Jeff Gordinier
November 24, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Ricky Martin finds time to relax

”Hello this is Ricky Marttt…” ”Hello this is Riii…” One more time. ”Hello this is Ricky Martin. Listen all week to win your copy of my new CD, Sound Loaded.” He’s good at this. He really does try to detonate each word like a cherry bomb, but it’s still easy for a guy’s tongue to get tripped up when he has to deliver the same phrase over and over, hundreds of times in a row.

He dumps another packet of sugar into his latté, swivels his chair, stretches his vertebrae, leans into the mike, and plows back into a litany of promotional squibs for radio stations across the country. We’re in a studio in Southern California, just a hop from the Hollywood Bowl, but if you close your eyes it sounds as if Ricky Martin is levitating, flying over the United States and dispensing a blessing to morning commuters tangled up in the traffic snarls below. ”Hey, southern Colorado, this is Ricky Martin and I hope you like my new song, ‘She Bangs.”’ ”Hey, Bay Area, what’s up?! This is Ricky Martin.” Privately he’s exhausted — just yesterday he coasted in on a red-eye from Australia, and then this morning he woke up at 3 yearning for breakfast — but a casual observer wouldn’t detect any of that. With a high-beam smile that seems to siphon voltage straight out of the studio generator, Martin, 28, just keeps pumping out these tobacco-raspy shout-outs to Orlando’s party station and Miami’s Top 40 countdown, to Detroit and Des Moines and Corpus Christi and Witchita, to B-96 and Q-92 and Z-104 and XL-106.7. On and on it goes until the boogie-down patois of the American airwaves — continuous music station, call now, jammin’ hits, aaallll week long — starts to blur and decompose into a white-noise mantra.

He stops. ”Bang this bitch?”

As in: You really want me to say that?

They do. So he does. He reads the line without lethargy or hesitation; in fact, he blows it up with a big boom of show-bizzy irony, as if Elvis Presley is saying it, as if Muhammad Ali is saying it. ”Bang this bitch!” he says. ”Bang the bee-yitch!” Everybody in the studio starts laughing — the management posse, the console guys, the crew from Columbia Records. Somehow Martin can take a task like this — just some dull, repetitive, burdensome debt to the starmaking grind — and turn it into a show.

”You are so almost there,” coaches Cindy Levine Baker, Columbia’s national director of promotion.

Eventually he’s done. ”I need to stretch,” he muses, but first there are autographs and snapshots, and then he’s quickly getting hustled down a hallway, into an elevator, down to a parking garage, into the backseat of a small black Swiss-diplomat-style town car. And within minutes, right there in the car, he falls asleep.

Have you permitted your life to become warped by forces seemingly stronger than your own? Is your life under your control? Do not sink into the rut of mediocrity. Rise above the crowd. Step out of the choking monotony of ordinary existence into a finer, more colorful life of achievement and ever new peace.
— Paramahansa Yogananda, from the book Inner Peace: How to Be Calmly Active and Actively Calm

Ten days later, Martin sits on the floor of his Manhattan hotel suite, saying nothing at all.

People always ask how he stays calm in the midst of a frantic schedule — insert the obligatory livin’ la vida loca pun here — and Martin invariably provides a single word as an answer: silence. When I jokingly suggest that we should conduct a portion of our interview in silence, without saying a word, this is how he responds: ”Well, you don’t know where we can go to. We can go to all these places. We can go to Jupiter and Saturn.” An invitation I can’t refuse.

He’s taken his shoes off. He’s taken his watch off. He’s taken his shirt off. While I sit on the floor a few inches across from him, watching, he folds his legs into the lotus position and shuts his eyes and slowly leans his torso forward and down, stretching his arms and spine and shoulders. Turquoise and silver trinkets — a Buddha, a Hebrew hand known as a ”hamsa” — dangle from his neck. (For those readers whose ruminations tend to be more carnal than spiritual: His hair is blond now, his skin caramel, and… okay, without that shirt on, it’s clear the guy’s in exquisitely good shape. Can I continue with my story?) More microphones are waiting downstairs in the hotel — Martin is steeling himself for yet another gauntlet of interviews to promote Sound Loaded — but right now his room is soundless, a cocoon, dizzy with the scent of champa incense. (”It doesn’t have any chemicals and it doesn’t have oils,” Martin tells me. ”Sometimes when you smell an incense it has oil in it and it’s bad for my throat.”) The incense was made by Sai Baba, an Indian guru who can grind a rock into ash between the palms of his hands.

When you hear about the synapse-frying process of making Sound Loaded, it’s a wonder that Martin himself hasn’t been reduced to a heap of cinder: He learned the songs, cut the tracks, and shot the scuba-diving video for the first single, ”She Bangs,” while simultaneously huffing toward the finale of the 13-month pan-continental Livin’ la Vida Loca Tour. ”We would have four or five days of concerts a week, and right after the last show I would just hop on a plane and go to Miami, sleep, wake up at noon, be in the studio at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, record until — God knows — the early morning, sleep until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, hop on a plane, fly to the next city, get there on time for sound check, and do the show,” he says. ”And it was never a sacrifice, man. A lot of peers, a lot of people in the business told me, ‘You’re crazy. You do an album, you’re supposed to do nothing but the album.’ Where is that written?”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Martin practices a brand of yoga known as kriya, popularized during the last century by Paramahansa Yogananda, the man he calls his guru. The Sanskrit word ”kriya” loosely translates into ”soul action” — or, as Martin interprets it, do anything you want with your soul. ”You know, I practice a little bit of masochism, as well,” he laughs. ”I tend to practice my silence in the middle of a hurricane. Because what my guru says is, ‘Listen, my friend. What I’m teaching you is for you to be able to be in the middle of a holocaust — and find silence.”’

Like a lot of hurricanes, this one first gathered froth in the humid air of the Caribbean. Up until 1999 Ricky Martin was, to a lot of North Americans, just one of those vague tropical spirals shaking its bon-bon south of the Bahamas — a serious threat to Miami, maybe, but not St. Louis. On his native island of Puerto Rico, a brief glimpse of Ricky’s male-modelish profile was enough to elicit squalls of rapture from his fans, thanks to his stint in the bubblegum factory Menudo and his subsequent success as a General Hospital orderly and a hunky Latin crooner. In the soccer-mad territories of Europe and Latin America, Martin was such a big star that his bleacher-thumping conga-line call-to-arms, ”La Copa de la Vida,” got selected as the theme song to the 1998 World Cup tournament in France.

But in the United States, his stature essentially boiled down to: ”You mean that pretty dude from General Hospital?” All of which changed, irrevocably, in four minutes. At the Grammy Awards ceremony on February 24, 1999, Martin slinked on stage to deliver ”La Copa de la Vida” amid a blare of trumpets and a bacchanal of bouncing thighs; when he was done, he found himself whirling in the eye of a bona fide Elvis-on-Ed Sullivan, Jacko-on-Motown 25 tempest. Martin likes to compare himself to a workhorse with blinders on, but every now and then he takes the blinders off and peeks around. ”That happened at the Grammys,” he admits now. ”I worked worked worked worked worked and then I went like that.” His eyes squint and pop like an owl’s. ”’Whoooooaaaaa! It feels great! Wait, wait, wait.’ All of a sudden hundreds of people that came up to me were sucking.” He makes a vampirish slurping sound. ”Sucking the blood.” Slurp, slurp. ”Sucking the blood.” In pantomime, he slips the blinders back over his brow. ”I went like that,” he says, ”and I went to India and Nepal, and nobody was sucking my blood.”

After the Grammys, experts upgraded the hurricane to a global deluge. The 1999 album Ricky Martin, the singer’s shimmy into the English-language market, sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S. and 20 million around the world. Blinders or not, it was impossible for Martin to ignore the nagging sense that the follow-up, Sound Loaded, would arrive on Nov. 14 loaded with some pretty heavy expectations. ”Yes,” he concedes. ”What, am I going to say no? ‘Naw, I was just happy with what I was doing’? No. I was anxious and nervous and wondering, What am I going to come up with?”

What he came up with adheres to the title — Sound Loaded is like a traveler’s souvenir case, stuffed to its seams with swing and tango and Nuevo Latino thump — but putting it together was no pleasure cruise. ”We were all working frantically day and night,” says songwriter and producer Desmond Child, a member of Martin’s dream team. ”It almost felt like we were in a submarine. Food was brought in. I mean, no one left.” They stitched tracks together in multiple cities. Columbia tapped ”She Bangs” as the kickoff single before it even had lyrics — well, aside from ”she bangs, she bangs, she moves, she moves.” In the studio a 40-piece orchestra might bump into the virtuoso bass player Cachao, thanks to Martin’s old-world insistence on using real, live musicians. ”That musician, I want a little bit of his life on my album,” Martin explains. ”’You see this bass line? Cry while you’re playing it.”’ Robi Rosa, the Che Guevara-meets-Trent Reznor poet-punk who’s had an unlikely tattooed hand in writing Ricky Martin smashes from ”Maria” to ”Vida Loca,” helped fire up a spark for new carnal romps like ”She Bangs” and ”Loaded.” But the beat-the-clock stress, Rosa says, was hard to bear. ”I don’t deal with that kind of pressure. I think everyone was a little too excited when we were going to start working on these songs,” he offers. ”I just said, ‘Do the record without me. I’m still at the same pace as always. If a song pops out, it pops out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’ That was my attitude.”

Columbia’s parent conglomerate, Sony, has limped through a few tepid fiscal quarters lately, and a lot of Columbia’s top-shelf stars — from Bruce Springsteen to Lauryn Hill — sat quiet in 2000. There’s been press speculation that Sony needs a winner; indeed, the vibe coming from Sony’s offices suggests that Loaded represents an urgent holiday-season salvation. It’s a notion that Columbia Records Group chairman Don Ienner vehemently disputes. ”Whoever you’re talking to has no f—in’ clue what they’re talking about. It’s that simple. They’re just pundits saying things because they have nothing more to say and they don’t know anything that’s going on,” Ienner says. ”First of all, you never want to put that kind of onus on any artist. It’s not fair creatively. That’s something we don’t do. We don’t need to do it, thank God.” In fact, Ienner brushes aside the whole Sound Loaded-or-doomsday scenario as a farce. ”We’re sitting in candlelight up here,” he jokes. ”We cannot pay our bills, Jeff.” Loaded‘s release date did bump from Nov. 21 to Nov. 14 in order to steer clear of the Backstreet Boys. But reports that Sound Loaded was recorded under enormous pressure, says Ienner, are gross exaggerations.

”Well, there was no pressure for him because he wasn’t making the record,” Desmond Child dryly responds. The producer remembers a clear message beaming out from the Sony mother ship: ”’We’d better get done,”’ he says. ”Because they didn’t want to lose this fourth quarter. And really, if we didn’t have that pressure, it could’ve easily become a record released in 2001. Because all of us could’ve done a lot more detail. And I know that Ricky would’ve wanted to sing when he wasn’t as tired.” That said, Martin apparently never registered a peep of protest. ”Ricky’s a guy that wants to make everybody happy,” Child says. ”It’s hard for him to say no, and sometimes he gets overcommitted, but the person who pays the price is Ricky Martin. He’s such a trooper, he just does it.”

Actually, ”trooper” is too stodgy a word to convey the pulsing physical engagement that Martin brings to this stuff. Being around him is like being in a pen with a bucking bronco: He leaps from chairs, he swivels his neck round and round, he kicks things by accident. If he is indeed besieged by vampires, well, you can see why the undead might want to sup on his plasma. His energy ratchets into overdrive at the mere mention of Camaron de la Isla, a Spanish flamenco legend whose life teetered romantically between the gutter and the stars. ”He was a great entertainer! He’d be dead, like that.” Martin collapses, like a puppet tossed into a corner. ”They would walk him on stage, they would sit him on a stool, and they would literally put his arms up over his guitar. And he would just…” His eyes burst open as if Camaron de la Isla is waking from a coma; from Ricky Martin’s throat comes a loud, quivering Andalusian falsetto. ”He would go for hours nonstop! And when they’d take the guitar off of him?” Boom. His whole body slumps.

Even his dreams dart into the realm of the hyperreal. When Martin got to Colonial Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, to deliver the last show of the Vida Loca Tour, he freaked out. The stadium looked precisely like the stadium from a recent dream — except that, in real life, he was earthbound. ”I dreamt that I had rockets in my shoes,” he says, ”and that I was flying on top of the stadium.”

Don’t behave like a cringing mortal being. You are a child of God!
— Paramahansa Yogananda

Ricky Martin was born on Christmas Eve. That’s probably bound to stick any kid with a jones for the spiritual, but Martin looks back differently on the holiest night of the year. ”I never had to throw a party,” he says. ”There was parties everywhere. I would just hop from house to house, partying.” For all his devotion to the enlightened stillness of yoga, the fact remains that a large segment of the world sees Ricky Martin as the global ringmaster of the bump and grind. ”Rick has a special escalator straight to the joy factory,” Rosa says. ”It has a little bit of that Elvis flair to it, a little bit of that old-school Tom Jones.” Ricky Martin’s is a body-and-soul conundrum perhaps best expressed by this beguiling couplet from his hit ”Shake Your Bon-Bon”: ”Up in the Himalayas/C’mon I wanna lay ya.”

”It’s just a search that I’ve been dealing with, to find my personality, to find who I am,” Martin says. ”And probably this is my personality: that combination of the opposites, spiritual and sexual. Well, you know what? Sexual is something that we have to see as something very natural. And something that is coming from the gods!”

Witness the ”She Bangs” video, in which Martin is petted and groped by a Sea World’s worth of aquatic nymphs. (Martin spent nine hours underwater shooting the clip in the Bahamas. When it was done, he’d shriveled up like a raisin.) ”That video is all about liberty and feeling good with yourself and getting rid of taboos. I am sick and tired of aaaah!” He mimics a horrified gasp. ”I don’t want that anymore. I can’t stand it. We are sexual.”

All right, there’s no getting around it now: If any single aspect of the show-business typhoon has sent Martin ducking for shelter over the past two years, it’s the endless — nay, monotonous — curiosity about his sexual orientation. Yin or yang, he ain’t telling me, but he will say that he finds the nosiness truly frustrating. ”In the first interview, you make a joke out of it. In the second and the third one, perhaps,” he says. ”But when you have 10 interviews in one day, and everybody asks you about this thing, it’s like, ‘What’s the need?’ Once again, it’s the aaaah! that I’m telling you about.” He makes the gasp sound again. ”So I have many answers for this. One of them is, ‘You know what? Get a life! Stop living mine.”’ He laughs, warily. ”The other answer can be, ‘I’m an artist, and you can fantasize about me however you want to. I am powerless over your thoughts. Go for it! And enjoy the ride.’ There’s nothing else to say about it.”

”Any human being that is in a situation like that feels offended, of course,” Child observes. ”That’s one of the things you sacrifice for that amount of fame and popularity. He knows that comes with the territory. It still doesn’t make it any easier.” Child says that one of Sound Loaded‘s songs, ”Jezabel,” was inspired by Martin’s complicated tango with the media: ”Given everything he had gone through in the press, from one minute being incredible to the next minute being trashed in the tabloids… I think he wanted to express a message that people should be free to be who they are — a freedom to love who they want to love.”

Earlier this year, Martin got a firsthand Princess Diana-style dose of the tabloid peril: Riding his bike through Miami, he suddenly realized that he was being trailed by a camera-toting paparazzo in a car. ”I kept riding faster, and he wanted to go faster, and I start riding my bike in the middle of the avenue and he stops the car right in front of me,” Martin recalls. ”I was gonna crash into him, and I go, ‘What is wrong with you?! Take all the pictures you want, but back off!’ And he told me, ‘These pictures are going to go around the world, you are going to go around the world, and I swear I’m going to be part of this.’ I said, ‘John Lennon. Forget it. This guy wants to be part of my life now.’ I was afraid. I was afraid.”

Is it any wonder, then, that Martin wants to take a brief break from next year’s inevitable onslaught of poking and prodding and touring and promoting and interviewing and video making? That he wants to spend part of 2001 seeking refuge on the subcontinent where nobody is sucking, sucking, sucking his blood? He’s heard about a meeting in India, a mass event where he can focus his oft-scattered energy entirely on yoga. ”Apparently it’s like a big celebration. There’s people from all over the world, meditating for a whole month. For a whole month! Meditating! I’ll go for a week or 10 days,” he says, ”and I know I’m going to come back floating.”

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