Yes, but given the tensions, was Dan glad to see her go? “Well, no,” he says. “I missed her very much.” He had taken her in and had taught her the skills she needed, and now she was leaving him. Most of the time she hadn’t even had to work a day job. “Ah, well, I was doing a job anyway, so having her there was just a bonus,” says Dan. “It was fun. It was a good year. And besides,” he jokes, “I have a palimony suit now, you know? Marvin Mitchelson, where are you? Of course, he doesn’t win too many of those, does he?”
Back in the big city once more, Madonna quickly summoned a ragtag band around her. Good fortune struck in the form of a telephone call from her old Michigan boyfriend, drummer Steve Bray – he was coming to New York. “I found out that, oddly enough, she needed a drummer,” he recalls. “So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be there next week.'”
“He was a lifesaver,” says Madonna. “I wasn’t a good enough musician to be screaming at the band about how badly they were playing.”
Times were very lean as they began working together, playing and writing songs. They moved themselves, their equipment and personal belongings into the Music Building, a garment-center structure that had been converted into twelve floors of rehearsal rooms. It housed the cream – if you can call it that – of the post-New Wave scene in New York. Nervus Rex was there, and so were the Dance and the System. “I thought they were all lazy,” says Madonna of that scene. “I felt a lot of affection for them, but I thought that only a handful of people were going to get out of that building to any success.”
Bray notes that Madonna was not exactly the most popular person on the scene. “I think there was a lot of resentment of someone who’s obviously got that special something. There are so many musicians out there, but there are only a few who really have that charisma. The community out there kind of, I think, frowned on her about that. She had trouble making friends.”
It didn’t matter much to Madonna, who felt that most of the groups there wanted only to hit it big among their pals. She wanted to be big nationwide, and the scene didn’t approve of such a desire. “It was like living in a commune,” agrees Bray, “very close-minded thinking – if you’re good in New York, if you can get regular jobs at CBGB’s or at Danceteria, that’s fine, you’ve made it. And that’s definitely not the case.”
Her band changed names like socks: first they were the Millionaires, then Modern Dance and finally Emmy, after a nickname that Dan Gilroy had given Madonna. (“I wanted just Madonna,” says she. “Steve thought that was disgusting.”) By any name, it was a hard-rocking outfit that was continually beset by snafus, especially when it came to guitarists. “She was playing really raucous rock & roll, really influenced by the Pretenders and the Police,” says Bray with a sigh. “She used to really belt. If we’d found that right guitar player, I think that’s when things would have taken off … but there are so many horrible guitar players in New York, and we seemed to get them all.”
The money was too short, and the band finally split up. Meanwhile, a manager heard a demo that Madonna had put together (it was an early version of “Burning Up”) and signed her up. As part of the deal, she was put on salary and moved out of the Music Building, ending up in spacious digs on New York’s Upper West Side. Madonna was quick to pull Bray onto the gravy train. Her new band – called Madonna – started playing the circuit yet again.
Madonna’s notion of music, however, was starting to change. It was the heyday of urban contemporary radio in New York, and Madonna was captivated by the funky sounds emanating from boom-boxes all over town. She started writing material in that vein, but the band and her manager hated it. “They weren’t used to that kind of stuff, and I’d agreed with my manager to do rock, but my heart wasn’t really in it.”
She would rehearse rock & roll with her band, then stay behind with Bray and record funkier stuff. There were fights, arguments, the band was pissed off. She’d come so far; how could she turn back now? But … “I finally said, ‘Forget it, I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to have to start all over.'”
And so she did, with the loyal Bray once more at her side. During the day, she and Bray would write songs; at night, she’d hit the clubs: Friday night at the Roxy; other nights at Danceteria, the offical home for white hipsters with itchy feet and a sense of humor. It was fun, sure, but it was also a way to press the flesh, to work the room, to bounce up into the deejay’s booth, lay a cozy rap on him and slap a tape into his hand.
At Danceteria, she caught the eye of Mark Kamins, a widely respected club deejay with ties to record companies. “She was one of my dancers, you could say,” says Kamins. “There was a crowd out there that came every Saturday night to dance.” Did he know she had other ambitions? “Hey, everybody does at a nightclub, but she was special.” He was impressed enough with what he saw to hit on the young woman now and then. She gave him a copy of her vaunted funk demo, a recording she and Bray had made that included a song called “Everybody.” “I was flirting with him,” she admits. Kamins and she started dating. He listened to the record and liked it. He put the song on at the club – just a four-track demo! – and people danced to it. He went into the studio with her and produced an improved version. And he went to Sire Records and single-handedly got her signed to a deal.
Bray was jubilant – at last he’d get to produce Madonna for real. What he didn’t know was that Madonna had promised Kamins that in exchange for his work on her behalf he would get to produce her debut album. Executives at Sire and its parent company, Warner Bros., had already given their okay.