Published On: Mon, Oct 30th, 2023
Music | By MDN

Livin’ on a Prayer! Desmond Child on writing bombastic hits for Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and more | Pop and rock

‘During Covid,” says Desmond Child dreamily, “the whole city of Chicago opened their windows at the same time and sang Livin’ on a Prayer.” The veteran songwriter breaks into a proud grin. “It gave them hope and community. Jon Bon Jovi always tells me, ‘We didn’t just write a song – we wrote something special.’” And their something special has now notched up a billion plays on Spotify.

Child also co-wrote Bad Medicine and You Give Love a Bad Name among many others with Bon Jovi. He penned Dude (Looks Like a Lady) with Aerosmith, Poison with Alice Cooper and even Livin’ la Vida Loca for Ricky Martin (which was then quoted in Sisqó’s hit Thong Song, earning Child another credit). The hitmaker to the stars has also worked with Meat Loaf, Cher, Barbra Streisand and Katy Perry. He has scored 80 Billboard hits over five decades and his songs have racked up 500m sales – five times more than Coldplay. But he is keen to point out that, of the 3,500 he’s written – a remarkable stat in itself – “half of them were rubbish. But I try to finish every song I write. You try to give it your best and so far people haven’t asked for their money back.”

Child, a stylish, youthful 69-year-old who lives in Nashville with his husband Curtis, insists that there isn’t a magic formula for globe-conquering anthems. “Diane Warren writes songs like they’re confessionals about her own life,” he explains, referring to his closest peer, a good friend. “Then she’ll give them to Toni Braxton or Céline Dion. In my case, I’m fitting the songs on the person like a suit. I try to meet them before we go into a writing session, taking down everything they say. I ask the right questions, they tell me their story and sometimes they might start crying. But can you imagine anyone but Aerosmith singing Dude (Looks Like a Lady) or anyone but Joan Jett singing I Hate Myself for Loving You? It just goes with who they are.”

Formula or not, he does have trademarks – notably those titles. “I learned early on that art is the tension of opposites,” he explains, as Curtis brings us coffee and croissants in this fancy London hotel. “So You Give Love a Bad Name. I Hate Myself for Loving You. Dude (Looks Like a Lady). The title sucks you in and people think, ‘I wanna hear this.’” Another tip – picked up from Bob Crewe, the co-writer of Lady Marmalade who coached him in the 1970s – is that “rhymes need to be as clean as possible. So you can’t rhyme ‘name’ with ‘games’. It has to be ‘game’. Because when people are singing along in a stadium, they need to anticipate the next rhyme. If it’s clean, they’ll remember it – and by the second chorus they’re singing along.”

‘So far no one’s asked for their money back’ … Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Child and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.
‘So far no one’s asked for their money back’ … Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Child and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. Photograph: Desmond Child Archives

Child’s latest project is not a song but a book: a page-turner of an autobiography full of the remarkable stories behind his songs. Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life features encounters with stars such as Mickey Rourke and Michael Jackson, brushes with music industry homophobia, and colourful incidents such as his mother getting shot or his aunt having an affair with Fidel Castro. “David Ritz, who I wrote it with, said, ‘Your book is gonna be 1,000 pages long.’” He laughs.

Born John Charles Barrett in Gainesville, Florida, he spent his earliest years in revolutionary Cuba, his mother’s homeland. They lived comfortably in Havana and he describes Elena Casals, his mother, as a “bohemian it girl”. But following a move to Miami, he grew up in poverty in the city’s Liberty projects. By then, Casals, an aspiring songwriter who’d had him after an affair, had left her American husband and taken her three children. She kept the identity of Child’s real father, a Hungarian, from him until he was 18.

Child’s mother could not accept his sexuality and at the age of 13 he was given testosterone shots in an attempt to make him more “manly”. “Even years later,” he says, “it took her a long time to acknowledge that Curtis was my husband.” But he appreciates the sacrifices she made to feed them. “Selling mops or wigs, flipping burgers – she had 15 different business cards with different aliases.”

‘That song is in the National Recording Registry along with Moon River. Can you imagine?’ … Child and Ricky Martin working on Livin’ la Vida Loca.
‘That song is in the National Recording Registry along with Moon River. Can you imagine?’ … Child and Ricky Martin working on Livin’ la Vida Loca. Photograph: Jill Khan

While friends and cousins “fell into the cycle of incarceration”, Child’s path opened up after he saw Janis Joplin performing at a racetrack. “She was singing and getting drunker,” he says “until finally she was lying flat on the ground and had to be carried off. But there was something magical about her. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t sing a note but I turned myself into a singer.”

In 1975, after changing his name, he formed Desmond Child & Rouge with fellow Latino singers Maria Vidal (an early girlfriend, before he accepted his sexuality), Myriam Valle and Diana Grasselli, appearing on Saturday Night Live and achieving moderate success for their funky, sophisticated pop. However, destiny called after a gig in Trax, a club in New York’s Greenwich Village. “George Harrison was in the audience,” says Child, “and Paul Stanley popped backstage.” Stanley is the singer of tongue-lolling glam legends Kiss. “Nobody knew what Kiss looked like then without the makeup, but he wanted to make friends and said, ‘Why don’t we try writing a song together?’ Lightning struck. I Was Made for Loving You is one of the biggest-selling songs I’ve ever had. I realised I could collaborate with people and help them to become bigger stars.”

Bon Jovi were a Kiss support act much in need of a hit. So Child combined If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man) – which he’d written for Bonnie Tyler – with a Jon Bon Jovi song called Shot Through the Heart, creating You Give Love a Bad Name. “I saw Jon’s billion-dollar smile and we never looked back.”

They wrote Livin’ on a Prayer on a Formica table in a dingy basement. “They wanted a working-class anthem,” says Child, revealing that, unusually, he drew on his own life, specifically that early girlfriend. “The Gina character [“Gina works the diner all day”] is Maria Vidal, whose waitressing name was Gina Velvet. Tommy [“Tommy’s got his six string in hock”] is me. It was originally Gina and Johnny, but Jon said, ‘I can’t sing Johnny, that’s my name.’” So Johnny became Tommy, the struggling couple were “halfway there, livin’ on a prayer” and the rest is history.

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‘I was not a threat’ … Child in the studio with Bon Jovi.
‘I was not a threat’ … Child in the studio with Bon Jovi. Photograph: Ciro Barbaro

Child argues that Aerosmith’s 1987’s smash hit Dude (Looks Like a Lady) was an early trans anthem. “When Steven Tyler sings, ‘Never judge a book by the cover or who you’re gonna love by your lover,’ it was opening people’s minds, because it was a very conservative time. And nowadays, they’re getting people revved up that somehow trans people are coming after your children. It’s a bogeyman, like with antisemitism. They implant it in the mind. It’s not logical but it generates hatred. And then people find the candidate that hates everything and vote for them.”

Despite being a gay man at the more macho end of rock, Child says he rarely experienced homophobia from artists. “While they were off at their AA meetings or whatever,” he says, “I’d be talking to their wives and by the time they came back I’d rehung their paintings and rearranged their furniture. It’s like the palace eunuch. I was not a threat to the king.”

‘It’s nice to be on the tree at all’ … in the studio with Barbra Steisand.
‘It’s nice to be on the tree at all’ … in the studio with Barbra Steisand. Photograph: Jay Landers

Executives – “a boys’ club of straight guys who’d been friends in college” – were a different matter. “There was a glass ceiling in production,” he says and this lasted until 25 years ago, when producing powerhouse and 4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry came along. “There was just me – and they’d never give a gay man the authority to produce a hetero metal band. It was only when their genres started to decline that they were willing to let me produce what I wanted.”

Not all the collaborations worked. Rod Stewart walked out during their writing session, for example, and he arrived at Michael Jackson’s studio to find lots of stuffed animals but no singer. “Finally I called his house and someone claimed, ‘Mr Jackson is very ill.’ It was obviously him on the phone.” Child simply flew off to work with Ricky Martin, drawing on his Latin roots for Livin’ la Vida Loca. “That song was inducted into the National Recording Registry,” says Child, beaming. “Along with Moon River. I was a poor gay Latino. Can you imagine?”

The songmaker remains conflicted about his mother, who only managed one Cuban hit but teased him, saying he’d never be as good as her. After her death in 2012, he found hundreds of her poems stuffed into satchels and “discovered how brilliant she really was”. He co-founded the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame in her honour.

His next project is a documentary about his life. “I want to tell kids to keep following their dream,” he says, draining his coffee. “Only one star can be at the top of the Christmas tree – but it’s nice to be on the tree at all.” That said, in 2022 an all-star cast assembled at the Pantheon in Greece for a concert of Child’s songs, a bombastic extravaganza that he hopes to bring to Britain. “Finally,” he says, “for one night, I felt like the star.”

Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life is published by Radius on 2 November

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