As I look back on my life, I realize there was a time before the New Kids on the Block, and there was a time after. Their high-energy, late-’80s/early-’90s dance moves, their feathered hairdos, their shoulder-padded blazers — it all entered my consciousness like a bolt from the blue. I turned around one day and all my friends at the Sheehan School in Westwood, Mass., were wearing New Kids pins and New Kids shirts.
My friend Nikki Delaney had New Kids sheets and a New Kids bedspread. She laid her little head down on a pillowcase adorned with all five of their faces. Her older sister took her to a concert (they had to leave because it was too noisy and Nikki began crying). She also had a Joey doll and someone gave her a poster signed by him.
“It said, ‘To Nikki from Joey,’ ” she recalled. “It was the greatest thing in my life.”
I think I was a little late to the Kids because my parents didn’t get cable. The only chance I had of glimpsing the videos was going to my Nana’s or hanging out with the kids next door. But sure enough, by 1988, I was in full swing with the Jordan, Joey, Donnie, Danny and Jonathan mania.
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Now, they are back. The Kids — er, men — have a new single called “Summertime,” and performed live for the first time in 15 years on Friday's TODAY.
The New Kids on the Block took Westwood, a small Boston suburb, by storm. It helped that they were hometown boys. Bad-boy Donnie Wahlberg and jockish Danny Wood grew up in the grizzled Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. Front-man Jordan Knight and his brother Jonathan were born in Worcester. The baby, Joey (who is now 36!), grew up in Jamaica Plain. To the kids of Westwood, these guys were bigger than Aerosmith, bigger than Bobby Brown — even bigger than the Red Sox!
My former classmate James Nasman was a mellower sort of New Kids fan. He liked Donnie, who he described as “the closest thing to a badass that group had.” James roller-skated to “Please Don’t Go Girl,” and liked to rock out to “Step by Step.” But most of all, James, now a researcher at Children’s Hospital in Boston, recalls the New Kids “mass hysteria” that overtook our elementary school.
In all probability, 26-year-old Betsy Narciso was one of those girls. She was the first person who came to mind when I learned the New Kids on the Block were getting back together. Betsy and I attended the same after-school program. I distinctly recall sitting with Betsy on a picnic table. She wore a black bowl hat, a denim vest and definitely a giant New Kids on the Block button. Come to think of it — I remember singing the songs with her! Betsy took being a New Kids fan seriously.
“I believe I had a New Kids on the Block birthday party,” she told me recently. “I had the dolls. I had all the pins. I had all the tapes. I had T-shirts. I know I didn’t have the bedding. I know at one point I had a backpack. That’s all I can remember that I had.”
Rise and fall of the Kids
Girls like Betsy helped make the man behind the supergroup very wealthy. Producer Maurice Starr created Bobby Brown’s original group, “New Edition,” and thought he might find even more success if he replaced the black kids with white ones.
The New Kids on the Block released their self-titled debut in 1986 to little fanfare. The “mass hysteria” James referred to began in 1988 with their second album, “Hangin' Tough,” which included songs like “You Got It (The Right Stuff),” “Cover Girl,” “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “I’ll Be Loving You Forever.” They recorded a successful Christmas album and then moved on to the more mature “Step by Step,” named for its first single, which also features the oddly Beatle-esque “Tonight.”
By 1994 gangster rap and grunge relegated the Kids into cheesy artifacts of the previous decade. Their attempt to become harder and hipper by changing their name to NKOTB failed with the fourth album, “Face the Music.”
“I think it went downhill from there,” Nikki said.
Thus the Kids went their separate ways. Jordan kept singing and scored a huge hit in 1999 with his suggestive song “Give It to You.” Joey starred on “Boston Legal,” competed on “Dancing With the Stars” and had a few hits of his own. Jonathan Knight left show business to become a real estate developer. Danny Wood formed an independent record label and recorded a few solo albums. Donnie followed his Oscar-nominated brother Mark (aka Marky Mark) into acting, starring in “Sixth Sense” and HBO’s acclaimed miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Fine accomplishments to be sure, but none of the New Kids received the same adulation and adoration apart as they did together.
‘It’s like your childhood is back’
My friend Brent Stackhouse got a chance to watch the phenomenon upclose when he lived in the same Boston apartment building as Jordan Knight. Each Monday, young Brent left his apartment to attend his guitar lessons. Every week, while he made his way to the building’s lobby, the elevator stopped at the 18th floor and Jordan Knight, accompanied by two large bodyguards, got on. Even at age 12, Brent, who now works in finance, couldn’t help but be embarrassed. Here he was, a kid “with a bowl cut, braces and (wearing a) baha,” carrying a 3/4-size acoustic guitar in front of a bona fide rock star.
“I just wanted to die. If I could have found my way into the wood paneling, I would have,” said Brent, 27. “He would never say anything. They would stop talking when they got on the elevator.”
Brent’s presence in the building may have made life more difficult for the New Kid. On his 13th birthday Brent and a friend were with their mothers on the elevator, on their way to see the musical “Forever Plaid.” Sure enough, they stopped on the 18th floor. Jordan and his entourage got on.
“So we go down the elevator and the elevator door opens and 15 of our friends are down there waiting for us — he blanched,” Brent said. “I’m sure he thought all those 13-year-olds were there for him.”
Now those 13-year-olds are in their late 20s and early 30s. Many of them, like Betsy and Nikki, are excited to relive the hysteria. Tickets for their upcoming Boston concert are about to go on sale and Betsy has her credit card ready. She’s trying to gather the same group of friends she saw the New Kids with in 1990.
“It’s like your childhood is back!” she said. “We can be kids again, with alcohol this time. It was such an unbelievable phenomenon — mass following. They had a cartoon on Saturday morning. To see them come back and see them 20 years later — it’s fun!”
The only question now is: Can they take it beyond the nostalgia aspect? Will their music still top charts in 2008? Brent Stackhouse is not sure if it matters.
“They already made it,” he said. “All we can do is analyze their legacy.”
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