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."
As Madison knows, such realities of touring aren't well-known by the general public. "A lot of people romanticize it and they think about how cool it is, and the musicians do love it--that's why they do it. But I get to see the other side of it: how burned out they are night after night and how tough it is on your physical being.
"Most of the work I get is when a band has just come in from say, Seattle, and they've been on the bus for 24 hours and they're all kinked," she continues. "If they've just been driven up from Colorado Springs, they're less likely to need a massage, but when it's a long trip from Chicago or the Midwest, they're like, 'Massage? Oh, yeah!' These are mostly young guys, and a lot of their problems are caused from sleeping on buses and the hard lifestyle of the road. A lot of them travel by van, and I don't know how they do it. They drive and then they play, and then they drive and then they play, and they're never off. It's a tough life." To make her gifts accessible to every kind of act, Madison keeps her rates low. "I charge $15 for twenty minutes when I'm working backstage. That way, anybody can afford it: the performers, the lighting guys, the roadies."
A typical massage stint for Madison, who does the bulk of her work at the Ogden and Bluebird theaters, first involves waiting through the never-on-schedule soundcheck. When that's over, she administers her care in a backstage room or a secluded balcony. A "full massage" from Madison, who carries her own massage table and works in scrubs to convey professional credibility, involves applying traction to naked-from-the-waist-up performers. "I don't do anything too radical, because they've got to be on stage in an hour, and if they're hurting, it doesn't bode well. So I have to be gentle in the treatment I give them. And because it's backstage, I usually just do upper-body stuff, hands and wrists, and maybe some legs, back and head. I always try to get the head in, because that's real good for tension release."
That Madison is in such intimate contact does not escape her when she's in the crowd during a performer's show. After working on the much-sought-after torso of screen heartthrob/Dogstar bassist Keanu Reeves, Madison found herself surrounded by hordes of adoring fans during his recent Ogden show. "It was such a trip being there," she says, "because all these screaming teenagers just wanted to be near him. Man, if they knew that these hands had been on Keanu for the last hour. Same thing with Eddie Vedder: 'Yeah, I rubbed my hands through Eddie's hair.'"
Despite Vedder's appeal, Madison gets even more excited when she thinks of the time she spent a few years ago with another music icon: "Lou Reed--now that was bigger than I ever hoped for, because he's a rock-and-roll god." As she tells it, Reed's guitar technician, a longtime Madison client, advised his boss to take advantage of Madison's skills prior to an engagement at the Paramount Theatre. "I walk through the Embassy Suites with my table, walk up to his room, and Lou Reed answers the door," she remembers, giggling like a star-struck teen. At first Reed was in a foul mood spawned by too many business calls and the like. "I understood what he was going through," Madison says. "But then we got down to it, and he became this really funny, enjoyable human being; he really relaxed. Plus, he had this hip thing going on that I got rid of for him. He gave me a blow-dryer before I left."
Did Madison take the opportunity to ask Reed a few questions about favorite tunes? "No, I rarely do that," she replies. "I try to disassociate them from who they are, because it can be kind of intimidating if you're thinking about who you're working on. He's a guy and I'm a masseuse, and I think that makes it a little more comfortable." There are other rules she follows as well. "I try to make sure that they're done with their massage at least a half-hour before the show, because they're supposed to be putting on a high-energy performance. It's good to get the time to regroup. A massage is very energizing, but not immediately afterwards. You've got to wake yourself back up--although there are some people, like the singer from Rusted Root, who like to walk from the massage table right to the microphone.
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"A lot of guys don't think a massage would help their performance," she continues. "Being relaxed isn't what they want--especially a lot of the hardcore rock-and-rollers. I don't even work those shows anymore because I get so little response. They like to have that anger and pain. I hate to make any sweeping generalizations like that, but some people don't want to relax."
That's not the case for James Elias, founder of the ska-funk act Furious George & the Monster Groove. Before a recent reunion show at the Bluebird, Elias, who is just getting over an achey bout with the flu, eagerly puts himself in Madison's hands. As the sound crew gets ready for the night's show, he steps up to the Bluebird's balcony, strips off his shirt and lies down on Madison's table. She rubs oil across her palms and takes on Elias's vertebrae, eliciting groans of pleasure from the singer. "You couldn't have been here at a better time," he says in a gooey voice. Bluebird staffers occasionally pass through the space, but Elias is oblivious to the proceedings, his face buried in a towel. Madison's hands knead across Elias's tattooed back before working her way down his arms to his wrists and hands. She gently squeezes the soft flesh between his knuckles, delicately milking his fingers and thumbs. Then, after Elias rolls over and mentions a nagging shoulder problem, Madison drops to her knees and diligently applies traction to the joint, all the while peppering Elias with probing questions in an effort to find the cause of his pain. Within moments Elias offers a response: "Uungghhh...aaahhhh."
Ten minutes later, Madison's fingers inch across Elias's neck and temples before disappearing into his curly locks. After a few more moans of pleasure from her patient, she says, "Okay, you're done." The obviously wet-noodled Elias climbs to his feet and speculates about what might happen if every performer were to enjoy such treatment. "I think the depression rates and drug use among longtime musicians would drop way down," he remarks while putting on his shirt. "This is beneficial to the mind, body and soul."
That's true for Madison as well. "The time I get to spend with these people--you can't pay for it, you know? I get some real intimate moments with them and I get the physical contact as well, and it gets them to a place where they don't get too often on the road. They talk and relax, and we kind of become friends in the half-hour or whatever--and they remember me when they come back to town, and they say things they wouldn't normally say to somebody they just met, since they're lying there half-naked." She laughs again before adding, "It's cool, because you get these little windows, these little insights into people's lives. And it's funny: When I drive around in my car and listen to the radio, most of the people that I hear, I know them. I have a personal connection with three-quarters of the music world.