Just a week before the Billboard Awards, I went to Madonna’s embassy-size home on a soundless street in central London for an afternoon. The tan Georgian facade, absent of ornament, gave away no secrets. In the foyer that day, reflecting upon her renowned impatience with fools (her former publicist once explained, “She smells fear like a dog”), I found myself asking the woman who answered the door, “Should I take off my jacket, or should I just wear it?”
Then a figure descended a nearby set of stairs. I saw the nude leather heels first, her feet transformed into a fleshy weapon, then the whole person, who was extending her hand to shake mine. Despite unforgiving paparazzi shots of the work on her face, she was shockingly beautiful up close. Her face was heart-shaped, with her blue eyes set wide apart and a chin that still jutted out like Elvis’s. A slightly off-the-shoulder, full-skirted Marni dress showed off her ivory skin; she was like one of those porcelain figurines of a rural lady in her Saturday best that people used to keep in glass cabinets. The look was far from the wisecracking, gum-snapping, thick-eyebrowed girl of the 1980s who didn’t shave her armpits, but it was effective: It announced that she was still Madge, the British lady of the manor — except when she crossed her legs, she had the old punk-rock black fishnet stockings under her skirt.
She greeted me with a wide, tooth-showing smile that seemed genuine — we had met once before, about five years ago in a boardroom at her record label that I thought at the time had the most flattering conference-room lighting on planet earth. She announced back then that if I asked a stupid question, I had to take a drink of tequila, but if I had a smart one, she would drink. At one point, I wondered if she planned to fall in love and marry again. “Wait, what does romance have to do with getting married?” she said. “Stupid question! Down it.” Only later did I realize she had created a distraction and avoided the question.
Now she took a seat on a hard bench that gave her a few inches of height over my low-slung leather chair. This time the room was dim. She had a director’s appreciation for the nuances of lighting. The night before, she was at a photo shoot until 3 a.m., and unwinding took two hours more. She has had insomnia for decades. In the late hours, she read books like Carson McCullers’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” or Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”; she liked learning authors’ back stories and admired those with mettle.
She drank alcohol but drew the line at sleeping pills — “That’s a slippery slide to get on,” she told me, pulling a crossed leg toward herself and massaging her taut calf. “I’ve been doing back-to-back video shoots all night, standing in the freezing cold, for the past couple weeks,” she explained. I seized the opening to ask how she felt in her body these days. “You’re my doctor,” she said in a not particularly playful tone of voice. “I just feel tired.”
She was a single mom of six now. Her second husband, Guy Ritchie, was gone, along with what her spokeswoman at the time said was $75 million of her money — immortalized in her song “I Don’t Give A” with the lines “lawyers, suck it up/didn’t have a prenup.” The removal of this amount may have made the Jenga tower of her fortune shiver but not fall down. For the past few years, she has been in London less than in the hilltop village of Sintra, Portugal, where her son David Banda, 13, attended a top soccer academy and she became perhaps the world’s most famous globe-trotting soccer mom. She told me she wasn’t yet over the release of her last album, “Rebel Heart,” in 2015, which sold less than her others. The songs had leaked online several months early, far from perfection. “There are no words to describe how devastated I was,” she said. “It took me a while to recover, and put such a bad taste in my mouth I wasn’t really interested in making music.” She added, “I felt raped.” It didn’t feel right to explain that women these days were trying not to use that word metaphorically.
In Portugal, she said, she was lonely. I asked if she felt that way because she was living in a castle, which seemed like the most appropriate description of the 16,000-square-foot Moorish revival mansion I read she bought, but she shot back: “Let’s not get carried away. I wasn’t in any castle.” She said about Lisbon, “It’s quite medieval and feels like a place where time stopped in a way, and it feels very closed,” adding, “There’s a cool vibe there, but where I was living with my kids, I felt very cut off from a lot.” She summed up her days: “It was FIFA and my kids’ school and that’s it. I’m fighting with the plumber.” For a moment, she almost looked shy. “I really wanted to make friends,” she said.
One night, she visited a Frenchman’s crumbling home on the sea for an improv session, mostly of fado musicians. “There was a vibration there that was magical and palpable, and suddenly musicians started playing,” she said. They rose from couches to sing, from chairs to pluck a guitar. Listening to the variety of musicians, from Brazilian samba players and jazz quartets to a singer from Guinea-Bissau performing in Mandinka, she fell into a trance.
I listened to her describe how this scene had wormholed her back to her younger self, particularly the one that emerged in New York City in golden early-’80s downtown Manhattan. Studio 54 was over, punk rock had come and gone and D.J.s like Afrika Bambaataa were figuring out how to mash up disco, seminal hip-hop albums and electro bands like Kraftwerk before sampling technology had been invented. She was the Italian-American dropout from the University of Michigan, given the name Madonna at birth; now, she remade herself as a sexy, lovesick street urchin in pre-gentrification Alphabet City, surviving by checking coats at the Russian Tea Room and modeling in the nude for art classes.
At night, Madonna slipped cassettes of her songs to D.J.s at Danceteria and the Fun House. She mixed it up on the dance floor with South Bronx b-boys and graffiti-artist-musician-painters like her new boyfriend Jean-Michel Basquiat (she claimed when they broke up that he took back the art he had given her and painted the canvases black). Cindy Sherman was showing in galleries around town, spurring interest in self-invention with her photographs. “I felt she was doing some kind of parallel kind of work to what I was doing,” Madonna said. “I could relate to her. Becoming other people but still herself with a sense of irony, making social commentary.” Jim Jarmusch was tooling around Manhattan with his 16-millimeter camera and playing in a no-wave band. The Beastie Boys were devising a tongue-in-cheek marriage of heavy metal and hip-hop rhymes and recording their first record. AIDS hadn’t spread widely yet. When people talk about what New York used to be like, that’s what it was like.