The night Tel Aviv got into the groove
Religion, ritual, beauty, violence, euphoria and of course sex -- Israel won't forget Madonna in a hurry, writes Barry Egan
'I'm here to see the mother of Jesus sing." The young passport control woman at Ben Gurion International Airport at 3am on Thursday in Tel Aviv -- having asked the nature of my business in Israel -- laughed at my joke and said she didn't need any further explanation.
Seventeen hours later, on stage in front of 40,000 people at Ramat Gan Stadium in downtown Tel Aviv, Madonna feels the need to explain why she is here. "I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason," the super-toned pop princess of peace begins.
"You can't be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world. We all bleed the same colour," she said as the crowd cheered. "If we can all rise above our egos and our titles and the names of our countries and our religions, and treat everyone around us with dignity and respect, then we are on the road to peace. If there is peace here in the Middle East, there can be peace in the whole world."
The Israeli blogger sitting beside me isn't convinced. He says: "They all give that speech when they come to Israel."
Politics aside -- and it is a very big aside, as politics is so large in the life of Israel -- the show was a convincing display of Madonna getting into the groove and the world seeming to shift on its axis as she did so. More than anything, it proved Madge's unerring ability to put on a concert that holds the attention of everyone present and proves she is still relevant as a show-stopper, agent provocateur and enduring cultural icon. The icon herself was the centre of a performance that was as high-octane as it was provocative: well, this is the shameless tantric-hussy whom Norman Mailer called America's First Lady of Sex.
A hot summer's night in Israel got hotter when Madge -- her backside so tight I could slide a credit card through it -- and the cheerleaders arrived during Give Me All Your Loving and danced breathlessly for 10 minutes. There was definite echoes of an X-rated Glee here.
Elsewhere, Madonna was hardcore -- above her head, images relating to death and horrors past and present flashed up on the giant screen. This was a huge production more on a par with a movie set of David O Selznick than a mere concert stage -- dozens of dancers and backdrops that were jaw-dropping in their size were standard-issue as Madonna showed her star quality with a virtuoso performance that defied the critics who say she's over the hill at 53. No one says that George Michael, Madonna's contemporary, should throw in the men-only sauna towel, to quote Julie Burchill, adding the misogyny that in popular culture women performers are expected to become invisible as soon as they can hold a pencil under their breasts.
Not that Madonna appears to give a damn what people think of her. On I Don't Give A Fuck, as the crowd is in the throes of ecstasy, she sings in the general direction of ex-husband Guy Ritchie, possibly in London or New York: "I tried to be a good girl/ I tried to be your wife/ Diminished myself/ And I swallowed my light/ I tried to become all/ That you expect of me/ And if it was a failure/ I don't give a fuck . . ."
Israel very definitely gave a feck about Madonna. She was the talk of Tel Aviv.
Madge arrived in Israel on May 25, accompanied by her four children and a 70-strong entourage. The Israeli and world media were camped permanently outside her beachfront hotel in Tel Aviv hoping to get a glimpse of the star. I went on Thursday afternoon but no sign. She apparently spent last weekend alternating between visiting holy sites and attending classes on Shavuot at the Kabbalah Centre in Tel Aviv.
The show itself started with a huge religious spectacle. Monks in red hoods and robes opened the night by swinging a giant bell that dropped from the top of the giant stage. For whom the bell tolls is soon evident when the postmodern goddess emerges with six homoerotic dancers in monk outfits that soon fall off to reveal their bulging, polished torsos. Madonna sings Girl Gone Bad and the crowd go mad.
She says: "God, I'm sorry, I have offended thee. Forgive me." She is then tied up and dragged off as if to be sacrificed.
The monks stand around ominously. It is like a the ritualistic orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. A huge 50-foot cross comes looming out of the fog as Madonna sings Papa Don't Preach.
It is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Then, before we know it, Madonna, singing her controversial song Gang Bang, is toting a gun and there is blood everywhere; she is lying on a couch in a seedy motel with the cross over her head, shooting a man who attacks her. Blood. And more blood. Madonna sings "Die, bitch! Die, bitch!" And then: "If you act like a bitch then you are going to die like a bitch." Nurse, the screens!
This is the 50-something star channelling Quentin Tarantino's blood-lust romp Natural Born Killers. Afterwards, there is an image of a graveyard with a gravestone with the words: 'Ascending Souls -- be not afraid.' It is beautiful to watch.
More beautiful and mesmerising than anything is Madonna performing her songs. She does an incredible stripped-down acapella version of Like A Virgin -- a piano and violin join in at the end. Her version of Vogue has the whole of the stadium up on its feet dancing along, as does Express Yourself. Lest we forget, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone has more hits and classic songs than Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyonce combined. Throughout the two- hour brilliantly choreographed show -- with Madonna changing costumes more times than seemed physically possible; backstage must have looked like a Formula One pit-stop every time Madge came roaring in for a change -- there was no doubt that Madonna hasn't lost her magic. She still remains the biggest star of the 21st century, not least on I'm A Sinner and Human Nature. She ends the show -- that comes to Dublin's Aviva Stadium on July 24 with the same religious fervour that she started it. She goes from an evangelical Like A Prayer (with religious imagery on the screen behind her) to the final song of the night, Celebration. The stage is packed with dancers in robes singing Madonna's words back to her. It is weirdly uplifting, like one of those Jean Paul Gaultier bras she used to wear back in the day.
Camille Paglia, the US anti-feminist feminist, once said, "Madonna has made a major contribution to the history of women. She has rejoined and healed the split halves of woman: Mary, the Blessed Virgin and holy mother, and Mary Magdalene, the harlot."
Last Thursday night in Israel, Madonna didn't bring together the split halves of the Middle East, but she did give Tel Aviv a night it won't forget in a hurry.
The last words Madonna said as she left the stage summed up her mood -- and hopefully the Middle East's in the not too distant future -- "Shalom. Shalom."