Joe Bona­massa

Classic Rock - - Contents -

His re­la­tion­ship is on the rocks, his life is empty, he’s in a hole. We take a five-hour drive with the bro­ken-hearted blues hero.

Joe Bona­massa has a head full of heart­break and a soul full of pain. As a blues mu­si­cian, that’s part of the job de­scrip­tion. But right now he has the air of a man who has taken an emo­tional bat­ter­ing and is hang­ing off the ropes as a re­sult.

“As of now, it’s too far gone,” he says for­lornly, slumped deep in a chair in the up­per lounge of his tour bus as mo­tor­way lights flash by out­side the tinted win­dows. “And it’s one hun­dred per cent this guy’s fault. I love her. It should have been the eas­i­est thing in the world, but my life­style and my anger got in the way.”

He’s talk­ing about his girl­friend back in Los An­ge­les. As he speaks, he fid­gets with the phone he’s been check­ing spo­rad­i­cally ever since we climbed aboard God knows how many hours ago. A tum­bler of whiskey sits next to him on a ta­ble. The lights in­side the bus are dimmed low, the am­bi­ence is noc­tur­nal.

The plan was to hang out with Bona­massa at the Hol­land In­ter­na­tional Blues Festival in the sleepy Dutch town of Grol­loo, where he and his band are head­lin­ing the sec­ond of two nights, then again at his own show in the Os­tend, a port on the Bel­gian coast. Ex­cept it turns out that there are an aw­ful lot of things he wants to talk about, and the five-hour, 250-mile jour­ney be­tween the two is the per­fect op­por­tu­nity for him to off­load.

And so here we are, steam­ing across con­ti­nen­tal Europe in a lux­ury tour bus in the mid­dle of the night with the most suc­cess­ful blues mu­si­cian of his gen­er­a­tion, driv­ing to­wards the day­light. Mem­bers of his seven-strong band drop in and out of the lounge, lis­ten­ing as he swings be­tween bol­shi­ness, sad­ness, self-dep­re­ca­tion, re­gret and, oc­ca­sion­ally, an­noy­ance. There will be re­cur­ring themes, from busi­ness ad­vice to his lack of main­stream ac­cep­tance. The spec­tre of his cur­rent re­la­tion­ship – or po­ten­tial loss of it – hangs in the back­ground.

But we’re get­ting ahead of our­selves. Let’s rewind to the start of the jour­ney. This is what it’s like to spend five hours in the com­pany of a bro­ken-hearted blues hero.

11.48pm

Joe Bona­massa doesn’t mess around. It’s been less than 10 min­utes since he led his band off stage at the In­ter­na­tional Blues Festival, and he’s al­ready out of his stage suit and into civvies: com­bat trousers, dark puffa jacket, base­ball cap. He looks less like an in­ter­na­tional rock star, more like a mid­dle-aged bloke you’ll find sit­ting on a bench on the high street while he waits for his wife to fin­ish look­ing round Primark.

They’ve got word that the festival was busier dur­ing his head­lin­ing set than it was last night. This is some achieve­ment, given that yes­ter­day’s bill fea­tured both Jeff Beck and Ringo Starr And His

Woke up this morn­ing, his re­la­tion­ship is on the rocks, his life is empty and he’s down in a hole… We take a five-hour drive with bro­ken-hearted blues hero Joe Bona­massa.

All-Starr Band. “Re­ally?” he says. “You got a Bea­tle and the real JB – the ac­tual guy, not the im­poster? Wow.” He shakes his head like a man who will never cease be­ing sur­prised by other peo­ple.

11.50pm

The bus pulls away from the festival just as a huge thun­der­storm breaks. In the up­stairs lounge, Bona­massa cracks open a bot­tle of whiskey. He pours just a cou­ple of fin­gers, noth­ing too ex­ces­sive. He doesn’t of­fer it around.

Drum­mer An­ton Fig has squeezed him­self on to one of the small so­fas and will stay there for a cou­ple of hours be­fore re­tir­ing to his bunk. Fig, who has played with ev­ery­one from Kiss to David Let­ter­man’s in-house band, is a brusque South African with the blunt man­ner of a man who has zero time for mu­sic in­dus­try bull­shit. He’s been part of the Bona­massa set-up since ap­pear­ing on 2007’s Sloe Gin al­bum.

“The first time I met An­ton, I was so in­tim­i­dated,” says Bona­massa, at which Fig grins the wolfish grin of a man who knows that was the de­sired ef­fect.

Still, at least Fig knew who the guitarist was when he met him. Un­like his fu­ture Black Coun­try Com­mu­nion band­mate Ja­son Bon­ham, who played on Sloe Gin’s pre­de­ces­sor, You & Me. The pair had never met be­fore Bona­massa turned up at the stu­dio on the first day.

“So I’m re­ally ner­vous, think­ing: ‘What did I just get my­self into?’” he says. “I walk in, start fid­dling with the guitar. Ja­son sees this fat guy, long hair, sweat­shirt, and goes: ‘So when’s Joe get­ting here?’ I’m like: ‘I’m

Joe Bona­massa.’ He was tossed back. He thought I was the roadie.”

A wry laugh. “That’s been the story of my life.”

12.20am

Main­land Europe is pass­ing by out­side the tour bus win­dow at 70 miles per hour. Bona­massa has been here many times be­fore.

“We used to come to this part of the world a lot,” he says. “Hol­land, Ger­many. We’d get a Sprinter van, drive from gig to gig, get paid maybe two hun­dred Euros a night. We’d play the gig, drink our­selves silly at the ho­tel, wake up at eight a.m. hung-over and pissed off, and then drive to the next night’s gig.”

He made it on this side of the At­lantic long be­fore he made it back in the States. In fact, in Bona­massa’s eyes, it’s de­bat­able whether he’s ac­tu­ally even made it in the States.

“‘Who the hell is Joe Bona­massa?’” he says. “That’s what it’s like back home.”

Ex­cept it’s not quite “Who the hell is Joe Bona­massa?” in the US. In­dis­putable fact: he’s had more No.1 al­bums on the blues chart than any other artist.

“No, no, no,” he says, shak­ing his head.

“The only rea­son I have the most num­ber-one al­bums in the his­tory of the charts is be­cause of sheer vol­ume. I’ve made thirty-seven al­bums in twenty years.”

He sighs. “It’s un­sus­tain­able. I have to take a break. It’s im­pact­ing on my life.”

12.47am

If there’s one thing Bona­massa is proud of, it’s his suc­cess – but not on a mu­si­cal level. “I’m not a par­tic­u­larly good singer, I’m an av­er­age writer at best,” he says. “I know how to play the guitar, but that’s all.”

What he’s re­ally proud of is the fact that he and his man­ager, Roy Wise­man, have carved their own path through the jun­gle that is the mod­ern mu­sic in­dus­try. Like a lot of things with Joe Bona­massa, peek be­hind the cur­tain and it all comes down to the same bot­tom line: money.

“Lis­ten,” he says. “You can get a man­ager who will get you in the Chateau Mar­mont so you can talk to pretty girls and im­press them, but you’re not go­ing to make any money. That never ap­plied to me, cos no­body ever let us in the sand­box. We were al­ways told that we weren’t al­lowed – ‘no Joes’. So at the end of the day, ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion.”

Be­tween them, Bona­massa and Wise­man run the tight­est of ships. Noth­ing is al­lowed to slip through the net. No stu­dio record, live set or DVD pack­age comes out with­out their say-so. No ticket price isn’t scru­ti­nised in ad­vance. Ab­so­lutely no one gets a cut of the earn­ings who doesn’t thor­oughly de­serve it.

“There’s a lot of artists out there who look like they do very well, but when the tour is over and they pay the bus bills and venue fees and agents’ fees and the potato chips back­stage and these pesky things called taxes, they come home broke,” Bona­massa says. “I don’t.”

If it’s that easy, then how come more bands don’t do it?

“Be­cause they don’t want to bet on them­selves. [Strik­ing the ta­ble for em­pha­sis] They. Don’t. Want. To. Bet. On. Them­selves.”

1.06am

Bona­massa has just spent 15 min­utes ex­pand­ing on why more bands should bet on them­selves. This can be boiled down to one sen­tence: pro­mot­ers are greedy, bands are naïve.

If you want the slightly longer ver­sion, here it is. Bands should have more faith in their own abil­i­ties, he rea­sons. Strip out the ma­chin­ery of the mu­sic in­dus­try, work out a way to do it your­self. Fo­cus on the mar­kets you’re strong in and build it from there. Raise ticket prices, don’t give them away for pop­corn. Rein­vest the money you make in what you’re do­ing and you’ll make more money. It’s hard, sure, but you’ve got to hold your nerve. Cut out any­one you don’t need on your side. Bet on your­self.

He gets up to pour him­self an­other whiskey.

1.26am

Bona­massa is an en­thu­si­as­tic talker, and when he’s not talk­ing, he’s con­stantly check­ing his phone like a teenager. He’s been do­ing this since we left Grol­loo an hour and a half ago. He has the air of a man pre­oc­cu­pied by some­thing hap­pen­ing thou­sands of miles away.

“There’s a point in a man’s life when he has to choose be­tween am­bi­tion and real life,” he says, look­ing up. “And you find your­self at the cross­roads, when you’re faced with los­ing some­thing that you took for granted, that you re­ally don’t want to lose, but you’re so driven and down the rab­bit hole. And the worst part is that you only have your­self to blame.”

He looks down at his phone again.

1.34am

Bona­massa is talk­ing real es­tate. As you do when you’re hurtling down a mo­tor­way in Hol­land in the small hours.

“I used to live next door to Johnny Rot­ten,” he says. “And it was great. He’d do band re­hearsals at his house. Not the Sex Pis­tols, the John Ly­don band, what­ever it was called. They’d show up and un­load their in­stru­ments and cases and cases of beer from the back seat. The next day you’d al­ways hear the clank of shame – fifty beer bot­tles in a garbage bag hit­ting the bot­tom of the trash can out front.”

Did you speak to him much?

“I ran into him a few times. I’d play guitar dur­ing the day and some­times I’d wind up my am­pli­fier. One time I came out to get in my car and he was there. He said [in­ex­pli­ca­bly re­gal Bri­tish ac­cent]: ‘I hear you play the guitar. In my hum­ble opin­ion, you’re not bad. What’s your name?’ I go: ‘Joe Bona­massa.’ And he goes: ‘Ah, the blues­man.’ He knew me. Which is cool.

“You know what I took away from those guys?” he con­tin­ues. “They’re not skint. They know the value of the brand.”

There’s a note of ad­mi­ra­tion in his voice.

“‘Who the hell is Joe Bona­massa?’ That’s what it’s like back home.”

1.47am

If there’s one thing Bona­massa him­self knows, it’s the value of a suit. Like so many things in his ca­reer, the suit was the sug­ges­tion of his pro­ducer, Kevin Shirley, who en­tered his or­bit in 2006 and has been there even since.

Be­fore he de­cided to take the guitarist un­der his wing, Shirley saw some pho­tos of a show Bona­massa played at the House Of Blues in Cleveland. Bona­massa had sold 600 tick­ets for the gig. He was proud. It was a big show for a guy like him. His key­board player sent Shirley

a photo of their per­for­mance the next day. “Kevin calls me up and said: ‘You look like a slob.’ He was right. I was this pudgy guy in an ill-fit­ting shirt play­ing a half-full club.”

Bona­massa took Shirley’s tough-love feed­back on board. The next day he went to a clear­ance sale at Macy’s and bought him­self a cheap suit. “Two hun­dred dol­lars,” he says.

“Fifty per cent off. Didn’t fit. One heart­break and a good old-fash­ioned diet later, I fi­nally bought my first nice suit.”

He bought that suit (Ver­sace, since you ask) for his 2009 show at the Royal Al­bert Hall in Lon­don. That was a turn­ing point in Bona­massa’s ca­reer, the point when he went from schlubby foot sol­dier to su­per­star-in-the-mak­ing. That night, he was of­fi­cially anointed blues rock’s next big thing when Eric Clap­ton joined him on stage.

“That was the mo­ment,” he says. “The mo­ment. He comes out, and it’s like a col­lec­tive ‘What the fuck?’ I was play­ing and think­ing: ‘I can’t be­lieve a kid from Yorkville, New York can pull this off.’ It was to­tal fear. It was all on the line. I knew it was ei­ther the be­gin­ning of some­thing new or the end of me. What I learned from that show was that if you re­ally want it, you’ve gotta take it.”

He’s back at the Al­bert Hall in 2019, 10 years on. This time he’s play­ing for three nights. “And I’m gonna wear that suit again,” he says. “I’m gonna fit in it if it kills me.”

2.03am

We’re back on real es­tate. This time his cur­rent home, high in the canyons of Los An­ge­les. He calls it Nerdville, as in ‘guitar nerd’. He de­scribes it as “a mu­seum”. A minute later he calls it “a theme park”.

“You drive up and see a sign that says: ‘Wel­come To Nerdville’, and you start laugh­ing, cos there’s only one per­son who can live here.”

Nerdville is home to Bona­massa’s col­lec­tion of vin­tage gui­tars. He es­ti­mates he has 380 in­stru­ments. “Maybe closer to four hun­dred.”

It says some­thing when you don’t know how many gui­tars you own. What things do you do, apart from play guitar? “Noth­ing,” he says.

He sounds sad, or maybe it’s just the whiskey talk­ing. “Un­for­tu­nately I do noth­ing else.”

There’s a few sec­onds’ si­lence, then he says: “That’s part of the prob­lem.”

2.15am

There’s a brief in­ter­lude on the rigours of the road, when Bona­massa re­veals that the most gig’s he’s played in a row is 13.

“That was hard,” he says. “But the great thing about live play­ing is that you re­set at zero. ‘I was bad tonight? Fine, I can re­deem my­self to­mor­row.’”

He raises his glass in salute to him­self.

“I re­serve the right to play a shitty show.”

2.28am

It turns out that part of the rea­son Bona­massa is fix­ated on the ‘busi­ness’ part of the mu­sic busi­ness is be­cause he’s al­ready think­ing of re­tir­ing.

“I’m done at sixty-two,” he says. “Out of here. Novem­ber 8, 2039.” That’s a very spe­cific date.

“It’s the fifti­eth an­niver­sary of my first show. Fifty years. Here’s the thing: if you can do some­thing for fifty years – God will­ing, of course: I may not live that long or have a ca­reer that long – you’ve earned your sec­ond act.”

His first show was on Novem­ber 8, 1989. “Five dol­lars on the door, six hun­dred peo­ple. The news­pa­per said: ‘Lo­cal child prodigy plays the Metro.’ I made three thou­sand bucks.”

It’s worth point­ing out that Joe Bona­massa is 41 years old. No one could ac­cuse him of not think­ing ahead.

2.42am

There’s a song on Bona­massa’s new al­bum called Self-In­flicted Wounds. It’s a slow-burn­ing, Pink Floy­d­gone-blues num­ber. In it, he beats him­self up over mis­takes he’s made. ‘I’m pray­ing for for­give­ness,’ he sings at one point, ‘but there’s none to be found.’

“That song is pretty much on the nose right now,” he says mo­rosely.

Okay then, Joe. How’s your love life?

“Things aren’t good,” he says af­ter a pause. “As of right now I don’t know if I’ve got a re­la­tion­ship.”

The prob­lem, he says, is him all the way. It’s down to many things. His work­load. The con­stant buzz of on­line crit­i­cism that he knows he should ig­nore but can’t. The frus­tra­tion of not be­ing taken se­ri­ously – not even ac­knowl­edged – by any­one out­side of the blues scene. All the things that chip away at a man’s soul.

“There’s a pat­tern of be­hav­iour from me

– a hun­dred per cent from me – that I need to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for,” he says, squint­ing. “The work­load be­comes so fast, so heavy, you start doubt­ing your core val­ues. Like, ‘Why did I get into this thing in the first place?’ It was af­fect­ing my

“There’s a point in a man’s life when he has to choose be­tween am­bi­tion and

real life.”

per­sona. I was be­com­ing an­gry. Bit­ter and jaded. I watched the Muddy Wolf DVD [recorded at his show at Red Rocks in 2014] and I didn’t recog­nise that guy. That guy was this joy­ous, giv­ing, re­laxed hu­man be­ing. And I looked at my­self in the mir­ror and went: ‘I’m not that guy any more.’”

He says he’s been deal­ing with the prob­lems in the most Joe Bona­massa way pos­si­ble: by buy­ing vin­tage gui­tars and amps. He’s al­ways done that, but now it’s be­come, in his words, an ad­dic­tion. Turns out it only made things worse.

“Six-string dopamine,” he says. “The quick fix. I was vac­u­um­ing up ev­ery­thing old I saw at ev­ery store I went into. Why? Cos it made me feel good. And what’s hap­pened is that it’s ru­ined some­thing very valu­able. Or it’s threat­en­ing to ruin it. The first thing I did was text my deal­ers. And said: ‘No more.’” Your drug deal­ers? “No, my guitar deal­ers. I’ve be­come a guitar ad­dict. Le­git. And luck­ily only a guitar ad­dict.” How much were you spend­ing on gui­tars? He laughs. “This month? How much do you think?” I don’t know. “Can I use the re­stroom first?” he says. “I’ll be back – and please cen­tre your­self for the an­swer.”

2.50am

He’s back. He set­tles down into his chair, deeper than be­fore.

“I’m not gonna an­swer your ques­tion on the record,” says. “If you want to know off the record, I’ll tell you.”

I turn the dic­ta­phone off for a mo­ment, and he tells me. It’s a gen­uinely as­ton­ish­ing amount.

“I don’t need to spend my life in guitar shops with my beau­ti­ful girl­friend, or on the phone mak­ing deals, when I should be en­joy­ing life with my beau­ti­ful girl­friend. And that’s a prob­lem. And it’s got to the point where it’s al­most too big to un­wind. I re­ally have a prob­lem.”

He checks his phone.

3.13am

He’s start­ing to look a lit­tle hazy around the edges. It might be the whiskey, al­though he’s only had two or three glasses, maybe four – no­body’s count­ing. Or it might just be the time.

“The bot­tom line: I apol­o­gise for noth­ing but I re­gret a lot,” he says. “But it takes a lot to get here. It takes a real com­mit­ment. You just have to dive into it. Un­for­tu­nately I’m re­gret­ting a lot of my de­ci­sions to get to this point, be­cause per­son­ally I have no life. I just have my gui­tars and amps and I have noth­ing. And it’s cool. It’s one of the biggest priv­i­leges and plea­sures in the world. But is that re­ally a life?

You tell me. Is it?

“It’s not. Sit­ting where I’m at, at the precipice of be­ing a bach­e­lor again, which I don’t want to be

– I don’t want that. And one of the things I have to give up is the hobby. Cos that’s a big part of the prob­lem. And your read­ers are gonna think: ‘Fuck you, Bona­massa.’”

3.21am

Bona­massa wishes he was born 20 or 30 years be­fore he was. That way he could have played with the great mu­si­cians in their prime. Now? Well, those great mu­si­cians are all leav­ing us. “I’m sick of peo­ple dy­ing,” he mur­murs. “I never thought we’d be with­out BB King. I never thought we’d be with­out Chuck Berry. It’s the end of that era. The prob­lem is there’s no­body to fill that void.”

Isn’t that your job?

He shakes his head. “I don’t want that job. It’s not my job to write the next Stair­way To Heaven.”

He’s wan­der­ing off on a tan­gent now.

“Jimmy Page is seventy-four. I don’t want to be on the road when I’m seventy-four.” He pauses. “I’m done at sixty-two,” he says again.

3.40am

It’s get­ting late. Or early. An­ton Fig went to bed hours ago. His place has been taken by bassist Michael Rhodes, the wryest south­ern gentlemen you’ll ever meet. The lounge has taken on that oth­er­worldly, filmic feel­ing you get when you know the rest of the world is asleep some­where else. Bona­massa is lost in his thoughts. Or maybe he’s just fall­ing asleep.

How do you rate your­self, Joe?

He stirs. “I don’t. Be­cause at the end of the day it’s his­tory that rates you.”

How do you think his­tory will rate you?

“I think I’ll be rated as some­one who in­vented a way for a long-chinned, long-named, hack­neyed blues guitar player with a wheedly voice to go from noth­ing to are­nas. I think the busi­ness model is more valu­able than the mu­sic.”

Re­ally?

“Re­ally. Whad­dya gonna do with a six-string guitar that’s not been done be­fore? But if you show a kid the way to draw a crowd, that’s dif­fer­ent.”

3.59am

It’s dark out­side the bus and quiet in­side.

Do you think you’ll sal­vage your re­la­tion­ship? “I hope so. But I don’t know,” he says, and closes his eyes.

“It’s not my job to write the next Stair­way To

Heaven.”

4.19am

Michael Rhodes and I have been talk­ing at low vol­ume for the past 20 min­utes. Bona­massa is bun­dled in his chair, eyes shut. He’s out for the count.

5.11am

Os­tend. We’re here. Bona­massa doesn’t stir when the bus pulls up out­side the band’s ho­tel. Five hours is a long time to be cooped up in a tour bus with an un­happy, mildly drunk blues guitarist.

It’s time to get off. We leave him sleep­ing.

“I’m emo­tion­ally ex­hausted,” was one of the last things he said be­fore un­con­scious­ness claimed him. “Just drained. There’s a wall – and it’s com­ing soon.”

Words: Dave Ever­ley Pho­tos: Ali­son Clarke

“I’m not a par­tic­u­larly good singer, I’m an av­er­age writer at best. I know how to playthe guitar, but that’s all.”

CR’s Dave Ever­ley (left), Bona­massa (cen­tre) and An­ton Fig (sec­ond right) share a rare light‑hearted mo­ment on the tour bus.

Bona­massa head­lin­ing the Satur­day night at the In­ter­na­tional Blues Festival in Grol­loo, Hol­land in June.

”If you can do some­thingfor fifty years, you’ve earned your sec­ond act.”

Two sides to his story: happy when he’s play­ing guitar…

…but “un­for­tu­natelyI do noth­ing else”.

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