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City Folk

Crazy for Her

Meet the disabled Madonna fanatic just about every rock critic knows

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Writers from Rolling Stone and USA Today know Leo Rauh, whose room in a Westminster group home doubles as a Madonna shrine.


Leo Rauh starts a lot of conversations by referring to “her,” as in, “Nearly 20 years ago, Entertainment Weekly had the nerve to say her era was over. Remember that terrible time?” or “To avoid becoming a nostalgia act, she reinvents all of the arrangements of her Warner hits. Aren’t you glad that she does that?”

“She” is Madonna, and Rauh, who was born with cerebral palsy and lives in a group home in Westminster, has been one of her biggest fans since 1986, a turning point he remembers well.

“One night I was lying in bed in the early spring of 1986—it was April,” Rauh, now 43, recalls. “I heard this beautiful song called ‘Live to Tell.’ I didn’t know who it was. When the DJ said it was Madonna, I was shocked, amazed. I didn’t know that the singer who sang songs like ‘Borderline’ and ‘Material Girl’ could sing sad ballads like ‘Live to Tell.’”

At the time, Leo lived with his mother and her alcoholic boyfriend and was enduring relentless cruelty in school. He found solace in Madonna’s music.

“Before I heard that song, I was, like, nowhere in my life,” he says. “When I was in middle school, I was ridiculed by both my classmates and the teachers. They thought that I was weird, they thought that I was nothing. I hated that whole toxic environment.”

Rauh had briefly run away from home a few years earlier and connected to the song’s lyrics in particular. “When Madonna sang the bridge, ‘If I ran away, I’d never have the strength to go very far,’ all of it fell into place,” he says.

He can also talk endlessly about other favored artists, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, John Mellencamp, and Prince, but Madonna is number one: He has collages of her press clippings and photos hanging above his bed, and he’s 45 pages into a book mostly about critical opinion of her, called The Immaculate Reception.

Rauh, who speaks slowly with a warble and has an encyclopedic memory, has always been a music fanatic. “My first memory was when my mother and I danced to Bob Dylan’s song ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’” he says. “I was two years old. That’s when I knew that music was going to be my life.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Rauh’s fandom is that he’s formed relationships with rock critics from around the country, including staffers at Rolling Stone, Spin, and The Washington Post and other outlets, with whom he talks about specific albums, songs, themes, and tours—he saw Madonna for the third time this week at the Verizon Center. (Full disclosure: I first talked to Leo when I was a staffer at Rolling Stone from 2005 to 2008 and he called me regularly.)

The first journalist he made contact with, in 1989, was erstwhile City Paper staffer J.D. Considine, who was on staff at The Baltimore Sun at the time and had written a freelance review of Madonna’s Like a Prayer for Rolling Stone. Rauh tracked down his number at The Sun’s Calvert Street offices and called him.

“He was one of those writers that said, ‘She’s for real, she’s here to stay, and for us, she’s a rocker,’” Rauh says before quoting Considine’s review from memory. “Considine said, ‘[Madonna] doesn’t just ask to be taken seriously, she insists on it.’”

Considine, now a jazz critic at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, recalls that, for years after Rauh first made contact, they would often get into long, hard-to-end conversations about things like Madonna’s childhood and the merits of each new album.

“What I remember most about his calls, apart from the distinctive hoarseness of his voice, was how his eagerness sometimes blurred into slight aggression as he asked question after question,” says Considine. “I always tried to be nice to him, because he seemed genuinely to be a fan of the music and also because he also seemed a bit lonely. But his timing wasn’t always convenient, and he could be hard to get off the phone.”

It’s an experience shared by journalists around the country who have talked to Leo over the years, including Brian Hiatt at Rolling Stone, Caryn Ganz at Spin, Chris Richards and Dave McKenna of The Washington Post, and Elysa Gardner of USA Today.

When Considine moved to New York to work at Revolver and Rauh tracked him down at home, Considine put an end to the calls. “Leo had apparently found my phone number in Brooklyn through directory assistance and called me at home one Saturday morning,” he recalls. “I was not amused and said as much.”

But Rauh continues to talk regularly to his rotating cadre of music aficionados from the one-story house in Westminster, where he lives with two other disabled people and a rotating staff of caregivers. He even hopes to get into the game himself by writing reviews for the Carroll County Times. Music, he says, will always be his life.

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