Desmond Child has written an enviable stack of hits for Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Cher and many others. But he’ll be the first to acknowledge that his success as a writer didn’t happen overnight. His eventual career found him taking on an unexpected role with bands like Aerosmith as a collaborator, but also at times, as peacemaker.
The veteran songwriter and producer is spending the week at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp in Nashville for a songwriting summit that runs from April 7 through April 10. He’ll be joined by a diverse slate of fellow writers including John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, Damon Johnson and Marti Frederiksen.
Child is looking forward to connecting with fellow creatives at the event. “The people that are talented and love music that want to move forward with their songs, I have a lot to share,” he tells UCR, recalling how he was similarly mentored during his early days in the music business.
Bob Crewe, known for his work on songs like “Lady Marmalade” (a huge hit in 1974 and again in the early 2000s) was one important presence that he names. The two paired up and wrote 38 songs together over a two year period in the late ‘70s. It was a valuable exercise, Child remembers, as he went on to start having big hits of his own, one after another.
Still, the learning process was hardly finished. “I made it a point to always, every year, write with one of the greats,” he explains. “Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, Barry Mann, Cynthia Wild, Ellie Greenwich, Mike Stoller. I’ve written with all of the legends.”
Each had something valuable to share. “You know, you learn something. Because they tell you war stories. They tell you about the songs. Because they’re happy to talk about their triumphs,” he adds. “And also, sometimes, the downside of trying to keep your songs going and keep your career going.”
During a recent Zoom conversation, Child spent some time looking back at moments in his career to share a few war stories of his own.
Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”:
Their A&R guy, John Kalodner, he was an admirer of the work I’d done with Bon Jovi. He called me to produce Cher. I started working on songs, producing songs for Cher. I worked with her for two albums. In the midst of all of that, they had done an album called Done With Mirrors and it was kind of beneath their expectations of how it should go.
John said, “I want you to write with Steven [Tyler] and Joe [Perry].” They were not for it. They had never written with someone outside of their group. They had maybe co-written something with one of their producers, but they never had a relationship with a real professional songwriter. You know, the very first day, I was flown there. I show up in this car that brought me from the airport right to this big warehouse. It was huge with giant doors like an airplane hanger. They had their whole stage set up in there. On the floor were rows upon rows of guitars.
There was every kind of Gibson, Fender [guitar] with glitter, tiger, leopard, sparkly [designs]. Acoustics, every single kind of guitar. They were arranged very neatly in rows, so that Joe could go and pick out a guitar that he wanted to play. The microphone had all of the scarves on it. I walked in and the door opens with the shaft of light, I’m coming through it. Steven approaches me with this big smile. Because he’s a very charming guy. I think they had thought, “Well, we’ll just meet the guy. Whatever. Then we’ll send him home.”
They were working on this guitar loop and Steven started to sing, “Cruisin’ for the ladies.” [Child sings the lyrical pattern]. Joe was there kind of looking at me sideways already. Then, all of the sudden, [Tyler] sang “Cruisin’ for the ladies” a few times. They stopped and said, “What do you think of that?” I said, “I think it’s really bad.” Those were my very first words to them. Joe crossed his arms and really got [serious] with his head back, looking at me sideways. I said, “What is that? The top down, down Sunset Strip, with babes hanging out of the car, or jumping into the car? What are you talking about? Cruisin’ for the ladies, really?”
Steven kind of sheepishly said, “Well, when I first started singing the riff, I was singing “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” I was like, “What? That’s a hit title!” Joe said, “But we don’t know what that means.” I said, “I’m gay. I know what that means. Trust me with this.” I got them into telling the story of a guy that goes into a strip joint and sees this gorgeous, very buxom blonde up on the stage. He falls in love, goes backstage and then she whips out her gun and tries to blow him away. Dude looks like a lady. I mean, we were so ahead of the trans revolution with that song. Because the second verse, the guy doesn’t run away, he sticks with it and stays.
The second verse, which was in Mrs. Doubtfire, with the broom dance, says, “Never judge a book by its cover / Or who you’re gonna love by your lover.” If you like the way it looks, then go for it, you know? So that’s why he sings, “My funky laaady/ I like it like it like that.” That was revolutionary. Because the setup was for the guy to run away, because he was so shocked and all of that. But no, he liked it and so he stayed.
That song evoked a lot of things, but nobody thought about it that deeply. Because everybody loved it. They imagined he was singing about himself, because he did sort of look like a lady with those big lips and the painted nails and all of that. John Kalodner was in a wedding dress in the video with the long beard. It was like all of this strange kind of imagery. They had these boyish looking girls with short haircuts with square jaws. It was so ahead of its time. The fun of it all opened the doors to them being able to get more and more songs.
Watch the Video for Aerosmith’s ‘Dude (Looks Like a Lady)’
I went to see Alice Cooper for the first time in 1972 in Miami at Miami Jai-Alai Fronton. Todd Rundgren was his opening act. I was all dressed up with the tears and the whole thing under my eyes. My girlfriend at the time, we got all dolled up. I mean, I looked like people from the band Poison or something. You know, with big hair and all of the glitter and the makeup and the lipstick. I was a fan.
So I knew the music. I didn’t tell him that until actually recently when I finally showed him the picture. He got a good laugh at it. I wasn’t coming from nowhere in terms of the music of Alice Cooper. The Alice Cooper love affair never stops. We’ve written and co-written some new songs that hopefully someday will find the light of day.
[But] I had no concept of what Alice Cooper was. When I met him, I met one of the sweetest, kindest, most generous, soulful, funniest people I’d ever met. The thing about Alice that he explained to me right off the bat, Alice Cooper is a character. Alice Cooper was the name of his band and then people thought he was Alice Cooper and started calling him Alice and it just stuck. His [real] name is Vincent Fournier, the son of a preacher man.
You know, Alice Cooper is kind of like a character that is sort of representing our dark side. But whenever Alice Cooper does something naughty or bad, like cutting the head off of a baby doll, then he has to have his head cut off in the guillotine. He has to pay the price for being bad. That’s the strong moral story inside all of the world of Alice Cooper. It’s so wonderful to understand that we need to see villains up on stage, because there’s a part of us that’s that way.
There’s a dark side to all of us and we just love seeing it up on the stage so we don’t have to be it in our real lives. He serves and all villains serve a purpose. They entertain, they give the good guy a reason to fight. There’s a strong moral court to it, with the lessons learned from the evil incarnate.
Watch the Video for Alice Cooper’s ‘Poison’
Ratt’s “Loving You Is a Dirty Job”
They were having a hard time because one of their members, King [guitarist Robbin Crosby], was going through a lot with drugs and all of that. He eventually passed away. They came to write with me. I was living in Santa Monica and it was a hard time for them. So, I have to take credit for coming up with the title Detonator [for the album] and trying to get the big anthemic things out like “Loving You is a Dirty Job.”
“Lovin’ you’s a dirty job and I’m the man to do it,” I mean, those [words], they needed pop anthems. But listen, at the very same time, we got hit by a nuclear bomb called Nirvana [which landed] on the whole diaspora of hard rock bands. It just fell on their heads. They went almost instantly into being legacy bands from one day to the other. Like the dinosaurs, all of the sudden, they’re all dead and they’re all gone, because a comet went by. It was a very hard transition.
Because the way you could get records to sell at that time was through MTV. And then of course, the softer side of MTV, which was VH-1. Suddenly, a lot of the bands I was working with, they weren’t getting their videos played. How could they promote [their music]? And remember at that time, also, it was when all of the sudden there were specialty radio stations that went from just general pop music with rock mixed in to only rock, then only hard rock. Then there were stations in Canada that would not play a song if it had one keyboard on it. We would do mixes for Canada that were just all guitars. It could not have an organ, it could not have a synth. It could not have a special effect.
Listen to ‘Loving You Is a Dirty Job’ by Ratt
Sebastian Bach’s “Falling Into You”:
I had kind of a long history with Skid Row. Jon Bon Jovi’s best friend, [Skid Row guitarist] Snake [Sabo], started the band. Jon wanted to help his friend, so he got behind the band and helped get them a deal. He helped to put them on tour with Bon Jovi and all of that. I was very impressed with Sebastian Bach, his singing, his looks and all of that.
When I made my album Discipline on Elektra and I was touring around, I was in Toronto and I was on my way to a radio station to do an interview. Sebastian Bach was on the radio station before me. He started slagging Bon Jovi. Kind of putting them down. I said to the driver, “Put the pedal to the metal. Let’s get to the radio station. I’m going to kick his ass.” I was so pissed. When I got there, the elevator opened and I think his on the other side was closing with him going down.
I got onto the station and it’s like, “What an ungrateful creep.” I was just so pissed off at him. Later on, he wore a t-shirt that was very insulting that said “AIDS kills fags [dead].” There was terrible backlash. You know, I had so many of my friends die of AIDS, including one of my brothers. It was like, “Wow, what is he? Just anything for attention?”
Time went on and he had gone to Broadway and appeared in Jekyll and Hyde. I don’t know how we hooked up, but I think 10 years had gone by and that’s my 10 year rule. I’ll forgive somebody after 10 years. The hex is off and I’m willing to forgive and forget and move on. He came to write with me here in Nashville and he was telling me unbelievable crazy stories about his life on Broadway and all of the crazy things he was doing. He was very charming. We made friends and wrote this song that was originally titled “The Devil’s Deja Vu.” He changed the title to “Falling Into You.” I think “Devil’s Deja Vu” sounds cooler. A title like that seems so light. But whatever. I guess somebody at a record company said, “You can’t say the word devil.” I don’t know! [Laughs]
Listen to ‘Falling Into You’ by Sebastian Bach
Aerosmith and the Big Ballads:
Steven and I were all alone in this big cavernous space. There was this little Wurlitzer piano up against the front of the stage. We sat on the little bench, the two us. I started asking him, “What’s going on with you? What’s your life like?” He said, “Well, you know, I went through a hard time with recovery and all of this stuff. I met this incredible woman, Teresa. She’s my angel. You know, she saved me.” Those lyrics were put right into the song, “Angel.”
I think it was the most pop thing they’d ever done. In fact, they didn’t perform it live for a very long time. I don’t know, maybe they thought it was too pop influenced or too influenced [by me] or whatever. But that opened the door for a song I wrote with them called “Crazy.” It opened the door for “What It Takes.” They had another song they wrote [with Taylor Rhodes] called “Cryin’.” They were all this heart on the sleeve kind of ballads [with] suffering and she left me and this and that kind of songs.
You know, working with me, I think, kind of helped them to break out of their mold. They are considered the American Rolling Stones in a way. They’re on that level. I think I was a good influence. Then, they started writing with other people like Mark Hudson and others. They came up with good hits with some of these other collaborators. Mark Hudson was actually one of my writers on [some of my songs]. It was good. Of course, they were talked into “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which was solely written by Diane Warren. But because it was for a movie, they did it. It’s been their biggest song ever and they didn’t write it.
In the olden days, no artists wrote their own songs. Songwriters were songwriters and singers were singers. Judy Garland would sing this guy’s song or this gal’s song. When Bob Dylan came into it and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, writing their own material, that set a new standard for artists. It’s like, the critics were saying, “They wrote it themselves, so it’s credible.” They’re really singing about their own lives. If you collaborated, it kind of tarnished the song. Because it wasn’t purist, of their own true experience.
Having other people come in and bring influences and colors and imagery and things into the songwriting process, is a good thing. Also, it’s kind of like a guitarist and the lead singer. There’s always a sibling rivalry and there’s also no one to break up the fight. So I was always somebody that was very non-threatening, because I was gay. So I could get in there and side with one for one part and side with the other for the other part. I mean, I would always side with the one that was right, but they kind of behaved more instead of getting into a creative fight in front of me. That kind of chemistry set us up for having real success. No one has ever asked for their money back. I’ve always delivered for these people and it’s been great.
Watch the Video for ‘What It Takes’ by Aerosmith
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