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The Rolling Stone Interview: Madonna

'Feeling regret is really destructive. I've learned a lot from my marriage-mostly about myself.'

March 23, 1989 12:00 AM ET
Madonna on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Madonna on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

"Do you see a black jaguar?"  The voice, small and insistent, issues from the passenger seat, where the world's most famous woman burrows deep into the upholstery. She slumps and scrunches, lying decidedly low. Her rump is poised perilously above the floor mat. Her boots are propped against the dashboard. Her tresses are piled beneath a leather cap, and tiny dark specs pinch at her nose. Occasionally her head bobs up, and she peers through the windshield to give navigational tips. Then, just as quickly, she ducks back into hiding. Madonna is on the lam. She is incognito. She is in my car. I am driving her home. It was her idea.

"The paparazzi won't recognize your car." she says, hatching her intrepid scheme after our first interview session. For her part, Madonna recognizes her most dogged pursuers. She knows what they drive. Every TV in her house is wired to the security system and transmits a continuous picture of the front gate and the street beyond. She sees those who park and lurk and obsess. She watches and remembers their movements. All of which might explain why she is cowering in my rented Chevy Corsica, fretting about a particular black Jaguar that is nowhere to be seen. "At this point," she says, sighing wearily, "I know them all."

Madonna has a new home – a sanctuary, really – nestled high in the Hollywood Hills. As it happens, an aerial photograph of the spread, snapped from a helicopter, was published in this morning's paper. The accompanying text: "The soon-to-be-divorced Mrs. Sean Penn took title to the house Jan. 18. She paid $2,950,000." She had not yet seen the item when I showed it to her a few hours earlier. "They say how much I paid for it?" she asked, sounding surprised and violated. " 'The house has seven bedrooms and six bathrooms'? They are so misinformed!" (Indeed, the next morning the same column reads, "A friend of Madonna's called to say we were incorrect to report … seven bedrooms. 'It has three bedrooms plus a maid's room,' said the caller.")

The point being, she is best. Her woes dangle like shredded pulp from the jaws of gossip carnivores. Among supermarket-literature queens, she is the ultimate checkout girl. Her reign currently rages, due to the noisy unraveling of her three-and-a-half-year marriage to actor-pugilist Sean Penn. Divorce papers were filed by her attorneys on January 5th – thirteen months since the last time it happened (when she just as hastily rescinded the action). Like before, "irreconcilable differences" were cited. But this recent connubial rupture was reportedly prompted by a mysterious post-holiday altercation about which nothing is known for sure. Speculation abounds, however, and gallons of tabloid ink have been expended to document it. Why conserve now?

Rumors surrounding Madonna's "night of terror" (December 28th, 1988): A drunken Sean explodes at Madonna in their Malibu estate because (a) having a baby in the near future does not jibe with her plans; (b) he is annoyed at her friendships with Warren Beatty and/or Sandra Bernhard. Sean demonstrates his displeasure by (a) roughing her up; (b) threatening to thrust her head into an oven; (c) hogtying her with leather straps (and/or twine) to a chair and leaving her "trussed up like a turkey" (tabloid description) for nine hours. She persuades him to release her and/or escapes to the Malibu sheriff's office, where she swears out an assault complaint against her husband. (The complaint, which was actually filed, is withdrawn by her days later.) She then seeks refuge in the home of (a) photographer friend Herb Ritts; (b) her manager, Freddy DeMann.

Meanwhile, Malibu police descend upon the Penn house and order Sean to come outside with his hands up. He does so but later denies abusing Madonna, claiming she trumped up the charges because she is jealous that he has been dating a stripper.

The veracity of any of the above is questionable. Maybe even superfluous. Throughout the ordeal, Madonna remained mum; by dropping charges, she implied that her marriage has been more than adequately scrutinized, that an ensuing trial would be a macabre circus. What is curious, however, is that she has chosen instead to bare her soul musically on the matter. On her forthcoming album, Like a Prayer, there is a jarringly urgent song titled "Till Death Do Us Part" that chronicles a violent and harrowing marriage: "He takes a drink, she goes inside/He starts to scream, the vases fly. … I wish that it would change, but it won't if you don't," she sings, her voice soulful and plaintive. The performance is arguably her finest artistic moment, and that in itself is a sadly ironic notion.

Similarly, Like a Prayer as a whole represents the maturation of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. The record largely scoots away from her previous gumsnapping oeuvre – although some pleasant, chirpy confection is left over – and she emerges as a thoughtful, introspective songwriter. Also, she sings with more womanly import; On "Love Song," a sultry duet with Prince, she transcends girlish flirting and musters palpable eroticism. On "Promise to Try" and "Oh Father," individual odes for her parents, her voice shimmers with beseeching emotion.

The ethereal title song itself, which opens with Madonna quietly reciting the Rosary, seems to portend a personal spiritual purge. It is the debut of the philosophical Madonna, who, at thirty, seems to be making a public-policy changeover: Getting It On has been stoically supplanted by Getting On with It.

Lately, she is consoling herself with capitalism. On the day I meet with her to begin the first of two wide-ranging discussions, Pepsi announces that it has enlisted the singer to blitz the cola-war zone. (She will reportedly earn $5 million for one year's allegiance, which would include commercials and tour sponsorship.) In addition, she has been busily overseeing the editing of the "Like a Prayer" video and preparing for her role as a cheeky vixen in Warren Beatty's film Dick Tracy.

Nevertheless, she arrives at the designated Hamburger Hamlet, alone and serene, and at once disposes herself with playful confidence. Scruffily dressed in tattered chic, she slides into a back booth and pertly flags down a waitress. ("Yoo hoo! Could we get some coffee?"). She is discovered only once, by an archetypal young Hollywood hustler who presses into her hand a film script he hopes to direct. She endures his protracted schmoozy pitch with bemused graces. "Being rude doesn't get you anywhere," she tells me after the interloper says, "Ciao," and disappears. "You end it quicker by being nice."

For the second session, I am summoned to the new hilltop hacienda – a white, stark, airy affair, replete with marble floors and important art. Among her collected objets is a painting by her idol Frida Kahlo, whose own marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was notoriously stormy. Also on display are a few framed photographs of Rivera's mistresses. Accordingly, when Madonna steps out of her bedroom, she has traded guises. Hair down, heels spiked, she radiates retro-glamour – a gossamer goddess in bollowy black lounge wear with matching brassiere showing through the gauzy décolleté. Even her bearing this time seems a tad regal as she flounces onto an over-stuffed ocher-satin divan and accepts inquiries. "Please," she wryly instructs a few chattering associates in the next room, "don't anyone bother me. I am being interviewed!" Throughout both conversations, however, she good-naturedly plumbs her feelings and, even in the matter of Sean, manages to comport herself with jaunty charm. Still, as an icebreaker, I brandish an early copy of the Playboy issue containing La Toya Jackson's nude pictures, thinking Madonna might enjoy the momentary reprieve of basking in another woman's scandal. And, of course, she does.

Have you seen La Toya? Perhaps you could share any spontaneous observations.

[She lunges for the magazine] Give me that! No shit! [She pores over the pages, amused.] She had a tit job, for sure! This isn't bad. They're funny. But you see only tits? Major tit job! Well, La Toya, this is a shocker. Oooh! The Jackson family must be outraged. This is desperation. Well, maybe she'll get a job out of it.

Jumping from one kind of exposure to another, I suppose there's no tactful way to ask you about the dissolution of your marriage.

[She smiles coyly] Inquiring minds want to know? Now you're gonna get all nosy, huh? Well, this is something incredibly close to me right now, and very painful. I have a difficult time talking about it. You can ask, but I can refuse to answer you.

Fair enough. You've said in the past, "I'd rather walk through a fire than walk away from one." Are you attracted to flame?

Am I attracted to pain? Is that what you're trying to say? I'm attracted to obstacles I need to overcome. I'm interested in facing challenges, things that are going to be harder rather than easier.

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