Story of a Song: Livin' on a Prayer
Singer-songwriter Desmond Child has written over a hundred songs—including more than eighty Top 40 hits—since his days as a performer in the 1970s band Desmond Child and Rouge. Our social media team's Dan Gomes caught up with the Songwriting Hall-of-Famer to talk about one of the most iconic anthems of the 1980s, which he'll perform as part of his American Songbook show on February 16.
Dan Gomes: What inspired you to write the song "Livin' on a Prayer"?
Desmond Child: I met Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora when they were working on their third album, Slippery When Wet. The first song we wrote together was "You Give Love a Bad Name," and two weeks later we wrote "Livin' on a Prayer." We each brought our own stories to it, but mine is that at a certain time in my life I lived with a girl named Maria Vidal, who was a member of my group, Desmond Child and Rouge. She worked as a singing waitress in a place called Once Upon a Stove. All of the waitresses there had theatrical nicknames, and hers was Gina Velvet. So that's where the name Gina came from.
We wanted to write the ultimate anthem for the working class. At that time in the mid-eighties, it was difficult being a young person, finding one's legs, and finding a way to make money, especially as a musician. "Tommy" is a musician who lost his job at the docks and has to hock his guitar. Things just go from bad to worse for this couple. That's how the B section came to be:
We've got to hold on to what we've got.
It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not.
We've got each other and that's a lot
For love... we'll give it a shot.
At the time I was living in a new age commune that eschewed things that had to do with popular culture. So, while I was writing the biggest songs in the world with Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and Joan Jett, I wasn't really able to share that with the people I was living with. They were kind of like, "Oh, well, that's not important, what's important is your spiritual life." In a way maybe that helped me to not become full of myself.
"These were the Reagan '80s, like Gangbusters Americanism, but not everyone was living the life. It was a struggle for many people."
DG: Why do you think the song took off?
DC: Previous to Bon Jovi, there had been a kind of rock called corporate rock, which was rock that was acceptable to radio and was very safe. Bon Jovi was coming from a genre that people were calling heavy metal. They had big hair, jeans torn at the knees, all kinds of bling. Jon and Ritchie both came from working class families in New Jersey. They had listened a lot to Southside Johnny, Bruce Springsteen, and artists that sang about the stories of the working class. So we kind of created an innovation by bringing heavy metal to that kind of storytelling. It just coincided with two genres of music that came together. I think that's why it became so explosive. These were the Reagan '80s, like Gangbusters Americanism, but not everyone was living the life. It was a struggle for many people. I think that Bon Jovi really spoke to the struggling working class.
DG: "Livin' on a Prayer" still resonates with audiences today.
DC: Exactly. That's why you'll go to a Bon Jovi concert and see people of all ages. They always play "Livin' on a Prayer" last and no one will go home before it, even if their kids are asleep on the floor.
Jon and I have talked about how "Livin' on a Prayer" is more than a song. It has a life of its own, and it's given so many people hope. We once got a letter from a guy who said that he decided to kill himself. He went to the bridge and jumped out of his car. He had left it running with the radio on and was getting ready to jump when he heard "Livin' on a Prayer" come on. So he got back into his car thinking, "Okay, that's my favorite song, I'm just going to make that the last song I hear." By the time the song got to the modulation, he had driven back home. In a way, Bon Jovi has saved lives!
DG: That's incredible! It's definitely more than just a song.
DC: As time goes on, it doesn't seem to ever go out of style. In fact, it's more popular than ever. Last year we had half a billion streaming plays of it, which is as much as a popular song of today and it's thirty something years old.
DG: I'm not at all surprised. What is it like for you to revisit and perform the song yourself at American Songbook?
DC: When I perform it, it sounds more like the day we wrote it together. We weren't writing to a tempo. We just wrote a song--these are the words and this is how it flows. People love to hear how it sounded the day we wrote it. I think that's one of the fun things about going to see a show where one of the original composers will sit down and tell the story of how the song was written and also show the audience how it sounded the day we came up with it. That's one of the great things about sharing that experience.
I also decided to go back to the stage because the fact is I had never done my own show. After being in my group, Desmond Child and Rouge, I went behind the velvet curtain, working behind the scenes. I've written so many songs, and have new special ones that I want to share with the world. It's been a ball. People are so enthusiastic and appreciative, so I hope they come to the show and share a very special moment with me.
Dan Gomes is the manager of social communications for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.