Desmond Child is the secret weapon of songwriting. Hyperconscious of a good hook, he transformed a generic Aerosmith song about cruising for girls into their comeback single: a song about falling for a cross-dresser with the memorable title "Dude Looks Like a Lady."
Before he could get in a room with Aerosmith, Desmond proved his writing prowess with Kiss, a dazzling live band that rarely hit the charts. The #11 "I Was Made For Lovin' You" came out of this collaboration, and made it acceptable for outside writers to enter the inner sanctum of band life. Kiss came back for more - "Heaven's On Fire," "Let's Put The X In Sex" - but it was an ambitious new band from New Jersey that Desmond helped develop into one of the biggest acts on the planet. With Bon Jovi, he co-wrote the hits "You Give Love A Bad Name" and "Livin' On A Prayer," followed by "Bad Medicine," "Born To Be My Baby" and several other setlist stalwarts.
Alice Cooper ("Poison") and Joan Jett ("I Hate Myself For Loving You") wrote with Desmond, and so did Michael Bolton ("How Can We Be Lovers"), Cher ("Save Up All Your Tears"), and Ricky Martin ("Livin' La Vida Loca"). He answered the call for Katy Perry ("Waking Up In Vegas") and several American Idol alumni, including Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken. While he remains a go-to-guy for songwriting, Child has branched out into Broadway musicals and movie soundtracks.
So what motivates this superstar songwriter, and how does he do it? Some of it is genetics, some of it comes from life with an alcoholic, and some of it is the audacity to tell Aerosmith they need to write a song about a tranny.
Desmond Child: You know, it's been crazy. I'm in the midst of doing intense work on my Broadway musical that I've been working on for a long time. And so it's all coming together at the same time. So here I am.
Songfacts: Well, let's start with that Broadway musical. I don't know a lot about that. What can you tell me about it?
Desmond: I've been collaborating with Davitt Sigerson on a Broadway musical called Cuba Libre. And we have been developing it for the last few years with the Dodger Theatrical group. We also did a workshop at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California. It's the true story of my family before and after the Cuban Revolution. So it's a period piece set in the '50s and early '60s.
Songfacts: And how is that different from the other work that you do as far as pop and rock songwriting?
Desmond: Writing a musical is very different, because the songs have to serve the story and the characters. And so in pop songwriting, all you really have to do is serve the character because people are interested in the stars because of the characters, not because they are going through anything that then you're going to be listening for during the course of a four minute song.
Songfacts: When you write with somebody like Alice Cooper or Jon Bon Jovi, are you writing for their character?
Desmond: When you work with, let's say, a band like Bon Jovi, the band has a mission and also a personality unto itself. And of course the reason the band is called Bon Jovi is because Jon Bon Jovi is the leader. And yes, it's a fine line between somebody telling the true story of their life in a song and also what their character type calls for. It's the reason that people like them.
So it's a blending when it comes to something like that. With Alice Cooper, it's a little bit different, and Meat Loaf, also. Those are true theatrical characters. Alice Cooper, his real name is Vincent Furnier, and Meat Loaf's name is Michael Aday. They created their characters. Both of them started out the same - Alice Cooper was the name of his band and then everybody started calling him Alice Cooper. And the same thing for Meat Loaf. His band was called Meat Loaf, and then people started calling him Meat Loaf. It worked with his image because he was heavyset.
For both of them, it evoked personalities that are so over the top, and so their music really worked theatrically. Meat Loaf met Jim Steinman because Jim was the musical director for Hair, I think. They made friends and then after hours they started working on these songs. Meat Loaf sang Jim's songs so perfectly. They made a recording, and that was the start of Bat Out of Hell. I produced Bat Out of Hell III, so I know a lot about Meat Loaf and a lot about Jim Steinman, who by the way, is going to be honored this year at the Songwriter's Hall of Fame.
Songfacts: Good for him. He's certainly done a lot of great things.
Desmond: And so yes, it depends to the degree that a person's persona or character is a creation as opposed to a reflection of their true life. Usually singer/songwriters, like Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, they were not writing for characters. They were expressing their personal feelings in the music. That's why they rarely, if ever, co-wrote.
Songfacts: That's right.
I've never been that lucky pitching songs from the outside. That's one of the reasons why I became a producer for so long, because it was easier to have the artists' trust and attention and be able to play them songs that they perhaps didn't write and see if I could get them to sing them.
But in 1979, I co-wrote "I Was Made for Lovin' You" with Paul Stanley of Kiss. This is a band that didn't do that much outside writing. But Paul and Gene wrote songs together, then on their own they wrote songs, and then they put those songs together, and that would be Kiss. So Paul asked me to co-write a song with him, and that song turned out to be a ginormous hit, and to this day still earns a lot of income performance wise and also within the compilations of Kiss' greatest hits. And it's used often and in commercials and movies and things like that.
So that opened the door to a career in songwriting that had not existed before. Bands usually co-wrote amongst themselves, and it was usually the lead singer and the lead guitar player. And then perhaps they'd allow a producer to jump in and work with them on a song that may get that producer a songwriting credit. But bringing in an outside professional songwriter was not something that bands thought was credible or the cool thing to do, because they were afraid of the perception that they couldn't write their own songs. Somehow the producer jumping in was permissible, but not an outside songwriter.
So when I did that with Kiss, it opened the door for other bands to try it. The next band that I worked with was Bon Jovi, and the very first day we got together we wrote "You Give Love a Bad Name." Then a few weeks later we wrote "Livin' on A Prayer." It was a magical collaboration and there was instant chemistry between us.
Songfacts: That's what I wanted to ask you about next, because those were such fantastic songs. You said that it was an instant chemistry, huh?
Steven (Tyler) was much more friendly, as he is, and was very generous, really, and showed me a song that they had started called "Cruisin' for the Ladies." I listened to that lyric, and I said, "You know what, that's a very boring title." And they looked at me like, "How dare you?" And then Steven volunteered, sheepishly, and said that when he first wrote the melody he was singing "Dude Looks like a Lady." It was kind of a tongue twister that sounded more like scatting. He got the idea because they had gone to a bar and had seen a girl at the end of the bar with ginormous blonde rock hair, and the girl turned around and it ended up being Vince Neil from Motley Crue. So then they started making fun of him and started saying, "That dude looks like a lady, dude looks like a lady, dude looks like a lady." So that's how that was born. That's the true story of how that was born.
So I grabbed onto that and I said, "No, that's the title of the song." And they looked at me like, "Are you kidding me?" And then Joe (Perry) stepped in and said, "I don't want to insult the gay community." I said, "Okay, I'm gay, and I'm not insulted. Let's write this song." So I talked them into the whole scenario of a guy that walks into a strip joint and falls in love with the stripper on stage, goes backstage and finds out it's a guy. But besides that, he's gonna go with it. He says, "My funky lady, I like it, like it, like it like that." And so he doesn't run out of there, he stays. It's funny, because they used that song in Mrs. Doubtfire, and then it was like every four or five year old child in America was able to sing that song. It was like; do you realize this is about a tranny? (Laughing).
If you think about how far back that was, it was a very daring song to sing, and everyone went with it. It's not like the polarized society we have now, because that was before gay people really started fighting for their rights and nobody cared about it and everyone thought that they could make fun of us. So they accepted the lyric, and not only that, went for it. (Laughs) I don't know if anyone has looked deep enough into the song, but it's a very accepting song, and it has a moral that says never judge a book by its cover, or who you're going to love by your lover.
Songfacts: Have you ever talked to Vince Neil about this song?
Desmond: Oh yeah, I told him the story. He had a good laugh. He knows that. He knows that he's the one that was paid homage to in "Dude Looks Like a Lady."
Songfacts: Well, during that era of rock, there were a lot of dudes that looked like ladies. That was kind of the thing, right?
Desmond: Well, yeah. We went into kind of a French court look for a while with the big hair and the painted white faces with the dark lips. It was to the point where Paul Stanley had a mole and it looked like it was from the Court of Louis XV or something. The clothing and everything mimicked those long coats and tights - it was a throwback to the days of Marie Antoinette. It wasn't the first time that look came into fashion, but we had gone through a very masculine period with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger and John Mellencamp and all of that. And the tastes swung diametrically opposite, where the boys all looked like girls.
But that wasn't the first time. The early '70s when Alice Cooper and David Bowie and the New York Dolls, it was really a throwback to that period. Everything old is new again. That's what I say every time I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror.
Songfacts: That's a good motto. I'd stick with that. (Laughs).
Desmond: That was written by a friend of mine, Peter Allen; everything old is new again.
Songfacts: Well, you've had so many different successful collaborations, I'm thinking about "Livin' La Vida Loca" with Ricky Martin. How did that all come about? Did he know about your Latin heritage?
Desmond: Not really. He was an entertainer, and my friends had found him and cast him. My friend Debbie Ohanian was the first one to notice him, because she followed Latin music and Latin celebrities. She saw him - I think it was on General Hospital - and then she brought him to the attention of another close friend, Richard Jay-Alexander, and he booked him in Les Miz on Broadway.
So at this point he started having a hit that was produced and written by Robi Rosa called "Maria," in Spanish. And that really broke through. I saw a clip of his performance on the streets of Argentina, 100,000 people showed up and tied up Buenos Aires. I saw those clips and I said, Oh, my God, this guy could be huge!
At that point I had moved back to Miami. It was after the earthquake in '94 (in Los Angeles), and I was getting back in touch with my Latin heritage. I was going to salsa clubs to dance and I was listening to artists like Albita at a famous restaurant called Centro Vasco on 8th Street. I took Steven Tyler there one night and everything. So I started getting into all of this and then there was an artist that a friend of mine from high school, Rafael Vigil, was producing. He was the one who wrote the early Miami Sound Machine hits with Joe Galdo.
One of the things that was an innovation, we were the first to record and mix a record all what they call "in the box," on ProTools. At the beginnings of ProTools. We were the first to go all the way to #1 with a song that was 100 percent non-analog, and that fact made it into the Wall Street Journal.
One of the things about that new sound of digital, it had a kind of metallic sound, and to compensate for that metallic sound, we made it drier than Latin music had ever been, which is more like ambient dance music, where things were deconstructed and you could hear everything your friend said, instead of the kind of records that sounded as though they were in a hall or with a lot of echo or had a corny kind of Europop sound. So we changed that with Ricky. We got his voice right in everybody's face. It really worked, and from that moment on nothing has ever sounded like it used to sound.
And songwriting wise, I brought all of my experience with Aerosmith and Bon Jovi and Kiss, Alice Cooper and Joan Jett, to the table creating arena rock songs with a Latin flavor.
Songfacts: That's an interesting way to describe it.
Songfacts: That's interesting. I never even considered that, but when you mention it, I can hear that. And I was just thinking about the idea that it's a mixture of English and Spanish, the title.
Desmond: Well, that was actually because his manager, Angelo Medina, thought there was a market in radio stations that were doing songs that were going back and forth between English and Spanish. He said, "Well, what if you do one song that's kind of both?" If you look at "Livin' La Vida Loca," there really is very little Spanish in it. But when we presented it to the record company, one of the top executives came back to me and said, "Could you write that song in English now?" I said, "It is in English." And in fact, when the first ads came out, he insisted that underneath "Livin' La Vida Loca," in parenthesis, it said, "Livin' the Crazy Life." We were scratching our heads, like, Come on now, anyone who has ever gone to Pollo Loco knows what the word "loco" is.
Songfacts: (Laughing) Yeah, it's not exactly exotic language, is it?
Desmond: That particular song had parts that sound like Spanish but aren't. Like, "skin the color of mocha." "Mocha" is an American term - we don't say that in Spanish. But it sounded like Spanish. It took three days to work out the right combination of sounds and words. That's pretty much the longest I had ever worked on a song before. That was before I started working in theatre. These days it takes me three or four days to write a proper song.
Songfacts: You mentioned that when you were putting that together, Frank Sinatra passed away. And a couple iconic figures recently passed on. And I'm just curious if you worked with either Robin Gibb or Donna Summer at any point, if you have any stories to tell about working with them?
Desmond: No, I didn't know them. Robin and Barry lived down the street from me in Miami, and I would see Robin riding his bike with bedroom slippers and white socks going down the street with his hair crazy in the wind. I think I went to a party at his house, but I never got a chance to work with him. They were very difficult to get to know. They weren't cozy neighbors, let's just put it that way.
Songfacts: I think it was Steven Tyler who described you as a chameleon. I was thinking of a word like Zelig, somebody that can fit into almost any atmosphere and thrive. Why do you think you have that ability? Is it something you've had since birth, or something you've developed just to survive?
Desmond: Well, my parents were both charming people, so that was already in my DNA. Not to call myself so charming, because I'm actually more of a cantankerous sourpuss these days. But I think that having grown up so poor, it was like beggars can't be so choosy. You have to just get in there and get people to like you so they'll put a little more in your bowl. That was an element.
But also I had a stepfather who was a drinker and I never quite knew what mood he was going to be in. So I would always have to adapt myself to whatever the conditions were instantly. I think that's called being an enabler in Al Anon. But you adjust yourself sometimes when you don't know what your parent is going to be throwing at you. So I think that that might have been an element, too.
So then I was the perfect person to move into that scenario. I hadn't really realized that - it took me a long time. A friend of mine took me to an Al Anon meeting, and I started hearing these stories, and I said, "Oh, my God, that's me." And so it has served me. But it also has been painful going through the ups and downs of some of these crazy people I worked with.
Songfacts: You just have a knack for writing songs that are catchy and they're hit songs. It's one thing to be able to say you can write really great songs - and you do write really great songs - but your songs also become hit songs. Are there any secrets to writing hit songs, and if so, do you care to share them?
Desmond: Well, people ask that question in different ways, like can you learn how to do it or do you have to be naturally talented? You know, I was born with gifts because my mother was a songwriter and my grandfather and my great grandfather were writers - they wrote poetry and books. So words and the sounds of words and all that was already something that drew in people in my heritage. I had that advantage.
And, you know, I think ambition and desire to move forward and create the American Dream for me and my family motivates me to work very hard and not be lazy and be satisfied with the first thing that I came up with and think that that's good enough. To really have an objective eye. I had really strong mentors, like Bob Crewe, who taught me how to analyze the structure of songs so that even though you're emotionally invested in it, you also have to have a detachment - there can be no ego. So in something that seems like, Oh, that's perfectly fine, if it's not alive and jumping out, then it's not good enough, and you have to keep trying or the song becomes a stillborn and you throw it out.
So, it's having the ability and the taste to know where to go, and also more succinctly, to know what to eliminate. It's like when you see the essence of something, then the millions of wrong possibilities just fly out the window, they don't occur to you, so you can narrow down to the right ones.
Songfacts: Do you have like a Hit-Dar, so you know if something you've written has potential to be big?
Desmond: No. I don't think so. You just put one foot in front of the other, and then the world takes it. I wrote a song with Katy Perry called "Waking Up in Vegas," and at that point when I met her she was between record deals. Then she got one at Columbia Records and then she was dropped from there and she went to the next thing. And that song managed to survive all of those changes. It came out as the fourth single of her first record at Capitol, and it went to #1 (on the Dance and Pop Songs charts). That was like five, six years after we had written it.
I knew it was strong, but it took her personality and an accumulation of other hits before that one to put it over the top. And the song is great. I've heard it done by country groups. The song adapts to different styles. So that's always a good sign of something that could have potential. And maybe the really big hit of that hasn't even appeared yet. Could be 20 years later, like "Lady Marmalade" was for Bob Crewe.
Songfacts: Have you ever written things that you didn't think were that good that turned out to be really big?
Desmond: Not really.
Songfacts: You like everything you write.
Desmond: If it's good, it's good. And if it's no good, it doesn't go. Think about this: I've written over 3,000 songs, fully done songs, and of those maybe 1,200 are recorded, and of those a little over 70 were Top 40 hits, and of those 70, I've had 6 or 7 #1's. So it took 3,000 songs to get 6, 7 #1's out of it. I don't know, are those good averages? I guess so. Considering that most people don't even get one hit.
Songfacts: So you've done well.
Desmond: But I've also really obsessively worked. A lot of people go home. I didn't.
Songfacts: Is it still fun for you?
Desmond: Yeah. Songwriting is fun. What I don't like is sending a song to an A&R guy who doesn't even listen to it. Or listens to maybe a little of it and goes, "No, no, no," and then takes it off the table without any repeated listening or real thoughtful listening.
Songfacts: And rejection never gets easy.
Desmond: No, it doesn't. That's why I started creating my own projects, my musical. And I have a couple of musicals that Davitt and I are writing together and also movies that have a lot of music involved that I'm producing, as well as television shows that I'm developing.
Songfacts: It sounds like you never slow down.
Desmond: Well, no. No, no, no. I like having a strong pace. But I have kids with my partner, Curtis - Roman and Nyro - and they're 10 years old, and there are soccer meets to go to. I'm flying in tomorrow, because they have a play tomorrow night, and so I have to be there. That determines a lot of my schedule, what's going on with my boys. And I also go to every Broadway show and I also meet people afterwards that are interesting and have a strong social life. So I have a lot of energy, considering everything, I really do.
And I don't want to be left out of anything. I was talking to a young artist that I'm considering working with, and I said, More than talent and ambition, the thing that really makes a difference is having curiosity. Wanting to learn and see what happens next, and then everything follows that.
June 25, 2012. Get more at desmondchild.com.
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