Any fan who’s scanned the credits of some of the most stadium-friendly hits of the last 30 years — Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” not to mention fist-pumpers by Kiss, Cher and Katy Perry — will recognize Desmond Child’s name as a writer. Yet barely two minutes went by in a recent interview before the musician emphatically stated that his key contributions to those hits have often been misunderstood, downplayed or even denigrated — at times by his starry collaborators.
“When Steven Tyler wrote his memoir, he completely diminished me by saying, ‘Well, everything was already written’ and I just added a few words,’” Child, 69, said of Aerosmith’s 1987 hit. “When Joe Perry wrote about ‘Dude’ in his autobiography, he said, ‘Well, Desmond just came up with the title.’”
That wasn’t all. After “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” which Child wrote with Paul Stanley of Kiss, became a smash for that band, he asserted that Gene Simmons “started saying in every interview, ‘We hired guards in front of the studio to keep Desmond Child out,’ because he hated that song so much. Why would you attack a person who put money in your pocket?” (In an interview, Stanley confirmed the anecdote.)
Such behind-the-scenes ego spats and tea spills provide some of the main drama in Child’s new memoir, “Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life,” helping it double as an insider’s guide to how the sausage is made within the slicker realms of the music business. At the same time, the book, due Sept. 19, illuminates the broader dramas in Child’s life growing up with a Cuban-born mother he described as “a cross between Blanche Dubois and Anjelica Huston in ‘The Grifters,’” and as a gay man navigating the music business at a time when it tried to keep L.G.B.T. people locked in the closet.
“This book is a coming out in every way,” Child said. “It’s coming out from behind the curtain of the studio, while also making sure everybody knows that I’m gay and Latino and that I’m now living the American dream, from rags to riches.”
The setting for the interview, Child’s apartment, made his riches plain. It’s a full-floor sprawl on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park that’s been gut renovated into an art-deco dream. Holding court there while dressed in rock star black, Child spoke with a bombastic force that mirrors his songwriting. “If you’re Latin and gay, what do you expect?” he said. “To us, bombast is a good thing!”
The result has hardly made Child’s songs critical darlings. “If I listened to critics, I would never write another note,” he proclaimed.
“A lot of stars want to make it seem like it’s all them,” said Joan Jett, who has written with Child.Credit…L. Busacca/Getty Images
Instead, he aims for the listener, something he learned from his mentor, Bob Crewe, who co-wrote many of the Four Seasons’ hits, as well classics like Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” “He taught me to write so that people can sing along,” Child said.
The result has created ear worms so memorable that, to Child’s detractors, they can feel like uninvited guests who will never, ever leave. His style reflects a lifelong obsession with songs that are “uplifting, happy and bright.”
Child believes his aesthetic formed in reaction to the bleak circumstances of his upbringing in Gainesville, Fla. His mother, who mainly raised him, had talent as a songwriter and poet but found success at neither, instead starting businesses that reliably failed. “To bring in money, she also worked at Burger King and as a nurse’s aide,” Child said. “She was gone all the time. It was a terrible life living in a hot project. It was suffocating.”
So was his mother’s love. “She had no boundaries and didn’t see a difference between me and her,” Child said. She also lied, he said, telling him that her husband when he was born was his father. He wasn’t told the identity of his true father, a stern Hungarian, until he was 18. It didn’t help that his birth father was deeply homophobic, as was his mother.
To escape, and to pursue the career in music he dreamed of, he came to New York at 18, where he found some success with a group called Desmond Child & Rouge, which melded cabaret and rock ’n’ roll. Their two albums on Capitol Records in 1979 didn’t get far. But that same year, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” went gold. In nearly all his songs since, Child has worked as a collaborator rather than as a song’s sole author. “I love the process of working with an artist,” he said, likening it to “taking an X-ray of their soul.”
Stanley said, “Whoever he’s working with, Des brings out their potential.” He added, “He brings a surgical ear to a song to cut away whatever’s unnecessary and also fills in the blanks.”
Child stopped writing personal pieces after penning songs like “The Truth Comes Out” in 1979, about being gay. “I wrote about my life — and no one cared,” he said.
There’s a practical reason for writing with big stars, too: “If the song is good enough, they insist on putting it on the record and on promoting it.”
But the more successful the fruit of the collaboration, the more resentment it can breed. “A lot of stars want to make it seem like it’s all them,” said Joan Jett, who wrote one of her biggest hits, “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” with Child. “They don’t want to admit that someone helped.”
Sometimes his assists were quietly subversive. “With bands like Bon Jovi and Kiss, I started writing songs that weren’t just saying, ‘That girl is hot!’” he said. “I helped them evolve with empathy.”
When he tried to use his songwriting success to move into producing artists, however, he faced resistance, something he believes reflected the homophobia of the music business at the time. “The idea that the authority figure in the studio would be a gay man didn’t fly,” he said.
Eventually, he started producing female artists, starting with Ronnie Spector, but only, he said, because he threatened the pull his song if the record company didn’t let him run the session. To expand his reach, Child started working with Latin artists, though he was at first seen as an outsider. “I had a lot of people saying, ‘He’s an Americano, why is he butting his nose into our genre?’” he said. “Thank God I did.”
Child went on to cocreate the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame and, last year, “Livin’ la Vida Loca” was added to the National Recording Registry. This millennium, he has scored fewer hits. “If you’re not producing the act, it’s harder to get songs on a record because the producer has his own team,” he said.
In 2020, however, he found himself part of Ava Max’s hit song “Kings & Queens,” when an interpolation of a piece he wrote for Bonnie Tyler in 1986 (part of which he repurposed for Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”) was included in her recording. Reflecting the world of current pop, her track lists 11 songwriters. Still, he doesn’t mind today’s clown car approach to songwriting. “Look at the credits to a movie like ‘Avatar.’ They go on for 15 minutes,” he said. “Whatever it takes to get the hit.”
By contrast, there are just three credits on “Livin’ on a Prayer,” a point of pride. “That song has stood the test of time,” he said, also citing “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” which will reappear on Dolly Parton’s upcoming rock album. “As time goes on,” said Child, “I feel confident my songs will last.”