In a new memoir, the musician gets candid about his extraordinary journey to hitmaker for stars like Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, KISS, Barbra Streisand and Cher
Famed songwriter Desmond Child is lifting the curtain on his life like never before.
In his first-ever memoir, Livin' on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life, out Tuesday, the musician, 69, recounts his journey from growing up in poverty in Florida in the 1960s to becoming a Grammy-nominated artist who has collaborated with the likes of Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, KISS, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Katy Perry, Ricky Martin and Meat Loaf.
"There have been so many twists and turns," Child tells PEOPLE. "I call this book a reckoning more than a fairytale, even though it does end in a fairytale. Despite all the trials and tribulations that I went through growing up in poverty with a crazy mom, I reinvented myself as Desmond Child, and it was really an extraordinary thing to do."
Since his first hit with KISS, "I Was Made for Lovin' You," in 1979, Child has remained a mainstay on radio stations around the world. Though he had plenty of titles from his personal catalogue to look to for inspiration, he felt there was no better option for his memoir than "Livin' on a Prayer" — his 1986 hit with Bon Jovi — to encapsulate his journey.
"That song is more than a song," he says. "It's a cultural event every time it's played, and it brings people hope. It means so much to me, and I think it's reflective of how I've lived my life, on a wing and a prayer, and that's how I continue, having faith without having proof that I should."
Written in collaboration with music biographer David Ritz, the memoir also gives insight into Child's life with his husband, Curtis Shaw, and their 21-year-old twin sons Roman and Nyro.
"I have a beautiful life," he says. "My husband and I have worked all this time on what I call our career, and he's an incredible partner and the one that took care of all of the baby care and all that while I was in the studio. He's an incredible parent. He's a mother and a father all built into one. I'm the third child that never grows up. Our sons are so much more mature than me."
Here, Child tells PEOPLE the stories behind the songs of his life.
"I Was Made for Lovin' You" - KISS (1979)
I never wrote with Gene Simmons. I didn't know him until much later. My relationship was always with Paul Stanley, and Paul would bring Gene the songs that we co-wrote. The only time I became aware that he didn't like "I Was Made for Lovin' You" was when KISS started doing an album called The Elder, produced by the legendary Bob Ezrin. He started doing press and saying stuff like how he didn't like "I Was Made for Lovin' You" and also — a famous quote that I saw in a headline — how they hired guards to stand outside the studio to keep Desmond Child out. My feelings got hurt.
Gene was just trying to make a point that they decided they weren't going to use outside co-writers, and they didn't need any help like Bon Jovi or Aerosmith did. They were going to be the real rock and roll. So I think that was his point to try to get fans to stick with them because they had taken off their makeup at that point.
It was a tough time, but Gene apologized. He left a voicemail, and it was like four words: "Hi, it's Gene. Sorry." Click. In the book, I say, "Apology accepted." Whenever I see Gene now, he shakes my hand — almost breaks my hand — and says, "You are a very handsome and talented young man."
"You Give Love a Bad Name" - Bon Jovi (1986)
I had had success with KISS, so I didn't know what was going to happen with these beautiful 22-year-old guys with ginormous mullets, ripped jeans, black nail polish and eye makeup. I didn't really know what was going to happen with them, but the three of us — me, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora — got in a room together on the very first day. I pulled out the title, "You Give Love a Bad Name," on a slip of paper from my pocket, and Jon looked at me, and I never saw so many teeth in my life. I knew that I was in the presence of winners.
"Livin' on a Prayer" - Bon Jovi (1986)
It makes me so proud when I see Bon Jovi. You're in a stadium and you're looking around and it's the end of the night and they still haven't played "Livin' on a Prayer" because no one will leave. So kids are asleep on shoulders with earplugs in, and the parents are standing there until the bitter end. It could be after midnight, and then when "Livin' on a Prayer" comes on, they turn on all the lights and you can't even hear the band — it's the roar of the crowd all singing in unison. You look around and you see that huge amount of humanity all singing the same song, and it gives you goosebumps.
"Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" - Aerosmith (1987)
It's funny, Steven Tyler played down my contribution to the song in his memoir and said, "Well, we already had the song written, and Desmond just added a few words here and there." Joe Perry said the opposite. He said in his autobiography that I had come up with the title "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," and that wasn't true either. I wouldn't take credit for that. It was Steven's title. I just had to drag him towards the title because they were starting to go with "Cruising for the Ladies" instead of "Dude (Looks Like AsLady)." I think I told them, "I don't think Van Halen would put that on the B-side of their worst record," hoping they would laugh and they didn't laugh, but I managed to get them to go with the storyline, which was so far ahead of its time. The second verse says, "Never judge a book by its cover or who you're going to love by your lover," and I think that's a beautiful thought. They used that verse in Mrs. Doubtfire when Mrs. Doubtfire did the broom dance imitating Tom Cruise.
Later, Steven came to my studio and sang a song called "Red, White & You." That was written by one of my writers, and he got in there and sang it for his solo album. I told him the true story of "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," and he stood there looking at me, and then he said, "I like your story better than mine."
"What It Takes" - Aerosmith (1989)
I love "What It Takes." It was kind of a meditation, and Steven had somebody put speakers in a football helmet. So he was wearing the football helmet and playing drums, and he was just in a trance singing. I was trying to follow him on piano, and Joe was doing the same thing. When Steven went home for dinner, Joe and I got busy and started cutting together the song because he never repeated himself. It was 20 minutes of all different things.
When Steven came back, he loved it. He's usually very hands-on and combative and all this kind of stuff, and he just loved it.
"If I Could Turn Back Time" - Cher (1989)
Thank God for Diane Warren because she's the one who brought the big hit, "If I Could Turn Back Time," on Cher's Heart of Stone album. I helped her do the background vocals with Maria Vidal and Robin Beck, so it's always great when I hear that song, I hear our voices in the background, and it's fun because I hear Robin's, I hear Maria's, and I hear mine individually in the group.
"If God Could Talk" - Meat Loaf (2006)
I particularly love a song that I co-wrote with Marti Frederiksen called "If God Could Talk" for Bat Out of Hell III. Todd Rundgren, who produced the first Bat Out of Hell, would always come and sing background vocals for his records, and Meat Loaf insisted he come and sing background vocals on that song. The guy has never been that nice to me because I was the coffee boy at Bearsville Studios in 1971 where he was making an epic album called Something/Anything? So no matter how much I accomplished, I was always just a coffee boy.
All of a sudden, he said, "This song should be called 'If God Would Talk, not Could Talk,'" and I said, "Why is that?" He said, "Well, everyone knows God can talk." I said, "You know what? It's been thousands of years since the burning bush, and he hasn't said a peep since then," and he looked at me cross-eyed like, what?
The title stayed, and it's a beautiful song with a gorgeous arrangement by David Campbell, Beck's father. Meat Loaf was very eccentric, and he could be very warm, but he also was under a lot of stress. At the time, he was in a big lawsuit with Jim Steinman over the Bat Out of Hell title. Steinman wrote it and was going to make a theatrical Broadway show called Bat Out of Hell, but Meat Loaf made that his series. They were in a huge lawsuit over who owned the trademark and so that's why Steinman didn't produce Bat Out of Hell III. I think that Meat Loaf chose me to show Steinman that he could move on without him, but I think deep down inside he felt very guilty for doing so, and so he took it out on me. I was nothing but nice and kind and encouraging to him, but he was very hard on me.
Related: Meat Loaf's Life in Photos
I spent nine months making the record. It's an epic record. It really, really hurt my feelings when I finally got the CD and even though my contract said my credit was going to be on the back cover, he didn't put it on. I was nowhere to be found except a little tiny mention in the booklet. Then the back page of the booklet had, in giant letters, "Dedicated to Jim Steinman." Having somebody who was verbally hard on me was very difficult, but it led me to go for help. Diane took me to what they call Al-Anon, which is for family and friends of people that put a lot of stress on them, and I actually started to get skills that I brought with me back to the studio. It seemed like there was a change after I did that and he, all of a sudden, seemed more respectful of me.
When you're the producer, you actually become a parental figure, and the artists look to you to fight, to get consolation and encouragement. Sometimes great art is made out of that, but sometimes it isn't so much fun. You say something and then it's like they throw their headphones down and they walk out and don't come back.
"Lady Liberty" - Barbra Streisand (2018)
The only song I've written by myself was the one I wrote for Barbra Streisand called "Lady Liberty." I was asked to write a song for her, and I decided, you know what? I'm going to write this one by myself, and it just flowed out of me. When she sang it, it was so emotional.
When you're dealing with Barbra Streisand, you know you're in the presence of one of the greatest singers and performers and a brilliant mind. Her intellect is incredible, and you're in the presence of somebody that's so unique. I told her when we met, "You know what? You created your own genre of music," and then I paused and then I said, "The only problem is that you're the only one in it." She had a really good laugh at that.
At one point when we were working together, I was hovering over her. I said, "I'm sorry, I'm hovering." She said, "Why don't you go outside and hover over there?"
Livin' on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life is available now.
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