I hope you’re wearing shoes as you hit PLAY on this new Richie Sambora album. If you aren’t, please be careful. The glass that’s shattered all over the floor—your perception of Richie—may shred the skin on the bottom of your feet.
Now, let’s set up a metaphor that will thread through this bio. I like to look at characters in baseball terms—terms we can all understand because they best illustrate the American hero, this sometimes flawed, embattled physical being who gets out there on the grass every day no matter what. This is a fair way to talk about Richie Sambora, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
You should be hearing the first chorus of “Burn That Candle Down” right about now.
Last September, a guy stood up. Tapped his right shoe with the bat, then his left. He hovered over the plate, looking better at 52 years of age than you might have imagined. He stared the pitcher in the eye and swung at the first pitch, swinging the bat around, connecting squarely with the ball. A giant CRAAAACK heard for half a mile in each direction.
Aftermath of the Lowdown is the sound of the ball flying over the back wall. The sound of a man plying his trade, doing what he does best, perhaps more ably than anyone ever thought he could. As “Candle” lets loose from your speakers, you have to admit: This isn’t the Richie Sambora record you were expecting, if you were expecting a record from this man at all.
The American hero is a curious one. We Americans like to see our heroes fall down, get cut up and dirty, then rise up to amaze us once again. Richie is such a character. He likes to point out that that he’s grown up in public. “My baby pictures have been shown in every newspaper around the world.” To see a man who has fallen down as much as Richie laugh about it is, well, inspiring. In his thick Jersey brogue, he often squares himself in a chair, saying things like: “Whaddya gonnadoaboudit, y’know?” This much is true.
Yet for all the humble redirection Richie offers up, he has actually done something about it. And that something is the record you’re holding in your hands.
"This is the truth, the lowdown," he says. "And after you speak that truth, there's always an aftermath. A lot has happened in my life, good and bad, over the last ten years, personal stuff that's cathartic for me to get out. Really, these are all things that could happen to anybody. But I happen to also be in a band with the biggest concert tour in the world, and the glare of being in the public eye."
This is where we start talking about the songs.
Where there’s spit and anger in “Candle,” Sambora thrusts into the melodic rainbow on “Every Road Leads Home To You,” reminding you that he is, after all, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. As the second chorus of “Home” revs up, something hits you between the eyes: Richie. Is. Singing. The guy’s got a voice—it’s been there all along, a featured sound poking in and out of Bon Jovi songs—and it’s confident, commanding, boiling over in each of these songs. The thing about Richie? He gets that Bon Jovi is pop but he's damn proud of the work he, Jon and the boys do. The only thing that lights up his face more is talk of his family. But, face it, even guys who make a living on the world’s biggest stages want to create alternate lanes for themselves.
Get back to the root of it all.
And Richie’s got roots. He started an indie label in the early 80s, putting out music by his friends’ bands, flogging records to college radio stations in the Northeast, helping bands get gigs at New Jersey clubs. That’s Richie: helping people, armed with his smile and his giant heart. He’s a walking neighborhood, this guy—like this record, he’s a collection of experiences, voices, hopes and dreams. He looks you in the eye, tilts his head, looking in a bit further. He’s the guy in the crew who remembers the stories, and he loves telling them, landing easily on the laugh lines, smiling as everyone at the table roars. When you see Richie you can’t help noticing his hands—the tools of his trade— and his forearms, thick as baseball bats. No doubt he’d have been a Jersey longshoreman unloading ships if he hadn’t met a good-looking kid called Jon back in ’83.
New Jersey—with its blue collars and hard-earned dollars, its union anthems and that storied boardwalk—is the most American of American milieus. The Garden State’s even balance (a chip on each shoulder), has churned out ballsy artists for decades. Frank, Frankie, Bruce, and, yes, Jon and Richie. The state was also the longtime home of Les Paul, the man who literally invented the electric guitar and multitrack recording. Over the years, he and Richie became friends, sitting down for long talks at Paul’s home in the tiny town of Mahwah. For Richie, a self-avowed lifelong student of music, his times with Paul were master classes. If Aftermath is a focused collection of songs, it is due, in part, to the influence of Les Paul on Richie’s life.
This record was made by that student—a man in search of vitality and self-expression, unconcerned with stature. He couldn’t be. Every syllable he sings in these 11 songs is a glimpse into the life of a man whose day job has him hovering at the top of the charts around the globe and selling 130 million copies over 11 albums. Aftermath of the Lowdown is Richie’s retreat from that particular spotlight. When asked why he made this record, he practically spit his response: “How could I not do this?”
There’s no greater honor than that which comes from your peers. Richie’s peers are songwriters. A few years ago, they threw a medal of honor around his neck emblazoned with the Songwriters Hall of Fame insignia. This record is Richie’s nod back to his peers. These 11 songs are the songwriter standing on his own; showing you the wares he’s made with those road-worn hands and those baseball bat forearms that power them. No matter how far he travels from Perth Amboy, Richie puts his head down and does the work.
The guy has, as you know, seen a million faces and rocked them all. Most people who’ve rocked that many faces—35 million ticket sales to date—would relax, buy a fast car, recline in the sun, and get in a bit of trouble when it goes down. Richie, to keep the record straight, has ticked all those boxes, maybe a touch too much. So when Bon Jovi’s last record-breaking tour ended, he called his longtime cohort Luke Ebbin to come over. The two wrote a song. It was called “Every Road Leads Home To You,” and it’s the kind of song that a band could make a career around. Before long, an afternoon turned into an endless haze of days. What started as an itch to write a song ended up becoming a daily pursuit, an obsession to replace an addiction that you may have read about in the finest publications at your grocery store checkout lane. Thankfully, this obsession was a productive one; it ended with a stack of completed tunes rather than a night in the clink. With wind at his back, Richie began calling a few guys to come down to a studio to see how it would sound if….
Drummer Aaron Sterling, bassist Curt Schneider and piano/organ man Matt Rollings came down. Rusty Anderson from Paul McCartney’s band showed up to play some guitar. Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. from Beck’s band came down with his truck full of vintage keyboards. And then things got underway.
What you hear on this record is the sound of those dudes jamming. Musicians packed in a room, getting the head of the song together. Richie screaming out changes, signaling the drummer for the turnarounds as Luke Ebbin hits RECORD in the control room. This is the sound of unplanned, raw and real musicianship. Richie, kicking up dirt and making it stick to the tape in the reel-to-reel machine. It’s vital. Not because I’m telling you it is, because when the molecules of air fly by your ears during “Nowadays,” you can fucking feel it.
“Sugar Daddy” is a taut sketch constructed of a wooly bassline and slinky blue guitar stabs. Richie hones in on avoidance of intimacy in relationships—as he spits out line after line with bald honesty: “Do yourself a favor; don’t give a shit about me.” And, more to the point, “Don’t waste your time tryin’ to melt my heart / There ain’t a shot in the dark / You’re only gettin’ my money, baby.” Given the chance to paint a self-portrait, many men would omit such honesty from their palette. Richie’s sending postcards from the edge.
Aftermath is full of such postcards. A riff courses its way from your heart to the fretboard. You record it into the iPhone, eager to play it for your crew back home in LA. A phrase comes into your mind in Taipei; you reach for a piece of paper to write it down before it floats away. Suddenly, you feel the urge to tell a couple friends back home about it, to put yourself on the hook. Luke Ebbin—who co-produced Bon Jovi albums Crush and Bounce—and longtime friend and A&R man, Phil Cassens, got the call. Each one of them began the process of writing, prodding, reflecting with Richie.
A long time fan of Elton John's writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richie was especially honored to collaborate with him on “Weathering The Storm.” "We just met and hung out, had some long dinners and deep conversations," says Richie "He gave me these lyrics and they just connected to me and my life, and even to the world stage. I've never written like that—no one's ever handed me a lyric and said 'Go.' It took me just an hour and a half to finish the song. It was amazing, and I felt very honored."
Guys from the neighborhood keeping him on the hook.
“You Can Only Get So High” was written fresh out of rehab with Cassens. Intent on keeping Richie on the hook, Cassens reminded him he had nothing to lose in digging deep into his personal life. Richie took the bait, throwing a candid lyrical Polaroid on the table over a gauzy piano riff that sounds like the muted voices from the hotel room next door. “Life was one long afterparty / My welcome was too long overstayed / Good times sing the same old story / But they leave out how the bill is getting paid.” Richie’s side of the story. The soundtrack to all those tabloid pages doesn’t sound so fun in this postmortem. But it sure does make great rock and roll. The kind of music that kicks you in the gut. Jeff Castelaz of esteemed LA indie Dangerbird Records (home of Silversun Pickups and Fitz and The Tantrums) was bowled over upon first listen and immediately jumped in to join Team Richie.
When your job takes you 6,000 miles from home for months at a time, you begin to ache for familiarity. That’s why so many guys go out on benders on the road. A bottle is a bottle is a bottle, no matter the city. It’s familiar. No substance fills the empty space in the arms of a father who longs for the sights and sounds of his teenage daughter. To see Richie talk about 14-year-old Ava is to see the protector, the admirer and the fan in him. “I’ll Always Walk Beside You” is an open letter from a father with a grateful heart, and it was the final song written for the album. The title comes from a notation he wrote on a cherished photo of the two of them.
"There's a picture of me and Ava, walking down a road," he says. "You see our backs, and I wrote that phrase to her on the photo. She was an essential part of taking me through the ups and downs of the last ten years. This song could also be about somebody's woman; it could be a wedding song. That's how songs get through, when people are able to relate to the lyrics and say, 'Hey, man, that's my life, too.'"
There’s one aspect of the hero I forgot to mention. Humility. Before our American stories end, we like our guys to be scuffed-up, hard-fought, resurrected and a little humble. “Hey, man, that’s my life, too” seems like the perfect note to go out on.
So there you have it. Aftermath of the Lowdown. 11 songs and 45 minutes. The hero, the student, the neighborhood. Vignettes and snapshots filled equally with warts and riffs. "This is my favorite record I've ever made. It's the most fulfilling and beautiful experience in my life as a musician,” he admits.
Richie Sambora. As you’ve never heard him before.