Thurston Moore on Madonna: ‘She had credibility, she was really ahead of the game’

Ahead of Madonna’s 60th birthday in August, the former Sonic Youth frontman remembers her emergence from New York’s underground scene

• Sarah Churchwell: ‘Madonna remains the hero of her own story’
Thurston Moore.
Thurston Moore. Photograph: Rachel Megawhat/Alamy

We were neighbours. We knew each other, by sight. She would say hi to me and I would say hi to her. She was dating a friend of mine for a millisecond, so we were introduced that way and then, through the years, when we’d cross paths on the street, we’d nod heads and smile. She was very friendly with Jean-Michel [Basquiat], Keith Haring, and these artists who were all our neighbours, and we all hung out at the same places: Danceteria, CBGB, Tier 3 and Club 57 were the main places. When she became super-famous, which was all of a sudden, she disappeared from the New York scene. It was a very strange thing, to be working washing dishes, and making pennies per day, and seeing someone who was in your neighbourhood all of a sudden become a superstar. It was unusual. There was no real model for that, for us. It became kind of exciting.

She was really ahead of the game. She was taking elements of what was cool at that time – punk rock, new wave, dance music, hip-hop and Latino music all clashing in this great non-hierarchical playground of New York. It was all kind of new; everybody was trying different things. Madonna was actually in a couple of no-wave bands that nobody ever talks about. She was in a band with these two twins, Dan and Josh Braun, who were the first members of Swans, Michael Gira’s band. Nobody really knows about that part of her history; she was in a pre-Swans no wave band! There’s all that interconnected history in New York with Madonna and the no wave scene.

She was really able to tap into the sound of what was genuine and the culture at the time, where it was free from any gender or sexual persuasion distinctions. There was no concern about any inequality or [the boundaries of] gender or race – that’s how we felt, it was totally revolutionary. And [there was] this balance between Latino, black and white culture on the scene. She was really significant in giving voice to that and consistently doing it – you never got the sense that she was doing it as a gesture of being hip. She was a person, I think, who was really very loving toward people who were historically disenfranchised by society.

Madonna in a loft on Canal Street, New York, December 1982.
Madonna in a loft on Canal Street, New York, December 1982. Photograph: Peter Noble/Redferns

Eventually she started making really amazing dance records. Into the Groove was brilliant to the point where I thought it would be a great song to cover through the prism of Sonic Youth. Instantly fabulous. We took her record and put it on one of the channels in the studio and we would fade it into [our version of] the song once in a while, not thinking about the legalities of such a move. We made a 12-inch with Mike Watt from Minutemen on a label called New Alliance, a sub-label of Black Flag’s SST Records [Into the Groovey by Ciccone Youth, 1986]. We wanted to break down any kind of barrier that was being set up between the underground and the people who had graduated from it to the mainstream.

The sleeve of Ciccone Youth’s Into the Groovey/Burning Up 12-inch.
The sleeve of Ciccone Youth’s Into the Groovey/Burning Up 12-inch. Photograph: handout/HANDOUT

We actually embraced Madonna’s joie de vivre, her celebrity. We did that record and everybody felt we were crazy, and some people lambasted us for giving her some kind of credibility in the underground. But she already had credibility, as far as I was concerned; she was already a part of the downtown scene. I don’t think she capitalised on it.

When we first came to London, Lee [Ranaldo], Kim [Gordon] and I wore Madonna shirts and I remember kids at the gig coming up to us and saying “Are you taking the piss?” and we would say “No, have you heard this Madonna album? You should listen to it next to your Swell Maps albums, next to your Wire albums, next to your Raincoats albums.” Mix it up. Don’t be stuck in some kind of tunnel. I was all about bringing people together. Plus the T-shirts were really cheap.

Actually, I think she was very dignified in the way she referenced all of these different subcultures. She was a very big part of it. She made a lot of money, and when you make a lot of money and become so famous you have to protect yourself, because everybody wants to claw at you. It’s not like she could just walk into a Tesco and buy milk; she’s going to get hammered. People who bring that in to their lives… it’s a mixed blessing. It does prohibit you from being free in the social world. I think she dealt with it really well, let’s put it that way.

The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984-94, is published in paperback by Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace Library & Omnibus Press in September

• Dancer Carlton Wilborn on Madonna: ‘Rehearsal truly was like boot camp’

As told to Kate Hutchinson

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