Life on the Other Side of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll
“Yo, it’s Bobby,” Bobby Brown said. “What up?”
“What’s up? You called me.” That’s what I said.
I learned to be indignant when I worked for MCA Records. I learned that Irving Azoff, Richard Palmese and Larry Solters were more important than any of the artists, and I learned that having a major label expense account was a very good thing.
They hired me to do “alternative” PR. Unfortunately, MCA didn’t have any alternative artists, so I became an urban publicist. I worked with Pebbles, the Jets, Gladys Knight, Guy, New Edition, and Bobby Brown. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I was determined to do it well. (Credit where credit’s due: Janie Hoffman, Liz Heller, Susan Levy and Juanita Stephens were incredibly willing teachers.)
The Bobby I knew was pretty cool. Now I’m not sure why I thought that — it could well be that he was the first famous person I knew that deigned to acknowledge my existence. He was unflaggingly polite. He was charming. He remembered my name. I liked hanging around with him and his brother, the ever-present Tommy, even though Bobby was fiercely unreliable. He missed interviews, video shoots, shows and flights. (I once straddled myself between a jetway and an airplane door to keep the plane from taking off without him.)
At the height of his multi-platinum success, Bobby was functionally illiterate. He could barely sound out the headline of a review in Bop Magazine, which would probably have read something like “Bobby Brown is Good.” He was usually surrounded by his homeboys from Roxbury, people he supported, living big and stupid. (Tommy must have gotten paid a fortune for delivering the finger snaps he’s credited with on the Don’t Be Cruel album.)
Bobby was self-destructive. Not in a romantic sense; he wasn’t introspective and he wasn’t deep. Bobby didn’t have a case of existential angst. He was just limited, a hedonist, and there wasn’t a single person in his massive entourage that had any kind of reason or ability to help him live a smarter life. (We went to a video shoot together once; despite having problems with gangbangers, and being warned to keep a low-profile, Bobby, dressed in Shoot-Me-Red, danced to “My Prerogative” through the limo’s moon roof while his boys kicked back with champagne and fingered their guns.)
At one point, I got sent to Chicago to drag Bobby back to Los Angeles. It could have been the American Music Awards or the Grammys or an in-store. Whatever: I have a distinct memory of showing up at Bobby’s hotel and finding him in a dark room, alone and sad. I kinda remember bottles and pipes.
I moved back to Boston after MCA invited me to leave, and Bobby — ever the loyal friend – hired me to be one of his hangers-on. I went to work for his mother, Carole, who was (not surprisingly) living off of Bobby. I’d take the T out to Bobby’s, and his on-the-payroll sister would pick me up in one of the brand-new Jaguars Bobby had bought for each member of his humongous family. (The cars were all trashed: melted ice-cream baked into the leather upholstery by the summer sun and the kind of mild dents that could only come from not-giving-a-shit.)
I guess we were running his fan club. I have a limited recollection, although in my mind’s eye I can still see the kids that were always running around half-dressed, the broken-down furniture, pitchers of Kool-Aid and the sacks of mail that had accumulated in the living room.
I was an Apple fanatic. I brought the first computers to MCA and I set up all of the systems we used in the publicity department. I knew what I was talking about when I tried to convince Carole that we needed to get some Macs but she’d have none of it. She didn’t understand computers and wasn’t willing to learn about them. She wouldn’t even consider it.
Instead, we’d open every letter and type the salient info onto sheets of 8 1/2″ by 11″ three-hole paper. At the end of the day, we’d put the lists into plastic-covered binders and stack them onto a shelf in the dining room. If there was any kind of plan for the notebooks, no one told me.
Most of Bobby’s fan mail came from crazed teenage girls, but we read every letter looking for the Make-A-Wish kids, the dying children who just wanted Bobby to say hello. When we found them, we’d pass them over to Carole, who was good-heartedly dedicated to doing whatever good she could. The problem was that by the time we separated the fan mail from the final requests, the letters had been sitting for months. Most of the time, when Carole called to arrange a brush with Bobby, the kids were dead.
I left Boston a couple of months after I got there; I moved back to LA and resumed my fancy career. Bobby and I didn’t cross paths again until sometime around 2005, when he came to E!, with Tommy, to promote “Being Bobby Brown.” Bobby sat in the makeup chair and I talked to him in the mirror; I asked about his old friend Zorro, his baby mama Kim, his mother and his sisters. When I showed him a Rolling Stone story I’d found from back in the day, he looked away. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that in his late thirties, Bobby still hadn’t mastered the fine art of reading.
This week I’ve read way too much about how Bobby Brown turned Whitney Houston into a crackhead. I’m writing this post because I’m uniquely qualified to say that Bobby wouldn’t have been capable of it. Not only because Bobby was a hapless man surrounded by haplessness, and I witnessed it firsthand, but because Whitney was an addict and so am I. No one can turn anyone else into an addict. Addiction is a disease — a motherfucker of a disease — but it’s not contagious.
I wish she had gotten help. I’m grateful that I did.