Madonna: For the first time, her friends and lovers speak out
How did a destitute dance student become the princess of pop?
By Lucy O'Brien
She wasn't an overly charismatic personality. You'd never have guessed she'd become a world famous pop star. That's why it was so surprising to many of us when she became big. I remember going to the store and seeing her face on an album. I thought, 'Oh my God, that's her. I don't believe it!' Everyone was very shocked. How did she get to be there?" says Wyn Cooper, one of Madonna's former boyfriends and, in 1972, director of the first film she ever starred in, aged 14 – a short Super 8 student movie that featured her with a fried egg on her stomach.
"She was a little bit aloof. She took herself more seriously than most of us did at that age. She was a cheerleader, so that put her into the jock category, but she was also a free spirit and a thinker, so that made her more of a freak. She read more than your average high-school student," says Cooper, now a poet living in Vermont. He met Madonna when she was 14 and had just started at Adams High in their home town of Rochester, an affluent rural suburb just north of Detroit. He was in the year above, and quite struck by her. "I remember thinking, there's an interesting, pretty girl. She seemed kind of shy. We developed a friendship and hung out. I had a Mercury Capri with an eight-track tape player. Madonna and I would hop in the car, drive around and listen to [David Bowie's album] Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars while enjoying a little marijuana."
It is stories like these that fascinated me when I was writing a biography of Madonna. Having written books about Dusty Springfield, Annie Lennox, and a history of women in popular music, I was keen to get to the heart of one of our greatest living pop icons. I wanted to find out what really motivated her, how she had managed to achieve such extraordinary success – and in so doing, spoke to people close to her who've never spoken before. An intriguing picture emerged.
Madonna is the highest-earning female singer of all time, but contrary to the myth of the feisty alpha-female who danced her way to stardom, Madonna's early years show a complex personality and a more chequered path to success. Traumatised by the early death of her mother (who died of cancer when Madonna was five), she channelled her feelings of loss into a restless search for love and recognition. Madonna's primary means of expression was dance: "The thing that stood out was how well she could dance," recalls Cooper. "Everyone would get out of the way and watch her. She combined The Temptations with little syncopated routines, a cross between that and modern dance and Broadway musical. Her thing was a real mish-mash, but it worked."
Dance was a form of escapism. The eldest girl in a family of eight children, Madonna found home life difficult. Her father Tony Ciccone, a defence engineer for General Dynamics, worked long hours, and she didn't get on with her stepmother Joan. Required to change nappies and help with chores, Madonna doesn't recall this period as being much fun. "I resented it, because when all my friends were out playing, I felt like I had all these adult responsibilities... I saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella," she said.
Achievement and approval were important to her, but she also cultivated a rich inner life, and at 16 Madonna took a sudden left turn, drifting away from the school "jocks" to ballet, bohemianism and existentialism. "There was a real transformation," recalls former schoolfriend Kim Drayton. "In the sophomore year she was a cheerleader with smiles on her face and long hair; very attractive; then by her senior year she had short hair. She was in the thespian society, and she didn't shave her legs anymore, you know, like all of us did, and she didn't shave her armpits. Everyone was like, 'Oh, what happened to her?'."
Madonna, the stage persona, was an invention, a powerful projection fed by a childhood diet of Hollywood films, Broadway musicals and offbeat poetry. It was as if this fermented inside her for years until she found the right outlet. As soon as she started ballet with Christopher Flynn, a charismatic, gay dance teacher who ran classes in Rochester, Madonna's life took off. He encouraged her interest in the arts, taking her to concerts, art galleries and gay clubs in Detroit. "Madonna was a blank page, believe me, and she wanted desperately to be filled in," he once said.
Madonna's escapades in Detroit marked her out from her schoolmates. The race riots in 1967 had left the area in turmoil. Car manufacturing industries were beginning to pull out, and there were strong social divisions. " Detroit was a ' no-go area in the Seventies," recalls Drayton. " Back then, it was 'black people live in Detroit and you don't go there, you don't mix with those kind of people'. My grandparents lived in Woodward Avenue, at Nine Mile, and you were never allowed to go to Eight Mile. You know, Eminem's Eight Mile. That was the dividing line between white and black, between right or wrong."
Despite the prejudice that divided the city there was a rich musical cross pollination which later influenced Madonna's sound. Right back to her early childhood in the working class suburb of Pontiac, she had a strong interest in black style. She remembered dancing in backyards to Motown 45s with her black girlfriends. This later fuelled her dance-orientated pop music, and gave her the edge.
Madonna was still at school when she made her trips to Detroit gay clubs. In the early 1970s gay culture was taboo. "Just leaving Rochester, our safe little haven, and to see the world in Detroit's eyes, would be so different," says Drayton. For a Catholic girl raised in stultifying suburbia, the gay underground represented freedom and release.
"In school I felt like such a misfit ... I kept seeing myself through macho heterosexual eyes. Because I was a really aggressive woman, guys thought of me as a really strange girl. I didn't add up for them. I felt inadequate," Madonna told the US gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate in 1991. "And suddenly when I went to the gay club, I didn't feel that way any more. I had a whole new sense of myself."
In the mid-1970s, it was a subculture that was pre-Aids, yet buoyed up by Gay Liberation campaigns. In its hedonistic pursuit of pleasure there was a theatricality that captivated her and became one of her key reference points.
The main club that Flynn took Madonna to was Menjo's. Originally a ritzy supper club where Al Capone used to take his mistress, it opened as one of Detroit's premier gay night spots in December 1974. "It was the hottest dance club in the city. We were open seven days a week from noon to 2am, and there were always people waiting in line," recalls one of the co-founders, Randy Frank. "Madonna used to come here and act all crazy and giddy and dance around. She was the centre of attention. She didn't drink, she was just the life of the party. She was a cool chick. She had beautiful eyes. I remember her eyes – God, they were beautiful." She has described herself as a "gay man trapped in a woman's body" , motivated by the Hollywood sirens of high camp. At Menjo's she also discovered her yen for sexual freedom and experimentation.
Combining a driving energy with judicious application, Madonna won a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan in 1976. "She was a product of her environment," says Brian McCollum from the Detroit Free Press newspaper. "I've heard people say here, 'I knew a Madonna in high school. I knew somebody who had that personality and that attitude and that vibe." Madonna was to take the work ethic of Detroit and apply it to her showbusiness career. Detroit turned out many self-motivators because, according to songwriter Gardner Cole, a native from the area: "There was nothing to do. The winters are so brutally long there, unless you're into snow-mobiling or ice-fishing there's nothing to do but stay indoors. We called it 'wood-shedding'. Like if you were into music, you'd go into a room and keep playing and playing."
At university Madonna learned about Martha Graham, the "Picasso of modern dance", and Alvin Ailey, a black choreographer from Texas who combined ballet with African tribal dance. When she later went on to tear up those dancefloors in New York, Madonna wasn't doing the latest disco shuffle. She was a whirling dervish of all her influences: "I was Twyla Tharp, I was Alvin Ailey, I was Michael Jackson. I didn't care, I was free," she said. In her stage shows she was to return again and again to those sources of inspiration.
Impatient to get to "the centre of everything", in 1978 Madonna dropped out halfway through her course and went to New York. She scraped a living as a dancer and an artists' model before playing drums in a ska/pop band The Breakfast Club. By 1980 she had branched out to form her own act with boyfriend Steve Bray (later a producer on albums like True Blue and Like A Prayer). Despite this bold move, Madonna was floundering. She was living on her wits, relying on favours from friends and had no fixed address. After she became famous, Andy Warhol wrote in his diary: " Keith (Haring) said that when Madonna was sleeping on his couch, the stories he could write about people she had sex with..." And Bray remarked that being Madonna's boyfriend was a difficult job: "Some people are very upfront and some are like, 'You'll find out eventually you're not my boyfriend and that I'm seeing 12 other people.' That was more her approach. I learned not to count on her in that department."
Though desperate to make it, Madonna hadn't evolved a distinctive style. She was yet to come into her own as a songwriter. She sensed she needed a strong professional eye, someone to help her focus. And that person was Camille Barbone, who owned Gotham Records, the only recording studio in the Music Building where Madonna rehearsed. Madonna persuaded Barbone to come to a concert ( "She was very flirtatious. She knew I was a gay woman," says Barbone), and the latter was "blown away. She sparkled, in a very street way. Not fairy nymphette. It was hard and guttural and in your face. She very much typified the New York music scene."
Barbone became Madonna's manager, moved her into a new apartment and gave her a $100 a week salary. "Madonna had so much peripheral trash going on just to get what she needed to do her job. She was a street-savvy kid who'd pick up someone to go home with if she was hungry and needed a meal. That's how she survived. She was living in a hovel in a dangerous part of town. I wanted to give her a safe haven, because in a lot of ways she seemed wounded."
As a result, Barbone and the musicians she hired to play with Madonna became a surrogate family. They would joke and call her the Kid. "Did somebody feed the Kid today? She get's real grouchy if she doesn't eat."
Although Madonna likes to imply that she's always been a woman in control, much of her life in those early days was chaotic. Camille found herself taking charge of Madonna's ' dental appointments, cleaning up after her, and being on call during the night. "She'd call me at four in the morning, 'I can't sleep.' She'd show up at my door, 'Take me to a movie.' If she was hungry, I'd get her something to eat. I had to drive her around after a gig just to get her tired. She didn't want to miss anything."
Barbone and Madonna made a formidable team. It is interesting that it took a woman to see Madonna's real potential. "I was one of the few female managers around in a totally male industry. Men looked at Madonna as someone they wanted to bed as opposed to sign. My whole vibe in managing her was, 'You don't have to do that anymore. Let's do it based on the fact that you have a unique personality, you're an artist and you have so much to offer'," says Barbone. "I brought her into the mainstream music business in a way that she didn't have to fuck for it. I brought her credibility. Word got around that someone was investing money in her, someone with a studio and contacts. As a result, within the industry, they began to take her seriously too. "
Barbone knew it was important to surround Madonna with strong musical collaborators. "If you gave this one the tools, she used 'em. She'd milk the musicians' brains. They'd rehearse four times a week, and they went on stage tighter than hell."
Madonna was the first of a new breed of 1980s female artists; fusing punk attitude with a cartoon sexuality, and taking it a step further into the pop mainstream. "My role models were people like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. Strong, independent women who wrote their own music and evolved on their own," Madonna said. "They gave me courage."
Even though she had hip New York devotees, when she started out Madonna mainly attracted an enthusiastic crowd of teenage girls. They were responding to an honest, flesh-and-blood woman rather than some remote goddess. "Her hair was brown, all spiked up, and she wore the crucifix and accessories. She was a little plump, she wasn't chiselled in the way she became later," says her then-guitarist Jon Gordon. Barbone remembers that the female fans were the key to Madonna's initial breakthrough. Girls started to imitate her, wearing a scarf in the same way, fishnet stockings with pumps, errant costume jewellry, or paint-splattered chinos. "They wanted to be like her because she was the free spirit in their minds. They admired what she was possessed by."
Madonna recorded a demo, but when a deal failed to materialise, Barbone was unceremoniously dumped. The aspiring star was 24 years old, and already felt that life was passing her by. Barbone then felt hugely betrayed, but is philosophical now. "I didn't have enough juice to get her to the next level," she says simply. After leaving Barbone, Madonna was back to decrepit rehearsal studios and hustling for a deal. By this time, though, she had gained valuable live experience and had a vibrant network of clubbing friends and industry contacts. She went to the centre of alternative New York nightlife, which was focused first on the Mudd Club, and then on The Danceteria, a four-floor club located on 21st Street. It was here that she met Mark Kamins, party DJ for Talking Heads, and a roving A& R man for Island Records. When the Danceteria opened, he was there with cult British DJ Shaun Cassette, with a playlist from the Pop Group to James Brown, Grace Jones and Kraftwerk.
"New York was so musically creative then," Kamins says. "The late 1970s was a very bad time. The Bronx was burning. There was no work. We were political, but there was nothing to motivate us other than music. There were no rules. Musically everybody experimented and wanted to try something new. The Danceteria was a very special place, like Warhol's Factory." Sade worked behind the bar, Keith Haring and the Beastie Boys were bus-boys, LL Cool J was the lift operator.
"It was one of those places where we lived. When the club closed, Keith went to the subway and painted his little figures until we opened the club at noon and started cleaning. He lived at the Danceteria, we all lived there. It was more than a club. Everybody there was doin' something."
To many of the "in-crowd" Madonna was outré. "She seemed like this girl from out-of-state who wasn't totally in the know yet," said artist Futura 500, while another Danceteria regular claimed: " She'd do outrageously stupid things. Like there was a girl who worked at the Danceteria who had a really striking style and wore her hair a certain way. One day Madonna came in with her hair cut and dyed the exact same way. We'd say, 'Is she nuts?' She says she ate out of trash cans, that she felt lonely – there was no reason to feel lonely, it was such a supportive scene, it was a community, but Madonna was so competitive!"
Madonna wasn't totally accepted by the downtown crowd, but she didn't care. She was happy just to soak up the creative energy. One night she approached Kamins' DJ booth with a demo of "Everybody", a song she'd been working on with Steve Bray, "I threw it on the cassette," says Kamins, "and it worked." He shrugs his shoulders. "I'm not sayin' the place went crazy, but it worked." Madonna became his girlfriend, and they moved into a small lat on the Upper East Side. "We had no money and we were sleeping on milk crates. She wasn't a home-maker," he remembered. "To Madonna, a boy friend was secondary to her career." Via Kamins, Madonna was offered a $15,000 two-singles deal by Sire Records – nothing spectacular – but it gave her the opportunity she'd dreamed of.
The recording session for "Everybody" took place in the summer of 1982 in Blank Tape studios. "Everybody" combines Madonna's irrepressible treble with locked-down bass and drums. It was a song that Fab Five Freddy from Grandmaster Flash said he heard on a boom box hauled down the street by two Puerto Rican teenagers. It was hip. The track sets the blueprint for future Madonna songs, with her voice direct and cajoling over the beat. It's as if she is on the dancefloor, aware of everyone in the room – who wants to dance, who doesn't, who's about to, who's shy and who's not. She invites people to play. She gives them permission.
By the mid-1980s Madonna had achieved nine hit singles and the global fame she had always wanted. Former Danceteria DJ Johnny Dynell remembers going to the supermarket one day and seeing her on the cover of Life magazine. " Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. It almost knocked me out," he says. "Oh my God, I thought, the bitch did it. It's not the Village Voice, it's the cover of Life. For a long time I thought of her as the same as us, but then I realised: 'Oh my God, she's a millionaire. she's rich she's done it'." From the moment "Everybody" became her first hit, for Madonna, there was no turning back.
Lucy O'Brien's book 'Madonna: Like an Icon' is out now, published by Bantam Press (£18.99)