'Indefatigable' Madonna to be enshrined in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Monday
As if dancing in a gondola without falling overboard weren't impressive enough, the Material Girl managed to stare down the king of the jungle, too. It happened in Venice, Italy, during the video shoot for Madonna's 1984 smash "Like a Virgin."
Did we mention the supporting cast included a lion, on loan from a circus?
"Midway through one take, the lion began stalking Madonna," recalls video director Mary Lambert.
The tense scene wasn't in the script. While crew members scrambled to safety, Madonna stood her ground as the big cat padded slowly toward her.
"She was really fearless," Lambert says. "The lion backed off and everything was OK."
It was all in a day's work for Madonna, no stranger to bold moves. With more than 200 million albums sold worldwide, this irrepressible artist is not only the most popular female singer of her generation, but a pop-culture phenomenon on multiple fronts.
On Monday night at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, she'll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with fellow performers Leonard Cohen, the Dave Clark Five, John Mellencamp and the Ventures.
Madonna, who turns 50 in August, is no museum relic, however. Last fall, she inked an unprecedented recording and touring deal with megapromoter Live Nation, worth $120 million. Last month, her movie "Filth and Wisdom" premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. And her buzzed-about new album, "Hard Candy," comes out Tuesday, April 29.
Madonna declined to be interviewed for this story, although past and present associates contacted by The Plain Dealer shed light on various sides of her complex personality, multifaceted as a mirrored disco ball.
Shape-shifting musical chameleon. Ultra-glamorous star of stage and screen. Trendsetting fashionista. Author of the infamous "SEX" coffee-table book and, er, a series of children's titles. Kabbalah devotee.
She's all of the above, and then some.
Born Madonna Louise Ciccone in Bay City, Mich., she reportedly began turning heads at a young age when she danced in a bikini during a school talent show. Her show-biz dreams led her to Manhattan in 1978. "Take me to the center of everything," she told a cab driver, or so the legend goes.
Her break came when DJ Mark Kamins slipped a demo tape of her song "Everybody" to Sire Records head honcho Seymour Stein, who launched the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders.
Madonna and Kamins had a hastily arranged meeting with Stein in the hospital, where he was being treated for a heart ailment. Even though he was hooked up to a penicillin drip at the time, Stein didn't want another record label to snatch up Madonna first.
"The minute she walked in the door, I felt at ease, because I could tell that as much as I wanted to sign her, she wanted to be signed," Stein says.
After contract terms were agreed upon, Stein and Kamins huddled while Madonna waited by the elevator.
"If tonight was Halloween and it was midnight and the shortest way to get to wherever she was going was through a cemetery, she'd take that route," Stein told Kamins. "She's so determined!"
'Who's that girl?'
Her self-titled 1983 debut generated the hit singles "Holiday," "Borderline" and "Lucky Star," although her de facto coming-out party was the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards ceremony.
Madonna stole the show with her performance of "Like a Virgin." A beaming Nile Rodgers, who produced the "Like a Virgin" album, sat next to a baffled Cher in the audience at Radio City Music Hall, as Madonna writhed onstage in a bustier and "BOY TOY" belt buckle.
"Check it out," Rodgers said. "She's going to be the biggest star in the world!"
The former Chic guitarist was basking in the multiplatinum afterglow of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" album, which Rodgers produced, when he teamed up with Madonna.
Among the tunes they ended up recording was a string-laden cover of the Rose Royce ballad "Love Don't Live Here Anymore." Overcome with emotion, Madonna choked up.
"She did another take, which she thought was better," Rodgers says. "I don't know how I won this argument, because you don't win many with her, but I wanted the more emotional performance and we left the crying on the record."
When it came to choosing the project's all-important leadoff single, however, Madonna wouldn't budge. Rodgers thought it should be "Material Girl," but "Like a Virgin" got Madonna's vote.
"Madonna said losing your virginity is one of the most important things for a girl," Rodgers says. "I ran it past as many women as possible, and they all came up with the right answer. They said this record was going to be No. 1 for six weeks. And it was - six weeks, on the dot."
When they weren't in the studio, Madonna and Rodgers often went out for a night on the town.
"Every time I'd walk into a restaurant or a club with her, you'd hear, 'Who's that girl?,' over and over again," Rodgers says.
Once just about everyone on the planet knew who that girl was, the question became: "What'll she do next?"
The video for Madonna's gospel-tinged 1989 hit "Like a Prayer," also directed by Lambert, was rife with controversial imagery, including burning crosses.
"I think Madonna enjoys controversy," Lambert says. "But I don't think that is or was her goal in life, to create controversy."
Regardless, she hasn't lost her taste for it. Vatican officials and other religious leaders criticized Madonna for a production number involving a giant cross and a crown of thorns on her 2006 Confessions Tour.
From the get-go, Madonna always had clear ideas about which images she wanted to project to the world, Lambert says.
"There was something about Madonna, and there still is," Lambert says. "She has an amazing charisma. She has the ability to be really open and really give it up, without giving it away.
"Somehow she manages to keep her mystery and her self-respect.
"That's why she continues to have an allure for the press and with the public."
Drawbacks to celebrity
Niki Haris had a steady gig with the Righteous Brothers in Las Vegas when she was summoned to Los Angeles to audition for a spot as a backing vocalist on Madonna's Who's That Girl Tour in 1987.
"I wasn't super-familiar with her," Haris says. "She reminded me of many girls I grew up with - small cheerleader-type, dancer body."
Haris got the job.
"Within an hour, I was in Madonna's car, trying to call Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield to tell them I wasn't going to make it back," Haris says. "She made it very clear: 'This is what you're doing. Call them now. Here - use my phone.'
"I remember thinking, 'Whoa! She really gets what she wants!'"
Haris went on to do several tours with Madonna. Haris also sang on Madonna's albums and appeared in her videos. They became close friends.
"We hung out, went to dinner, watched movies at home ... a lot of black-and-white films, a lot of foreign films," Haris says. "There was a period when Madonna watched a lot of Pedro Almodovar. She loved his stuff."
Their relationship became strained during Madonna's Drowned World Tour in 2001.
"I saw the fishbowl get smaller around her," Haris says. "You had to go through this person to get to this person to get a message to her. She was more trusting and loving and open in the early days.
"She threw a baby shower for me, then I never heard from her again. ... I'd watched her do it to other people. It's part of the superstar machine - like, 'OK, we're done with you. Next!'"
In the late 1980s, a mutual acquaintance introduced Madonna to songwriters Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, the duo responsible for penning her biggest hit to date, "Like a Virgin." Madonna had followed their demo almost note for note, although they first crossed paths with her - with "Warren Beatty in tow," Steinberg says - years later in Beverly Hills, at a black-tie birthday party for her manager.
"Oh, Madonna, I've wanted to meet you for so long!" Steinberg gushed.
"Well, now you did," Madonna replied, then walked away.
"Yeah, I felt a little crestfallen," Steinberg says. After "Like a Virgin," he and Kelly went on to write hits for Cyndi Lauper ("True Colors") and Whitney Houston ("So Emotional"), among others.
"I tried to interest Madonna in covering another one of our songs, but I never could get a response," Steinberg says.
No hard feelings, though.
"I'm a big Madonna fan," Steinberg says. "I think she's actually very underrated as a songwriter.
"I happen to know that Madonna often writes songs to tracks that people give her. She's writing the lyric and the melody, which is huge.
"She's a really effective pop singer, too."
Rick Nowels co-wrote three songs with Madonna, including the hit "The Power of Good-bye," for her 1998 album "Ray of Light," a dazzling foray into cutting-edge electronica.
"She's incredibly focused," Nowels says.
Madonna would show up at his Los Angeles studio at 3 p.m. By the time she left four hours later, they usually would have completed a new song, from scratch.
As a tunesmith, Madonna ranks up there with the likes of Billy Joel, Sting and Carole King, Nowels says.
"Madonna is a great songwriter," he says. "She has the gift of writing simple but poignant melodies and words."
Pursuing her vision
Madonna had another landmark moment at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, where she kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera onstage, symbolically passing the torch (or was it the tongue?) to a new generation.
Or was Madonna sucking the life force out of her young competition?
"She created the template for the postmodern female pop star," says Lucy O'Brien, author of "Madonna: Like an Icon," a biography published last year.
"Madonna has embraced so many different genres and come up with some amazing concepts," O'Brien says. "That's her strength, that she can move in so many different directions and bring it all together.
"She feels she can still compete with artists who are half her age, too. She's not fazed by that. ... She's just indefatigable."
The late James Brown was billed as "the hardest working man in show business," although even he might've felt like a slacker next to Madonna.
"She comes into the arena in the afternoon for a two- to four-hour sound check every day before the show," says dancer Mihran Kirakosian, a grizzled veteran of Madonna's past couple of tours.
She was constantly fine-tuning the music and choreography, Kirakosian says.
Working 12-, 14- or 16-hour days was the norm for the "Filth and Wisdom" cast, according to Eugene Hutz. He plays a cross-dressing dominatrix in the film, an offbeat comedy. It marks Madonna's directorial debut.
"Her style was very gonzo beatnik for the most part, but then suddenly she would get incredibly scrupulous and specific," says Hutz, leader of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello.
There is talk of releasing the movie soon via iTunes, he says.
"Filth and Wisdom" is about "pursuing your vision," Hutz says. "And Madonna certainly has done that."
Her upcoming album promises to venture deeper into uncharted creative territory, via hip-hop-savvy, club-thumping songs.
"Hard Candy" is "one of the best albums in years," says the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams, who collaborated with Madonna on a couple of new tracks.
Other contributors to the project include Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, who is set to induct Madonna into the Rock Hall. (For unspecified reasons, she won't perform at the ceremony, leaving fellow Michigan natives Iggy Pop and the Stooges to do a number or two in her place.)
Madonna "worked me to death," Williams says. "But you know what? I'm glad I was pushed, because it's some of my best work."
As for Madonna, her greatest creation remains Madonna herself. As she puts it in "The Confessions Tour" DVD: "I am the art."
Despite the pop bent of her music, Madonna belongs in the Rock Hall, says Stein, president emeritus of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation's board of directors.
Madonna has "a true rock 'n' roll spirit," Stein says.
"She takes chances. She doesn't care about the odds. She cares about whether she believes in something or not.
"Believe it or not, Madonna is one of the easiest artists I ever worked with, because she knew what she wanted. And she was almost always right, too."
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