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PopCulture25YL – March 1994: Madonna vs. Letterman, The Crow Soundtrack, and More

This month in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was March of 1994.

VHS In the VCR

Revisiting Madonna’s 1994 David Letterman Appearance   by Jason Sheppard

“Our first guest tonight is one of the biggest stars in the world, and in the past 10 years she has sold over 80 million albums, starred in countless films and slept with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.”

With that introduction by David Letterman, on March 31st, 1994, world-wide mega-star Madonna walked out on stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater while Paul Schaffer and the CBS orchestra played “Holiday” for her entrance.

In Madonna’s hand was what appeared to be a cloth item of some sort which she handed to Dave while he was standing to greet the smiling star.

The item was a pair of her underwear which she goaded Dave into smelling (he didn’t.)  Dave kept goading her into kissing a male audience member who very much wanted one (she didn’t.) After this, what unfolded was one of the most memorable and uncomfortable interviews in TV history.

“I’m only here because there isn’t a Knicks game. Don’t get excited,” the star began and with that opening comment, the audience immediately expressed their displeasure at the harmless but stinging insult. It didn’t get any better.

After numerous references to her underwear, her reported dating several members in the NBA (she was actually rumored to be dating the late rapper Tupac Shakur at the time) and her sex life some more, less than two minutes after she sat down, Madonna pointedly said to David Letterman, “You know, you really are a sick f–k!” This unexpected pronouncement caused the audience to scream and cheer while Paul and the band playfully struck some more musical notes from “Holiday.”

In fact, I can’t recall a Letterman audience scream like that since the second appearance of Peggy the foul-mouth chambermaid.

From there, the conversation turned to peeing in the shower, nose rings, dating NBA players, whether Dave had smoked Endo (weed), dating more NBA players, whether Dave’s hair was a “rug”, all while smoking a large cigar (Madonna: “It’s just the right size”), goading Dave into smelling her panties again and saying the F-word 14 times, all while Dave kept chastising her that viewers at home didn’t want to here those words at that time of night.

It was as if the writers of The Larry Sanders Show had written that night’s Late Show entire script from their imaginations, creating in Madonna the ultimate guest from hell – the one who was belligerent right from the start, the one who broke all the rules of talk show guest decorum and above all, the guest who wouldn’t leave. To top it off, musical group The Counting Crows were making their television network debut on Dave’s program that very night. That almost didn’t happen as Madonna stayed put for three whole segments prompting at one point, director Hal Gurnee to cut to a ticking clock on the wall (she still didn’t want to go).

Madonna dukes it out with David Letterman on her March 31st appearance on his show.
Madonna and David Letterman duke it out during her infamous appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, March 31, 1994

According to a then staffer of The Late Show named Daniel Kellison (who now co-runs Jackhole Productions with Jimmy Kimmell), the substance Madonna had smoked before arriving at the theater was Endo, the drug she asked Dave about. The star had smoked some right before she went out on stage. Madonna was going to come out and give Dave a little payback for the many, many jokes he’d been making at her expense for the past few years. Of course, as Kellison recounts, It didn’t work out that way.

This wasn’t the mega-star’s first appearance on the David Letterman program. In 1988, Madonna had appeared on the old NBC program after that night’s guest, comedienne Sandra Bernhard, who was the singer’s good friend at the time, mentioned that Madonna was backstage. With some coaxing from Dave, Madonna walked out and sat next to Bernhard, who was forgotten (to her annoyance) very quickly.

It took six years to get Madonna back on the show. This time is it was on CBS with a bigger audience, an earlier time slot and a host who was now, quite possibly, as big a household name as she was. Madonna came to make an impression and she was going to make one on her terms.

This was just two people at the top of their respective games (music and TV), who started out at roughly the same year (1982) and became superstars through originality, creativity and offering the public a huge dose of ‘this is who we are. Take us or not’. When Madonna sat in that chair that March night, she came to play with a foe she deemed worthy of what she had to serve up.

Imagine Madonna even attempting to get away with any of this on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. He would have crawled under his desk after 30 seconds and stayed there until she was gone. Her 1990 appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show to promote Dick Tracy was at times as equally combative. The singer kept taunting Hall over his recent breakup with singer Paula Abdul who was then dating Full House star John Stamos (and this right here, might be the most 1990 sentence I ever write in my life).

It’s possible that Madonna didn’t mean for her Letterman appearance to go the way it ultimately did but looking at it now, one can see early on that she saw an opportunity to stir it up, possibly get some press (and did she ever) and see what she could get away with. After all, there’s a reason why Spike Lee himself claimed that the two individuals in entertainment as skilled at the time in the art of self-promotion were Madonna and himself.

Madonna owned the stage and took up three segments before she'd leave.
Madonna owning the stage (and the night) during her infamous March 1994 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Usually, when a celebrity of Madonna’s stature (or even lesser) appears on a national nightly talk show, it’s to promote a movie, TV show or album. I honestly can’t recall what Madonna was promoting in early 1994 as her album that year, Bedtime Stories, wasn’t released until October. Perhaps she was there to promote her single “I’ll Remember” from the Joe Pesci film With Honors which opened that April. Whatever she was on The Late Show to discuss, it was quickly forgotten about which makes this appearance memorable in its own right.

1994 was a strange time in society. This was the age when shock-jocks such as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh ruled the radio airwaves, with nearly half the country tuning in to hear what outlandish thing these radio guys were going to say next. Beavis and Butthead was a hit on MTV. The year started off with Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt and Waco, Texas. Tabloid sensations were turned into household names overnight while superstars who seemingly had the world in their hands like Michael Jackson, were suddenly falling out of public favor due to sexual molestation allegations. During the 1980s, no two musicians were bigger than Jackson and Madonna. Jackson still had his supporters and Madonna had her fans but after her Late Show appearance the knives came out.

As if she had anticipated it, Madonna’s appearance was the talk of, well, talk shows and newspaper columns over the world. The words “desperate”, “vulgar” and “obnoxious” were all the press in describing her appearance. This criticism prompted the super-star to release a hand-written letter in response in her defense:

Madonna, letter, David Letterman, 1994
Madonna’s hand-written response to the criticism she received after her appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in March, 1994.

“Can everyone please get over the fact that I went on t.v., smoked a cigar, said the f-word a few times, and made David Lettermen (sic) look stupid. I actually had a very good time, thought it was one of my better performances and proved once again how sexist the world we live in really is.

“If I were Andrew Dice Clay or Snoop Doggy Dog no one would have given a f—! In this country you are not allowed to be a girl, look good, have a point of view and have a good time all at once. need I say more?”

Esquire magazine was so perplexed and fascinated by Madonna’s Letterman appearance, it resulted in a 14 page(!) profile/interview written by Norman Mailer(!) the following August. That magazine’s cover featured the star nearly nude wearing only a black leather bra and shorts. It was a fitting portrait considering how bare she lays her feelings out in the interview regarding the previous four months. One of the most interesting parts of the interview is when the star admits that prior to tape time, Letterman’s writers were in her dressing room telling her to give Dave a hard time (“make fun of his hair.”) Madonna, who had by this point performed for perhaps millions of people in large stadiums since the first half of the 80s, had a natural instinct to give a show to an audience and in her spring 1994 Letterman appearance, that is all she did.

Letterman for his part, never really bad-mouthed Madonna in the aftermath. Fans of the Late Show hosts understand that in his early years as a radio broadcaster, weatherman and morning talk-show host, Letterman was himself always the disruptor, the anarchist and the new guy who was shaking up traditions, giving conformity the finger (through outrageous humor) and leaving the more conservative audience members, scratching their head in utter bewilderment.

Letterman may have sensed the same spirit in Madonna that night. Madonna shook up the guest/talk-show host format and Dave, with his history, recognized what she was doing and probably appreciated it. Early on, Madonna remarked to the host that he used to be cool. Dave fans remember that the host could be extremely surly and abrasive to guest during the 1980s. Cher most famously called him an “a–hole” to his face because of it. A title he didn’t exactly dispute.

Had the 1984 Letterman encountered the Madonna of 1994, it would have been a bloodbath of cutting remarks and at times, the surly Dave of years before does come through here (“Sure, I’ll kiss you….If I don’t have to wait in line”).

After this appearance, for whatever reason, Letterman announced the following night that Madonna would no longer be a guest on the show (to loud audience cheers). It would indeed be another six years before Madonna would return to the guest chair on The Late Show. She wasn’t even invited on when she was earning critical raves for her performance in Alan Parker’s 1996 film Evita

She did appear briefly on the show in February 1995, walking out on-stage carrying a large bouquet of roses to hand Dave for Valentine’s day (the crowd went nuts). Then, nearly one year later almost exactly to the day of Madonna’s Late Show appearance, Dave hosted the 67th Academy Awards. Madonna appeared in that big show’s “Cabin Boy auditions” skit.

Madonna returned as an actual guest to the Late Show in November 2000 to promote her new CD titled Music. It had now been six years since her last visit and If audiences were expecting a repeat of the ’94 show, they would quickly be let down. Madonna, now a mother of two, was certainly playful but more demure and quickly won the audience over. In fact, the only slight groan she received from an audience member was when she had admitted she voted for Al Gore in that week’s U.S. presidential election (“I’m a chick. Who did you think I’d vote for?”)

Madonna appeared again in 2005 and to demonstrate how the passage of time affects us all. She was a guest to promote a children’s book she had recently authored titled The English Roses. Dave would never express the glee for Madonna as he would exhibit for someone such as, say, Julia Roberts (a true Dave favorite), but you could tell he always held Madonna in affection. They were both rebels, both non-conformists, both media personalities who spent the 80s rising to the top of their mediums and were not afraid to call out authority (Madonna combated sexism, homophobia and censorship in all forms) and Dave went after General Electric which owned NBC (not to mention, his own network bosses) almost nightly. At the time, he viewed corporations as the enemy while he rebelled from his small, zany TV studio inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

David Letterman kept rebelling until 2015, the year he retired. It’s probably no coincidence that Madonna’s 2015 album was titled Rebel Heart. A title that I’m sure Dave himself would thoroughly appreciate.

Madonna and David Letterman rode horses down 53rd Street in New York.
David Letterman and Madonna ride side-by-side off down New York City’s 53rd Street after her Late Show appearance in October, 2005.

So, 25 years later after Madonna’s March 1994 appearance, there are several questions which go unanswered; was the backlash against her uncalled for? Was she actually ahead of her time as just years later shows like The Sopranos debuted in prime-time proving that yes, people did want to hear those four-letter words at night? But perhaps the biggest question of all is: what did that audience member who Madonna refused to kiss think after the show was over?

I’d love to track him down some time and find out.

Mashing Buttons

Super Metroid   by Sean Mekinda

Super Metroid box art for the Super NintendoTo call Super Metroid genre-defining would be a bit disingenuous, as this game (with some help from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) created the Metroidvania as we know it today.

Returning to the planet Zebes six years after the launch of the original Metroid, Super Metroid takes everything that made the original stand out and improves on almost all of it. Additional power-ups, improved controls, and a map (thank god for the map) make the journey across and through the alien planet feel that much better. And Super Metroid is all about feeling.

The upgrade to 16-bit brought with it a visual depth that drives home the alien feeling and doubles down on isolation. You wander tunnels, explore the wreckage of a crashed ship, dive into the depths of the planet. Everything on Zebes either wants you dead or died a long time ago. The Alien influence is even clearer in 16-bit, and it brings with it a sense of dread associated with Ridley Scott’s work. The music is a masterwork of science-fiction and atmosphere (Brinstar Underground Depths is absolutely gorgeous), compounding on the idea of isolationism and attack with haunting backgrounds and aggressive melodies. The soundtrack doesn’t want you to relax and makes sure you’re aware of the constant threats looming all around you.

One important thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the story. Or rather, lack thereof. Metroid games are notoriously sparse on their story and lore, offering the players a goal but not much else. Even the Metroid Prime series tucks most of its lore away in glyphs and other scannable objects. The games are whatever you want them to be, and I love it for that.

25 years later, the game is still a masterpiece. Even by todays graphical standards and understanding of game design, the aesthetic, controls, and level layout all feel exquisitely crafted. The controls are tight and quick to understand, the levels are all intuitive and easy to navigate, and the feeling of isolation lingers, even after you turn off the game. Sure, it still has some hiccups (Looking at you, wall-jumping, super jump that you use once, and hidden paths that don’t show up even with the scanner….) but when a lot of games can feel dated a year after release, having Super Metroid still be this good years later is an incredible feat.

Beneath a Steel Sky   by Michael Stewart

out and about in Beneath Steel SkyA kid in my class at school had found out that I had just acquired an Amiga home computer. He quickly offered me a game that he didn’t enjoy called Beneath A Steel Sky. Of course, he wanted cash for it so I offered him the little pocket money I had to my name and he accepted.

The year was 1994 and the month was March. BaSS had just been released and this kid didn’t enjoy point and click adventures. I absolutely loved them though. In my small circle of friends, I was always raving about The Secret of Monkey Island which had been released a few years before. It was, of course, a point and click adventure developed by Lucasfilm Games. I absolutely adored SoMI so I was sure to enjoy BaSS.

Beneath A Steel Sky was developed by Revolution Software, the UK based team that later became famous for their Broken Sword series. BaSS was set in a cyberpunk universe and the player takes control of the story’s protagonist Robert Foster. The game is set in a dystopian universe, in a heavily urbanised metropolis called Union City. The player’s job is to guide Robert (or Foster as he’s referred to throughout the story) through this weird and wonderful landscape, talking to various NPCs and uncovering the corruption that is rife in the game’s world.

There was no other experience quite like Beneath a Steel Sky at the time. We didn’t really have many games which were set in the Cyberpunk universe. BaSS was atmospheric, dark yet extremely funny in places. The story flowed well and some of the puzzles were really difficult to solve.

Many gamers class Secret of Monkey Island and even Fate of Atlantis as the king of point and click adventures in the 90s but for me, Beneath a Steel Sky wears the crown. Whilst both SoMI and FoA boasted huge budgets which allowed for pretty graphics and big development teams, BaSS cost just £40,000 to make yet still boasts a beautiful art style which captures the story’s universe perfectly.
I never played the MS-DOS version of Beneath A Steel Sky but the Amiga CD version of the game included actual voice acting by the characters. We had to put up with reading text responses on the home computers, conjuring up what the NPCs sounded like in our imaginations.

Beneath Steel Sky action shot

It’s crazy to think Beneath A Steel Sky was released 25 years ago. I still have fond memories of playing it for many hours in my bedroom at my parent’s house, instead of doing my homework. And I nearly forgot to mention: the game came installed on 15 disks. FIFTEEN! To compare, the Secret of Monkey Island arrived on just 4 disks.

There’s just been a sequel announcement for Beneath a Steel Sky which will be arriving this year on the PC, PS4 and Xbox One, and the soon to be launched Apple Arcade subscription service. As with the original, Beyond a Steel Sky will feature artwork created by legendary comic book artist Dave Gibbons. If it plays nearly as well as the original, I’m going to be all over it.

CDs On Rotation In Our 6-Disk

The Crow Soundtrack   by John Bernardy

The album cover for the Crow SoundtrackThis soundtrack had every important music genre represented (outside of country and hip hop) and was a hell of an introduction to music at large for me. I had just started listening to Q101 (the new rock alternative of Chicagoland) and I was looking for Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush,” but I wasn’t sure if it was by STP or Pearl Jam. That’s how new I was to this universe.

So yeah. Looking for “Plush” and I didn’t even know the song’s name. I picked up Pearl Jam’s Ten and this soundtrack, thinking surely “Plush” was on one of them. I lost in the immediate goal sense, but turns out I won the lottery. The only thing I was missing (besides the song I initially wanted) was Smashing Pumpkins. Everything else that is my foundation of music taste is found here.

The dark crow caws and whistles give the impression the album is taking off with The Cure’s “Burn.” The band knew for sure what movie their song was going to be a part of. Robert Smith’s look and James O’Barr’s artwork are close cousins to begin with, and there was no better way to connect music to its source material. Or to kick off the gothiest goth work of the 90s.

The Cure faded out with more creepy birdlike flutes, and a buzz kicks into Machines of Loving Grace’s dirty, slinky “Golgotha Tenement Blues.” Then we get Stone Temple Pilots’ “Big Empty,” which for my money is their best song. Way better than “Plush.” The album could’ve ended there and I’d have been happy but then we get Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails showing off by arranging Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” when he already released the best album of the decade weeks earlier.

Rage Against the Machine’s opening bass guitar line of “Darkness” is crazy good and would stay in my head the whole rest of the day if it wasn’t for the perfection of the Violent Femmes’ “Color Me Once.” That song is so melancholy and haunting, and I know it’s not their trademark stuff but damn this is easily one of the Femmes’ best songs. I will hear that opening guitar melody in my head for the next week. And I’ll like it.

Up to this point, the soundtrack was intense and hypnotizing like a good Lynch scene. I was not prepared for Rollins Band’s cover of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider.” It starts off thumpy and slows down into a prowl while Henry Rollins shouts about the Marvel character in a surprisingly serious song. Then we get Helmet’s “Milktoast” which starts out reminding me of a darker Living Color. The song was intense but a bit of a breather until it sped its tempo into a guitar solo section. Then a bridge went somewhere else entirely before the opening riff broke down into radio wave feedback.

And then Pantera broke me. I don’t get thrash metal to this day. It’s easily my favorite of the genre because of the company it keeps, but it’s still the closest the album gets to a miss from me. Suffice to say I didn’t go out and find their new release Far Beyond Driven.

Luckily we get For Love Not Lisa’s “Slip Slide Melting” next. It’s more in line with Helmet’s offering for the first part of the song, but wins me over completely with a bridge that isn’t quite Pearl Jam’s “Black” but does an admirable job going its own way. The song sounds like it’s over then, but it kicks back in with that same driving force from the beginning all the way to the end. And then My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult’s “After The Flesh” starts on the exact same chord and rhythm except with techno elements. That song is more dance-leaning and has audio samples from what sounds like old horror and sci-fi movies. All this and a proto-Marylin Manson vocalist. I ate it all up.

The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Snakedriver” comes next. It’s shoegaze plus feedback. It drones well to maintain the album’s power level. The song placement on this soundtrack is almost as amazing as the song choices themselves. From goth to a little grunge, then to metal, and it holds intensity even when it lets off the throttle.

Which finally happens with Medicine’s “Time Baby III.” Even though the speed has slowed, the song doesn’t feel like much of a break because that song’s refrain is “no they don’t have to take you away,” which ties into the bittersweet sadness of the movie’s tragic love between the Eric Draven—the Crow–and his murdered love Shelly Webster.

Closing out the album is Jane Siberry’s “It Can’t Rain All The Time.” Not only does Sibbery’s voice grab you at the heart, not only does the song build emotionally to a breaking point, it also uses the instrumentation and melodies from the movie’s score written by Graeme Revell. The fragile ballad came to play.

If you haven’t listened to the Crow Soundtrack before, please do so as soon as you can. And if you know this one well, let me know how not alone I am on this.


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