solo record. I did songs on his record. I did an instrumental record, I tried movie scores. The funny thing is [that] in 1999 I bought a Mercedes. I said 'Broadway will pay for this.’ Well, here it is 2009 and I have traded the car in. It shows you how long it takes to get a show to Broadway. The average is 6 to 8 years. You just don’t come into New York. In the fall we were in Seattle, then in the summer we were in La Jolla Playhouse (California). It’s such a complicated production… 26 people in the cast and a nine-piece band for Memphis.
LICN: Has the changing economic environment affected the show’s financing?
DB: Not really; we’re okay. An offshoot is that this is not just entertainment; it is entertainment that matters. I am a minority. I grew up that way. Everyone thinks Alan Freed coined rock ’n roll. He didn’t; in 1947 there was a Little Willie song called “A Rocking and A Rolling.” In our show there is scene where the record guy comes down from up north and sees the star, who is African-American, and she is with her brother, and he says that it’s great but can you sing rock and roll. She says all rock and roll is Negro Blues sped up. In 1950 there was the Negro Blues chart on Billboard. He says actually it isn’t and they say actually it is. To me that says it all. Bam! That’s where it came from. It came from Gospel, slave songs, the African-American church, and it gives kudos back to them. A side note on the term rock ’n roll…rocking is from sleeping with whores and rolling is for dollar bills.
LICN: There are many who believe music can be an instrument for social change. How do you feel about that?
DB: Hey, it helped this kid from Edison, New Jersey, be in the biggest band in the world. It has helped comfort me in the best and worst times of my life. Music has always been there and it’s helped [me] through life. Also, I use my music in support of charities. One of the first charities I was involved with in Red Bank is now tied in with a music program at the YMCA. It led me to the Save the Music Foundation, restoring music programs. Then there is Music for All, another foundation I am involved with, trying to get big funding for the smaller guys. I have been giving speeches to tell how important music is. What I want to do with Memphis is I want to tie in urban theater… make sure it gets to go into poor, less fortunate schools: yellow, black, blue, or green. I have to reach out to all the kids. Then you have the kids in Colts Neck. The Colts Neck school system is the best. I looked into private schools and found Colts Neck had a wonderful school system. I grew up in public schools. Here they have enough resources. I went to my kids’ music classes and I realized they are lucky this is a great town; they have a great school system. They are starting off a lot higher up the ladder. They need to see that and help other kids.
LICN: Are your children involved in music?
DB: Yes. All took piano lessons from Anthony Ruffo, a great piano teacher. He starts kids around 5. He is more stickers and bubble gum, where my teacher was, if you don’t do good next week don’t come back. Anthony also teaches guitar.My older children, twins, are now 151?2.My son Colton is more interested in sports now.Your kids do what they do. My daughter Gabby still takes lessons in guitar and writing music; she has gotten bitten by the acting bug. I took her to the shows; she’s been taking acting lessons from the star of Toxic Avenger. My little 9-year old Lily takes piano lessons and horseback riding.
LICN: Your album is called “Lunar Eclipse” and your twins’ middle names are Luna and Moon? Is there any significance or connection there?
DB: I just love the moon. I remember in 1969 when we landed on the moon. I remember looking out the window and thinking 'Wow, that is an unbelievable accomplishment of mankind.’ Even at 7 I was awed. I still have my globe of the moon that I got as a child. I am a late-night guy. I do most of my work at night even though I’m forced to get up early! I always loved the quiet time at night... the moon.
LICN: Back to other pursuits. Are you involved in any other organizations, charities, community, religious groups, or general interests?
DB: I support the Monmouth Reform Temple. That is where my kids go. I am the Ba’al Tekia [Editors note: This is the individual that blows the ceremonial shofar (rams horn) on the High Holidays]. I had played trumpet. Usually the way you get that job is when the old guy dies, then it’s auditions. I did it for almost 25 years at Temple Emanuel in Edison; then I had to audition! Back on the Torah chopping block (laughs). My gift in trumpet was that I could always play the long note. It helps out in blowing the shofar. I could hold it almost a minute. I always say the longer the toot the better the year. When I auditioned there were seven or eight shofars in the temple. There’s a group that does it. I decided I’ll go until my lungs give out (laughs). [Also] with the band we gave a million dollars to Oprah for Katrina rebuilding. We built 28 homes in New Orleans. As band we give a lot. I am involved in Help USA and mostly non-political organizations that help children. I amalso involved with Juvenile Diabetes.
LICN: So why did you choose Colts Neck as your home?
DB: Twenty years ago I lived in Sea Bright. Tico had lived in town. I was driving to his house and passed a sign that said “For Sale” in red spray paint on plywood. I remember thinking shouldn’t there be some realtor or fancy sign? I drove up and I bought it. This was in 1989. I am in the midst of reconstructing now. I love the land. I started looking around, researched the schools here, as at that time I was starting to plan a family. I feel the school system here is great. I asked myself where I wanted to raise my kids. I love the town. I have my friends here.
LICN: Is there any thing else that you’d like to share – professionally, personally, cause related?
DB: I am engaged to Lexi Quaas. We’re getting married next summer at a friend’s house right here in Colts Neck.
LICN: Any other upcoming projects with Bon Jovi, independently, or on Broadway?
DB: Bon Jovi.We plan to put out a new record in the fourth quarter and tour next year. I have files and I’m putting stuff together now in my studio. I have another musical that Joe and I are halfway through; in between touring I will work on it. I figure [that] if it takes 8 years to get a show to Broadway and I am already 47 years old, I have about four more shows and then I am done! I want to do more work. Chasing the Song is about songwriters… after the ’50’s but before the Beatles came in. I like that…creating, making something out of nothing.
The Bistro (Red Bank)
Roy Bittan, Danny Federici, Elton John, Billy Joel, Dr. Jon
Having pet peeves
Three People you would like to have dinner with
Moses (to see what that whole story was about), my grandparents (both sets), the grandchildren I will have in the future.
Photo GalleryClick here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.
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