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Desmond Child: Live and help live!

Desmond Child: Live and help live!

Desmond Child GIAS interview

In the realm of music history, there are legends, and then there’s Desmond Child.

Α songwriter and producer, who during the 80’s infused the global musical landscape with an electric charge that still pulses through our culture today. Think of songs that have soundtracked your life, and chances are, Child had a hand in them. Songs that are not just chart-toppers, but truly timeless tunes that branded themselves onto the DNA of rock ‘n’ roll, such as “Poison,” “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”. And as evidenced by the Latin explosion he ignited before the new millennium, ushering in a new era of Latin pop with “Livin’ la Vida Loca“, Desmond Child can transcend boundaries as easily as penning one of his rock anthems.

His life story reads like an epic journey, filled with the highs of exhilaration, the depths of darkness, the struggle, triumph, heartache – all the elements that form a captivating narrative. This past September, the world gained insight into this remarkable, empowering journey through his autobiography, “LIVIN’ ON A PRAYER: BIG SONGS BIG LIFE”, a seven-year project for him and co-author David Ritz.

In this interview, we’re taking a trip through the rock ‘n’ roll vortex – from his roots in Gainesville, Florida, to the mean streets of ’70s New York City, where he was baptized in the fire of the music scene. We’re digging deep into the influences that make his songwriting groove, roots planted in his Cuban-American heritage and a burning love not only for Latin rhythms and melodies but a deep affinity for Greece and its heritage that for more than 20 years now has been adding an extra layer of richness to his musical tapestry. For me, this interview was a bucket list-topper, this is why it’s published in its entirety and only slightly edited for clarity.

Tasos: Desmond, hello. I want to thank you again for doing this and wish you a happy birthday. Let’s talk about “LIVIN’ ON A PRAYER: BIG SONGS BIG LIFE”. This great autobiography, serves as a public introduction to the man behind the songs. It’s an intimate glimpse into your life, with stories that David Ritz describes as “coming pouring out”.

Desmond Child: Sorry, maybe too much! Maybe it poured out too much. (laughing)

Tasos: How do you navigate the experience of such personal exposure, laying it all out there for the world to see?

Desmond Child: Well, it took seven years to write it, but it took a lifetime to live it. And it was kind of coming towards a reckoning in a way, because we have our sons, Roman and Nyro, and they’re 21, and I wanted them to know me as more than just “daddy with the open checkbook”. I wanted them to get to know their legacy, where I came from and the struggles that I had to create, the success that I’ve had. Maybe someday they’ll actually open the book and read it!

Desmond with his husband, Curtis Shaw – Photograph: Desmond Child Archives

Tasos: I hope they will!

Desmond Child: No, we’ll see what happens with that. But that was a big motivation for writing the book. I mean, as far as the world, I’ve always been an open book. There were times in my life when I was in the closet, but in a way, my life is an open book now. Think about it. Everybody’s life is an open book. If you’re on Instagram or Facebook, and you’re posting pictures of your life and your parties and the people you love and you say their names, that’s an open book. Maybe writing the book is narcissistic in a way that anyone would actually care to think that. Yeah, it’s probably narcissistic! And probably everybody who posts things is narcissistic to a certain degree, because it’s like “hey, look at me!”. This is how the age that we live in is. We always say that Andy Warhol predicted it: Someday everyone on Earth will have their 15 minutes of fame. Of course, but I’ve had more than 15 minutes! It’s like I used up more than my 15 minutes.

Tasos: Desmond, what’s really fascinating in this book is your mother’s life story. It’s incredibly captivating, to the extent that it could almost become a book of its own. Tell me about the influence she had on your perspective on life and the reason behind dedicating such a significant portion of your autobiography to her?

Desmond Child: Well, it was one of those things. She was such a strong character, and because she was a songwriter and a true artist, first of all, she gave me her genetics. Also, we lived in this constant chaos of “how were we going to get out of poverty?”. Her only way was to write a song, and that became my only way. So I felt like my story wouldn’t have been complete without telling her story.

Desmond Child’s mother Mimi – Photograph by Ciro Barbaro

Tasos: Of course. I’m not sure how to phrase this: In your book, you describe how she continuously reimagined her life’s narrative “whose climax would be rewards and riches” beyond your imagination. Given her vision for a better life with music as the only pathway, do you consider your own success the climax of your relationship with her? In what ways you believe she inspired it?

Desmond Child: Well, it’s not only the idea that one is truly a legitimate artist and the integrity of that (being a legitimate artist), but also the flip side of that is the hustle, the “fake it till you make it” part. Both things are occurring at the same time for a legitimate artistic journey. And then there’s the song and dance of trying to make it, of meeting people, of connecting, following the thread of the know, of meeting somebody on a plane who tells e.g. that his brother is a chef for Adele! It’s like, “What? Your brother is a chef for Adele? Do you think he might be able to give her my book as a gift?”. I mean, that’s how it is. It’s constantly like that. Wherever I go, I’m always talking and asking questions, and before you know it, somebody will give one little clue that can move your game forward. And it’s happening constantly! Everyone says, well, “only Desmond (could do that). Only Desmond would walk into a restaurant and there would this X person. When our kids were little, would go “Daddy, don’t do it! Don’t go over there. Don’t talk to them. You’re embarrassing us!”. And then I’d come back, and then I’d say “Oh, do you want their autograph (or not)?”. So it’s about having no shame. Because when you grow up poor, you have no shame. Your shame and dignity has been taken away from you.

Baby Desmond at piano – Photograph: Desmond Child Archives

So, you do whatever it takes. And at the same time, I don’t want to be famous just for being famous. I want to be famous for actually having done something that had value. So many people that I grew up know in New York were great, but they didn’t make it. They had value, but they didn’t have the hustle that I do. In a way, it’s about explaining to somebody who wants to be in the creative field that it’s a lot easier to just go to college and then get a job at a company, to work from nine to five and then go home and have a real life with your family, your children, your wife or husband. You can have your weekends off, have vacations, and all you have to do is show up on time from Monday to Friday and have a very nice life. But you see, because of the way that I grew up, I never had that kind of discipline. My mother would have a job for two weeks, then she would get thrown out and be crying. And it would be like “Why did you lose your job?”. “Well, the car was broken, so I decided to take three buses to try to get there and I got there an hour late and then they fired me”. I was seeing the anguish of poverty and people getting used to rejection and I would say to myself “I guess that’s life. I guess that’s the way life is”. Τhat’s one of the reasons why my songs and the songs that I’ve collaborated on, have a lot of hope not only lyrically, but musically. They keep lifting people up. And I think that says a lot about how I grew up. Ιt’s reflected in my music.

Desmond Child and Rouge  – Photograph: Ciro Barbaro

Tasos: Talking about collaborations, you met Paul Stanley during your days as Desmond Child and Rouge, rubbing shoulders at the legendary Trax on 72nd Street. That connection eventually led to a collaboration for KISS. Looking back, how do you think your career and your perception of songs might have taken a different path if you hadn’t crossed paths with Paul Stanley?

Desmond Child: I honestly don’t know. Maybe I would have fought harder to become a star myself, but right away I got successful writing with the band (KISS), and I saw a pathway forward to make. So if it hadn’t been for Paul Stanley, maybe I would have tried harder to be a (solo) artist and make it as a star. But the odds are slim for that.

Tasos: Let me tell you how much I love this album. (Showing Desmond’s 1991 “Discipline” vinyl). I just love this album, I think it’s one of the best rock albums of the 90’s. Really wish you could make more.

Desmond Child: I do love to sing, and it was so wonderful to get a chance to perform again and be a star for one night at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. I really wanted to come full circle and also make it into Greek history. Because that show ignited a lot of action and attention, and energy for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. We can never give up on that, ever!

Tasos: Yes, I want to ask you about that.

Desmond Child: Listen, prime ministers and presidents, come and go. Those sculptures are forever! Honestly, the Parthenon is forever. And you know, it’s just crying for them to come (back home).

Tasos: I know. Ever since last year, fans have been buzzing about that phenomenal show in Athens. Can you take us behind the scenes and share how this extraordinary event was imagined in the first place to support the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles? Is there more of this we haven’t had the pleasure of seeing yet? I believe you mentioned there is documentary filmed.

Desmond Child: Yes. We filmed the show with twelve cameras, and we’ve been in the process of editing it and mixing the music ever since. The concept of coming to Greece to perform my music came from George Lempesis. He had for years said, “you have to come and you have to perform at the Herodium”. He said it over and over again. And eventually the great Phoebus joined the call for such a thing, and moved mountains to make it happen. But there was a lot of resistance about the idea of a show performing rock music there. Even though I know other bands have played (at the theater), there was a “stop” everywhere we went. And between Phoebus, George (Lempesis), and George Stampolis, who is Phoebus’s partner and was crucial in making all of this happen with their production company. The idea to make it a benefit for the Parthenon sculptures was mine. There had to be a bigger picture to justify me performing there. It was one of those things where at first everyone said, “no, you should donate the money to a children’s charity” and this and that, and “it’s so controversial”. I said, “well, we can do that too, but no. Let’s do this. It’s time!”. So everybody, as soon as I put together the poster (Desmond Child Rocks the Parthenon) and saw my face and the Parthenon, they got it. That poster did a lot to open the doors. People understood: This is going to be classy, this is going to be respectful! Then, Focas Evangelinos was brought in and dreamed up this beautiful tribute where in the beginning I would wear a crazy blue outfit that was a combination of, I don’t know, a priest and Elvis, or KISS! Later on we transitioned to white as a tribute to the colors of Greece (blue and white). I don’t know if people noticed that, you know, we did that out of respect. We also met with Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He was so happy that it happened and was very sweet to me. Wherever I go in Greece, people even come up to me and thank me with tears in their eyes! So it was an inspiring thing to do. Maybe there are bigger forces that kind of flowed through us.

Desmond Child Rocks The Parthenon poster

During the show I was in shock because I didn’t really know what it was going to be. I just knew my parts! When I looked out during “Love Will Keep Us Alive”, The Scorpions song that was performed by The Rasmus, and I saw 60 people all dressed in white and holding glowing orbs, that lined everything. I mean, I didn’t know it was going to be like that! I thought there would be a children’s choir or something. And in the crowd, there were both children and adults, that all turned this (event) into a massive, beautiful thing. When I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes! Look at what’s happened to the world since then. Hal David (American lyricist) who worked with Bert Baccarat, wrote these immortal words: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”. And love takes the shape of caring and empathy, and understanding and being able to tolerate one’s uncomfortable feelings. Because we’re not born with them. We’ve been taught ever since we were little to think like “oh, you see that guy over there? He’s no good. Why? He is Turkish, or his grandfather was Turkish, so we have a problem with him”. You know what I’m saying? The only people that get something out of all of this are the oligarchs and the dictators. They are just having fun. It’s like high school for them! The closer they get to power, you see that. One is against the other person, and then they both try to make themselves look good and do whatever it takes (for that). I mean, that’s politics. Politics is like Hollywood. And you know what they say: politics is the Hollywood for ugly people.

Tasos: I had a question about George Lempesis prepared to ask you. I didn’t know you had a close personal relationship. And it was something surprising to see a Greek folk singer perform a Bon Jovi track. For me and many others this was an unexpected… fusion of worlds! And this reminded me that at its core, music is the true protagonist here because it can transcend expectations. And my question is, do you intentionally craft your songs to break down boundaries and forge these connections? Like this one we witnessed with George?

At the Odeon of Herodes Atticus – Photograph: NDP Photo Agency (Andreas Nikolareas)

Desmond Child: I don’t really think about things that way. I think that when you’re an artist, you do that naturally (to perform anything), because it’s part of touching humanity. I think if you’re a person that has all of this hatred, what kind of art will come out of you? Not very nice. You know what I mean? You make these brutalist sculptures, and it’s like, wow, do they really bring people together, or do they make them feel fear and intimidation? So I think that when I enter this big creative circle of collaboration as an artist, it’s my love and my delight and privilege, it’s my job to be a person that will bring the best of myself to every situation. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big, established star or just won a television contest. I will give you the same amount of love and attention and concern. Because the art that’s coming from something soulful is something that is universal. People can feel it! Many people know my music, but they don’t know me. And they’re starting to not even remember who sang it originally. They don’t care! They just like the songs. That makes me happy because I know this is a chance or a way to become immortal. So, I don’t know if anyone will care about “Livin’ on a Prayer” 100 years from now, but I have a feeling they might.

Tasos: I want to ask you about Greece, as expected. Greece seems to hold a very special place in your creative journey, and you’ve spoken about your connection with the country and how how Folegandros, in particular, has been a wellspring of inspiration. Could you share more about the time you spent there, working on your autobiography? Did David Ritz came to understand you better in such an intimate setting?

Desmond Child: Well, we were working for two weeks there, and it was “eat breakfast, go to work, not even get up”. Lunch came, then we worked all the way till the sunset drinks, and everyone was saying “hey, stop working, you guys”. And we would stop for the day. That was a wonderful thing there. In Folegandros we meet new friends from other parts of the world, but also get closer to the people that work and live there, the people that own the stores and the restaurants and the hotels. We come back every year and this means a lot to us. We don’t think or ourselves as tourists. We go there to our other home, that’s how we think of it. And our sons who had to work this summer in their intern jobs, they were crying because they didn’t get to go to Folegandros. So we said, “okay, since you work so hard, there’s a window right before you start school again.” They went on their own and we said, “well, you guys find (your own) places to stay”. And they actually stayed on couches. Somebody loaned them their Airbnb for three days.

They grew up in the streets with kids that their parents own restaurants and stores there and in the beginning they were all the same age but didn’t speak the same language, they would just play hide and seek. So you’d see all the boys running, and 1 second later, all the girls would be running after them. Everyone there grew up together like cousins. And that’s beautiful. We were really moved by one gentleman who said “we’re very sad to see you go” when we were leaving. And we didn’t really even know who he was. He said, “well, I own this hotel over there, and we all are watching your children to make sure they’re safe”. That’s very special!

At the Odeon of Herodes Atticus – Photograph: Desmond Child Facebook

Something about grief… I had gone to Crete right after 9/11. That’s in the book. And Curtis was supposed to meet me. But they stopped the flights. The cell phones weren’t even working. Everything was turned off. Then I went there and met up with Sakis Rouvas and his friends, and we were supposed to write songs. But we didn’t. We were shell-shocked by what happened. But it was on one of those nights, I think it was the 14th, that we went to this little fishing village. The fishermen were young handsome men. They fished the fish in the morning, they cooked the fish, served it and then picked up their instruments and played music till midnight. They were still singing, and everyone was dancing when my cell phone rang. It was Curtis and our surrogate mother with the news that she was pregnant with twins! It was a moonless night, and on the way back the water was still as glass. We came on this little pontoon, I looked up at the sky and saw the Milky Way and there was peace. But at the same time, I wondered, what kind of world am I bringing my children into? I don’t even know what to say. Back then we had no social media.

Katy Perry & Desmond’s son Nyro – Photograph: Curtis Shaw Child

Tasos: But you seem to love social media…

Desmond Child: We had no internet the way it is now, that we’re glued to our phones. Today we don’t know if the information that’s coming to us is real or not. We don’t know if it’s AI or something invented. Anyone can push ideas through it in very clever ways. And so I don’t know how to deal with that. Now I’m guilty (in my own way too) because everyone told me, if you write a book, you’d better have followers. So I dedicated myself these last seven years to get people to follow me. I’m thinking “what am I going to post next? Oh my God, what do I say with that photograph?” It’s really a full time job, day and night, trying to come up with something interesting so I don’t lose any followers. I’m addicted to the game because if you’re entertaining people, then you keep growing your followers. If you don’t not post for four or five days, you start seeing the numbers go down. But I mean, there’s a lot of greatness (to social media) because I sign up to all these architecture and art accounts, so I’m seeing all these posts from museums and things that I would never have the time to visit. So it can be educational too.

But I don’t know if there’s a solution for what’s going on with AI. AI is scary because they’ve taken our music off from Spotify and iTunes and all these other sources, and they’ve taken all of the information without asking you, with no consent, with no credit or compensation, and they’re saying, well, that’s fair use. If it’s fair use, then why isn’t it free? Oh, no, you have to pay for the subscription. So I just saw that there was a deal for an AI company who got sold for $80 billion! If you’re making that kind of investment, how are you going to continue to monetize it once the competition gets out there? And how are we going to control this? And how are we going to say, “hey, wait a second, you can’t use my name, my music, my photo”, anything about my personal life in this Pandora’s box? It’s very vague for copyright protection. These companies don’t respect it. We don’t want the government to say, “okay, here’s a compulsory rate, pay these people this much because that’s not free enterprise”. They have to tell us what the usage is for, have to give us credit, and then compensate us in some fashion. Because this is different than streaming. When people stream, you can track, you can see whether your song was played and where it was listened to. But this feels like throwing a drop of water into an ocean. How do you retrieve that drop of water? So that’s the biggest danger that artists have to deal with right now. Hopefully, some people will be able to use it to their benefit. I mean, I’ve seen some AI-created artwork that’s stunning but you can’t be sure about the source of these images. So I don’t know. It’s beyond my capability. Also, with the time I’ve got left to live, I can’t keep torturing myself about all of these things. I ask my children, “what world do you want to live in? What are you willing to fight for? What are your values?”. If my music gets dissolved into some giant “something”, then what happens to my legacy? What happens to my sons’ legacy? What happens to their future economically? So these are things that came up so fast. The ethics of it are still not weighed and considered.

Desmond & Maria Vidal with Burt Bacharach – Photograph: Desmond Child Archives

Tasos: This is my last question, and I want to thank you so much again for this opportunity. In your autobiography, you’ve bared your soul, sharing moments of real transformation. As you reflect on your life and career, what message or insight would you like readers to take away from “LIVIN’ ON A PRAYER: BIG SONGS BIG LIFE”?

Desmond Child: Well, it’s been a journey, of course, coming from a Hungarian father, a Cuban mother, growing up in poverty, growing up Latino, growing up gay. I had a lot of things to overcome, but I did it! And I hope I’m an inspiration to people. I think my message to the world is “live your life and help other people live. Stop worrying about whether somebody’s wearing a dress, who cares? Just love your family. See the soul inside a person. Like my song “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” that I wrote with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. The second verse says “Never judge a book by its cover or who you’re gonna love by your lover”. And that’s a message for all time. Live and help live!

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Buy ‘Livin’ On A Prayer: Big Songs Big Life’ here.

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