“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