She’s the whore in our living room and tiger in the bedroom. But in her bedroom, she’s little Ms. Understood. Chris Heath Discovers That When A Tough Cookie Crumbles, Things Get Messy And Sweet.
Madonna is in the shower. I wait upstairs in her New York apartment, and soon enough she arrives, her hair slicked back, a cocktail of three perfumes – Black Narcissus (her lucky perfume), gardenia, tuberose – waiting my way. She picks up my tape recorder. "I’m seeing if it’s turning," she says, "that’s all." A slight smile. "You know I’m a control freak. I have to see what’s going on." I tell her it’s my job to fret about the audio devices.
"Well," she says, "once you enter this house, throw the rules out the window." There is a pause. It is almost, but not quite, dramatic. "Just kidding," she says unconvincingly. "Just kidding. So fire away?"
So I fire. Sometimes it will be messy, but it begins calmly enough. I ask Madonna to tell me some things – any things – about herself. She considers this a little strange, but she complies.
"Um – I don’t suffer fools gladly. I am intolerant of ignorance. I love children. I eat too much candy. I have a dog. I love basketball. I have really good hearing. So don’t try to whisper about me in the other room because I’ll probably hear you. I have terrible insomnia. I like to smell good. I do smell good. I believe in magic." She smiles. "That’s all I’m going to tell you for now."
Of course I want more. Obligingly, the phone rings. "I hate it when people call me and hang up on me," she says.
Me: Who does that? Fans, I suppose.
Madonna: (snapping somewhat) No it’s not. No, it’s not. I know exactly who it is. People who know I don’t want to speak to them, and they call me anyway to see if I’m home. They like to keep tabs on me.
Me: What kind of people?
Madonna: Nuisances. Annoying people.
Me: But in regards to your life?
Madonna: Okay. (whispers) Ex-lovers.
Me: Do you know which ones?
Madonna: (breezily) Oh, there’s The Handful.
Me: And they call to hear the sound of your voice?
Madonna: To see where I am. Some people have too much time on their hands. Do you know what I mean?
Me: (without conviction) I guess.
Madonna: No one’s ever done that to you?
Me: Well, I’d be ashamed to say no. But I certainly don’t have a lingering chain of obsessed ex-lovers.
Madonna: Mmm. Oh well. (laughs) You can’t have everything.
Early on I realize it: This is not quite the Madonna I expected. This Madonna is more nervous, more edgy; less certain. This is not a woman grinning down from the throne of her celebrity, enjoying her fame and acclaim. This Madonna talks defiantly about people who dismiss her because, she says, they envy her courage and despise their own lack of it. This Madonna talks about the admiration she should have earned for "surviving in spite of the beating the media give me for everything that I do." She roars on this theme with a passion that is quite unexpected. On this earth, Madonna does not feel beloved. She feels as though an apology or a set of excuses are expected of her. "So many celebrities make some kind of public confession." "Oh, I was abused as a child" or "I have a drinking problem." I have no excuses and I have no apology. And that’s bewildering to people."
These days, many people seem eager to see Madonna brought down a peg. The latest calls for Madonna to apologize followed her "f*ck"-festooned appearance on Letterman. Their feud was laid to rest when the two appeared together at the MTV video awards. Madonna says she actually really likes him. "He’s madly in love with me. You know how schoolboys are? How they always tease the girl they love the most?" There’s more. "I think he’s attractive," she reflects. "The space in his teeth – I love that. I always think that a space in the middle of someone’s teeth – my father has it – is a sign of intelligence."
How depressing, I say. Mine couldn’t be closer together. Does that mean I’m dumb?
"No. Whether you’re dumb or not remains to be seen."
We talk about her father. Apart from herself, her father appears most often in her dreams. Sometimes he is the man he is now, and sometimes he is the man he was when she was a child. Sometimes – in the dreams – she fears his judgment. Sometimes he is loving and affectionate. Sometimes he is sad and she feels guilty. And sometimes he is there as a kind of warning, telling her not to do something. Inside these dreams, it is Madonna’s instinct to rebel. But when she wakes up, she thinks again. Maybe she should heed his advice.
I ask her if she knows what her father really thinks of her.
"Mmmm," she says, which seems to be what she always says when an answer does not appear immediately. "I don’t really know. I think there is a little bit of fear and a little bit of intimidation, but I think there is also admiration and respect, because he raised me to believe in hard work, and he recognizes that I work hard. I mean, I would prefer it if he could profoundly intellectually understand the things I do, but maybe so he can treat me the same as all my other brothers and sisters when I come home, he has to keep certain things at a distance."
Madonna halts our conversation. She has some things she wants to say.
Madonna: I feel like you’re trying to be my psychiatrist. Maybe I should pay you when this is over.
Me: That would be fine by me.
Madonna: (laughs, then speaks rather coldly) What does that have to do with my music?
Madonna has a new record. It is called Bedtime Stories. I like it very much, though whenever I try to mention this to Madonna today, the message doesn’t seem to get through. Strange. I will ask her about a particular lyric, and her answer will twist itself into contortions as she defends herself where there has been no accusation, until it stalls in its own wilderness and she will say, for instance, "I’m not sure what you’re asking me, or even what I’m saying."
There is a sadness in some of the songs, but when I mention it, it is as though I have fingered her as a permanently heartbroken piece of emotional debris. She will complain, with firm outrage, "I feel as though you’re trying to portray me as this grief-stricken, depressed, lonely person, and I’m quite not." In fact, I just want to talk, and it is her answers which end up dwelling on the darker sides of life. It is she who tells me the things that seem so poignant and forlorn: "People think if you’re rich and famous that people always come up to you and say, "Wow! You’re incredible!" But the fact of the matter is, no one comes up to you and says that, because everyone thinks everyone else says it, and so they’re going to be the person who doesn’t kiss your ass. And then you go through life hearing nothing from everyone. The same goes for love. People meet you and they think, "You’ve had a million lovers – you’re just going to break my heart." And so they will it into being. They keep saying, "You could have anything you want – why would you want me?" and you eventually say "You’re right, I don’t want you, because you keep saying that and it’s so boring."
And then it will go the other way again. "It’s not like I’ve given up hope or anything, and I’m not sitting in my room by myself every night." And she will say her most recent discovery, which she will refer to as a spiritual awakening, is the simple one alluded to in her single "Secret" ? that happiness lies in your own hands.
And then it flies around once more, and she will be explaining how she is usually drawn to people who are dark and sad. "Most interesting people are sad," she will say. "Most people that think are sad. Because life is sad. But?"
"on the other hand, it’s not."
Some things we agree on: Sad endings are better than happy endings. We are the kind of people who are seduced by Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Passion. (Madonna sent her a fan letter last year – "kind of dorky, I guess? " but received no reply.) We are not the kind of people to cry over The Bridges of Madison County. (Myself, I haven’t actually read it. Friends whom Madonna respects persuaded her to. She laughed hysterically. She felt like she was reading a Hallmark greeting card.)
Most of the things you can think about Madonna, people have already said. I tell her about a booklet, Madonna’s Secret, which details her abduction by aliens and explains how she has written about it in her songs. "That’s good," she says. "I’ve never heard of that one." Then she mutters, "Too much time on their hands."
Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say you’re on an alien planet. Which of these would you miss the most: Your fame or your art collection?
"My art collection. Well, look at that Picasso. My art collection is the soul of other people – the blood, sweat, and tears and soul of other artists, and that is infinitely more valuable than fame."
Men or women?
"Which I would miss the most? (long pause) Oh God, I’d have to say men. Because, they’re so boring and so retarded but… I just really need them. (laughs) You know, in bed. But it’s tough, because women are so much easier to talk to. Sex, conversation ? what’s more important?"
Maybe you’ll find a man that can talk.
"Well, I’ve heard that they exist. I’ve found some that can talk. (laughs) But they inevitably smell bad."
Good manners or bad habits?
"Good manners. Bad habits are just laziness. I always appreciate good manners."
Fine wines or fine lingerie?
"Lingerie, definitely. Wine gives you a headache. Lingerie is pretty to look at, nice to touch, and other people enjoy it too."
Yes, but you’ve only got aliens?
"You never know. It could come in handy. I may have to bribe a pack of somethings. To trade my underpants for some shoestring potato chips."
The sky or the sea?
"I think the sea. The sea is very healing. The sky seems really far away. The ocean I can jump into."
A new Sean Penn movie or Warren Beatty movie?
"That’s the toughest one of all. (long pause) I couldn’t choose. Sean’s attracted to certain kinds of movies, so I would know that if he was in a movie or directing it, it would have a certain darkness to it, it would probably be violent, and it could be interesting. But then Warren, he’s a more intelligent filmmaker, and I know it would probably have a more resonant truth to it."
Laughing with friends or crying with lovers?
"Laughing with friends, definitely. That’s stupid. Wouldn’t you rather laugh with your friends?"
I’m not sure. I think I might actually pick the other one.
"Well, you’re really f*cked up, okay? And you gotta take care of that."
I never said I wasn’t f*cked up. I was just trying to find out if you were.
"Isn’t it obvious?"
Well, are you?
"Of course I am. I’m in the entertainment business."
We talk about her mother. There is a song about her mother. It is called "Inside of Me." When my world seems to crumble all around. And foolish people try to bring me down. I just think of your smiling face. About how her mother is a silent source of strength for her. The song talks about the secrets they shared, the games they played. Madonna tells me about the bedtime stories her mother would tell. Stories about a garden. All the vegetables were the different characters, and there was a rabbit who would come along and try to eat them. The bad person. It made Madonna feel safe, and their few years together are her treasure. Everywhere Madonna has lived, by the side of each bed is a picture of her mother. Different homes, different pictures.
Madonna’s name is as strange to her as it may be to you or Me: "Why would my mother name me after herself? My father didn’t name his first son after him. It’s almost like it’s because, ultimately, I was going to be the next. The only one." Madonna Ciccone – the first one – died when Madonna was six. Cancer. When she was five she realized something was wrong. Her mother kept disappearing to the hospital. But no one ever really explained. There is one story which is the saddest story. Madonna told it once, just after she became famous, and I have never heard her tell it since. She does not mention it today and – though I will bring up many things, too many things, which will be painful for her – it is one story I cannot bring myself to mention. In the story, Madonna’s mother is already ill, but her daughter is too young to understand. Madonna wants her to play, but her mother is too weak, and has to refuse. So Madonna hits her mother. It ends with her mother, helpless, in tears.
One day, the news came. Madonna’s father answered the telephone in her grandmother’s kitchen. He hung up the phone on the wall. He was crying. No one had told Madonna her mother was going to die, but now she heard that her mother was dead. It was a huge mystery. What is death? She didn’t really know. For years she was expecting her mother to come back. Her father told her not to cry, to keep it all in, to go to school. "I think he had to do that," she reflects, "because I think he was falling apart. But, on the other hand, you have to deal with your grief."
She read a book this year called Motherless Daughters. It was really good to read that. To know that other people have felt the same. It must also have been strange to turn the pages and discover, inevitably, that she herself appears in it. (Or perhaps not so strange. She will tell me – and the implications are chilling if you think about it – "I’m brought up in every article about everything.") On page 272 the author writes, "As a performer and self-marketer, she is visionary and coyly manipulative. But from underneath all the glitz comes the cry of the motherless child: Pay attention to me!"
I ask Madonna which kiss she will remember forever, and it is not one of passion but one of sleepy, uncomplicated motherly love. When Madonna was five she couldn’t sleep, so she tried to get between her parents in bed without waking them. She snuggled in, thinking she had fooled them. But her mother was awake.
"What do you think you’re doing?" she said.
"Please let me stay," her daughter answered.
This particular night, she got what she wanted. She can remember it so well. Her mother, and her mother’s red nightgown, and the way her mother gently kissed her on her forehead.
"That," says Madonna, "was heaven."
The kiss from a man which Madonna will remember forever was her first: Tom Marshowitz behind the convent when she was in the fifth grade, pressing her up against the wall and kissing her on the lips and then running away, as the electricity ran up and down her spine like the bottom had dropped out of everything, like she’d never be the same again.
She lost her virginity a few years later, at fifteen, to a boy called Russell Long. I know this because Mr. Long – now a mustached family man who drives for UPS – detailed the experience with some tenderness in a British tabloid newspaper in 1990. Madonna challenges me to supply verifying details.
Me: He said that you had a Coke and hamburger, then went to his parents’ house when they were away.
Madonna: That’s not true. (smiles) There was no way I would have eaten a hamburger, because I was a vegetarian at this time. But we did do it during the lunch hour at school.
Me: He says you said "Oh honey."
Madonna: That’s very funny. I don’t think I’ve ever said "Oh honey," but who knows?
Me: What do you remember about it?
Madonna: That it was very painful.
Madonna: (angrily) Because I was a virgin! Hello! Have you talked to any other women about this?
Me: Of course I have.
Madonna: (ignoring my answer) Hello! It hurt like anything.
Me: Was your virginity something you wanted to get rid of?
Madonna: Definitely. Because. It’s just like a burden. I think all girls feel that way.
Me: How did you feel afterward?
Madonna: Like I had just gotten off a horse. And I had to go back to French class, and I thought, "I’m going to be in so much trouble, and when I get home my father’s going to know that I’ve had intercourse, he’s just going to see it in my eyes, or in the way I’m walking, or something." And I was just living in fear.
Me: But he didn’t know?
Madonna: Of course not. It was just another uneventful day.
Me: Did you feel different?
Madonna: Like I’d accomplished something. Faced the unknown. Other than that, not really. When you’re young you don’t really know what you’re doing. It wasn’t terribly enjoyable.
Me: And now he has a mustache.
Madonna: (dryly) Does he? It sounds like you know more about him than I do. He was very sweet to me, so don’t say anything bad about my Russell. He wrote me a love letter every day at school. And to this day my heart belongs to a man who can write beautiful letters.
Another awkward conversation. I ask her what she wishes people didn’t know about her. She bristles. Everything she has let us know, she says, she has wanted us to know, and everything else we think we know we don’t really know anyway.
Yes, I say, but when people see medical records about an abortion you’ve had? isn’t that too personal?
"Well, it is personal, but if it’s so important that the public knows?" She shrugs. "It’s common to have abortions. Many people have them and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I can’t allow myself to be destroyed by it."
I’m not saying you should be ashamed; you should be angry.
"It’s too much wasted energy to be upset about it." She talks a little about abortion ? "It just wasn’t the right time in my life, that’s all." and about wanting children. "It’s going to happen," she says. "I’m not worried. Are you?"
We talk about basketball. She’s a Knicks fan. I ask her why she likes basketball players and she gets defensive. "Who said. Just because I dated Dennis Rodman?" I remind her that she has also salivated in print over Charles Barkley. "I have? Darn." So she answers my question. "They have beautiful bodies, like ballet dancers. I love their long sinuous muscles. Football players have big fat necks, and baseball players always have fat asses."
Her upstairs hall is lined with boxing photographs. "I like it in a metaphorical way. Boxing is really brutal and really horrible to watch, and on the other hand it’s man-against-man. Men always have to fight to prove their strength." I ask her why she thinks that is, and she says, "Because they don’t have a vision." She suggests that if all world leaders were women, there would be no war, and I tell her she’d feel differently if she’d lived under Margaret Thatcher for over a decade. "Maybe she’s a transsexual," says Madonna.
Madonna has a photograph of Muhammad Ali on her wall. It is inscribed in black ink: To Madonna. From Muhammad. We are the greatest. "And," says Madonna, "I couldn’t agree with him more." They met for dinner earlier this year. They played a game around the table where they had to name people from the past who they would like to meet. Madonna thought it was funny that Ali chose leaders – Mohammed, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln – and then, as his final choice, Marilyn Monroe. (The ones that she remembers choosing are Anne Sexton – Madonna is mildly appalled that I haven’t read poetry – Frida Kahlo, Eve, and her mother.) I ask her whether she gave him anything in exchange for the photo. "He asked me to make a fist and hit him in the face," she says. At first she said no way – hit Muhammad Ali! – but he insisted. So she made a fist and gently brought it up into his jaw. It was what he wanted, and it was what she did.
The Final Minutes:
Me: Have you played Truth or Dare since your movie came out?
Madonna: (contemptuously) Oh God, that’s such a boring question I’m not going to even answer it. Next!
Me: don’t be too condescending. You make a film structured around and named after this game and not it’s too "boring"?
Time has passed, and the sun has set. There are no lights on in the room, and Madonna is beginning to fade away into the dusk leaking in from Central Park. She lays her head on the arm of her chair, and encircles the side of the chair with her arms, like a child hugging a pillow. Her answers become quieter and quieter. It is obvious she has had enough, but this is not the way one might expect Madonna – the forthright, loud control queen – to deal with the situation. Eventually I suggest that we adjourn until next time. She nods, and then, rather curiously, begins asking me questions.
Madonna: What sign are you?
Me: What sign do you think I am?
Madonna: (loudly) I don’t think you’re any sign. What sign are you?
Madonna: (snappy) Just answer the damn question!
Madonna: (nods) That’s the sign my mother is.
Me: Which are you?
Me: What does that make you?
Madonna: Proud. Arrogant. Bossy. Pushy.
Me: And what am I supposed to be?
Madonna: Shy. Sensitive. Emotional. Are you close with your mother?
And Madonna interrogates me at some length about my family, past and present. It seems only fair to tell her (though I’m not telling you). And this episode makes what follows even stranger. My personal history roped in, Madonna walks me to her door, shakes my hand, says we’ll meet soon, then tells her press agent that she was most unhappy with today’s encounter and will not talk to me again.
She is prevailed upon to change her mind. Five days later, I am to meet her outside her apartment building, and if none of the "maniacs" – as those around Madonna call the keenest star-struck loiterers – are there, we will go and walk her dog, a young pit bull terrier called Papito, in Central Park. Her press agent Liz Rosenberg and I arrive at the appointed time, but Madonna has already left.
When she returns, Papito is sent upstairs – "he’s been being bad" – and we head back to the park to talk. "Let’s go and buy some marijuana," shouts Madonna, sarcastically, as we stand at the crosswalk. On our way over, a turning car tries to barge in front of her and she shouts at the driver, "It says WALK! Duhhh!"
The three of us sit on a bench. I try to talk to her about writing songs, which I expect to be fairly safe ground, but she shows little interest. She giggles at one point and refers to this meeting as "damage control." Whatever my sins, they are clearly not forgiven. I tell her I read the book she mentioned. Motherless Daughters. She seems unimpressed. On one of her new songs, "Sanctuary," she recites a line from a Walt Whitman poem: "Surely whoever speaks to me in right voice, him or her I shall follow." She agrees she spotted the extract in Motherless Daughters. But in the book, the poem is used as a warning, advising the author not to fall in love again and again with men who have a seductive, smooth patter. Yet in Madonna’s song, the lines are quoted with total sincerity, as though exactly what Madonna desires is for someone to speak to her in the right voice. She shrugs as if to say So what? But considering the weight it has in the book – at the center of a discussion of why motherless daughters are sometimes systematically drawn to the wrong men – isn’t that a little weird?
"Oh well," says Madonna. "I’m weird like that."
Eventually we talk about the events of 1992. Even Madonna concedes that it was probably a mistake for everything to appear the same season – her Sex book, the Erotica album, the Body of Evidence film. It seemed like a calculated Madonna sexathon; for a few weeks, every time you thought it was her it was hard not to think: Here she comes with her clothes off, wanting to talk dirty.
At first, when I ask her why in retrospect she did the book, she merely retorts, sullenly, "Because I wanted to." Eventually I cajole her to elaborate. "Because I felt our culture is inundated with sexual fantasies, and I wanted to do something from a female point of view. I knew everybody would buy the book to see naked pictures of me, but I thought the people would read the test and understand the irony in a lot of it, and try to see life from a different perspective."
The two negative points of view which she seems most familiar with are either "Ughh! She’s got her clothes off! How shocking!" or "Is that all? How very tame." I point out that there were more sophisticated criticisms: for instance, that there might actually be something less than liberating in using homosexuality merely as something to add spice to a heterosexual fantasy.
"These are my fantasies!" she exclaims. "The idea of two men together turns me on! If that upsets some gay men?" – she harrumphs, then slightly changes tack – "There are people who say I raped the gay community by introducing voguing to the world. I mean, everybody’s got a complaint. If I’m involved in the gay community and I see things around me and it turns me on, then I’m going to say it."
I try to make the point once more: that the danger is of portraying gayness as something exciting because it is freaky.
"I don’t consider it something freaky, and I never have," she snaps. And I leave it there. Madonna’s willingness to discuss such subjects seems to be much overrated. For one thing, she seems to have a simple opinion – I am going to challenge these conservative values with this melodramatic gesture – and anyone who wants to discuss more subtle nuances is seen as enemy, not an interested observer. For another thing, I think she simply has had enough of boudoir chat. Two years ago, she seemed to take pride in revealing herself as much as she could, but maybe she just ended up feeling exposed. She seemed horrified at our first meeting when I referred to her as the American woman who has told the world the most about her tastes in oral sex. First she demanded to know what her supposed opinion was (that she prefers to receive rather than give). Then she demanded to know when she had shared this opinion (most fully in a 1991 conversation with Carrie Fisher, which appeared as a magazine cover story). That I had answers to these questions infuriated her. I felt bad for having brought up the subject, though I also thought something else: that you can’t open your home up to the public, and charge admission, then act horrified when you find strangers in your bedroom.
I try out other subjects for conversation, uncontroversial ones, but she doesn’t seem interested. Soon Liz Rosenberg announces that she has had enough of the mice scuttling near our feet, though that may not be all that she has enough of. Madonna says goodbye once more. I tell her I wish we could have talked some more.
"Well," she says, walking away as she speaks, "you should have asked me a lot less of those other questions that don’t mean anything – the dumb ones." Halfway across the street, she stops. She curtsies, blows me a sardonic half-kiss, and sashays off into her building. It is a great exit, though not quite so great when you are the one being left behind. I assume that this is the last I will ever hear from her.
That evening I am sitting on my hotel bed, depressed, watching Melrose Place, wondering how to square the joy and sensitivity I have always adored in Madonna’s music with the defensive, stern woman I had met, and blaming myself for failing to make closer contact. The telephone rings.
"It’s Madonna," she says.
I know immediately that it is really her and not some tease-happy friend. I know because she sounds so edgy, so unhappy, and so angry. For the first few minutes I can’t get a word in, as it all pours out. "I have a bad taste in my mouth," she begins. She feels that she spends all her interviews commenting on things she has done before. "I feel like I’m doing a Q&A with The National Enquirer: Do I like sleeping with men or women? Did I really go out with Warren Beatty? I never get to talk about what I do. I have a really good record. Why am I not answering questions about my art?" Instead, she complains, people like me want to pick at her weak spots. Everybody has problems," she blates despairingly. "Can’t you just understand me? As an evolved, sensitive person? You know I’m not stupid."
We trade recriminations. I tell her I had never imagined she would be so defensive, and seem so harried. I tell her I’m puzzled. If you hated my questions so much, why answer them? "I should say "You’re a c*nt – get out of here?" she asks. And we both laugh at that.
She says I should have made her feel more at ease. "It’s like a lover. It’s all seduction," she says. (It strikes me afterward that she is maybe a little one-sided in this demanded. In two and a half hours of talking with her at her house, she never once asked whether I wanted a drink. It’s not that I was thirsty, but seduction takes two.) Madonna explains something to Me: "When I come into an interview, I have boxing gloves on. I have to feel: Is this person going to be fair to me?" The she adds, her voice breaking – and I couldn’t say for certain that she was crying, but this is certainly the voice one has when one is in tears – "When you left my house, I felt like I had been raped."
This is a grotesque thing to be told and I tell her that, but she in now way modifies her opinion. She means it. Naturally I apologize, and somehow her statement breaks down a barrier. It is as though she has said the one thing she really thought needed to be said, and now perhaps we can communicate. I already know, despite all the nasty words, that I like Madonna much better. This one I can talk to.
After about twenty minutes, the storm subsides. She tells me she’s going to Florida tomorrow, but that she’ll call me. "I’ve got to go," she says. "I’ve got friends waiting."
There is a party at Industria tonight to launch Jean Paul Gaultier’s new perfume. That is where Madonna is going. I see Madonna’s pictures in the papers the next day, all laughter and all smiles. I look at that laughter, examine these smiles, and I wonder.
Two days later, she calls. She is sitting in the living room of her Miami house. Papito is wedged between her chair and ottoman. This voice is different: soft, calm and playful. There is only the briefest reference to what has gone on before: "My attitude used to be: I’ll consider you my friend until you prove otherwise. Now it is the other way around. Now you are loathsome and untrustworthy until you prove otherwise. And there can be this horrible domino effect, and I end up with a mess, but you can always go back and mend things – if you are as honest as possible, and appeal to people’s humanity."
There are other ways in which the weight of past theatrics may now hang heavier than she ever imagined. Her new record is a neat side step away from the expectation that each new Madonna project will be an explosive event. It is a record concerned with emotion and romanticism and unrequited love. Not to say that I don’t want to deal with sexuality anymore, but I felt that subject distracted everyone."
Bedtime Stories takes its name from a song, "Bedtime Story," that Bjork wrote for her. Madonna liked the implications: an album of tales being told, of words you teach to children. It was only later that she realized that, once again, people were going to see innuendo and artifice where none was intended; that people might imagine the title meant songs for before you have sex. "I thought I’d better change it," she says, "because everyone’s going to start accusing me of being a slut again. Then I thought, F*ck it, It’s a beautiful title."
Anyway she says, people always assume that she plans these things far more than she ever has. People think she planned the Letterman debacle, but she swears she didn’t. People think that in the early days she knew that people would dress like her.
And, I point out, people thought that you slept with people merely to get yourself to where you wanted to be.
"Mm-hmm," she laughs, throatily. "If only it were that easy?"
"What is wrong with you?" she suddenly exclaims. "What are you doing?"
It is Papito. He is freaking out, trying to ram a piece of furniture. This time I am innocent.
Madonna has often quoted poetry to interviewers, and I have always assumed that this was one of the calling cards of the mature Madonna: At the same time as she was buying Picassos she was discovering the joys of verse. Apparently not. The first poem that fired her imagination was by Edna St. Vincent Millay. "My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends/It gives a lovely light." She found it in a book at home when she was in the firth grade, and recited it to her class.
The Ciccone children were encouraged to read. There was one small black-and-white television, but they were only allowed to watch it occasionally – "for scientific programs, the president’s speeches, sometimes religious stuff." In the evenings the Ciccones would do their homework and chores, then retire to their rooms to read. She and her sister shared a bedroom, and they both became obsessed with Anne Sexton. "I think It’s because she looked like my mother," reflects Madonna. "And her poems were very death-obsessed, and obsessed with her mother, and her mother also had breast cancer, so we could relate."
Madonna tells me she is going to fetch one of Anne Sexton’s books. As she hunts, I look through a collection of Sexton’s work I bought after our last meeting. I flick though the index and see something which sends a strange shiver through me. There is a poem called "Madonna." I find it, and the first lines are "My mother died / unrocked, unrocked."
I tell Madonna what I am reading.
"Yes," she says quietly. "Isn’t that weird?"
We talk about Sexton, and her friend Sylvia Plath, for some time. There is a question here, which I try to put to Madonna. These are women with whom Madonna is proud to identify. But they are also two women whose unhappiness, as lived in their lives and expressed through their words, proved hard to disentangle, and both of them ultimately committed suicide. And yet Madonna claims to be rather different. She would be very uneasy, I reiterate, with the suggestion that the sadness in some of her songs is a reflection of a deep sadness in her life.
"I would," she says. "But there is a lot of sadness in my life. There’s no way I could lie and say there isn’t. There always has been. In my case, losing my mother and having this hole inside you that you’re constantly searching to be filled – It’s like Jeanette Winterson said in The Passion: "There’s a hole in my heart that no one else can fill – why would I want them to?" It’s like you search and search and search but you also know that no one can take that place, and so you do feel a sense of loneliness and sadness that you know will be with you for the rest of your life. But somehow I feel I have found ways to survive that maybe Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath didn’t. I’ve found things to hang on to, a sense of accomplishment that maybe they were not afforded in their lives."
So you’re not unhappy because of success?
"I think people in my situation come to realize that there isn’t anything in the world that can take the place of certain kinds of love. It doesn’t matter how many records you sell or how many people are filling the stadium chanting your name, or how many magazines you’re on the cover of. I think when people are sad in spite of their success, It’s because they’ve just realized the truth. I don’t feel a sense of hopelessness, I just feel that I have learned that lesson."
Madonna sounds better in Miami. "The combination of the smell of gardenias, and the jasmine, the heaviness, and the temperature – as soon as I come down here It’s like taking a Valium." She bought this house after its waterfront was used as a location for her Sex book. It’s now the closest she has to home. She says she’s sorry she even has a home in Los Angeles. "I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. Maybe I’ll open up Madonnaland."
She chats happily about Maverick, her record label (more work than she had imagined, but she oozes with pride for Candlebox and Me-shelle Ndegeocello), and evenly about her film career. Her last movie, Dangerous Game, got her some of her best reviews, but the movie itself was panned and a flop. Though it was also produced by Maverick, Abel Ferrara had final cut, and Madonna says he changed the story in the editing room. "I saw the movie," she says, "and I cried. I just felt so deceived by Abel. It was my chance to prove once and for all that I could act, and he f*cked me over." She says she’s thought of asking Ferrara for a tape of her performances that were left on the cutting-room floor, so she can circulate it to show what she can do: "If we could ever just have a civil conversation with each other, maybe I will."
As we talk about film, I have a flashback. Once before, I have been in a room with Madonna, ready to ask questions. It was eight years ago. Madonna was in London, shooting Shanghai Surprise. The British tabloid media have been harassing her and Sean Penn, until eventually she agreed to co-host a press conference with the film’s producer, George Harrison. I was working for a teen magazine. I knew what I wanted to ask. She had mentioned once that her first appearance on film was at school, having an egg fried on her stomach. No explanation. It had always stuck with me, this image, and I hankered for more details. Probably I should have just blurted out a question, but the press conference was a horrific, mean-spirited free-for-all. Fried eggs and stomachs belonged in a different universe. But now?
"I was with my best friend in high school, Carol," remembers Madonna. "I think we were at her boyfriend’s house. He had a Super 8 camera, and it was a really sunny day, and we were bored, so I was going to lay down in the grass in my bikini and she was going to crack an egg on my stomach. And he had fried an egg, so there was a fried egg on my stomach."
And it worked, after a fashion. "It was retarded, completely," she splutters. Somewhere, the film may still exist. "It’ll come out on Hard Copy next week," she supposes.
A conversation about pop songs:
Me: Which of your songs do you wish you never had to sing again?
Madonna: "Material Girl." I could never sing that again as long as I live. I refuse.
Me: Any others?
Madonna: "Into The Groove."
Me: (horrified) You can’t mean that! You couldn’t be more wrong.
Madonna: It’s so dorky. Well, if you gave me a lot of drugs I’m sure I could come up with the strength to do it, but?
Me: you’ve never really understood how good that song was, have you?
Madonna: I don’t know. All I know is that when I as writing it, I was sitting in a fourth-floor walk-up in Avenue B, and there was this gorgeous Puerto Rican boy sitting across from me that I wanted to go out on a date with, and I just wanted to get it over with.
Madonna must go. For two hours we have quietly talked poetry and pop music, and made a peace of sorts. But now the tide is almost right, and once a day she has to jump in the bay and just float. She will put honey all over her body – honey heals, and honey lasts forever – and she will float, suspended, until all the honey melts off her. (She doesn’t put it quite all over; she and her friends keep underpants on: "I don’t think the man that drives my boat could concentrate if he had a boat full of naked women with honey dripping all over them.") It’s good luck, this honey ritual. As she gently bobs, she will make a wish.
In Miami, she is finding a family of sorts. Madonna has gotten to know this older Cuban woman, who she met because the woman’s daughter is a friend of a friend of a friend. Madonna says that she doesn’t want to talk much about this. It might exploit what she’s found, or trivialize it. But this Cuban woman is a very spiritual woman, and sometimes she cooks for Madonna, sometimes she brings Madonna presents, and sometimes they go to church together. The two of them have these rituals that are cleansing and rejuvenating. "And," says Madonna, ’she’s kind of my mother." She says these words with all the latent significance you might expect them to deserve. "I feel sort of an unconditional love from her. I cry on her shoulder about men, about working too hard, about wanting to have children. I’ve never had that in my life, and she kind of fills that role. For the first time I can call someone up in the middle of the night."
Recently they went to see Priscilla Queen of the Desert together. On the way home, the woman’s daughter drove. Madonna and her Cuban mother sat in the back. Madonna fell asleep with her head on her Cuban mother’s lap.
"And it was," says Madonna, thoughtfully, "probably one of the most enjoyable moments of my life."
© DETAILS MAGAZINE