Image courtesy Fiorucci

into the new york groove: how madonna's punky early years fuelled her rise to superstardom

If being punk is being free, is there any pop star more free than Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone?

by Nick Levine
09 August 2018, 4:18pm

Image courtesy Fiorucci

According to pop legend, Madonna Louise Ciccone arrived in New York City in 1978 with $35 in her pocket, and told a taxi driver: "Take me to the centre of everything." He dropped her off in Times Square, where she worked for a while at Dunkin' Donuts before being fired, so the story goes, for squirting jelly in a customer's face. Right from the start, this college dropout from the Detroit 'burbs was a true rebel heart.

Madonna would eventually cut her creative teeth in edgier neighbourhoods like Manhattan's then-rundown Lower East Side and Corona in Queens, home to a large Hispanic and Latino population. Recalling her first impressions of the Big Apple nearly four decades later, she said: "I felt like I plugged my finger into an electric socket."

Madonna wouldn't score her first really big hit, Holiday, until 1983, but her pre-fame years running around NYC’s scuzzy underground are key to understanding who she is as a person and as a pop star. She didn't study at stage school like Lady Gaga, or hone her craft on a TV show like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. She learned on the street, figuring out who Madonna was and what sort of artist she wanted to be. She had room to grow and space to make mistakes because she didn’t become super-famous until she was 26 or 27.

"I was expected to feel ashamed when these photos came out, and I was not. And this puzzled people."

She worked as a waitress at the Russian Tea Room and posed for nude photos to make extra cash. After she became famous, these pictures reappeared with depressing inevitability in Penthouse and Playboy magazines, but Madonna refused to be slut-shamed. "I was expected to feel ashamed when these photos came out, and I was not. And this puzzled people," she recalled during her 2016 Billboard Woman of the Year acceptance speech.

She also earned money as a dancer, and played drums in a band called The Breakfast Club before leaving to form her own group Emmy and the Emmys. She hung out at Studio 54, where her best friend Martin Burgoyne was a bartender, and played her first solo show at another iconic nightclub, Danceteria.

"It wasn’t until I really decided to switch into being a musician and a songwriter, and I moved to the Lower East Side, that I started meeting artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol," she explained in a 2015 Noisey interview. "While I felt we all fed off each other’s energy and we were all inspired by each other and jealous of each other, collaborating with each other, I had no idea then what their place in the world would be now. But not my own, either. So we were just artists having fun, happy that anyone was interested in our work."

It was an intensely inspiring period for Madonna, but at the same time, we shouldn't romanticise it too much. "It wasn’t safe to be gay; it wasn’t cool to be associated with the gay community," she recalled in her Billboard speech. "It was 1979 and New York was a very scary place. In the first year I was held at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat. And I had my apartment broken into and robbed so many times I just stopped locking the door. In the years that followed, I lost almost every friend I had to AIDS or drugs or gunshots."

Now, obviously the Madonna of today with her lawyer and a manager, an agent and a chef... is no punk. She never was, really. But there's a clear punky attitude permeating her career whose roots lie in early 80s New York City.

When she took voguing into the mainstream, appropriating from the ball scene and queer people of colour in the process, she was drawing from her love of club culture. When she included an AIDS fact sheet with 1989's Like a Prayer album, she was in part paying tribute to Keith Haring, Martin Burgoyne and other friends lost to the disease. Every time she insists on strapping on a guitar at one of her live shows, she's harking back to her stints in post-punk bands. And when she bared her butt at the 2016 Met Gala, it was pure punk IDGAF.

And without the multicultural melange of New York City, could she have pulled off a song like La Isla Bonita? "When I lived in New York for so many years I was constantly listening to salsa and merengue," she said in an interview during the 80s. "I mean, that stuff was constantly blaring out of everybody's radio on the street." In a way, every single Madonna song that makes you want to dance contains a bit of New York City nightlife in its DNA. Only someone who really understands clubbing could have come up with a couplet as perfect as Into the Groove's "We might be lovers if the rhythm's right / I hope this feeling never ends tonight."

"You want to be surrounded by other thinking people who are going to say something that makes you think, 'Oh, my God, that’s an amazing idea. Why didn’t I think of that?"

Madonna doesn't really do nostalgia, but in recent years she's spoken wistfully about the days when she dated Basquiat and had stage outfits customised by Keith Haring. "There's just not a scene any more," she lamented in a 2015 interview with Complex News, before discussing the special "synergy" between art and pop music during her formative years.

Then again, whatever scene there is probably isn't accessible to a 60-year-old woman who's been a superstar for over three decades. As Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore told The Observer last month: "When [Madonna] became super-famous, which was all of a sudden, she disappeared from the New York scene." You can't really be an underground artist when you're as famous as Madonna.

But a large part of her is still that scrappy upstart from Detroit. Madonna's ferocious ego never overwhelms her natural savvy and fierce curiosity. “You don’t want to be the smartest person in the room; you want to be the dumbest in the room," she's famously said. "You want to be surrounded by other thinking people who are going to say something that makes you think, 'Oh, my God, that’s an amazing idea. Why didn’t I think of that?'" The truth is, is that being punk is being free; free from definition, free from boundaries. And is there an artist more free, more punk, more unwilling to bend to societies expectations of her -- even now -- than Madonna?

Keith Haring