Before the concert she’d said that “this is a chance for me to get my feet wet on the stage again and a way to say thank you to an intimate group of my fans for all their support over the years. It’s a party that 3,000 people are invited to and I am going to sing a few songs at my party.” (And cream $30M from Bill Gates for the privilege as well as the Internet rights.) This wasn’t as disingenuous as it may have appeared, as this summer she’ll be appearing in Madonnadromes all over Europe, so Brixton was a practice run of sorts. Oh that all concerts should last just half an hour.
As an exercise in public relations it couldn’t have been bettered, although the most fascinating aspect of the night was seeing the command she had over the crowd. Madonna fills a room like no one else. She might be tiny and she might have only been on stage for half an hour, but you got the feeling that this was all the Madonna the venue could take.
GQ: Where do you stand on facial hair?
Madonna: I think a few days’ growth on a man is very sexy. I don’t really prefer it on a woman.
GQ: When was the last time you cried until it hurt?
Madonna: Watching that Australian film, Chopper. Those Aussies are funny as shit.
The first time I met Madonna she was a lot less predatory than she appears nowadays. This was early in 1984 and she was being photographed in Bow Street Studios in London’s Covent Garden for her first British magazine cover. As the magazine in question was the style bible i-D, where I was working, she was being asked by the photographer Mark Lebon to wink for the camera (all the magazine’s cover stars are asked to wink—the logo is a winking face on its side). But the most famous non-famous person in the room couldn’t wink with her right eye, so she winked with her left and we flipped the picture.
The cover turned out well, coinciding with the release of “Holiday” and “Lucky Star”, although the issue wasn’t as successful as we hoped when it hit the stands — because of Madonna’s recently acquired hair extensions the readership assumed we’d photographed Boy George’s boyfriend.
Although she was dressed in raggedy-rawny. club clothes and wore flat shoes it was easy to see that she had a grasp on what her business was really about. The theme of this particular issue was, appropriately enough, sex, and when questioned after the photo session Madonna was as frank as she was ever going to be. “When I turned 17 I moved to New York because my father wouldn’t let me date boys at home [in Detroit]. I never saw naked bodies when I was a kid — Gosh, when I was 17 I hadn’t seen a penis! I was shocked when I saw my first one, I thought it was really gross — and I’m not saying anymore.” And she didn’t, even though she already had a reputation for bad behaviour.
Now she likes to say that her younger, wilder days were nothing if not pre-ordained, the predictable result of a misspent youth. “It was just the rules. There were so many rules, and I just could never figure out what they all were. If somebody had given me an answer, I wouldn’t have been so rebellious. But because no one did, I was constantly going, Well, f##k that and f##k that and f##k that,’ you know? My father had all these rules and regulations: ‘You can’t wear make-up, you can’t cut your hair, you can’t, you can’t.’ So I went to the extreme… and that just continued, because I was rebelling.”
This sounds convincing until you hear that she thinks her real rebellion happened when she turned 30, when she published her graphically illustrated coffee-table book Sex (sample quote: “I love my pussy, it is the complete summation of my life… My pussy is the temple of learning”).
“I’m proud of the way I acted,” she says, “because it set a precedent and gave women the freedom to be expressive. I’m happy to have been a pioneer.”
It would be easy to suggest that because she has such a wanton and seemingly insatiable appetite for reinvention that she has also applied this process to her past. However, since she burst into our lives with such irresistible force all those years ago the memories have probably become as blurred for her as they have for us. (Intriguingly, when asked about a line from a song that really means something to her, she chooses something written by the Moody Blues in 1967: ‘just what you want to be you will be in the end”, from “Nights In White Satin”.)
“I wish people could understand me, but I guess unless you’ve had my experiences, you can’t relate to them, or me,” she’ll say, something she has tended to emphasise a lot. “I think I am the most misunderstood person on the planet.”