The first time Bon Jovi's ample-haired guitarist made out in the back seat of a car, Layla was playing on the radio. He'll never forget it. The song and the smooching have blended into one steamy teen memory.
"I remember what I was doing, you know?" the 46-year-old laughs during a teleconference call from his Los Angeles home. "I remember how that smelled. How it felt. It's like a sonic picture."
He's telling this story to try to explain why his band, after 20-plus years of power chords and poufy hairdos, is still stuffing arenas worldwide. As co-writer of Bon Jovi's biggest hits -- including arena-rockin' anthems Livin' on a Prayer, Wanted Dead or Alive and You Give Love a Bad Name -- Sambora is well aware that New Jersey's hunky native sons cater to that "back seat" demographic.
"We're a part of the fabric of people's lives at this point," says Sambora. "As songwriters, but also as a band, we can stand up there and sing songs that (people remember) listening to the first time (they) made out in the car with somebody. It's a big privilege for us. When we walk out there and sing those songs, you see what's in the eyes of those people. We're singing about everybody."
Like fellow Garden Stater Bruce Springsteen, Sambora comes across as a wealthy man in a working-class body. His voice is all gravelly blue-collar cool, and although he's on the phone, you fully expect Sambora to offer you a cold Coors Light and show you his bowling trophies.
If you're waiting for him to say something snarky about sexy lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, you're wasting your time. (And if you're waiting for Sambora to comment on his crumbling marriage to actor Heather Locklear, alas, this interview was conducted before she filed for divorce.)
Sambora knows that his music career is dipped in lucky dust, and he's not about to mess with his mojo now.
When asked if he ever gets tired of playing the same old hits night after night, Sambora dismisses the question, almost as if the rock 'n' roll gods will smite him for complaining.
"Everybody asks that question a lot," he says. "How does it feel to play Livin' on a Prayer for the 20,000th time? You know what? Songs like that don't get tired."
Sambora has a right to be thankful. Bon Jovi is riding a red-hot rebirth. The 2005 album Have a Nice Day has shown solid sales. And the band's current world tour has been nothing short of gangbusters. The first wave of dates sold out so rapidly that the band added second nights in several cities, including Tampa.
"God, it feels as if we're as big as we've ever been," Sambora says.
It wasn't always so. After the band signed a major-label deal with Polygram/Mercury in 1983 (Sambora joined the band a short time after it formed, replacing original guitarist Dave Sabo), Bon Jovi landed a major gig opening for metal heroes Judas Priest, whose leather-clad fans pelted Bon Jovi with invective and projectiles, including M-80 fireworks.
It was 1986 before Bon Jovi could truly court a mainstream audience. That's the year the band released the seminal pop-metal masterpiece Slippery When Wet, which sold more than 10-million copies. The album turned them into superstars -- and turned Jon Bon Jovi into a sex symbol.
But during the 1990s, when the US got down with grunge, Bon Jovi went through a rough period, dangling on the precipice of high-haired 1980s has-beens. At least in the US.