Can the music megastars of the '80's survive in the alternative-rock world of the '90s?

It’s hot out, but a band that hasn’t had a new album in four long years needs photos for publicity. And that’s why, one brutal L.A. day, Bon Jovi find themselves enduring a photo shoot in a fanciful house full of oddball junk and old movie props, perched at the end of a winding dirt road high over Malibu.

Guitarist Richie Sambora looks down the hillside tumbling dustily toward the Pacific. ”You’d find some f—in’ poisonous snakes down there,” he says, genuinely impressed. ”They got all that s— down there. Poisonous beetles, scorpions, tarantulas, black widows.” Standing in his flowered cowboy boots, he looks and sounds improbably gentle, even when he says that you’d need a gun to feel safe.

But Sambora also has a different sort of cautionary tale to tell, about Bon Jovi’s burnout two years ago. It hit after they’d sold 30 million records with hits like ”Bad Medicine” and ”Livin’ on a Prayer” and staged two massively successful tours, when the pace of rock stardom drove all five of them to go their separate ways and look for something more.

”We pushed so hard,” Sambora says, ”we’re lucky we didn’t die, half of us.” David Bryan, the keyboardist with a tattoo of the Joker on his chest, says, ”We were on a speeding bullet, whoa!” And drummer Tico Torres, a stocky sort with a deep, friendly voice, says he couldn’t stand to hear any music at all for the first year of the band’s hiatus, not even on the radio.

But Jon Bon Jovi, the founder, singer, and CEO of the group, and in the ’80s one of the most popular rockers alive, has led his guys back into the daylight. Four years brings a competing, new generation in pop, and, with country music and Seattle grunge crowding the top 10, Bon Jovi’s straight-ahead rock & roll could have faded into middle-of-the-charts oblivion.

As it happens, its new Keep the Faith (released to the inevitable skeptical reviews) hit Billboard at No. 5, giving the band a fighting chance at renewing its life in the ’90s. But during the August photo shoot, the architect of this renewal is uncomfortably posed in a high-backed wooden chair, dressed in an open white silk shirt and bright paisley pants. ”I wouldn’t sit in a chair like this,” he protests. ”I wouldn’t wear these pants.” He’s not angry; instead, a sudden sadness crosses his face, as if he’d turned into someone his own mother wouldn’t recognize. His staff rushes to help, and he ends up facing the cameras — and the ’90s — in different, more everyday clothes: jeans and a simple black pullover.

Just mention Jon Bon Jovi’s name to people who know him, and you get high praise. There’s the tough-minded publicist, Sherry Ring Ginsberg, who worked at his label years ago, when his career first began. ”Isn’t he great?” she instantly responds. There’s his matter-of-fact guitar technician: ”Best boss I ever had,” he swears.

Yet some folks still insist he’s a rock & roll bimbo. Maybe that’s because, at 30, he’s boyishly gorgeous, or maybe because he plays unabashedly melodic hard rock for fans who aren’t intellectual. Or maybe it’s just that in the ’80s, when their albums Slippery When Wet and New Jersey were going through the roof, Jon and the band pranced like happy peacocks on stage, and in interviews proclaimed resounding rock-star cliches. ”Rock & roll is a way of life,” they’d say. ”We do it all for our fans.” Critics dismissed them as shallow, even calculated, as if they’d been badly raised by their New Jersey parents, as if they thought of music as only a shortcut to fame, women, and big, big bucks.

That’s not exactly convincing. For one thing, Bob Rock, the genial industry vet with long blond hair who produced the new album, remembers the guys in the band as ”innocents” when (with him as studio engineer) they recorded their first big hits. And Bon Jovi himself doesn’t remotely come off as hustler.

The group’s burnout was really serious, he tells four successive TV questioners, sitting (the day after the photo shoot) in a plain room in the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood, fortified with his standard stash of Jolt cola and vitamins. No, the guys weren’t feuding, he explains, not even when he and Sambora went off separately to record solo albums. But yes, they all needed to stop ”running with blinders on.”

His own therapy was a two-week cross-country motorcycle trip in 1991, which opened his eyes to trouble in America. He’d always kept away from politics, but now Bon Jovi is upset by racism, sexism, and by the recession’s damage, which he saw firsthand. That’s why the new album includes a 10-minute epic, ”Dry County,” about tough times in a Texas oil town, and why, on its first single, ”Keep the Faith,” Bon Jovi rasps, to a beat more urgent than anything the band has ever played before, ”I’ve been walking in the footsteps of society’s lies; I don’t like what I see.”

But something more is brewing deep inside him. The next morning, trapped in a recording studio with a writer from a heavy-metal magazine who keeps taking photos after a publicist tells her the band is overdue elsewhere, Bon Jovi snaps. ”I hate this, hate this, hate this,” he blurts, bolting for the door, though not without tossing an apologetic ”sorry” back over his shoulder. He later sends flowers to the writer’s hotel room.

What’s driving Bon Jovi seems to be this: He’s on a private crusade against what he calls the ”machine” that runs the record business, politics, and the media, and that tempts people to lose themselves in phony glitz. So he still lives in Rumson, N.J., and he now drives a Jeep instead of the Ferrari he bought when stardom kicked in.

”The Ferrari made me feel weird,” he says, ”because no one else in New Jersey has one.” Yes, he bought a house in Malibu last year, but he hasn’t been able to adjust to the culture shock. ”They have dog-grooming services in Malibu that come to your house!” he says, stunned. ”I want that little van to drive through a street in New Jersey. They’d just pull that guy right out of the truck and pummel him!”

He chooses a resolutely nonglamorous Mexican restaurant for a more in-depth conversation, and brings his brother, Matt Bongiovi — ”Bon Jovi” was forced on Jon by the machine — a lanky 18-year-old who thinks he might want to be an artists’ manager. As mariachis croon, Jon explains the compromises demanded by the industry. ”You’re constantly cutting a deal. That’s this f—ing rotten business,” he says. Glamour? Even when he talks about Cher, who used to date Sambora back in 1989, what impresses him is her straight-ahead honesty. ”I hate to burst anyone’s bubble,” he snorts, ”but she used to stay in Holiday Inns with us.”

The talk turns to his wife, Dorothea Hurley, 30, who was his high school sweetheart, and won’t be interviewed or photographed, but who comes off as more exotic than Cher. Hurley is the New Jersey women’s green-belt karate champ, fourth-ranked nationally, a ”little petite 5-foot-6 maniac,” as Bon Jovi describes her, who won’t let him watch her compete. ”She’s very independent,” he says, his eyes shining with pride, ”very f—ing independent. Her musical tastes are very alternative, she thinks radio and MTV are bulls—.”

Wait! So she wouldn’t normally listen to his kind of music?

”Never! Couldn’t care less! Her favorite is Elvis Costello. When Elvis covered my song ‘Bad Medicine,’ then she was impressed. Hey, f— what she thought. I was impressed!”

Only one thing throws him — the thought that his old audience might not want to hear his new music. ”That’s a tough one,” he admits. ”It happens to everybody sometime, doesn’t it?” He hardly sounds like someone pandering to his fans, though he’s not ashamed that they’ve loved him.

”Stand on the stage in front of 15 people or 15,000,” he challenges his critics, all at once steely. ”Have them look up to you and tell you how wonderful you are, and if you don’t think that’s a great feeling, okay, then you’re unlike me.”

Those fans built his career and made him a major asset of the worldwide PolyGram conglomerate. Maybe it’s partly because he loves them that he’s fighting hard to keep the machine from turning him into a distant, disdainful star.