Patrick Leonard can say he knew Madonna way back when ― at least as “back when” as her first two tours. He was her musical director. Approached to work with Madonna after directing The Jacksons’ 1984 Victory Tour, Leonard became one of her most trusted collaborators both in and out of the studio, co-writing and producing such hits as “Like a Prayer,” “Cherish” and “La Isla Bonita.” Three decades after 1985′s inaugural Virgin Tour and several self-reinventions later, Madonna is launching the Rebel Heart Tour in Montreal on Wednesday. The Huffington Post called up Leonard to reflect on the early days with pop’s biggest star.
Coming off a huge tour with established artists like The Jacksons, how did you view Madonna’s persona at the very start of her career?
She did not get in the way at all where she did not know what was going on. Where she didn’t know what was going on, she allowed it to be, and yet kept her own vision very much intact. And that’s tough for people to do. Most people need to control everything, and she did not need to control everything. That was one of the first things I noticed. She was a total pro. Like our relationship remained, it was always real open and real simple ― you do what you do and I do what I do, and it’s good. She knew how to allow space for things that she didn’t understand.
Madonna is someone who experienced instant fame, but there’s no doubt that her stature escalated by the time the Who’s That Girl Tour launched in 1987. What had changed about her by then?
You know, “change” is a dangerous word. I never saw change. She remained the same. The work ethic remained the same. Where there were things she knew that she wanted, she demanded them at the highest level, as we all do. And from there to working on her documentary film about Malawi some years ago ― and I think we did some things after that with a musical that was a potential ― nothing changed. I’m not in touch with her very much, but my communication with her is not through the press. I don’t care what people say. I’ve seen her be exactly the same human being and consistent as can be. She’s present and generous about what’s real. Even as it got bigger and bigger, she remained consistent. She really did.
There’s a legend that on the second tour, Madonna wouldn’t let her crew speak to her unless she spoke to them first.
I don’t recall anything like that.
How did the crowds evolve between the two tours? Were more people dressing like her the second time around?
I think there were more people dressing like her on the first tour because the identification from people to her was simpler and more direct. The fans were specific fans at a specific age. It was young girls. When anything gets big, people are not even sure why they’re there sometimes, but they’re there because they know they should be. It was a little more diluted as it went around, as these things get. The fans were always rabid. The fans were mad. Crazy. Everywhere we went. What I saw more of as we went was more adult males that were just fanatical. And in the beginning it wasn’t really like that. In the beginning, it was cuter, if you pardon the expression. It was a little sweeter. And then it got grittier, and that drew a little grittier crowd. But I also think that just has to do with the size of something. Does everybody watching the Super Bowl know about football? No.
Was it a lot of straight men responding to the sexual nature of her act, or was it her gay fan base growing?
I remember just specifically in Europe that it was lots of straight men, and it was all about the sexuality. But you know, there was a lot of everything as well. It just seemed like when we were in Italy, or wherever we were, there was a certain degree of a lust thing going on. Also, this is so long ago. Who knows? I just remember on the first tour there were a lot of little girls dressed like her, and on the second tour I didn’t see that so much.
Madonna's offstage persona quickly became indelible to her image. As someone who worked with her musically, were you ever concerned antics would supersede the actual music?
In those days, all those years ago, it was a touchy subject for me. I was much more conservative and more of a prude, and not going to clubs. I wasn’t doing it. Plus I had kids at home and everything else. I think I probably -- well, I know, I felt like, "Why are you doing this? It just makes you look tacky, blah blah blah." But ultimately, after some time passed and I was able to look at it, I said, "This is show biz." My favorite bands were driving cars into swimming pools when I was a kid, and I thought it was cool. It was very much in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll: If you’re not pissing people off, you’re not doing your job.
At what point were you able to step back and reevaluate it?
I don’t remember a time, but I think once one becomes detached from the process, or it’s not about a song you wrote or an arrangement you did or a part you played or some precious nonsense like that, you look at it and go, "Yeah." I was in London in ’90 or ’91 working on a project, and I had lived across the street from a very famous, rebellious ‘60s rock-‘n’-roller. We would talk about it, and he would say, "It’s just great, what she does." And I went, "You know what, you’re right -- it’s rock ‘n’ roll." I think I just grew up a lot. We all grew up.
Can you tell me who that rock-'n'-roller was?
Nope. Actually, no, I will, because I think it’s pertinent. It was Pete Townshend. To my generation, he was the guy. He said, “No, man, rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to piss people off. That’s what it’s about. I like her for that reason alone.” I hadn’t thought about it that way. He was right.
With the second tour, you and Madonna rearranged some of her classics. It's risky not to give fans the versions they expect, especially with massive hits like "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl." But it set the stage for what she'd do on every tour thereafter. What went into making those decisions?
I’m big on the fans-getting-upset thing because I grew up going to a lot of concerts and if a band changed something I liked, you really did feel it. I think part of it was that we didn’t take it too seriously. Secondly, going to lots of rock ‘n’ roll shows and coming from a rock ‘n’ roll background, there were certain things that I just felt sounded good as a record, but in an arena, it ain’t gonna work. It’s too small. Just as a funny anecdote, the reason that “Like a Virgin” did what it did is -- I’m at my piano, so I can show you this -- "Like a Virgin" goes [Leonard plays the opening chords]. “Billie Jean” goes [Leonard plays the opening chords of the Michael Jackson hit, which sound similar]. So “Like a Virgin” very much derives from “Billie Jean,” which was derived from “Tears of a Clown,” so why not just put them all together? Originally it was just kind of a little anecdote that I showed her at one of our very first get-togethers with a band -- they’re the same song. It’s just one is in a major key and one is in a minor key. So it’s a little bit of a music-nerd thing, and she thought that was fun, so we just had fun with it. Plus, when we went out on the second tour, we’d already done “True Blue,” so all bets were off. There were hit songs all over the place. We had “Papa Don’t Preach” and all sorts of others.
What were the songs you felt needed some boosting for an arena?
I think on the Who’s That Girl Tour we did something pretty crazy with “Holiday.” I think we kind of made it into a rock song with guitars. And it was just because you could, and why not? A little experiment sometimes is fun. I don’t remember if it worked very well or if people even liked it, but I remember we tried it with a little bit of a grungy guitar moment. Because if you have a stadium full of people, if they’ve ever been in a stadium before, maybe there was a loud guitar. It was just something that goes there, like a golf ball in a golf course. It belongs there.
You produced the "Like a Prayer" album, which came out in 1989. Then the Blonde Ambition Tour, arguably her most famous, launched a year later. But you weren't involved. Why was that?
I had a lot going on at that time. I was doing a project of my own that was really important to me called “Toy Matinee” and I was starting an album with Roger Waters, and it was important for me not to go on the road. What I did was I spent time with her at the auditions, so as players got auditioned, I sat at those sessions. I helped her select the band. That was the extent of my involvement because I really couldn’t go. It’s really as a result of our work together, because if it weren’t for those records that were doing as well as they were, I wouldn’t have been producing Roger Waters and making records of my own just for fun. It provided that.
Did you go to see the tour?
I did, I saw it in LA.
What was your initial impression of Madonna's first tour without Patrick Leonard?
I mean, I remember things that stuck in my mind, like the bed onstage. That’s what I remember. Again, at that point, I still hadn’t quite gotten over my conservative thing. I felt like I wished it was more about the music and less about the theatrics. I think the band had sort of faded a bit back, appropriately so. I am in no position to say it would have been better another way. She was doing exactly what she needed to do. Of course, I probably felt that it wasn’t as musically refined. I’m sure I felt, one way or the other, like it would have been better with me. Duh. [laughs] What kind of narcissistic lunatic would I be if I didn’t believe that?
The Rebel Heart Tour is about to kick off, but if Madonna called you up for her next album, do you think you’re still in a mindset where you could direct her tour?
No. No, I couldn’t because the paths that our lives took are appropriate for what they are. When we met and did the work that we did, I was still in my 20s, or maybe my early 30s as we walked into “Like a Prayer." I was still really interested in the pop form. I’m not disinterested in it now, but for the last few years I’ve been working with Leonard Cohen and writing piano music. I’m more of a composer. I just wouldn’t be interested in it, and I don’t think she’d be interested in my ideas anymore. I think we could still write a great song -- I don’t think there’s any question about that. But my head just isn’t there at all. It would be fun to see her and fun to think together for a minute, because we were good at that at one point. But that was a long time ago, almost 30 years. I think she deserves better than what I would give her right now, for sure. If she wanted to write an opera, I’d be her guy.
Have you listened to "Rebel Heart"? What do you think of current trends in pop music, and specifically on Madonna's albums?
This is not any kind of diss to her. I love her. I think she’s great. I’m very selective about what I listen to. Not in a prudish way -- it’s all functional to me. I think about listening to it. I think about getting that record and sitting in front of my speakers in my studio and really taking it in. Someday I might, and I’m sure I will enjoy it very much because I’m sure it’s very well-done. She doesn’t mess around and I always know that. As for pop trends, I’m going to be 60 in March. Occasionally I’ll hear something and I’ll think, "That’s cool." Leonard Cohen showed me FKA Twigs, and I’m completely enamored. I think she’s brilliant. To me, that’s the first thing I’ve heard or seen in a long time where I go, “Yeah. This has really got something. There’s real art, there’s real emotion, there’s real vision.” It’s so accomplished. And I’m tough, believe me. I wouldn’t say that about just anything. We’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern, I believe -- I don’t think pop music is really that accomplished. That’s just my snotty opinion, but it seems to be moving a little bit because eventually people do get bored and it starts to change, and it seems to be changing a little bit. But I don’t hear that much. It’s only peripheral.
You were going to be the lead producer on "Ray of Light," but Madonna went with William Orbit after you guys started working on it. Then it was wildly acclaimed and earned a Grammy nom for Album of the Year. Were you disappointed that one passed you by?
No. We were always pretty straight ahead and upfront with each other. We went to Florida, we wrote all those songs, and then she just said, “Look, I came across this guy and I want to do it with him.” And I said, "Go." After a little while, she said, “Can you come and help? Just help guide it.” So I did. And that’s what it was. I wasn’t uninvolved. In some ways, I was very involved, because it was a lot of little contributions that got made. What I remember always with her is it was never veiled; it was never some shrouded thing -- it was like, "Here’s what I like, here’s what I want to do." And I think it’s a great album.
Are there any Madonna songs that never saw the light of day that you wish the world could hear?
Let’s see. We didn’t write excessively at all. I think there was one song that ended up a B-side. We didn’t really write things we didn’t use, so the crazy thing about it is the “Like a Prayer” album was written a song a day over a two-week period, with the exception of “Oh Father.” We would just go in and write a song, and then go in the next day and write a song. The day we wrote “Like a Prayer” was no different than the day we wrote “Dear Jessie.” Something either worked or didn’t. And if it didn’t work, it was so much easier to just come up with something else.
One caveat is the stuff that we were going to do on “Ray of Light” that got changed -- she did it more electronically, the way it went. Obviously coming off of “Like a Prayer” and all those other things and all of our history, it wasn’t without juice in its concept. It would have been ferocious in a different way. It wasn’t like it was going to be bad and it suddenly got good. There were some of these exotic voices, and there were really intense rhythm figures played by multiple instruments -- stuff that was really fascinating. But some of those demos are still worth a listen to hear the song and go, “Wow, why didn’t we hear this?” I’m not saying it’s better than what came out, and I’m not saying it would have done better. None of that. But there was a lot of years there -- our collaboration was 10 years old at that point. Like, “Frozen” is “Frozen” -- that is the song we wrote. But I think “Skin,” the original version of that, was terrifyingly cool. And no one will ever hear it. It was something were you definitely went, “Wow, this is going to be amazing.” It was a really cool song, period, and it stayed a cool song. But there was something about that first song that was greasy and sexy and gross. It was really weird and I really liked it. The long and short of it is there’s no bad news at all from me where working with her was concerned. I wish her only the best and I’m proud of her for giving them hell all the time.
Do you have a favorite Madonna memory?
Yes. When we were on tour. We were in London and it was her birthday. There was a private party in a club, and all these people wanted to dance with her and hang out with her, and Jessie, my daughter, was with us on tour at that time. She was right around 2 years old. You can find things in the press that are still out there -- Madonna sat her up on the bar and put half a glass of champagne in her, or a couple of sips or whatever it was, and danced with her pretty much all night. Jessie stood in the middle of the dance floor and spun in her dress, and the next day you saw all these things in all these tabloids with all these faces of celebrities who wanted to dance with her, and Jessie was their foil all night. That was really fun to just see her embrace my daughter and have fun like that. It was really, really special. There are a lot of memories. She’s a good girl. Madonna is a good girl.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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