34 Minutes With Bobby Brown

Photo: Splash News

My feet are impeccable, and I am impeccable, as an artist, as a musician, as everything, so”—and here is where Bobby Brown rears back to give us a playful two-hand shove in the chest—“that’s why this happened!” The Brownian logic is a bit hard to follow, but by “this,” Brown means his old group New Edition’s first full-fledged reunion since 1996. The tour’s second performance is about to begin: a secret show in a ballroom tucked inside the former aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, just past the Douglas A-4B Skyhawk and TBM-3E Avenger Navy planes, at a 30th-birthday bash for celebrity-party-circuit staple D.J. Cassidy.

Brown, now 42, was kicked out of New Edition in 1986 after chafing against the group’s clean image, and went on to a major solo career that birthed classic singles like “My Prerogative” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Then, for a while, he was known as Whitney Houston’s nut-bag husband, thanks to a string of drug and assault arrests and the 2005 reality-show car wreck ­Being Bobby Brown. (After they divorced in 2007, Houston told Oprah that the couple used to lace marijuana with cocaine, and that one time Brown spray-painted the words “evil eyes” all over the house.) Now he’s settled down, somewhat, with longtime girlfriend Alicia Etheridge. “I’m just trying to be Bobby, man,” he explains. “My life is like this: I’m an engaged man. I have a 2-year-old son, so imagine what time I get up in the morning. And I’m trying to stay sober.”

To that end, the only consumables visible backstage are fruit plates. Out front, though, the Hennessy Black is flowing in various sickly forms (snow cones, pink cocktails garnished with rock candy), passed around by various gorgeous, bored, tall women. Cassidy is a very particular kind of industry personality: the dude who seems to be connected to everyone for no apparent reason. (He’s D.J.’d at Diddy-hosted events, as well as at Obama’s inauguration.) That means celebrities show up to his extravagant parties; later in the night, Swizz Beatz would do an impromptu set while Carmelo Anthony looked on. The presence of New Edition is a surprise, though, meaning no one is here to see them.

New Edition’s first reunion show was at the Essence Festival in New Orleans a few days earlier. Brown: “I was just happy that they was able to keep up with me. Me, myself, being Bobby Brown? You know, I was just hoping that somebody in the group was gonna have feet like mine.” Ricky Bell, seated nearby and grinning widely, takes the bait. “That’s why he’s getting kicked out the group again. Everyone, enjoy Bobby’s performance tonight, because it’ll be his last.”

One on one, Brown is remarkably humble: “It’s just been a wonder to be around my brothers again,” he says. Around the guys, though, he can’t help but act up. While waiting for the relatively diminutive Michael Bivins—one-third of New Edition offshoot Bell Biv Devoe and a distinguished R&B producer—Brown loudly lets it be known that “that little bitch can sit on my lap.” When a passerby apologizes for getting tangled up with Brown in the crowded backstage area, Brown boisterously and repeatedly instructs the man to “say it with ya chest, young nigga!” Later, while publicists scramble to find an outdoor space for Brown to smoke a cigarette, he hangs off a locked door, wailing, “I want it open! I want it open!” ­Finally, he shields himself in a corner and lights up, mumbling. “They don’t wanna believe me, I take this shit personal.” His bandmates, more bemused than irritated, carefully fan the smoke away from the fire alarm with hand towels.

Right before showtime, the whole room grabs hands and forms a giant prayer circle. A burly man in a yellow T-shirt leads the way: “We have faith in you, Father. The struggle is not over, but the victory is won in our hearts and minds. The new F-word is forgiveness.” Brown breaks free into a quick shadowbox routine when New Edition veteran Johnny Gill comes over to reclaim his sunglasses; Brown apparently grabbed the wrong pair.

Onstage, Brown’s performance is shaky. The group’s dance moves are basic, but Brown’s a half-step slow on most, and some he misses altogether. At one point, during a spin, his white hat tumbles awkwardly off his head. “I got the wrong pair of shoes, so I can’t move like I’m supposed to,” Brown says into his mike. “It’s not ’cause I’m old. I’m the youngest in the group!”

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34 Minutes With Bobby Brown