Rubbed the Right Way

Masseuse Carla Madison keeps in touch with the Denver music scene.

Carla Madison has probably been skin-to-skin with more famous musicians than anyone in Denver. But while most women would be reluctant to reveal such a fact, Madison takes pride in discussing the hefty number of stage-stomping idols she's had her hands on. "Lou Reed, Eddie Vedder, George Clinton--I've worked on them," she says.

"Worked on" is the operative phrase. Although Madison, 41, certainly makes the rounds of the music scene, she's neither a list-keeping backstage belle nor a D-Town version of the notorious woman who once made plaster casts of rockers' genitalia. Rather, she is the Mile High City's rock-and-roll masseuse--and when she says "worked on," she means business. She understands that the expression can lead to some confusion, but she has yet to find a better alternative. As she points out, "It's better than saying I 'did' them."

Madison has been providing sweet relief for the cramped, crooked and road-worn musicians who blow through town since 1990, and while she's quick to state that her manipulations are legitimate and aboveboard, she also admits that she's not entirely immune to star worship. "This is a groupie sort of thing," she confesses with a girlish laugh and a smile. "It's a way for me to meet people, contribute to the music community and, in a way, thank them for the music they put out that I enjoy so much."

A native of Golden, Madison originally followed a completely different career path than the one she's on now. She learned how to pilot hot-air balloons in her hometown and in 1982 landed a job plying the craft in California. That lofty profession led to a position in the special-effects end of the film industry. But while she and her boyfriend were contributing to Dune, director David Lynch's version of novelist Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic, he suffered a back injury. During his recovery period, Madison got a firsthand look at the world of physical therapy and decided the field was for her. She subsequently enrolled at the University of Boston to pursue a master's degree in physical therapy. (She had earlier earned a bachelor's degree in geography at the University of Colorado.) Her master's thesis, which focused on injuries among bass players and percussionists at Boston's Berklee School of Music, allowed her to combine her love for the performing arts with her newfound vocation.

After graduating in 1988, Madison spent two years as a traveling physical-therapy practitioner before returning to Denver and starting a business, dubbed "The Hip Joint," that offered health care to constituents of Denver's arts community--a demographic that Madison felt was in need of attention. "Sports medicine is a real specialized field," she says. "There are people who know about sports and understand the things that make the difference between a really fine player and just an okay player. But there isn't that kind of attention paid in the medical field to musicians. It's like, 'It hurts when I do this,' and the doctor says, 'Stop doing that.' Nobody tells a basketball player to stop playing if it hurts to play basketball, but they'll tell a musician that. So I felt it was important to get a different focus. Someone who appreciates sports should work with sports people; someone who appreciates musicians should work with musicians."

After opening her office, Madison went on to found the Colorado Arts Medicine Organization (CAMEO), a cooperative of orthopedic doctors, psychologists and other health practitioners aimed at helping performing artists in the Denver area. Shortly thereafter, she took her trade to the clubs. David Wilcox, a performer she admires, was set to play the Gothic Theatre, so Madison approached Doug Kauffman of nobody in particular presents, who owned the currently shuttered venue at the time. "I told him, 'I'm a physical therapist, and I'd like to offer my services backstage to your performers,'" she recalls. Once Kauffman took her up on her proposal, she was off and rubbing. "I introduced myself to David--he was playing with Christine Lavin, Patty Larkin and John Gorka--and it was great. They were all really receptive to it. I got to work on all of them, and I got to spend the whole evening backstage with them. It was really fun. It was like, 'Cool. This is it--this is what I've been wanting to do, and now I'm doing it.'"

Although her CAMEO organization folded in 1996, Madison's other enterprises have boomed. Today her daytime clientele consists primarily of home-bound senior citizens and patients with debilitating or terminal illnesses, and although she finds helping such people fulfilling, she's glad that she balances these toils with her nocturnal pursuits. "It's fun for me to do, especially when I work with eighty-year-olds all day. It's really good for me to get that other side. Being around that much death and people who are on their way out can get to you, so you have to have things on the side that remind you how great life is and that there's a lot to live for."

Sitting at the dining-room table of her Capitol Hill home, Madison opens an autograph book that attests to the success she's had with her part-time gig. Each inscription lauds her hands-on ministry, with words of praise from a dozens of indie acts or up-and-comers, including Superchunk, the Beat Farmers, Spacehog, Seven Mary Three, the Gin Blossoms, Crash Test Dummies, Liz Phair and Wilco. Also present are larger names--Lyle Lovett, Alanis Morrisette, the Ramones--who bestow glowing testimonials: "Great hands." "Wow, I feel delicious." "The heavens opened." Cracker member Johnny Hickman enthuses, "You have rocked my world and fixed me," while one of the Iguanas provides an even more revealing insight into Madison's talents, writing, "Thank you so much, it's so nice to have such a loving touch so far from home." Notes Madison, "People out on the road don't get much physical contact, especially if they're married. So this is a nice, warming physical contact that they don't have to feel guilty about."

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