Eight miles high, midway between New York City and Chicago, Bobby Brown walks to the rear of the airplane, finds a lavatory door that says, VACANT, and enters. It is supper time on Tuesday, May 23rd, but to Brown, who has slept most of the afternoon, it feels like a groggy morning. He was at a studio on Fourteenth Street in New York’s meatpacking district until four in the morning, filming the video for ”On Our Own,” his contribution to the Ghostbusters II soundtrack, and slipping interviews with Entertainment Tonight and MTV in between the endless takes and costume changes.
Brown slept through American Airlines’ noon flight, which he was supposed to take, then missed the two o’clock shuttle, too. He was ticketed on Midway’s 4:10 flight, which left without him. Finally, he and his posse — including two security guards and his tour manager, brother Tommy, 27 — got into a limo and hurried out to LaGuardia Airport. If they missed the five o’clock shuttle, Bobby Brown would miss his show that night in Rockford, Illinois. When they got to the gate, it was 4:58.
As tired as he is, Bobby Baresford Brown was raised a gentleman. So before he leaves the lavatory, he washes his hands. But Brown is also a careful investor, so before he washes his hands, he removes the eight bulky rings from his fingers to protect the gold from soap and water. Somehow one of the eight jewels ends up down the toilet.
Brown explains his problem to a stewardess, who demonstrates the kind of calm thinking that only flight school produces: Finding a plastic bag, she suggests Brown use it to cover his arm while he retrieves his ring. When he returns to the stall, however, Brown discovers that the door now reads, OCCUPIED.
In an instant, Brown makes a complicated series of calculations. He is twenty years old, and he has sold, at this point, 5.5 million copies of Don’t Be Cruel, his second solo album. He has achieved fame despite a series of setbacks that threatened not just his career but his life: poverty and an after-school hobby of petty theft in Boston; success in New Edition, beginning with ”Candy Girl” in 1983, blighted by lawsuits filed against his producer, Maurice Starr; more conflict when he left for a solo career; a largely ignored debut; deputes with his managers, who, after he fired them, fanned rumors that he had a drug problem. In sum, retrieving the ring would not be the first time Brown has gone through a lot of shit to earn a lucrative reward.
Brown is proud, determined, serious beyond his years. He does not like losing, least of all losing a ring that symbolizes the riches he has earned. But without the ring, Brown is still heavy with gold, including a thick cable around his neck and a Rolex watch. When the plane lands, Brown leaves without the ring and strides off toward the waiting limo, stopping only to get a box of popcorn.
What is the most accurate gauge of a musician’s success in the Eighties? His acting career, of course.
Singers’ thespian debuts nearly always reflect their rank in the musical pantheon, from Madonna’s feature film roles to Stacey Q’s spot on The Facts of Life. Brown is a chart-topping artist, and his acting career was probably inevitable. When Peter Afterman, executive producer of the Ghostbusters II soundtrack, was choosing from among the many record companies that wanted to release the album, he knew he would have to find a way to match Ray Parker Jr.’s ”Ghostbusters,” the titanic single from the 1984 film. Bobby Brown had already had three Top Five pop hits — ”Don’t Be Cruel,” ”My Prerogative” and ”Roni,” with a fourth, ”Every Little Step” on the way. Afterman went to MCA Records, Brown’s label, with an offer: MCA could have the lucrative rights to the Ghostbusters II soundtrack if Brown agreed to participate.
Brown, realizing his participation was the crux of the deal, agreed to contribute to the soundtrack on the condition that he be given a role in the film. Although shooting had almost been completed, director Ivan Reitman wrote a one-scene cameo for Brown as a gabby butler to the mayor of New York, an eager shark who pesters the ‘busters as they are entering Gracie Mansion, home to the city’s chief executive. With just a few lines, Brown made a surprisingly effective debut. For Brown, acting is part of a scheme to establish himself as a multimedia entertainer. ”I’m not just a singer, or a dancer, or a performer,” he says. ”I want to be a lot of different things. People don’t know what Bobby Brown is. I want to be mysterious. I don’t want people to be able to label me. I just wanna be Bobby, the Man Who Does Everything.”
Brown has had no acting lessons, doesn’t plan to take any and believes he won’t embarrass himself the way other musicians have. Already he has been signed for an HBO special, and a meeting with Eddie Murphy has been arranged. ”Acting is just a frame of mind,” says Brown. ”If you know how to block the camera off from taing there, its easy to act like another person. It’s very easy.” For tips on acting, he says, he watches a lot of television.
In addition to acting. Brown has plans to produce other acts, and he wants to study music technology, so he can work in a studio without an engineer and a keyboard player. ”I need to get back into production,” he says, ”and get my music out of my head and onto tracks. ‘Cause it’ll get clogged up after a while. I don’t need that” He laughs quietly. ”I got too many problems on my own.” Then he looks away, embarrassed.
As he is lowered onto the stage at the rockford MetroCentre Inter that night, sitting on a huge throne, Bobby Brown seems fueled by an odd energy, something more than enthusiasm and adrenalin. His performance is wild but erratic. On record his music has a thick but nimble backbeat that tonight eludes his clumsy ten-piece band, which has more keyboard players than Depeche Mode. The show isn’t close to sold out, perhaps because Brown has played nearby Chicago five times in the previous eight month. And the short sets by the opening acts — K-9 Posse, LeVert and Karyn White — have been greeted mildly. But Brown has Rockford’s teens in a lather. When he swivels, the girls cheer. When he grinds, they gasp.
In an hour and a hall. Brown does about nine songs, an average of ten minutes a song. There’s lots of time to talk, and twice he brings members of the audience onstage to flirt, dance and watch him grind. His shirt comes off quickly, then his slacks, revealing a thin but almost entirely muscled frame in flattering bicycle shorts. The evening’s antics are, he says later, ”even less” than on the January night when the police in Columbus, Georgia, arrested him for violating the city’s ”lewd law.” They charged him with ”simulating sexual intercourse,” and he was fined $652, though he says he wasn’t within three feet of his onstage dancing partner.
And while Brown exhorts his audience, the two words he uses most are ladies and motherfucker. ”That’s not usually in my vocabulary,” he says later. ”I was just tired and mentally disturbed. I lost it. I don’t usually say motherfucker.”
Fluke or not, those two words constitute a microcosm of Brown’s musical appeal, ranging from the traditional techniques of soul to the coarser language of rap. As he spins around the stage in Rockford, it’s obvious, that Brown has displaced his elders on the pop charts not just because his songs adapt hip-hop beats but also because he has revived the aggressive sexuality that rap drew from James Brown.