The Faces Of Madonna
Chameleon-like and complex, Madonna is many things to many people. In the new book, "Madonna Unauthorized" (Simon & Schuster), author Christopher Andersen chronicles the sometimes inspiring, sometimes trashy but always fascinating life of a celebrity with many faces. The first of three excerpts traces Madonna's early years in New York, not yet a star, but someone going places.
On a warm July morning in 1978, 19-year-old Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone ignored her father's protests and boarded a flight for New York. It was her first plane trip and by any measure, her most important.
Debarking at La Guardia with nothing but a suitcase and the clothes on her back, her dance slippers and $37 in cash crumpled in her purse, Madonna hailed a cab. Totally unfamiliar with Manhattan, she simply instructed the taxi driver to take her "to the center of everything."
The cabbie thought for a minute, then drove her straight to gaudy, seedy, crime-ridden Times Square. "He must have had quite a sense of humor," Madonna's brother Christopher Ciccone later quipped. The cab fare: $15 - not quite half of Madonna's entire stake.
Wearing a heavy winter coat in the middle of a typical New York summer heat wave, Madonna lugged her suitcase east, past the porno houses that lined 42nd Street, then took a right on Lexington Avenue. A few blocks farther downtown, she came upon a street fair. Making her way through the crowd, she realized that she was being
followed. Rather than trying to escape the man following her, she spun around and said hello.
"Why are you walking around with a winter coat and a suitcase?" he asked.
"I just got off the plane," she replied.
"Why don't you go home and get rid of it?"
"I don't live anywhere," Madonna told the stranger.
With that, he invited her to stay at his apartment, and she accepted. "I pretty much had to charm people into giving me things," she later said. For the next two weeks, the stranger (whose name she could no longer recall) made her breakfast while she looked for a place of her own and a job to pay for it. All she could afford was a roach-infested, fourth floor walk-up. "I really wouldn't go visit her there," Steve Bray, her boyfriend and pop-music mentor whom she met while a student at the University of Michigan, later confessed. "I thought I was going to be killed by junkies."
During her early years in New York, she was scarcely able to eke out a living and was having to rely more and more on friends for meals and handouts. She had even taken to rummaging through garbage cans in search of food. If she spotted a paper bag bearing the Burger King or McDonald's logo, she would, being a vegetarian, throw out the meat but eat the bun and the French fries that came with it.
Madonna's luck began to change in late 1979, when Bray called from Michigan to say that he was fed up with life in the Midwest and ready to attack New York. Together they moved into the Music Building on Eighth Avenue in Mid-Manhattan, a charmless, Depression-era edifice that housed dozens of recording and rehearsal studios.
To this inhospitable locale gravitated the down-and-dirty bands that sought to fill the void left by the departure of New Wave. An as-yet-undiscovered Billy Idol was among them. Most of the rockers, however, did not live on the premises. Yet Madonna and Bray actually squatted there off and on for nearly a year, working between gigs on their own material and subsisting on tuna and popcorn. ("I still love popcorn," Madonna said later. "It fills you up and it's cheap.")
One morning Adam Alter of Gotham Productions was walking briskly through the Music Building's shabby lobby when a gum-snapping girl in torn jeans stopped him. "Hey," she said before walking on, "you look just like John Lennon."
At the same time, unbeknownst to Alter, his business partner Camille Barbone had encountered an offbeat young girl on the elevator. "We had the whole second floor to ourselves," said Barbone, an attractive, no-nonsense New Yorker who had worked over the years with such stars as Melba Moore and David Johansen and for such companies as Columbia, Polygram, Buddha Records and Arista. "When I got on the elevator one morning, I noticed this striking young lady. She had red hair, chopped off in a Prince Valiant style."
The next day, the young girl in the Prince Valiant bangs showed up again. "Did you do it yet?" she asked.
"Excuse me?" Barbone replied.
"Did you do it yet?"
This bizarre exchange on the elevator was repeated for several days. "She was teasing me and I was intrigued," Barbone admitted.
A few days later, Barbone was searching for the keys to her office corridor when the same sassy young woman in dark glasses opened the door for her. "Don't worry," the mysterious girl said matter-of-factly. "You'll be opening doors for me someday."
Meanwhile, Alter had persuaded Barbone to listen to a demo tape recorded by this spectacular new talent he had discovered. Her name, he told his partner, was Madonna. Barbone thought most of the tape forgettable, except for one cut - an early rendition of "Burning Up." Alter then dragged Barbone to watch this Madonna woman rehearse. It was only then that she realized the Madonna on the tape and the mysterious woman she had been repeatedly bumping into were one and the same. "I was shocked," she recalled. "Madonna had obviously planned this all along, and I never realized it."
Not long after, on St. Patrick's Day 1981, Madonna sat on the floor of Barbone's office drinking green beer as her new manager explained each clause of her contract with Gotham Productions. Barbone then recommended a lawyer to approve the contract for Madonna.
"I knew she would be big," she said, "so I did my best to forestall any trouble down the road. I didn't want there to be any misunderstanding when it came to our legal arrangement." The initial contract called for Barbone to act as Madonna's sole manager for six months, then wound up being extended for three years.
From the beginning, Barbone recognized Madonna's potential and, more than anyone else, convinced her that she was star material.
Curiously Madonna had a difficult time comprehending the notion of impending stardom. "We walked along the beach, and she was completely mesmerized by what I had to tell her," Barbone remembered. "I told her what it would be like to ride around unable to walk down the street without being mobbed. I told her I wanted her to be prepared for the loss of privacy and the pressures that would come with being a star. She seemed sort of embarrassed at first; she really didn't believe it would happen."
Barbone saw to it that Madonna was always pumped full of self-esteem. Even at seedy, sawdust-on-the-floor joints where she was performing for $100 a night, Madonna behaved as if she were about to play before a standing-room-only crowd at Madison Square Garden.
"She acted every bit the star even then - even though she was nothing," recalled Village Voice writer Michael Musto, who was part of another downtown group at the time.
But it was by offending people - millions of them - that Madonna would eventually become the most famous woman in the world. But first she had to land a major record deal. At Gotham Studios, Madonna teamed with Bray and two other musicians to record a demo tape that included four singles: "Get Up," "Society's Boy," "Love on the Run" and a ballad Madonna wrote for Barbone, "I Want You."
Barbone circulated the tape, and by the autumn of 1981 agents, producers, booking agents, and packagers of every stripe were vying for a piece of Madonna. No fewer than nine record companies called Gotham to say that, on the basis of the demo tape, they were on the verge of signing up the hot singer with the provocative name. Barbone and her partner, Adam Alter, were eager to sign a deal and replenish the company coffers that had been drained to support their up-and-coming star. "There were days," Alter said, "when I would go to the bank and there was nothing there. Nothing. It had all been spent promoting Madonna." Added Barbone: "We had kept the Madonna Telethon going as long as we could. Now we needed an infusion of capital."
But while those about Madonna scrambled for power, Barbone noticed that the object of everyone's affections was beginning to behave strangely. She spoke in hushed tones about the impact her mother's tragic death had had on her, and the fierce competition within her family. One evening, she told Barbone she was convinced that Elvis Presley died on her birthday "for a reason. His soul has gone into me," Madonna said, "and has given me the power to perform." Reincarnation aside (Madonna turned 19 when Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977), Barbone was quite convinced at the time that she was serious.
"I was her mommy for over two years, and she was just grateful for the simple things I could do for her," Barbone recalled. "Then Madonna realized she could have anything she wanted. I watched her change from a really sweet girl into someone who really believed her own publicity. My efforts at building her confidence had backfired. I knew I was losing her. All the people I had introduced her to were now slipping her tickets to concerts behind my back and taking her out to dinner."
Tensions escalated as Barbone sought to protect her sizable investment in Madonna. During one of their bitter arguments, Barbone flew into a rage. "I screamed at her and told her she was manipulative, an egomaniac who didn't give a damn about anyone." Madonna cried, but her tears were unconvincing. "At that moment, I realized I had no control over her. I knew I had created a monster who would turn on me."
Enraged by what she viewed as Madonna's betrayal, Barbone smashed her fist through a door, fracturing her wrist. Madonna did nothing to help. "She wouldn't hold the door open for me, or anything," Barbone recalled. "I was in tremendous pain, but she had no sympathy at all. Madonna has no compassion. To her, that would be a sign of weakness."
In a moment of desperation, an emotionally spent Barbone confessed to Madonna that she could no longer meet the singer's needs. "I can't ever do what you want." she said. "I can't please you."
Madonna agreed. "I'm a bitch." She shrugged. "I always want more."
"Madonna is a sponge all right," observed Barbone. "She soaks up everything she can from you, then when you're totally drained, she goes on to the next victim."
By the middle of 1982, with Gotham's cash reserves depleted and no firm record deal, Madonna's band members left for paying jobs. It seemed an opportune time for Madonna to reevaluate her situation. Both she and Bray were forced to admit to themselves that they were not merely dissatisfied with the pop rock songs they had been ordered to write by Barbone, but that they hated them. In an emotional confrontation, Madonna blurted out to Barbone, "I can't do this anymore. I'm going to have to start over."
The blow proved devastating to Barbone. "I risked my entire career on Madonna," she said, "and she nearly destroyed me. "But," she added years later, "I don't hate her. I miss her."
Tomorrow: A fling with John Kennedy Jr., about which his mother was none too pleased.
(From the book "Madonna Unauthorized," by Christopher Andersen. Copyright, 1991, Christopher Andersen. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.)
Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.