Every item ever written about Madonna touts her membership in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Not so. Soon after her arrival in New York, she apparently won a work-study scholarship and was later asked to take classes with the troupe's third company, which is a little like getting a tryout for the sub-junior-varsity team. Still, it was her first encounter with people who were as driven as she. "I thought I was in a production of Fame," she giggles. "Everyone was Hispanic or black, and everyone wanted to be a star."
Madonna was not to the minors born. She left Ailey after a few months and hooked up with Pearl Lang, a former Martha Graham star whose style Madonna describes as "a lot of pain and angst." This was not a match made in heaven, and she left the company soon after.
Living a hand-to-mouth existence in the city and continuing to ignore the pleas of her father that she cease this silly business and finish college, Madonna started scanning the trades for less limiting work: parts where she would not only dance but sing. And that's when she met Dan Gilroy.
He wasn't drop-dead hip like the other guys she'd known; he was an affable, self-effacing fellow from Queens. He and his brother, Ed, were both musicians and had rented out an abandoned synagogue in Corona, Queens, where they lived and rehearsed.
Madonna and Dan met at a party and hit it off – she spent a couple of nights at the synagogue. "He stuck a guitar in my hand and tuned it to an open chord so that I could strum," she remembers. "That really clicked something off in my brain." She cut back to only one dance class a day.
While the relationship was still in its infancy, however, Madonna was given what seemed like the chance of a lifetime; to go to Paris and do background singing and dancing for Patrick Hernandez, a disco lunk who had lucked into a "worldwide hit" with the forgettable "Born to Be Alive." She would be given a beautiful apartment, a maid, a voice coach, people to guide her career. "I was in seventh heaven." she remembers. "I kept thinking, 'I can't believe it. Somebody noticed me.'"
In Paris, everything was as promised, but she wasn't happy. "I was like the poor little rich girl," she recalls. The guidance was a joke. No one would talk to her in English. They said they wanted to turn her into the next Edith Piaf, but how could they if she hadn't written anything? She felt lonely, miserable and confined. "Once again I was forced into the role of enfant terrible. All I wanted to do was make trouble, because they stuck me in an environment that didn't allow me to be free." So she'd order three desserts in a fancy restaurant and skip the entree. She took up with a Vietnamese kid with a motorcycle. She went to Tunisia with the Hernandez tour, club-hopped with some lively locals and went swimming in a one-piece body stocking. You see, she just wanted to be noticed.
Of course, there was still this guy in Queens, batting out letters to his loved one. "He was my saving grace," she says. "His letters were so funny. He'd paint a picture of an American flag and write over it, like it was from the president, 'We miss you. You must return to America.' He really made me feel good." A walloping case of pneumonia persuaded her to come back. As soon as she hit stateside, she rang the synagogue.
She spent the better part of a year there, writing songs for the first time and learning how to play a variety of instruments. "My intensive musical training," she says with a sigh. "It was one of the happiest times of my life. I really felt loved. Sometimes I'd write sad songs and he'd sit there and cry. Very sweet."
In that nurturing atmosphere, Madonna and the brothers Gilroy started a band called the Breakfast Club, with fellow ex-dancer Angie Smit on bass and Madonna on drums. They would rehearse every day there; Madonna had yet to move in with her beau. "I stayed there so much, but I hadn't really moved there yet, and I remember when I said, 'Can I just live here, Dan?' And he said. 'Well, we have to ask Ed.' And I said, 'Ed! You have to ask Ed?'"
The Gilroys had been honing their musical skills for a number of years, but simple craft is not the surest way to success in the music business, and Madonna had something that was more useful: moxie. Dan Gilroy recalls it well. "She'd be up in the morning, a quick cup of coffee, then right to the phones, calling up everybody – everybody. Everyone from [local record dealer] Bleecker Bob's to potential management. Anything and everything."
"I was just a lot more goal oriented and commercial minded than they were," says Madonna. "I just took over in the sense that I said, 'What do you know? Teach it to me.' I took advantage of the situation. I wanted to know everything they knew, because I knew I could make it work to my benefit." Cold words? Perhaps.
She knew what to do. "Immediately, when I started working with them, I started thinking record deals, making records and doing shows and stuff like that. And, of course, most of the people you have to deal with are men, and I think I just was naturally more charming to these horny old businessmen than Dan and Ed Gilroy." As Madonna herself realizes, Dan Gilroy "had created a monster. I was always thinking in my mind, 'I want to be a singer in this group, too.' And they didn't need another singer."
Dan found himself torn between his girlfriend – who wanted to sing more, who wanted the band to use her songs – and his brother, Ed. After a year, Madonna announced her intention to return to Manhattan and pursue a singing career. The romance – and the instructional period – were over. "I knew that with that kind of drive and devotion to getting ahead something had to happen." Gilroy says. Was she more talented than her confreres? "No, she didn't strike me as . . . well, she was fun, you know? She'd be working at this design thing that I was doing and she would kind of break into a dance in the middle of the day. An incredible attention getter. So that's got to tell you something."
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."
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