With a career that now spans over 40 years, Desmond Child has had a legendary career as a songwriter. He has co-written several number one hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, plus dozens of other hits. He is known for co-writing hits for Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, KISS, Ricky Martin, Katy Perry, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Michael Bolton, Cher and Alice Cooper. Notably, he has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.
This week, Child is releasing his autobiographical book, Livin’ On A Prayer: Big Songs Big Life. In this memoir, Child tells his personal story of anguish and struggle that reveals how he climbed his way to top success, amid extraordinary circumstances. The book, which shares his journey that shaped him as a songwriter & artist, was written in collaboration with prominent music biographer, David Ritz, and features a foreword by Paul Stanley of KISS.
Child, who grew up in Miami Beach and now lives in Nashville, first got his start in 1975 when he formed the R&B-influenced pop-rock band, Desmond Child & Rouge. They signed a label deal with Capitol Records and released two albums: Desmond Child & Rouge and Runners in the Night.
Although Desmond Child & Rouge had a chart single (“Our Love Is Insane” in 1979), the band eventually broke up, and Child began co-writing with other artists for their projects. He had his first big hit in 1979 when he teamed up with Paul Stanley of KISS to write their hit, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” This song was so successful, that not only did he write more songs with KISS, but he began writing songs for Cher, Billy Squier and Bonnie Tyler.
Child’s next big break came in 1986, when he began writing songs with Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora for their band, Bon Jovi. The trio wrote the #1 hits “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin on a Prayer,” and they later wrote the hits, “Bad Medicine” and “Born to Be My Baby.”
Soon after his success with Bon Jovi, Child collaborated with Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, to write four hits with them: “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” “Angel,” “What It Takes” and “Crazy.” He also teamed up with Joan Jett to write her hit “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” and with Michael Bolton to write his hit, “How Can We Be Lovers?” His other hits during this period were “We All Sleep Alone” and “Just Like Jesse James” for Cher, and “Poison” for Alice Cooper.
Then in the late ‘90s, Child began writing & producing songs for Latin pop star Ricky Martin, which established Child as a hit-maker in the Latin pop genre. He first co-wrote “The Cup of Life,” which became an anthem for the 1998 FIBA World Cup. Then he co-wrote the worldwide #1 hit, “Livin la Vida Loca.”
In the early 2000s, Child had another hit with Martin (“She Bangs”), plus hits with Bon Jovi (“Keep the Faith”) and Clay Aiken (“Invisible”). Then in 2009, he had another big hit, collaborating with a then-unknown Katy Perry to write “Waking Up in Vegas” for her breakthrough album, One of the Boys.
More recently, Child has continued to write & produce, and he’s had cuts with Selena Gomez, Zedd, Weezer and Winger. And in addition to writing his memoir, he’s launched a skin care company called Desmond Child Vida Loca Skinlife.
Desmond Child Interview
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Child. He tells how he got started in the music business, and how he wrote hits with KISS, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. He also tells the stories behind the hits “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and “Waking Up in Vegas.”
DK: I read that you’re from Miami Beach, and your mother was a songwriter. How did you get started with music and writing songs?
Desmond Child: My mother, Elena Casals, was a songwriter…a Cuban Bolero writer. There was always a song being written in our home, because she was very expressive and artistic. And anything that was going on in her life, she would write a song about it. [When I was a kid], I didn’t know that people didn’t write songs. So as soon as I was able to get up on the piano bench, I started composing and improvising on the piano. I’ve never had formal training on keyboard, but I taught myself to play in a more simple way, like Laura Nyro.
When I was growing up, my mom was a single mom, and we lived in the projects in Miami called Liberty City. It was a very rough neighborhood, with mixed race and fantastic in that way. All our friends were every color in the rainbow—Latinos, African-American…every kind of person. We would all play together, and someone would have a transistor radio on and play it loud. At that time in the ‘60s, there was only one radio station in Miami, that would play everything from Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to Lesley Gore, to the Rolling Stones and Beatles. We would listen to every style.
Here’s the video of Ricky Martin’s hit, “Livin’ La Vida Loca.,”
which was co-written by Desmond Child.
Eventually I had my group, Desmond Child & Rouge. We started out in a blue-eyed soul singer/songwriter style with beautiful ABBA-like harmonies. But when our first album (Desmond Child & Rouge) came out in 1979, it was the year when people wanted to kill disco and bring back rock. It was during a time when some rock guys in the heartland wanted to burn disco records. They would say, “We’ve gotta get rid of disco, and the only music that anyone should listen to is rock.”
So six months after we put out our first album, we made a second album that was rock-oriented. The album was called Runners in the Night. And at the time, although we were very pop and cabaret, we opened for Patti Smith and the New York Dolls and punk bands in New York City. So we teamed up with guitarist G.E. Smith, who had this very edgy way of creating his guitar parts. And on Runners in the Night, we combined that style with the pop vocals, tried to merge our styles, and started to create this anthemic music.
A lot of that had to do with my relationship with Paul Stanley (of KISS). In 1978, we performed at this underground club in New York City called Tracks. After our show, Paul came backstage and said, “Hey you guys are great; we should try writing a song together.” And we wrote a song called “The Fight,” that made it onto Desmond Child & Rouge’s first album. Then after that, Paul said, “Hey let’s write a song for KISS.” And so I went to S.I.R. (recording studio), where there was this beautiful grand piano. Then Paul and I started to write “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” And you know, that song exploded all over the world in 1979, and put me on the map as a songwriter. The song was a combination of dancebeat and hard rock guitars. It was actually revolutionary for its time, and to this day, that song is licensed all the time. So that’s how I started trying to combine styles. We went from one style to the other, combining R&B and rock. So by the time I collaborated with Bon Jovi, there was this undulating, Motown feel underneath songs like “You Give Love A Bad Name” and “Livin’ On A Prayer.” “Livin’ On A Prayer” is rock and R&B mixed together.
DK: When you were with Desmond Child & Rouge, was your goal to be an artist? Or did you mainly want to be a songwriter writing for other artists?
Here’s the video of Bon Jovi’s hit, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” which
was co-written by Desmond Child.
Child: I wanted to be a rock star on the biggest stages of the world, with a big band, pyrotechnics and lights. I figured that was the only thing I was good at. But unfortunately with Desmond Child & Rouge, we weren’t signed to the right label because they didn’t understand us.
My point is that I wanted to be a star so bad, but what happened was that Maria Vidal and I were founding members of Desmond Child & Rouge, along with Myriam Valle & Diana Grasselli. Maria and I were a couple for 4½ years, and we were so close, being with each other 24/7. But we were young, and we were very inexperienced in everything. Not only in love, emotions and relationships, but in business as well. So at that time, I thought…I’m a rock star…I can be anything I want to be. I’m androgynous—I like girls, I like guys. But as I matured as a man, I realized…Wait…I’m way more gay than I am Bi. So I had to face the fact that I couldn’t stay as a couple with Maria. And that contributed to our group falling apart.
DK: What happened after your band broke up?
Child: To make a living, I already had money coming in from my songs with KISS. Then I started getting offers to collaborate from other bands, like Billy Squier. And I was still writing with KISS and had another hit with them called “Heaven’s On Fire.” Then one thing led to another, and Paul Stanley introduced me to Jon Bon Jovi.
DK: Was Bon Jovi already successful when you started working with them?
Child: They’d put out their first album and they had a hit called “Runaway.” What was unusual about them was that they were heavy metal but they had a keyboard; there was piano and organ. Because of this, they had that Jersey sound like Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen, but they also had AC/DC and Rolling Stones mixed in.
Here’s the video of Bon Jovi’s hit, “You Give Love A Bad Name,”
which was co-written by Desmond Child.
So I got together with Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora, but I didn’t know that their scheme was they would collaborate with me because I was a pop writer, and we would pitch songs to other artists so they could make money and keep their band going. But the first day that we got together, I pulled out a piece of paper with the title…You Give Love a Bad Name. I pulled out this title and Jon’s face lit up. So we wrote the song and they decided to keep it for their band, and we continued writing together. We wrote “Livin’ on a Prayer” and other songs that were on their album, Slippery When Wet.
Then I got a call from (A&R exec) John Kalodner at Geffen Records, and he enlisted me to work with Cher. This was great, because she was my idol. When I was little, I had a big poster of her in my room. So I went to meet her, and I started writing songs for her with (hit songwriter) Diane Warren. We put together this great record that had hits on it, and Diane wrote “If You Could Turn Back Time.” Diane and I wrote “Just Like Jesse James,” and I wrote “We All Sleep Alone” with Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora. And that’s when Cher met Richie, and they began this long relationship.
DK: When did you start writing with Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith?
Child: John Kalodner was also the A&R guy for Aerosmith. They had made an album that didn’t do so well in their comeback, called Done with Mirrors. And because I was having so much success with Bon Jovi, I got sent to Boston to write with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. At first, they didn’t want to write with me; they had never written with someone outside of their group. But we did, and the rest is history.
DK: When you’re writing with an artist like Aerosmith, KISS or Bon Jovi, what is your strength as a writer?
Child: I think that my strength is…Well, let me back up a little. After Desmond Child & Rouge broke up, I worked for two years with Bob Crewe, who had written all the big songs with Bob Gaudio for the Four Seasons, and he wrote Labelle’s hit “Lady Marmalade” with Kenny Nolan. Bob took me under his wing, and at this point I was 26 years old.
Here’s the video of Katy Perry’s hit, “Waking Up In Vegas,”
which was co-written by Desmond Child.
Bob had set up a little writing studio in New York, on 56th St. So we would go up to his writing room, where he had a black grand piano with a hard piano bench. I would sit on the bench, but he sat in a very comfortable chair. And I would sit there for four or five hours, and he had stack of blank yellow pads. He taught me that you don’t open your mouth to speak unless you have something to say. He’d say, ”Why should you open your mouth to sing, if you don’t have something to sing about?”
With Bob, it was all about the title first. He taught me to create an intriguing title that would make somebody say, “What is that?” We couldn’t even write one note until there was a title, and then we’d start writing the chorus. We didn’t know what the verses were going to be yet. We’d start the chorus based on that title, and it would have to pay off at the end with the title. And so everything else in the song was building up towards the payoff. It was a very strict discipline. Also, Bob said that the rhymes had to be clean. He was so picky, and he’d teach me this discipline of internal rhyming and illiteration, and also where the lines had irony within them. It had opposites that always pulled the listener in.
So when I went to write with Bon Jovi, I had the title “You Give Love a Bad Name,” where love and bad are opposites. You’re already pulled in when you hear that title.
When I wrote the title “Heaven’s On Fire” (for KISS), Heaven’s not usually on fire. Hell is on fire. So those are kind of opposite ideas. I always brought those kind of titles to the party, like “I Hate Myself For Loving You” (for Joan Jett) and “How Can We Be Lovers If We Can’t Be Friends” (for Michael Bolton). And it was so easy because the songs would just write themselves. And I owe all of that to Bob Crewe.
Here’s the video of Aerosmith’s hit, “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”
which was co-written by Desmond Child.
DK: It sounds like titles and lyrics are very important to you.
Child: Yes. And here’s another thing that Bob Crewe taught me…that the melody springs out of the lyrics. He would say, “The lyrics are the script. You have to shoot the movie before you add the music. So the music is the scoring of the movie and the lyrics are the script.” So that’s how those songs are put together.
So stylistically to me, genre means nothing. It’s the story and content. How does this fit in with the archetype that the artist is? When I studied acting at the same time as this revered acting coach, Sandra Seacat, her whole thing was understanding archetypes. And when the archetype of the actor or singer lines up with the script perfectly, it’s 10 times more powerful. So for instance with KISS, the protagonist with KISS is never a loser. It’s always a triumph. And that’s how you write those kind of stadium anthems.
So what’s the difference between Jon Bon Jovi and Alice Cooper, who I both wrote with? In history, you have the Greek and Roman gods. So you have Apollo, and then you have Pan. Apollo would be Jon Bon Jovi. And Pan, with the whole dark side imagery, would be Alice Cooper. So Sandra Seacat said, “The closer the artist is to their archetype, the more successful they will be.” This is because those archetypes are hard-wired to our system and psyche…not only culturally but DNA.
When you’re writing and collaborating, you have to really understand the archetypes. I often ask the artist, “What archetype are you? How do you see yourself?” So you would never give Jon Bovi a lyric that’s about darkness and about crawling in chains, tied to the wall and all that stuff. But you would with Alice Cooper.
DK: You also had a hit with Joan Jett, that had the unique title, “I Hate Myself For Loving You.” Did you come up with this title?
Child: Yes. Before I met Joan, she already had the big hit, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Then when I met with her to write, I suggested the title, “I Hate Myself For Loving You.” But she didn’t want to sing the word “love” again because she was sick of singing “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ She said “I don’t sing the word, love.” But I said, “Please just try this. You’re also saying ‘hate’…I hate myself for loving you.” So I talked her into it, and it became her second biggest hit.
Here’s the video of Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ hit, “I Hate Myself
For Loving You,” which was co-written by Desmond Child.
DK: In 1999, you wrote one of your biggest hits, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” for Ricky Martin. How did you connect with Ricky and write this song?
Child: As it turned out, after the Northridge earthquake (in 1994), my husband (Curtis Shaw) and I were living in Santa Monica, and our house got rattled and we got really rattled. So we said, “Let’s get out of here.” Then we sold the house and moved to Miami Beach, which is where I’m from. And it was a time in my life when I wanted to get closer to my mom and my brother, Fred. I wanted to get back to my Cuban roots. So we moved back and we found this house on the water. Then we started going to salsa lessons, and we had the time of our lives dancing, and we went to a club called Centro Vasco. So we kept going and Albita Rodriguez was performing there, and I started thinking…”Wow, Latin music—I think I can do this.”
Then everybody kept saying, “You should work with this kid, Ricky Martin, from General Hospital. He’s fantastic.” It turned out that Ricky lived six blocks away from me in Miami Beach. Ricky was already a big success in Latin America, and they wanted to cross him over to English-speaking material. And I was the perfect one to do it. So at that time, Ricky brought over his collaborator, Draco Rosa, who had been in the group Menudo with him. They came over to my studio, and it was a lovefest. We started writing the World Cup theme, “The Cup of Life,” which he sang at the Grammy Awards and flipped everybody out. That was the actual ignition to the Latin music explosion. Because from there on, Sony Music started going strong with Marc Anthony and J.Lo, and then Universal came out with Enrique Iglesias. All of a sudden, everyone wanted Latin music.
After that Grammy performance, I got a call from Ricky’s manager, Angelo Medina. He said, “I want you to write something in Spanglish—with lyrics in Spanish and English.” And I said, “Wow, okay.” So I spent three days working out this puzzle. I was thinking, “How do I write a song using Spanish words that everybody understands?”
Here’s the video of KISS’ hit, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,”
which was co-written by Desmond Child.
I remember from being in LA, that we always passed this chicken place called El Pollo Loco. And I thought…”Loco…La Vida Loca….Livin’ La Vida Loca,” because I had done “Livin’ On a Prayer.” And so Draco and I wrote that song together, and something else happened. The year before, Frank Sinatra had passed away, but we kept seeing documentaries on The Rat Pack, Sinatra and Vegas. So we said, “Well, Ricky is like the Latin Elvis…that’s how we envision him.” And so we wrote this song that had kind of a Rat Pack verse—“She’s into superstitions, Black cats and voodoo dolls.” Then I said, “Let’s really rock the chorus, like a stadium anthem, with fists in the air.” So we wrote, “Up Side In Side Out! Livin’ La Vida Loca.”
That’s what happened, and as it turned out, the song only has three Latin words…La Vida Loca. Everything else is in English. Then I got call from Donnie Ienner (then president of Epic Records). He said, “Hey Des, the song sounds good, but nobody’s gonna understand it. Can you write it in English?” And that song became one of the biggest records that Epic ever had.
DK: In 2009, you had a big hit with Katy Perry, “Waking Up in Vegas.” How did you write this song with her?
Child: We now live in Nashville, but around that time we moved to L.A. for two years. We got together with (hit songwriter) Andreas Carlsson and we’d heard about this new singer, Katy Perry, who had been in this group called The Matrix. That group didn’t work out, and she didn’t have a record deal at the time.
Katy came over and we started to write “Waking Up In Vegas,” and she was so full of life and so much fun. She said, “Why are we writing a song that’s not like how you are?” Then I said, “Why don’t we write a song about you and your gay best friend, for us, and you go to Vegas and you guys lose all your money, you lose your keys…all this stuff. And so we wrote this song that fit her character. Then Katy signed with Capitol Records and put that song on her album. Then of course, (top writer/producer) Max Martin jumped in and gave her all those other hits. Then finally, our song “Waking Up In Vegas” was the fourth single and it still went to number one and it was featured in the movie, The Hangover.
Here’s the video of Michael Bolton’s hit, “How Can We Be Lovers,”
which was co-written by Desmond Child.
DK: You’re about to release your book, Livin’ On a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life. Can you talk about the writing of this book?
Child: Well, like the title “Livin’ On A Prayer” says, I’m always following my heart and looking for soul in every song that I’ve ever written. And Big Songs…I’ve had a lot of big songs and a very big life.
So many things happened. One of the things is having two sons, Roman and Nyro. It’s funny, but all they listen to is urban music…they can do rap by heart. They have no interest in rock or pop or anything that I do. So I thought…Well someday, I’d love them to get to know me. I said…You know what? I’m holding all these memories and all these things inside of me. I’d love to put them down and let them go; I don’t have to hold on to them anymore. So I wrote it for them, because I want them maybe once or twice in their life, to read it, and get to know me in a different way.
I also wanted to write about my mother, Elena Casals. When I started writing this book, (co-author) David Ritz asked me a good question that made me burst into tears. He asked me, “What was your relationship with your mother?” And I knew this was the writer who can get to the bottom of it all. It just welled up all this emotion, because my mother was like Blanche DuBois meets Anjelica Huston in The Grifters. She had like 15 different businesses in her trunk. She could use what she made, to make demos of her songs. Because my mom was always believing that she would have a hit, and then we could move to a mansion on Miami Beach. And in the end that’s what happened, and I bought her a mansion. She had such a strong influence on me and my life.
Here’s the link to Desmond Child’s site: https://www.desmondchild.com/