Madonna talks to Harry Dean Stanton about her newfound stardom
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone entered a new phase of life this summer when she married – the deafening whirr of six news mongering helicopters – elusive actor Sean Penn in Los Angeles. The marriage, a first for Penn and Madonna, came after a courtship of less than a year and pushed the singer into the age of material womanhood: the house in Hollywood, the Mercedes, the family plans. Contrary to her playgirl image, the real-life Mrs. Penn is sensible, decisive and business-minded. Her middle class, Italian-Catholic background has anchored her in a widening sea of exposure, while her lean years as an unknown – artist’s model, dancer, and club singer around Paris and New York – have given her a hard edge on younger, softer contemporaries. Surrounding Madonna like a halo is an unspoken message hinted at by her friends and supported by outward shows of defiance: DON’T MESS WITH ME. YOU’LL LOSE.
Her fans can’t get enough of it. With more than 20 million records sold worldwide, she is among a select group of musical artists (including Prince and Michael Jackson) frequently forced to knock themselves off the charts in order to score with new songs. After a convincing screen debut this year in Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna’s creative affectations seem to be shifting toward acting, and she is currently in the market for a project to co-star in with her husband. Insiders cite a script called “Blind Date,” but no contracts have been signed. Always full of surprises, Madonna chose veteran actor and close friend Harry Dean Stanton to be her confidant.
MADONNA: I’m not as true to myself as I always proclaimed that I had been. I realize now, after eating this Fig Newton and reading this package, I realize there’s animal fat in this and I’m no longer a vegetarian. I want everybody to know how fallible I am.
HARRY DEAN STANTON: You’re not perfect.
M: No, I’m not Jamie Lee Curtis.
HDS: Madonna, to start at the very beginning, what’s your earliest memory?
M: I think my earliest memories go back to about four or five years old, and they’re memories of my beautiful mother. They’re really great memories. When I was four years old or younger, I remember not being able to go to sleep at night, so I would walk into my parents’ bedroom and push the door open. They were both asleep in bed and I think I must have done this a lot, gone in there, because they sort of sat up in bed and said, “Oh, no, not again,” and I said, “Can I get in bed between you?” I always went to sleep right away when I slept with them. I felt really lonely and forlorn, even though my brothers and sisters were in my room with me. I wanted to sleep with my parents.
HD: The bosses.
M: Yeah, I wanted to sleep with the A Team. I remember, because my mother had a really beautiful red nightgown, silky red. My father was against me getting into bed with them, and my mother was for it. I remember that. So I got in bed between them, and I remember getting into bed and rubbing against her nightgown and going to sleep – just like that. To me that’s heaven, to sleep in between your parents.
HD: And your next memory?
M: My second wasn’t so pleasant. It was me sitting in the driveway of my house and another little girl, who must have been about two years old – I was about four – had just learned to walk, and she walked into the yard and picked a dandelion up out of the ground. I hate dandelions more than anything, and I had been told I couldn’t leave the front yard so I was kind of mad. I was sitting on the cement of the driveway and this little girl came waddling up to me with her diapers on, and with little innocent eyes, she looked up at me and handed me the dandelion and I pushed her down. I was so mad because I was being punished and my first instinct was to lash out at someone who was more hopeless than I. I saw in her innocent eyes the chance to get back at some authority.
HD: Why do you hate dandelions?
M: Because they’re weeds that run rampant. I like things that are cultivated. So that was my first memory of being mean to someone.
HD: Do you remember when this hatred of dandelions started?
M: I think it was from when my father made us go out in the yard and pick all the dandelions, like they were varmints. So those are my earliest memories – nice and naughty.
HD: Talk about your view of the world as a child.
M: When I was a child I always thought that the world was mine, that it was a stomping ground for me, full of opportunities. I always had the attitude that I was going to go out into the world and do all the things I wanted to do, whatever that was.
HD: I read that you liked the song, “These boots are made for walking – I’m gonna walk all over you.”
M: That attitude wasn’t it – not like I’m going to go in and terrorize anybody or walk all over anyone or conquer – but just that I was going to get out there and take a bite of the big forest. And I think I did that. And now that I’m a woman, I’m still doing that. But as big as I am and as much as I know, I still have that same wide-eyed feeling that there’s still a forest for me to go out in-
HD: You’re still a virgin.
M [laughs]: Yeah.
HD: What’s the angriest that you’ve ever been?
M: The angriest time in my life – I’d have to say that was in my teen years. Like from when I was in junior high till I graduated from high school. Actually I sort of mellowed out toward my last year because I finally figured out what I was going to do with my weird old self. It was a combination of feelings. When you’re growing up, whether it’s the neighborhood you live in, or school, or church or whatever, your family – and I had a really big one – there’s a lot of pressure to fit into the group.
HD: Peer pressure.
M: Your peers aren’t pressuring you, you just want to identify with somebody as you’re growing away from being a child. You’re starting to think differently, and you want to be independent, but before you reach that independence you really need to attach yourself to someone. In my school there were the hippies – the more free group, the guys who had long hair and took a lot of jewelry and shop classes and smoked a lot of pot during lunch hour. I didn’t identify with them because I thought they were extremely lazy. Then there was the jock group, and they were drunk on beer every day. I was a cheerleader for a little while, but I couldn’t get into it anymore. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in sports, it’s that I couldn’t agree with the sensibilities of the cheerleaders and the athletes. They were only interested in one thing – sports and drinking girls. Oops, Freudian slip. Well, that’s basically what they did – drank girls and went out with beers [laughs]. See, I had this idea that everybody went to school with blinders on their eyes in junior high and high school and it really pissed me off. For some reason, don’t ask me how, because my parents weren’t worldly and I didn’t know many people who were, I was just sure everybody was missing something. I couldn’t identify with anyone, so I just wandered around aimlessly. As far as other friendships go, I sort of hung around on the outside of things and befriended who other people thought were the class nerds. Those were my best friends, I think, the guys who were really studious, like physics majors…
HD: Did you have a best friend?
M: Yeah, there was one girl. We were pretty good friends and I think we laughed at the world together for awhile, but we grew apart. We did a really funny thing once. We thought we were better than anybody else, and our main point of interest was boys, obviously, and we decided that we were going to dress up as ten-cent floozies.
HD: And there’s where it all started.
M: I remember one summer I went away and hunt out with my uncles. They were very young, and a couple years older than my brother, and I thought they were the coolest people in the world. They had a rock band. I’d visit my grandmother, up north in Bay City, Michigan. She wasn’t an extreme disciplinarian like my parents, so I loved going there. We could have twelve desserts at grandma’s and stay out past 10:00 and go out with beers and drink boys. But I remember that summer I was watching my uncles’ rock ‘n’ roll band – wearing tight jeans for the first time in my life. I smoked a cigarette, not too successfully, I started plucking my eyebrows and I started feeling like, “Yeah, this is it, I’m cool.” I remember I got back and my stepmother told me I looked like a floozy and I was really smashed.
HD: This was before you had taken any dance or music or anything?
M: I was studying dance in high school, but this was before I was really committing myself to it every day. At that time, I was going to dance classes but they were fun. IT was really a release for me, just so I wouldn’t beat up my brothers and sisters. I knew that I was really good at it. They were jazz classes, so they weren’t as strict as, say, a ballet class. I’m talking light eighth grade; the summer between eighth and ninth grade I went to my grandmother’s house and did all this. So then I came back and after that summer I felt like I had really grown up – only to find out that I was a floozy [laughs]. Then it was a private joke between my girlfriend and me, that we were floozies, because she used to get it from her mother all the time, too. If we did one little thing, like wear a little lip gloss or try to wear opaque pantyhose, not nylon stockings that you could see through, not sheer, just tights.
HD: So somewhere you did like the floozy look.
M: Only because we knew our parents didn’t like it. We thought it was fun. We got dressed to the nines. We got bras and stuffed them so our breasts were over-large and wore really tight sweaters – we were sweater-girl floozies. We wore tons of lipstick and really badly applied makeup and huge beauty marks and did our hair up like Tammy Wynette. She’s got the pictures actually, I don’t, of us laying in the bed. We both took turns, lounging on the bed with our hands behind our heads. We took pictures of each other and we developed them and these were our ten-cent floozy pictures. We were going to keep them so we could look back at them and laugh, because we knew how ridiculous it was.
HD: Do you still have them?
M: I don’t, but when I went home last spring I saw that girl and she showed them to me and it made me laugh hysterically.
HD: Maybe you could get them back and we could use them.
M: No way. I’ve had enough blasphemous photographs. Everybody knows I’m a bad girl.
HD: In one of your interviews you said you’re basically a very sweet person, a very good person – a very healthy person and you like your body.
M: I am. I know that I’ve incited a lot of bad feeling with the Moral Majority or Parents and Children. There’s this big scandal about banning music with sexually explicit lyrics, but I think ultimately children, more than anybody, sense the realness of somebody and the goodness of somebody. I don’t think they would have attached themselves to a person or believed in them or looked up to them if there wasn’t some innate goodness or sweetness to them. You let go of that trust and innocence and that intuitive psychic ability to see that in people as you grow older. I think it’s these kids’ parents who don’t understand it and they’re fearful of it.
HD: Do you think it will have a positive effect on all these little girls, the “want to be’s?”
M: I do, because I have a positive attitude about life, and I think they see that. What they see more than anything is that I was a little girl from Michigan and I had a dream and I worked really hard and my dream came true. I believed in myself and now especially, more than ever, children really need to have those kind of people to look up to, people with positive life-messages. People who believe in dreams and magic and things that are happy. Everything is so real and grim. Children in school today and thinking about their life being over soon because of nuclear holocaust or… All I’m trying to say is that it just seems that more and more negative things are happening around the world, whether it’s incurable diseases or famine or the threat of the atomic bomb. What kind of thing is it for children to grow up with that fear? I think it’s really important for them to have an image or something to inspire them and take them out of that. Not so they don’t even think about it, but to realize that there are also some positive things going on. It’s not just “What’s there to look forward to in life?”
HD: And you want that to come through in your singing, your music, that feeling that you have integrity and you’re not a fake and you’re good and you tell the truth.
M: Harry Dean, those are your words. I don’t claim to be an intellectual or esoteric songwriter and I think my message is very simple, positive and full of life.
HD: You have a great attitude.
M: I laugh at myself, I don’t take myself completely seriously. I think that’s another quality that people have to hold onto, you have to laugh, especially at yourself. I do in most of the things I do, and most of the videos that I make and my performances. Even in my concerts there were so many moments when I just stood still and laughed at myself. It was like I start mocking the image that the public has of me. For instance, I ended a show with “Material Girl” and throughout the song I went up to all the guys in my band; they’re giving me pearls and diamonds and fake money and I’m stuffing it down my shirt, and I’m going crazy with it. At the end I say to the audience, “Do you think I’m a material girl?” and they all say “Yeah!” Then I say, “I’m not” and start taking all of it off and throwing it into the audience. It’s like a joke, that’s the point. It was fun, and the audience loved it.
HD: That’s the truly moral thing too…
M: If you can’t make jokes about yourself, you’re not going to be happy. You’ll be the saddest person that ever lived – you are!
HD: I also think the dancing you did gave you tremendous discipline.
M: Exactly. That was the first thing – the devotion to that, and realizing that I could go from being unmolded clay, and over time and with a lot of work and with people helping me, I could turn myself into something else. Before I started feeling devoted to dancing, I didn’t really like myself very much. I didn’t think I was beautiful or talented. I spent a lot of time loathing myself, and not feeling like I fit in my school and hating the authority of my parents, like every adolescent does. I really had a lot of self-hatred. When I started having a dream, and working toward that goal, having a sense of discipline, I started to really like myself for the first time. Then that just carried over into everything. That isn’t to say that even now, as I approach acting a lot more seriously in my life, that I feel like, “Wow, I could work really hard and just get there.” I’m full of the same fears now, and awkwardness about not knowing that much about it, as I was when I first started dancing.
HD: About acting.
M: Definitely. Once I felt really confident about my dancing I went into music. I started writing lots of songs. But to get out in front of lots of people and actually do the songs and sing in front of a microphone and project, I encountered all those same fears all over again. I feel like my life is cycles, one cycle after the next, and I keep learning more and more. Every time I get to another place and I’m learning more about something, I’m exactly the same as I was way back when I was just starting to dance. My knees are trembling and I want to learn, I’m afraid, but I’m also excited. I’m just like an open book. I want to get everything into my head that I can, then get it out. I’m completely uninhibited on a stage with 30,000 people in the audience, and say things, and dance and sing, because I feel confident about it because I know what I’m doing.
HD: Then once you know a script and know a role and know your lines, then –
M: Then I feel very confident. Being a dancer certainly helped me learn how to play instruments, and understand musicality and rhythm and coordination, things like that. When you’re playing the drums, it’s all about being coordinated, you know?
HD: This friend of mine told me that men see women from the outside in – in other words they’ve got to look great and have a great body, and then after you pass all those tests they’ll talk to you. A woman looks at the inside of a man first. They look in his eyes or at his attitude – from the inside out, is that true?
M: I’m sure there are exceptions on both sides, but generally I would agree with that.
HD: You know who said that?
HD: Sean, your husband.
M: Isn’t he the smartest!
HD: Madonna, what kind of classical music do you like?
M: My favorite-favorite-favorite music to listen to is baroque, that would be Vivaldi and Bach and Pachelbel and… Handel’s Water Music…
M: He’s heavier than the people I mentioned. I don’t listen to Beethoven enough to make a judgement whether I like him or not. When I was studying ballet I listened to classical music all the time, because that’s what you listen to when you take class. And I got really interested in it, but just lately I started listening to it all again and I really miss it. That has a lot to do with living in an apartment that doesn’t have a stereo system, believe it or not, but I’m going to be moving soon and I’ll have that. The other day my husband was playing Brahms and I never really listened to him that much and I loved it – it was a concerto. I love Mozart and Chopin only in that they had some real sweet feminine quality about a lot of their music.
HD: What about reading – what authors do you like?
M: Books are my next favorite thing, after kissing my husband. I love to gobble up books. You want to know who I gobble up?
HD: Like boys and beer?
M: I don’t drink books, I gobble books. I gobble books and I read my husband, okay? So, my favorite poet is Rainer Maria Rilke, he’s a German poet and he’s great. I love James Agee. One of my all-time, all-time favorite poets is Charles Bukowski, I think he’s the coolest guy in the world. He lives in San Pedro and someday I’m going to go up there and knock on his door and say, “Charles, get out of that house and let’s have a talk… Charles, can we talk?” He’s totally awesome.
HD: What’s so awesome about him?
M: He’s really funny and raunchy. I love him because he’s always cutting himself down, but he’s totally for real. I have a lot of favorite poets but I can’t think of them right now. Aside from biographies about people I’ve admired in my life, I love the classics. I love James Joyce and Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and J.D. Salinger and D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Mann and, what’s that guy’s name – shit – oh! Balzac and Guy de Maupassant. I love Françoise Sagan and Marguerite Duras. I love a lot of French writers. As far as new people who I read, I love V.S. Naipaul, Milan Kundera. And Lawrence Durrell, I love his books. But more recently, I went through my Jack Kerouac phase, and Kurt Vonnegut. I’m reading three books now, one is Françoise Sagan, the other is Milan Kundera, and oh – I love Alice Walker. I love to read, and I can’t wait to move into my house so I can have a room full of books on the walls.
HD: And you never went to college – otherwise you never would have had time to read all those books.
M: Actually, I went to the University of Michigan for a year, but I was in the performing arts school and I studied dance, music theory and art history. I took a Shakespearean course, so I read a lot of Shakespeare, but that was it. But man, I love to read.
HD: What about paintings?
M: I wish I knew a lot more about paintings than I do, but I have a few favorite old guys and new guys. I loved this French painter called Corot. He was right before the Impressionists got big, before Monet’s time. And I like Picasso, certain periods, but I’m not really into Modernism or Cubism or Postmodernism. Of the young artists now, I think Jean-Michel Basquiat is a great painter, I love this guy named James Brown. I think those two are really funny in their work. I really like Francesco Clemente, his paintings are very romantic and rich – oh, and I love Keith Haring. I think a lot of painters look down on him because he sort of capitalized on his paintings in a way that people might promote their pop records, but I think he’s very talented. I like humor in paintings, I really do…
HD: What singers and instrumentalists do you like in contemporary music?
M: Let’s talk about singers. I love Ella Fitzgerald more than anything. She has the coolest voice in the world. The way Ella sings scat is unbelievable. As far as old singers go, I love Sarah Vaughan and old Sinatra and old Sam Cooke. Most of my leanings toward favorite singers, from when I was really young, are soul singers, you know, R&B, black, then up till now, gee whiz.
HD: Do you remember Big Joe Williams?
M: Yeah, he’s great, and B.B. King. He’s got a great voice and he writes great songs. He’s a great guitar player. It’s funny, I don’t have a lot of favorite modern people. Tom Waits, he’s a great singer and songwriter and he’s got lots of humor, I like him a lot. I want to meet him someday.
HD: Do you know his wife Kathleen?
M: Well, she must be cool. He would only marry cool people. Now, I love Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin. Think Prince has a really good voice and I think he’s a really good songwriter too, and a great musician, but he definitely needs to get a sense of humor. When I was growing up I used to really like Joni Mitchell a lot. The Court and Spark album was my bible for a whole year. I knew every word of every song on that album.
HD: So her style has influenced you a lot?
M: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I never could bridge the gap between what records I loved to listen to when I was growing up and what influenced me. I’m sure each record I heard influenced me in some way, just like every person you ever meet influences you. I think Don Henley is really great, he’s got a really good voice. Chrissie Hynde, from the Pretenders, was a great inspiration to me because she was very popular at the time and she’d just come out. I love Rickie Lee Jones, too. Of contemporary women singers I’d say those two are my favorites. They have great voices and they’re gutsy, and they’re great musicians too. And Debbie Harry, who I really admired. I was just starting to write music when she was very popular. She and Chrissie Hynde were big inspirations to me because they were women and they were in charge of what they were doing. They were obviously writing their own lyrics and they had, to me, very strong images and that gave me courage.
HD: Deborah Harry’s one of my favorites, too.
M: Debbie Harry, if you’re reading this, hello, I’ve always wanted to meet you. And Harry Dean wants to go out with you.
HD: And I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world. Madonna, what inspires you in your music?
M: Gee willikers – I think the things that inspire me to make music are the things that arouse my curiosity and make me happy in life, whether that be romantic love, the love I feel for my husband, for instance, or the love I feel for my friends.
HD: Have you felt differently since you’ve been in love with Sean?
M: Totally. I feel calmer now than I ever have before. What that means is that I can really concentrate on the important things. It’s funny, now that I’m in love, all the songs I write I feel like I do it all for him. I do it for myself, but I do it for him. I’m writing the lyrics or doing the music, or something that’s creative, I think “Would he like it?” I do. So, love inspires me, and Sean inspires me, and a great book will inspire me, or a great movie, like A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift. Everything inspires me – old men walking down the street, a janitor who I meet. You know what I like to do? When I go to parties I talk to the butlers and janitors and stuff. They inspire me. I think they’re the funniest. An expression in someone’s eye, walking down the street can inspire me. Children inspire me.
HD: What about children…
M: I would love to have a child. Then after I have a child I would decide whether I’d love to have another child. When I see couples and they’ve just had a baby and it’s newborn and fresh and smelling good, and it’s completely pure and perfect and all that, I really want to have that for my own. I want it. And I really want to watch somebody grow, and have a personal effect on their life from the very beginning.
M: I’ll tell you, I want to have a kid before I’m 80.
HD: You’ve told me that before you were successful you would walk down the street and look everybody in the eye, and since you’ve gotten all this media attention, it’s different.
M: I used to be just a brazen, outgoing, crazy lass, and I went out of my way to get attention from people. I would wear one orange sock and one purple one. I went out of my way to make statements with my clothing and obviously I got looks from people. I enjoyed, then, getting looks from people, and people thought I was strange or interesting looking. I brazenly looked people in the eye when I walked down the streets in New York. I loved getting dressed up and going out on the street and walking around. I didn’t have money to take cabs then, so I took subway trains a lot and I loved seeing the visual effect I had on people, and now I can’t really enjoy that privilege anymore, because I already have all the attention. I feel like when I walk down the street people don’t see me as an interesting person, they see me as Madonna, a person they know and read about every day. Looking into their eyes invites trouble, so now when I walk down the street I look down at the ground, and that’s sad for me. I’ve sort of gone from being an extrovert to being an introvert, publicly, which I never thought I could be.
HD: What about the press?
M: Unwanted response – let’s just sort of catapult ourselves right into the press. I can talk about the press and I’m probably not going to be saying anything a lot of celebrities or people who are public figures haven’t already said before. Look at Jackie Onassis, she had to go to court to get this guy to stay away from her, but I have to say that since my tour I haven’t had a moment’s peace from the press.
HD: They abuse their privilege.
M: The thing that annoys me more than anything about paparazzi is that they really feel that they have put you where you are. They really think that because you’re a celebrity, you owe them all the pictures they can get. I think it’s completely unfair. I think it’s one thing to want to be there at social functions, like premieres and parties and gala events, to want to be there to chronicle those events. I know people are interested in reading about that, but I don’t want to get my picture taken every time I walk out of Jane Fonda, and I do. It’s not even the taking of the pictures that bothers me, it’s the element of surprise I always encounter every time they jump out of the bushes or jump from behind a corner. It’s like a teeny heart attack every time it happens. Every time I go running in Central Park around the reservoir, and they’re waiting… I’m gliding along listening to music and all of a sudden they jump from behind a tree. They’re always scaring me, so I have to deal with that constant fear. And every time they jump out to take a picture, the way they take them – it’s like they’re raping me. I feel like they might as well have taken a gun out and shot me, because it takes me at least an hour to come down from that shock every time that happens. It’s a very traumatizing situation for me.
HD: It also isn’t right to have six helicopters hovering over a marriage ceremony.
M: No, but as we were saying before, America is a really life-negative society. People want to know all the underneath stuff – all the inside stuff, your dirty laundry. Which isn’t to say all the stuff the press has been getting on me is negative or dirty or whatever, but there’s always hope, for them, that they’ll uncover something really scandalous. So paparazzi hover above you like helicopters; they’re vultures. If they truly understood what they’re trying to capture in a photograph, they wouldn’t want to do it. I want to be able to go through the day – go to my exercise classes, get married – without the whole world watching. I’ve given enough to the public through my music and videos and one movie that I’ve done, and I plan to keep on giving it. I don’t see why they have to keep on trying to take more from me. That’s all I have to say about it.
HD: Madonna, the press has written that your rise has been like a meteor and that you’re going to burn out, and they quote you as saying in 20 years you’ll be a great actress.
M: Ultimately people want to see other people fail – another part of the life-negative society we live in.
HD: It’s not all life-negative is it?
M: No, because if it were, people like you and I wouldn’t be here. If there weren’t people who had a great attitude about it, great books and great paintings and movies wouldn’t be made. There’s always going to be the adversary, the antagonist, the good and the bad, the yin and the yang, and so maybe the negative exists so we can see the positive. In the very beginning I was hurt by it, the things people wrote about me, saying that I was going to fall, go away as quickly as I came. It’s like junior high magnified a thousand times, you just can’t pay attention to it. Ultimately, anybody who sits around predicting the failure of anyone else is fearing his own failure. Why waste your time? Why not think about the good side of everything? Or – even if someone isn’t famous after three years – the good things they contributed to the world. It’s really funny. Twenty years ago, people were movie stars, musicians and public figures – but there was a lot more mystery about them. Now, not only do they tell all about anyone’s life, anyone’s past, to find all the dirty laundry – including the number of abortions someone’s had – but they also make sure that everybody knows, twelve-year-old kids included, how much money an actor makes, how much a movie grossed, how much a TV show grossed, the ratings. It explains everything down to the scientific thing – it takes all the magic out of Hollywood, and it’s really upsetting to me.
HD: Making a business out of everything, cold hard cash –
M: Yeah, and as far as acting goes, I’m not sure it will take me 20 years to be a great actress. I think what I said was that I hope to be acting 20 years from now, when I know I won’t be making pop videos for MTV anymore. I ultimately think my career as an actress will outlive all my other careers.
HD: A friend of mine told me in your backstage preparation for your Live Aid performance that you looked like a warrior – making sure everything was right – and then when you came on, you came on like a warrior.
M: That’s a great compliment, that’s what I feel like when I go on.
HD: The emphasis has been on your visual image, your physicality, your image as a sex symbol. Actually, you had two hits out before anybody really knew what you looked like, right?
M: I was successful in the clubs and no one knew what I looked like. I was considered a “disco artist,” and then when I had my first nationwide hit, “Holiday,” people still didn’t know what I looked like – because I still didn’t have a video. It wasn’t until I made a video to “Borderline,” which was my third single release off my first album, that people actually put a face to a song. I do think it’s kind of ironic…
HD: And frustrating too. There’s been more emphasis on your looks and your image as a sex symbol than there has been on your tremendous talent as a singer, a musician, as a record co-producer and video producer. You also have a lot to do with directing your own videos, right?
M: But I always collaborate with people. I don’t think my success would be sustained as it is now if my career were only based on my physical appearance. It just shows that looks mean a lot and image means a lot. But you have to back it up. People didn’t really have any preconceived notions of me until they started seeing my image – my face, the way I moved, putting the voice with the face.
HD: The song “Holiday” was a big hit on black as well as white stations.
M: My first two hits were hits only on black stations, and it wasn’t until “Borderline,” which was my third release, and that’s also the first video I had on MTV, that they crossed over to the white pop stations. People didn’t know what I looked like before that and I was only played on black stations, but I still considered that I was very successful.
HD: How close are your demos to the finished song?
M: It depends. On my first album, the demos we made were not as close simply because I didn’t have as much direct involvement with the production of my album. I didn’t know if I knew enough to speak out. It wasn’t until my first album was three-quarters of the way done that I realized, hey! I know a lot more about this than I’m allowing myself to speak out about. So I started going backward and stripping the songs down and making them more sparse. Until then they’d been layered with a lot of stuff. Then when we got into the second album, I had a lot more confidence in myself and I had a lot more to do with the way it came out sounding. I really worked side by side with Nile Rodgers. When I brought the demo tapes in, all we needed to do was transfer it into a bigger sound, so they were much closer to the original demos. Nile was very open with me, he gave me the feeling we were really collaborating and I felt free to say what I wanted. He really liked the demos and wanted to preserve the quality that was on them. That’s why the second album was closer to the sound of the demos.
HD: Why wasn’t “Into the Groove,” which is from Desperately Seeking Susan, on your second album?
M: For a simple reason: My second album was already released when the movie was being filmed. The director, Susan Seidelman, said to me she was shooting a sequence in the movie where we needed a song that had a really good dance beat. She asked if we could just bring in the tape of the song that Steven Bray and I wrote. I said okay, and I brought in this tape we had been working on. Actually I wanted to test it out on all the extras who were dancing to it, to see if it was a good song. I had no intention of using it in the movie. So I brought it in and we played it, and we had to do take after take and pretty soon everyone was starting to like the song and they were saying, “What’s this song, and where’s it coming form?” I said, “It’s just a song,” and as the film got nearer to the end and they were doing the final cuts, Susan called me up and said, “Look…” Originally I think they were going to use all old songs that were already recorded in the soundtrack. I didn’t go into this film thinking I’m going to get a hit song out of this, or an MTV video. No way! I think everybody wanted to turn the other cheek to that song and not bring it in because nobody wanted to make it that kind of movie. So it was getting closer and closer and Susan Seidelman said to me, “We’re trying to find another song for that scene and we just think yours really works – it’s a great song, the producer loved it, Orion loved it, everybody loved it.” I said, “Okay, fine.” They synched the song to that sequence in the movie and showed it to me. I thought it was great and it didn’t interfere with my character or what I was doing acting-wise, and we ended up using the original 8-track demo Steven and I had made. We never went into the recording studio and made a record out of it.
HD: You’re one of a handful of musicians – and I’m including Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Elvis – who have had to compete with themselves on the charts – to get another hit you would have to knock yourself off.
M: Gee, I can’t complain, the more the merrier. I like the fact that all my songs are doing well, who wouldn’t?
HD: I was personally impressed with your choice of music at the reception, after your wedding, when everyone was having dinner and dancing. The songs were a lot of older ones, from the ‘40s or ‘50s –
M: We went all the way back to the ‘30s – big-band era stuff. Honestly, I didn’t do it on my own. I had the help of Michael Ochs, who has an incredible archive of music, and I knew he could assist me in finding all the possible tapes. I wanted it to be really romantic. We had old Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Sarah Vaughan. It was really like the roots of rock ‘n’ roll all the way back up till now.
HD: I’m going to segue into censorship here. What’s the deal on censorship in your music?
M: I’ll hip you to it, Harry Dean. Basically, a bunch of moralists have gotten together and decided that the majority of the lyrics and the images that a lot of pop artists are projecting are injurious to the minds of their children and they’re having a bad effect on them. I would say that what they’re doing is taking a lot of people and lumping them together when they point the finger at them. For me, whether my lyrics are worthy of censorship or not has nothing to do with it, it has more to do with my image. The thing is, they’re going to try to find a word in every song to hang on to. Most of the lyrics in my songs have double entendres or lots of different meanings, so if you’re thinking in a purely sexual way – I’m not using any offensive words or profanity at all. I’m not naming anything. You can take the meaning of the songs a lot of different ways. I think they’re really referring back to my song “Like a Virgin,” but since it’s not on the charts anymore they can’t complain about it. “Dress You Up in My Love” means you’re just going to completely cover somebody up in love – it’s a love song. It’s very innocent. I think all of my songs have an element of desire or flirtation. It’s never, “Come on baby, let’s get down to it – let’s get in the bed and go right through it.” It’s not like that!
HD: I think people always associate sexuality with something dirty.
M: What they’re complaining about is their eight-to-fourteen-year-old children who are being exposed to all these things at a very young age because they watch MTV all day and buy records. I’m definitely against violence in videos, and I think a lot of groups rely on a few thematic schemes in their videos to make it interesting. You see a girl walking in a miniskirt or a guy driving fast in a car and crashing it or things that are exploding, but I don’t think that the MTV videos have any more violence than things people see all day long. So if you don’t want your child exposed to violence, you shouldn’t let them watch TV at all. I don’t think the moralists are even listening to the things I”m saying in my songs, they’re just thinking about my image. I had a scandal with Playboy. They just expect everything that comes out of my mouth to be prurient and off-color. Prurience is in the eye of the beholder, let’s face it. I’m going to quote a little bit out of the I Ching regarding that subject: “So, too, music has power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of obscure emotions. The enthusiasm of the heart expresses itself involuntarily in a burst of song, in dance and rhythmic movement of the body. From immemorial times the inspiring effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together has mystified mankind. Rulers have made use of this natural taste for music. Music was looked upon as something serious and holy, designed to purify the feelings of men, it fell to music to glorify the virtue of heroes and thus to construct a bridge to the world of the unseen.” So that sort of nips those moralists in the bud, wouldn’t you say, Harry Dean?
HD: To a large degree, yeah. Let’s talk about the Playboy spread.
M: When they were taken seven or eight years ago they weren’t meant for publication in any magazine. They were done by these guys who took pictures of nudes for exhibits and showings and stuff. At the time I wasn’t a known person and it didn’t really occur to me that I was setting myself up for scandal for years to come. And the thing is, for years, when I first moved to New York, I modeled for a lot of art schools for the drawing and painting classes and the nude is an essential part of study for a person in beginning study; they have to draw the anatomy of the human body. I was a dancer at the time. I was in really good shape and I was slightly underweight so you could see my muscle definition and my skeleton. I was one of their favorite models because I was easy to draw. So I sort of made the rounds. I got paid very well for that, versus having to work eight hours in a restaurant. I could work in a school for three hours, and take dance classes all day, then do my show at night, if I was performing. I’d be making money and not working that many hours. So, when I did this a lot of people wanted me to start modeling privately for them. They had little get-togethers on the weekends, say three people in the class, and they’d ask me to model for them. The smaller the class the better. I could hang out a lot more and work a lot less. So I got to know these people in a friendly kind of way. They became like surrogate mothers and fathers for me, they took care of me. Then, what would happen is, they’d say they knew a great and he’s doing an exhibit of nudes and he’d like to do some pictures. So I’d get involved with photographers that way. Then we would turn me on to somebody else, and for the photography sessions I’d be paid a lot more than drawing. I consider the nude a work of art. I don’t see pornography in Michelangelo, and I liked what I was doing to that. It was a good way to make money. As it turns out, I became very successful and famous and America, the media and the press, geared the way it is –
HD: Trying to make something smutty out of it.
M: Of course, a life-negative society. Besides, that’s sort of the course of events when anyone gets successful, to go back and try to find all the deep, dirty, dark hidden secrets and expose them. Well I don’t have any, because I’m not ashamed of anything that I did. I would have preferred that those photos weren’t printed, because obviously the way they were promoted wasn’t very flattering to me, but when people actually saw them they thought, “What’s the big deal here?”
HD: Tell me your goals. What do you want to do?
M: I think in the back of my mind, no matter what I was learning to do, I’ve always had the deepest desire to pursue acting as a career. I guess I’m sort of getting to it in a roundabout way.
HD: What actresses influenced you most?
M: Judy Holliday and Carole Lombard because of their innocence and their sense of humor.
HD: What directors do you think you’d like to work with?
M: I’d love to work with Bob Fosse, Martin Scorsese, and Jamie Foley. I guess people aren’t too happy with the stuff he’s been doing lately, but I love Coppola, I think he’s great. Also, Roman Polanski, Mike Nichols. I would have loved to have made a movie with Fassbinder, he would have been great to work with – and George Stevens. They’re both not available at this time.
HD: You mentioned earlier that a lot of your work now is for Sean. He inspires you tremendously, you feel more together, connected, being in love, so – let’s just cut the bullshit Madonna – did he ask you to marry him or did you ask him? How did it happen?
M: Sean asked me to marry him but he didn’t say it out loud. I read his mind. So I read his mind back to him.
HD: Where were you?
M: In Tennessee, at the “Something Inn.” We were out in the middle of nowhere, and 7-Eleven was the high point of interest there. It was a Sunday morning and I was jumping up and down on the bed, performing one of my morning rituals, and all of a sudden he got this look in his eye and I felt like I just knew what he was thinking. I said, “Go ahead and say it, I know what you’re thinking.” No! What I said was “Whatever you’re thinking, I’ll say yes to.” That was his chance. So he popped it.
HD: Did you say yes immediately?
M: Of course I did. I’m a woman of my word. Then we went to the 7-Eleven and bought a whole bunch of jawbreakers and celebrated. Sean is my hero and my best friend.