''Welcome to Beirut,'' says Jon Bon Jovi, waving his hand at the peeling paint and busted-out windows backstage at the Asbury Park Convention Center, a crumbling concert hall on the once-bustling Jersey Shore boardwalk where his namesake group played some of their first gigs in the early '80s. It's exactly the sort of place you'd expect to find the veteran band toiling in 2000, an out-of-the-way dive where a few thousand faithful gather to pump their fists to nostalgic fare like ''Livin' on a Prayer'' and ''Wanted Dead or Alive.''
But a few songs into Bon Jovi's set, a funny thing happens: The band launches into its latest single, ''It's My Life,'' and nobody heads upstairs to the beer garden. Instead, they let out a cheer and sing lustily to the chorus. Despite the shabby setting, Bon Jovi have not been reduced to the sad irrelevance of many of their hair-metal contemporaries. They're in town playing a charity gig to warm up for yet another major world tour, which will kick off in Tokyo a few days later and includes two nights at London's massive Wembley Stadium (U.S. dates are planned for the fall). Their new album, Crush, recently debuted in the top 10, and the anthemic first single is shaping up to be the band's 17th Top 40 hit. An upcoming single, ''Say It Isn't So,'' could be even bigger, especially with help from a video featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilio Estevez, Claudia Schiffer, and Friends's Matt LeBlanc.
Not long ago, it seemed time to bid Bon Jovi bon voyage. Their last album, 1995's These Days, wasn't exactly a blockbuster, and Jon's 1997 solo disc, Destination Anywhere, ended up going nowhere (''It was my art album,'' he explains. ''It was my Nebraska''). Clearly, these teen-pop times are scary for old-school rockers like Bon Jovi, and the ramping up of Jon's acting career (highlighted by his shipshape performance in the hit U-boat flick U-571) has only fueled speculation that his attention is wandering from music. But the 38-year-old hyphenate doesn't flinch when people dub him and his band has-beens. ''It's just human nature,'' he says, sipping a glass of pinot grigio at an outdoor cafe near his Manhattan apartment the following afternoon. ''It has nothing to do with me, it has nothing to do with me, it has nothing to do with music. They crucified Christ, they tortured each of our presidents and the Pope. Every pop star gets beat up once in a while, as do movie stars. Yeah, I've been written off more than once. I don't even think about it. I don't look at the reviews anymore, I don't read the articles anymore. I could give a f---. I'm beyond all of that.''
Or maybe not. When it's semi-seriously suggested that collaborating with Swedish teen-pop star maker Max Martin who did minimal, uncredited production work on ''It's My Life'' might have been a hedge against Top 40 failure, Jon doesn't exactly turn the other cheek. ''You know what? You're wasting your time going there,'' he snaps. ''If this is what you're going to write your article about, you're jerking yourself off. You're really wasting your time, your breath, and my energy. The guy just came in and put some loops and synthesizer stuff on a demo, and he was brilliant at it. He didn't write the chord progression or the lyrics or anything to do with that. I'm going to remember this, because if you [write] about it I'm going to hunt you down.'' Later, Jon mentions that the ''Say It Isn't So'' video is being shot by Wayne Isham, who directed videos for most of the band's '80s hits, and this reporter cracks wise about how Isham also lensed 'N Sync's latest video clip. Oops! I did it again. ''I'm gonna beat the f--- out of you,'' Jon says, icily. ''And it's gonna be easy.''