The Writer’s Block: Desmond Child on Becoming One of the Biggest Songwriters of ’80s Rock—and Beyond

It was 1977, and Paul Stanley came across a flyer in Greenwich Village in New York City. The show featured the glammed-up foursome Desmond Child and Rouge. Topped with a mop of blonde locks, Child was backed by three, brunette backup singers—Myriam Valle, Maria Vidal, and Diana Grasselli. The R&B-pop group blew Stanley away, and he and Child soon became fast friends—and co-writers.

Videos by American Songwriter

The two wrote a song called “The Fight” for Desmond Child and Rouge’s 1979 self-titled debut. The other song, “I Was Made For Loving You,” gave KISS one of their biggest hits.

Released on KISS’ more disco-inflected Dynasty album in 1979, “I Was Made For Loving You” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, entered the top five in several countries, and shifted the trajectory of Child’s career. Several years later, Child co-wrote one of Bon Jovi‘s biggest hits “Livin’ on a Prayer” and went on to pen the band’s other hits “Bad Medicine,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Born to Be My Baby.”

Throughout the 1980s, Child hit his peak, his name synonymous with the biggest rock power ballads and hits within the decade, including Joan Jett‘s 1988 hit “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” and ballads “Angel” and “What it Takes” (along with the band’s 1993 hit “Crazy”). He went on to write more songs for Cher (“We All Sleep Alone,” “Just Like Jesse James”), along with Alice Cooper (“Poison”), and Michael Bolton (“How Can We Be Lovers?”), and more.

By the ’90s, Child penned Ricky Martin’s 1999 hit “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “She Bangs” in 2000, and Katy Perry’s 2008 hit “Waking Up in Vegas,” among dozens of other hits with a book of songs he’s penned for Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Scorpions, Weezer, Marcus King and dozens of other artists.

Collectively, Child has sold more than 500 million records and written more than 80 top 40 hits throughout his career. 

“The Desmond you don’t know about, is the one who not only taught me the next level of songwriting, but so many of the true aspects of friendship: truth, honor, and loyalty,” said Jon Bon Jovi. “We’ve been through a lot together—the ups and the downs—and the ups again.”

Born John Charles Barrett on October 28, 1953, in Gainesville, Florida, Child spent most of his childhood growing up in poverty in Miami before pursuing music and later relocating to New York City where a chance meeting with Stanley set him off into songwriting. In his 2023 memoir Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life —also featuring a foreword by Stanley—Child chronicles his early years and struggles through writing songs for some of the biggest artists in the world.

Still working since the early ’70s, Child recently reissued his original two albums with Rouge and is working on new music with the group, along with the release of the soundtrack and a concert documentary for his Desmond Child Rocks the Parthenon concert in Athens, Greece in 2022. A benefit concert to raise awareness and funding for the return of the Parthenon sculptures in Greece featured Child’s music performed by guest artists who have worked with him throughout the years, including Cooper, Bonnie Tyler, The Rasmus, Kip Winger, and more.

Fulfilling another composing dream, Child is also working on a Broadway show called Cuba Libre, which tells the true story of his family before and after the Cuban Revolution.

Child spoke to American Songwriter about becoming one of the biggest hit-makers in the 1980s, the artists he wished he could have worked with, and why he doesn’t believe in writer’s block.

American Songwriter: How many years was the memoir in the works after you connected with author David Ritz to help tell your story?

Desmond Child: I found David Ritz after reading a review of his book Respect (2014), which was later made into a film with Jennifer Hudson, about the life of Aretha Franklin. I saw the review in the New York Times, and there was something that drew me to him and his style, and I felt drawn to meeting him. I went to meet him in his home in Hollywood, California, and he opened the door and looked like a Zen monk. He has tattoos all over, and I said “He’s so for me.” He asked me a couple of questions, and I just burst into tears. I said, “Okay, that’s it. He’s the one that I’m going to entrust with my life story,” so we worked on it for six years. 

He would ask me questions and record, so it’s all really in my words. Then, he would edit it all together and fill in the blanks to explain further, so it was a lot of back and forth until it was ready.

AS: Before the hit songs and breaking out as a songwriter, your earlier life was filled with hardships. In the book, particularly in the beginning, you resurfaced so many personal memories and experiences. How difficult was it talking through some of those earlier chapters of your life?

DC: Earlier chapters were painful because my childhood was very difficult. My mom was a single mother, and she was an immigrant from Cuba. She barely spoke English, and she really suffered a lot. We lived in the projects of Liberty City in Miami, Florida, and it was a terrible time until I finally broke free. 

The book is called Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life because that’s how it’s been. I’ve gone to the top going for the gold because I had to where I came from. And I was so lucky that right off the bat, I got a chance to write with Paul Stanley, and today that’s (“I Was Made for Loving You”) KISS’ biggest global, international hit.

AS: When did everything start taking off from writing KISS’  “I Was Made for Loving You” to working with Bon Jovi and the snowball of collaborations that followed throughout the ’80s?

DC: Originally, when I was writing for my group, Desmond Child and Rouge, those were mostly songs written by myself. They were more confessionals about my life, the reflections of my own life. 

When I wrote with Paul Stanley, and they had such a big hit with “I Was Made for Loving You,” then other bands started reaching out to me like Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Joan Jett, so I put my attention into writing for them, or with them. 

I think that in the end, I’ve sold many more records than any individual artist I’ve worked with. Over 500 million records, and wejust certified a billion plays on Spotify.

AS: Once you entered the bigger leagues of songwriting, how did the way you approach songs shift from that point on? Was it still somewhat self-confessional?

DC: When I started writing and putting all my attention focused on the artists that I was collaborating with, the songs stopped being confessional. But there’s still a lot of my life in there. The biggest example is “Livin’ on a Prayer,” because when I lived in New York, and I was forming Desmond Child and Rouge, Maria Vidal was my girlfriend. She worked as a singing waitress, and her [stage] name was Gina, so that’s how Gina came into the song. Jon and Richie had their own references that they brought to the table, but for me, it was the story of Maria and me when we lived together during those hungry years before we made it. So that wove its way into the story of Tommy and Gina. 

You can’t help but bring in your own point of reference into the songs you’re writing.

[RELATED: 10 Songs You Didn’t Know Jon Bon Jovi Wrote for Other Artists]

AS: Take “Angel” (Aerosmith) or even “Livin’ on a Prayer”(Bon Jovi)—what’s your connection to some of these songs from your past now?

DC: Let’s put it this way. Diane Warren writes a lot of songs out of her creative imagination and some that came from an experience in her real life. It’s like one would write a character in a movie that is going through difficult times. It doesn’t mean the writer is going through difficult times. They use their creative imagination to emphasize and put themselves into a character that they’re working on, or let’s say the artists that you’re working with.

She’s [Warren] a perfect example. She’s more like Emily Dickinson, who almost never left her house. At the same time, she’s writing from a personal point of view, like the song “Because You Love Me” which was a hit by Celine Dion. That was written for her [Warren’s] father, who I met before he passed away, and he loved her so much. He was her biggest advocate, and she wrote that beautiful tribute to him. It’s a song that can apply to so many different kinds of relationships, from friends to lovers to parents. That makes that song timeless.

But I shouldn’t be talking about her songs (laughs), I should be talking about mine.

AS: Was there an artist (or artists) you wished you had the chance to work with?

DC: George Michael. I got a chance to meet him, and he came to my Grammy party for “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in 2000 when we were up for three Grammys. I had hoped that we could start a friendship and collaboration, but he didn’t get back to me, and that didn’t happen. I truly regret that I didn’t try harder to get in his face like “You should work with me.” 

Amy Winehouse was another one, but she just left too soon.

AS: Do you ever find you can’t pull anything else from within? If so, where do you go for a song? 

DC: I’m an in-the-now person and forward-leaning, so the idea of drawing from this limited reserve inside of yourself, I can’t even go with that idea. There’s always a new perspective and new things that are happening in the world that are different from before. Yeah. The Milky Way galaxy is hurtling through space I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of miles per second, so we’re actually never in the same place at the same time—ever—from one second to the next. We’re in a different place.

I don’t believe in writer’s block or anything like that. I think that some people might have problematic mental procedures or creative procedures. If they’re going through a hard time, they can’t write, or if they’re really happy, they can’t write to help. I always keep all of that out of it.

For me, it’s “We’re here. What are we working on? What are we doing?” That’s the way to have a career that has lasted six decades.

It’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t think about it. You get on and you go, and it’s the same for me. I’m not thinking “How do I write a hit?” It’s about “What is the story we want to tell?” The script is the lyric. First, you have to write the script, and then at the very end, you score it. First, you write the story, and then you come up with how best to illustrate the story. That’s how it’s always been for me since I started working with Bob Crewe, my mentor, in the early ’80s. He taught me his method of writing, which is all about the title. Try to come up with titles that have a tension of opposites—”You Give Love a Bad Name,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Heaven’s on Fire.”

It’s the direction of opposites that I try to encourage the collaboration to go in, so that when you see the title the listener says, “I want to hear that. That’s clever.”

Once you have a focus like that, then the song writes itself.

Photo: Stephen Danelian / Courtesy of R&CPMK

Leave a Reply

Tori Kelly Praises Stevie Wonder and Reveals One of His Big Talents: “He’s Big on Playing Thumb Wars”