Just hours after discovering that his ex-wife Whitney Houston had died under mysterious circumstances in a Beverly Hills hotel room Saturday afternoon, Bobby Brown let loose an outpouring of emotion in the middle of a heart-rending and unexpectedly poignant concert with his ‘80s pop outfit New Edition at Landers Center in Southaven, Louisiana.
“First of all, I want to tell you that I love you all,” Brown said, tearfully, part way through the set. “Second, I would like to say ‘I love you Whitney.’ The hardest thing for me to do is to come on this stage.”
The singer’s comments provided a sad coda to Brown and Houston’s tumultuous 15 years of marriage, a union that unfolded like a gonzo soap opera across the pages of so many tabloids and a reality TV show, before crumbling under the weight of its numerous dysfunctions in 2007.
Over their time together, Houston and Brown positioned themselves as a kind of ‘80s R&B edition of Bonnie and Clyde—he, a hard-partying bad-boy pioneer of New Jack Swing, and she, America’s onetime sweetheart, the glowing beauty with a stunning multi-octave range—whose glaring personal disparities combined to create a dangerous codependent relationship. “He was my drug,” Houston told Oprah Winfrey in a widely publicized 2009 interview. “I didn’t do anything without him. I wasn’t getting high by myself. It was me and him together, and we were partners, and that’s what my high was—him. He and I being together, and whatever we did, we did it together. No matter what, we did it together.”
What they did together, according to her testimony, included a nightmarish descent into hard-core drugs, fistfights and bizarro behavior by Brown, such as him spray painting “evil eyes” on the walls and carpets of their home and cutting the heads off all photographs of Houston.
The couple was married in 1992 and the following year they conceived a daughter, Bobbi Kristina. To hear Houston tell it, what doomed their relationship, though, was her movie breakthrough that year in the romantic thriller The Bodyguard, which includes the singer’s epochal contribution to its soundtrack “I Will Always Love You.” “Something happens to a man when a woman has that much fame,” Houston explained on Oprah. “I tried to play it down all the time. I used to say, ‘I’m Mrs. Brown, don’t call me Houston.’”
In 2000, Hawaiian airport authorities found nearly half an ounce of marijuana in the actress-singer’s luggage, but she and Brown boarded a plane and flew off before Houston could be arrested and the charges were later dropped. Although she flat out denied to Diane Sawyer that she and Brown abused drugs—“We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is wack,” Houston memorably said in the interview—by the mid-2000s, Houston had endured a roundelay of rehab stays. She admitted she made habitual use of marijuana and crack and specified that Brown’s highs of choice were alcohol and marijuana laced with cocaine.
By that point, the couple’s fights had entered a physical realm. In 2003, police responded to a domestic-violence 911 call to their Georgia home and discovered Houston with a bruised cheek and a cut lip. Brown subsequently turned himself in and was charged with misdemeanor battery for striking the superstar and reportedly threatening to “beat her ass.” Inexplicably, the couple left Brown’s court hearing arm in arm and drove away in an SUV with Houston singing along to the Aretha Franklin song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
"They were like Mr. and Mrs. Smith," says a friend who's known them for roughly two decades. "It was a real, love-hate relationship." Still, the person never really bought the popular media-storyline about Bobby being the thing that brought down Whitney. "I hate when people blame Bobby for her drug use. He had his drug use and she had hers. They got divorced many years ago, she had all the opportunities in the world to get herself to together and she didn’t. I actually think part of the reason they broke, up was that he was trying to get clean."
Unscripted television captured their dynamic on Bravo’s highly-rated 2005 series Being Bobby Brown (which aired for only one season). While providing a high-profile platform for Brown’s inflated ego, daytime drinking habits, and delusions of continuing pop-cultural relevance, the show threw Houston’s personal decline into stark relief. She was reportedly pressured by Brown into filming, and appeared alternately wobbly, inchoate, and fragile; any last shred of Houston’s dignity seemed to have been left in an earlier decade. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,” Brown was filmed saying to his wife on the show. “Bring that ass in quick, I’m gonna show you what I do with it.”
The two separated shortly after the show aired and divorced a year later.
On Saturday night, Brown reportedly broke down in tears during a performance of his hit “Tenderoni” and had to ask the audience to help him get through the song. It remains unclear how much contact Brown and Houston had been in since their divorce. But on Saturday, the New Edition frontman reportedly contacted many of their mutual friends with news of Houston’s passing before the announcement had been made public.
On Sunday, a rumor that Brown had killed himself (after writing the suicide note “two can play at that game”—the title of one of his hits) flooded Twitter. And in the Twitterati’s court of public opinion, blame for Houston’s death was laid squarely at Brown’s doorstep. “if I was BOBBY BROWN I wouldn’t even show up to the funeral THEY GONE KILL HIM!!” tweeted @jackthriller.
Jacob Bernstein has contributed to this report.