NKOTB 4-EVA!

A decade and a half after they rocked stages with their high-pitched bubblegum pop, the New Kids on the Block are back. So, too, are the band's shrieking fans, besotted as ever—but this time, with memories of their days before diapers and minivans.

By John Gonzalez | Boston Magazine |
nkotb

Photo by Olaf Heine

The New Kids on the Block were cuter than all the boys in my school, and their names graced the cover of every one of my school binders. That’s how I knew which subject the binder was for…Danny for English, Jon for History, Jordan for French, Donnie for Science, and Joey for Math (my favorite subject, therefore my favorite New Kid!).

People spend thousands of dollars trying to look and feel younger, searching for the ever-elusive fountain of youth. What if I told you, you could relive those days? That is what all this is about. Reliving the glory days.
—Genevieve Comolli, Ontario, Canada

[sidebar]Sarah Gelinas and Crystal Gagnon drove down from New Hampshire this morning, arriving here at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield before the gates had even opened. It’s 10 a.m., and the New Kids on the Block—NKOTB to Gelinas, Gagnon, and millions of other loyal fans—won’t take the stage until at least 8 p.m.

It was only two days ago that NKOTB appeared on the Today show, marking the first time they’d performed together in nearly a decade and a half. Because the New Kids had never been the most talented group, and are no longer kids, the critics have been panning this reunion, joking about the difficulty of skipping down memory lane after hip-replacement surgery. Even so, it didn’t take long for NKOTB to sell out shows in Toronto, Chicago, and Atlantic City. Tickets for the big September shows at the Garden, meanwhile, are all but gone. And when I wrote on this magazine’s website that I was looking for fans to explain the hysteria to me, the response was overwhelming. I received e-mails from “Blockheads” (their term) across the country, and as far away as Italy, Brazil, and Scotland.

What I heard from my new pen pals was the same kind of passion that Gagnon, 27, and Gelinas, 29, feel to this day. The two met when they were preteens. They were both in the Rainbow Girls (like the Girl Scouts, only without the cookies and with a lot more Jesus) and bonded over a love of the New Kids. Both of them had rat-tails—just as Jordan did at the time. Gagnon’s mother tolerated the look, but used it as a form of parental control. The deal, Gagnon says, “was I had to be good in school, and I had to get good grades and behave, and I could have it. As soon as I slacked off from that, she was gonna cut it.”

The two friends spent a lot of time back then talking on the phone about the New Kids, and what kind of memorabilia they each had. Gelinas has kept most of hers through the years—curtains and life-size posters and the Christmas album that she still listens to every December. Having to pack all of that away when NKOTB broke up was tough. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap, what am I going to do?'” she recalls.

Middle school, Gagnon tells me, “is a confusing time for anybody.… You don’t really know who you are. Music, for a lot of people, it defines who you are. If you’re into the punk bands, you’re a punk kid. Boy bands, you’re the happy-go-lucky preppy person.” NKOTB’s decision to stop being NKOTB, Gagnon says, left her “kind of lost.”

Today, the women talk on the phone as much as they did back when the New Kids were at the center of their lives. Gelinas is a veterinary technician and engaged to be married. Gagnon teaches in an after-school program and is married with two kids. On the morning NKOTB appeared on the Today show, Gagnon called her daughter’s school to let the teachers know that the five-year-old would be late for class. Gagnon didn’t want to miss the performance. “It’s like a whole lifestyle again,” she says. “They take over.”

Which is why she and Gelinas were happy to pay $125 each for $50 tickets to tonight’s Kiss 108 concert. Before the New Kids actually take the stage, though, the pair have to endure a number of warm-up acts, among them the Jonas Brothers, who are apparently the New Kids for the aughts. One of the brothers is supposedly dating Miley Cyrus, who doubles as Hannah Montana. All of this is related to me by a teenager who speaks very fast. When I apologize for my lack of Jonas Brothers knowledge, she simply eyes me the way archaeologists examine antiquities.

Alas, there comes a time when what’s hip and fresh and now has passed us by. You can try to fight it—maybe camouflage yourself in skinny jeans and midriff-baring shirts—or you can just stick with who you are. Gelinas and Gagnon have chosen the latter. As I tell them I’m writing a story about the New Kids, Gelinas begins doing an excited jig—sort of a cross between jumping rope and Chubby Checker’s twist—while repeating, “Show him, show him, show him!” Gagnon, desperately trying to show me, roots around in her purse for a while before coming up with…a sort-of-ratty white washcloth that has “New Kids on the Block” written in faded blue letters. Gelinas had found it with the rest of the NKOTB stuff she’d kept packed away in boxes at her stepmother’s house.

As the intro acts drone on at the Tweeter Center, it begins to rain, leaving the two women soaked. When NKOTB finally come on, it’s after 8:30, and Gelinas and Gagnon are chilly in their damp clothes. Not that they care. They’re on their feet, hooting and hollering, yelling themselves hoarse. Gagnon begins to cry and can’t stop. (“She was bawling,” Gelinas will say later, with a laugh.)

Toward the end, Gelinas hands her the washcloth so she can dry her eyes.

My life was enveloped with everything NKOTB from 1988 to 1993, when I met my now-ex-husband (who is from Dorchester). The marriage fell apart, and by the time I came to my senses, NKOTB had broken up. I was heartbroken but moved on.

Now I am 35, a college graduate, divorced, [and] have a great job. On January 28, 2008, I got some news that I never expected. I wasn’t able to go to their reunion announcement on April 4, but I did fly to NYC and slept on the street for 17 hours to attend their FIRST concert together in 14 years. It was amazing. That day I turned 15 again.
—Robin Sackevich, Michigan

The New Kids reunion has created a groundswell of speculation about how the whole thing will inspire a new generation of boy bands. (And maybe the reassembly of some other old-timers—the Funky Bunch are making noises about elbowing in on NKOTB’s action, with or without Donnie’s brother Mark Wahlberg in the role of Marky Mark.) But that implies that NKOTB were somehow pioneers, not imitators themselves. In truth, the only thing new about the Kids, even the first time around, was their name.

The band simply followed the time-tested recipe used by the people who had put together groups like Menudo before them, and ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys thereafter: Mix a bad boy (in this case, Donnie) with a good boy (Jordan), a young heartthrob (Joey), and a few spares (the other two); sprinkle in some onstage gyrations; season with a little pandering (We love you, Seattle/Cleveland/Duluth!); and serve with a healthy portion of merchandise. Instant success.

NKOTB, as anyone with a lapsed Tiger Beat subscription knows, isn’t even the first successful Boston boy band. The group’s original manager, Maurice Starr, was the guy who gave us New Edition, a crew of good-looking black kids that included Bobby Brown. When Starr had a falling-out with New Edition in 1984, he took the logical next step and started a band of good-looking white kids.

NKOTB quickly became an international sensation, but nowhere was the mania greater, as Melissa Bible can attest, than right here in their home state. As soon as Bible and her friends in Leominster were old enough to drive, they piled into an old Plymouth convertible and sped off for Boston. This was around 1992, after the NKOTB craze had already peaked. The girls were on a mission to find the New Kids. Actually, to find their houses. To someone else, this quest might have seemed creepy; to Bible, it was just something fans did. And as it turned out, when she and her friends somehow found Danny’s house in Dorchester, there were already other Blockheads camped outside. Soon, Bible’s crew had directions to Donnie’s pad in Braintree and the Knights’ castle in Dorchester. They never did find Joey’s place. (Bible, now a 33-year-old social worker, says that Jonathan has always been her favorite New Kid. “Our personalities are similar,” she explains. “We’re both kind of a little more introverted in big groups. But on a one-to-one connection, we get along with people, and we’re extroverted.” She and a friend have purchased $175 floor tickets for one of next month’s shows at the Garden—well worth the price, she insists.)

The Kids were as much a part of the ’80s and early ’90s as Nintendo and parachute pants. And for a certain type of woman who’s in her late twenties to mid-thirties, well into a career that may or may not be what she’d dreamed, maybe married or maybe with a divorce or other emotional rockiness behind her, they remain synonymous with first crushes, high school dances, and limitless choices. So yes, among those fans like Bible and her friends, the NKOTB reunion has been greeted with genuine affection.

But it’s also true that reunions in general have become merely another inevitable stage in any band’s life cycle. “Grand Funk Railroad is still out there, for God’s sake,” says Don Gorder, chair of Berklee’s music business/management department. “People resonate throughout their lives with the music of their youth, and that market continues to be there.” It’s why Viagra uses Elvis Presley to peddle ED meds and Cadillac copped a Led Zeppelin song—that music was the, ahem, soundtrack of the target demo’s youth.

Picking the right time to get the group back together is an important decision. You may not remember the first one, but this is actually the New Kids’ second comeback. In 1994, two years into what would become a much longer hiatus, they launched an aptly named “Face the Music” tour. In so doing, they were forced to acknowledge that the halls they played were nearly empty, and that they were through. The trouble back then was that the New Kids weren’t marketing themselves as a nostalgia act—they were trying to continue being hip…but they no longer were, and their fans, once obsessed with such things, had moved on. Now, though, their old crowd isn’t concerned with being cool—they just want to remember when they were. Which explains how the Kids, a failure in their first comeback, will sell out the Garden this time around.

This development makes perfect sense to Bentley College marketing professor Perry Lowe, who places the latest reemergence of the New Kids, and the reembrace of their fans, on some sort of cosmic existential continuum. “Here’s what I think it really is,” Lowe says. “At the absolutely top level, we’re no longer the center of the universe. At a level below that, other cultures, other countries, have gone through this before—whether it’s the Roman Empire, or whether it’s the British Empire, there have been world powers that have peaked. That’s probably where we are in the world. The next level down, the economy is not great. We’ve got issues of whether we are or aren’t in a depression or a recession. Whether gas prices are going to place real constraints on the way we lived before. Whether, because of subprime mortgages, we’re ever going to be able to afford houses again, or afford the ones we currently have. And then, we come down one more level from that, and the issue is ‘Boy, was it better in the old days.’ That’s kind of the funnel. The context of all this is, whether it’s reruns on television of Leave It to Beaver or anything that has to do with a number of years ago—clothing, music, any lifestyle issue—this nostalgia craze is real and it’s enduring and it’s predictable.”

And here I thought it was just a craven moneymaking scheme.


I grew up in California. My dad was an alcoholic, and my mom just wasn’t the best mom. They were divorced, and when my dad began to drive trucks for a living, I had to take care of my younger brother. We were poor. Like…food-bank-at-a-church poor. I even knew the schedule of what church gave out food when.

I begged my dad to just get me tickets to a show. We could never afford it. [When] I turned 11 years old, my dad gave me this HUGE box! I opened it and was extremely disappointed. There was nothing in the box. I looked at him and said it wasn’t funny. He says, “What, don’t you like your present?” I looked again, and at the bottom of the box were two second-row tickets to the February 21st show in Fresno!!! I was OVER the moon!!!!
—Heather Fischer, Michigan

In the end, Rachel Teran got lucky. It was an exhausting trip that hadn’t exactly gone well. Leaving Boston around midnight, she and her two friends took a Greyhound bus to Manhattan for the New Kids’ performance on the Today show. Teran figured the schedule would give them plenty of time to make it to the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center and grab a spot up close.

They arrived at NBC at about 5 a.m. That’s when Teran saw the masses: A line of fans wrapped around the block and seemed to snake all the way back to Boston. Reluctantly, Teran and company walked across the street to a larger area that had been cordoned off for overflow fans. They could still see the stage from there, but just barely. As dawn approached, it began to rain. Perfect.

Teran, 35, is a zookeeper at the Franklin Park Zoo. Not long after NKOTB first announced the reunion, she spent much of her day off standing outside the Kiss 108 studios in Medford. It was April, and the band was giving an interview about their rebirth. It rained that day, too. By the time the guys came out and greeted the fans, Teran was soaked. It didn’t matter, though, because Danny came over and looked her right in the eye and thanked her for coming. She got some pictures with him and squealed happily just like all the other fans. “It was like we were all 15 again,” she says.

Teran lives in Jamaica Plain but grew up in the sun and surf of Long Beach, listening to NKOTB with all her friends. She moved here a few years ago when her husband landed a job. It didn’t work out between them, and they got divorced. Lately she’s been spending a lot of time thinking about how things used to be, which is why she went to the Kiss 108 studios and resolved to make it to the Today show. “I’m going,” she told her friends. “I’m going by myself if you don’t want to come with me.”

Ultimately, her friends Sarah and Jackie, who also work at the zoo, agreed to tag along. But when it started to rain, their mood turned dark. They had only one umbrella among them. So Jackie did what any serious (and drenched) fan would do: She flirted with a stagehand, who eventually ushered all three of them back across the street and into the exclusive area near the stage. When the New Kids came on, Teran was just 15 feet away—close enough to see their feet splash in the puddles as they danced.

After the show, the band lingered, and a few of them came down off the stage to mix with the crowd. Jordan touched Teran’s hand, and Danny was just inches away. Donnie remained onstage, though—until he saw Teran and her friends. Teran had worn her Franklin Park Zoo hat…true Boston bona fides. “He looks at us and points to us, and then he comes around the stage, jumps
down and comes over, and gives us hugs and kisses,” she says, laughing. “Being a New Kids fan, you take a lot of crap from those who, A, don’t know anything about them or, B, just don’t like them. Seeing how they interact with us when they see us is validation of why we’re fans. It’s hard to explain the feeling. It’s like being a fan of a sports team that has been ho-humming along, and you’re there with the die-hards, and finally all that waiting pays off.”

I’m 31 and can’t believe they’re back. My friends and I would listen to their music CONSTANTLY and even got banned from the local grocery store for hiding the newest editions of BOP and TEEN BEAT until I saved enough lunch money to buy them. I can’t believe they found them behind the cereal boxes! My room was plastered with posters, which I still have…I have buttons and books, VHS tapes, cassettes, and CDs that are some of my most prized possessions. My mom even painted a picture of Jordan Knight (the man of my dreams) on the back of my favorite jean jacket…it’s the coolest thing EVER and still hangs in my closet.
—Andrea Peterson, Seattle, Washington

The New Kids on the Block may be back, but they’re not here right now. Not all of them, anyway. About 10 minutes ago, one—Jonathan—wandered off to get some cereal. No one has seen him since. Jonathan’s brother, Jordan, is sitting on the couch in this tent set up behind the stage at the Kiss 108 concert, but he keeps getting up to roam around. He returns periodically—then leaves again. Joey, the youngest Kid, stays put through the entire interview, but right now he’s chomping on a bagel and discussing his hat, a leather fedora that if not for the material might be something Sinatra would have worn. (“Is that the same hat from 15 years ago?” a jolly inquisitor asks. “No, see, it has a top,” Joey says, tilting his head down. They both laugh.)

A year earlier, Donnie had the strange impulse to swing by his music lawyer’s office in New York, a place he’d rarely visited in recent years. The lawyer handed Donnie a demo CD, which included someone he’d never heard of singing a tune now called “Summertime.” Suddenly, the boys were back recording in the studio and working on their dance moves. “Summertime,” their first new single, became an instant hit.

In other areas, the Kids are still trying to find the old rhythm. When he hears that two security guards saw a naked woman roaming the Tweeter Center parking lot, Danny attempts to get excited about this news. “A naked woman in the parking lot?” he asks loudly. It’s basic boy-band arithmetic: Undressed women plus musicians equals juvenile, lascivious comments. But no one responds. Donnie, in marketing mode, continues giving an earnest interview. Though it’s a warm day in May, he’s prepared for colder weather: white sneakers, designer jeans, a hoodie, a black ball cap tilted to the left, a white and black scarf, and a black leather jacket with a zipper over the left breast. Jordan and Joey, for reasons unknown, are busy wrestling with each other at the far end of the couch. Jonathan is still MIA.

Considering the long layoff, the rust is understandable. The Kids, incredibly, are pushing 40. It’s been many years since they ran the well-worn path from nobodies to national celebrities to played-out punch lines. But then, for New Kids devotees, this reunion isn’t really about the band or even the music—it’s about the fans themselves, just as it was the first time around. The New Kids were to these women’s adolescences what the Beatles had been to their mothers’—an act around which they spun their experiences and memories and insecurities. Today their daughters have their own bands they can attach themselves to. It’s just a happy accident of timing that NKOTB fans wound up Blockheads and not ‘N Syncophants.

Not that I recommend telling them that. It’s 10 a.m., and outside the Tweeter Center, scores of rabid Kids enthusiasts are already lined up for a concert that won’t begin for a very long time. Among them are two lifelong friends from New Hampshire named Crystal and Sarah. They’ve been waiting years for this show. What’s another 10 hours?

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/07/nkotb-4-eva/