iki is slumped in the crook of a big tree. What is Kiki doing there? Kiki is drinking and Kiki appears, almost, for a second, to be crying. There are sequins on her lower eyelids, so it’s hard to tell. Herb plays a brief piano cue, but Kiki does nothing. She hangs her head. Herb plays it again. Kiki twitches. Nobody is laughing. Herb says “Kiki, there’s more to the song.”
“Ohhhh.” She groans. “I just like this part.” So Herb plays it again. Four or five times. Nobody moves.
Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman get dressed up as a boozy idiot lounge act and play haggard versions of pop songs: Kiki & Herb. They have two shows today, so they don’t bother taking off their makeup. Kenny’s hair is still colored gray; Justin still has black pencil marks—wrinkle lines—smeared across his face and sequins under his eyes. The wig and fake breasts are gone. Other things get carried off the stage. When I ask whether they think Kiki & Herb are funny or just incredibly bleak, Kenny says, “The funniest line in the show is ‘Time to make mama pretty.’ But that’s from my friend’s alcoholic mother—she’d say ‘Peter, time to make mama pretty.’ That gets a huge laugh, but every time we do it, I think, that’s Peter’s crazy mother, who destroyed his life.” Kiki drinks nearly a pint of liquid from a handle of whiskey during the show. She acts drunk. She’s supposed to; that’s her character in the narrative: near-dead lounge singer, perpetually wasted. When I ask what’s in the bottle, Justin smiles. “That’s a closely guarded secret.”
Kiki talks about getting cancer, buying a case of vodka, crawling under a blanket, and trying to sweat the cancer out. People sort of laugh. Kiki talks about how while she was “sweating out” her cancer, her two-year-old daughter Miss D.— “I named her Miss D. and not Misty because I didn’t want anyone too familiar with her”—wandered away. Less laughter. Kiki mentions she never came back before trailing into Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Auld Lang Syne,” a song that Kenny describes as “Being so ridiculous that in grocery stores, they don’t even use the muzak version, they just use his.” They make it sound like an epiphany. I watch an Adam’s apple descend Kiki’s throat.
This is how Kiki & Herb are: exhausting, grisly. “When we’re doing five, six, seven shows a week, I spend my days totally depressed and emotionally wrung-out. But that’s the sacrifice you make,” Justin tells me. This is something I respect. Fuck contrived notions of expressing your pain out onstage, Kiki & Herb are the most cathartic show I’ve ever seen. Kenny and Justin met doing AIDS activism work, and started performing together, first as Justin & Kenny, then as Kiki & Herb. “We were outrageous and crazy and throwing things and on mushrooms most of the time. But we both took it very seriously; it was very real to us.”
Justin continues, “At that time, it was 1993, and a lot of our friends—”
“Death was strolling around San Francisco,” Kenny says bluntly.
If they’re kitschy, they politicize it; if they’re pop, they humanize it to the point of horror (case in point: Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” has never sounded more like a song actually about the difficulties of dealing with mental illness). When they play indie—Spiritualized’s “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space” or the Mountain Goats’ “No Children”—they expose melodrama and schlock. It’s a no-brow approach: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is as believable as “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” As performers, they’re equally essential; while Kiki bleeds all over the stage, Herb shouts random words of emphasis and encouragement that suggest he might be in a completely different room. Sometimes, it sounds as if he’s just banging his fists on the piano; other times, the arrangements are remarkably demure. All music is emotionally manipulative, but few musicians have their range—few are as visceral and ugly and weird as Kiki & Herb in their manipulation.
Justin says that he only has certain things in common with Kiki. Before our interview formally begins, he takes a call while Kenny and I make small talk. “Therapy,” he sighs as he hangs up. “I’ve got to get something in; I’ve only got 11 days off.” Herb is described as a “homosexual Jew-tard.” Later, I notice a tattoo on the back of Kenny’s neck—aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Kiki & Herb are a cabaret act, but their lives are written in. The mother of one of Justin’s friends inspired Kiki. A drunk with cancer who used to be a showgirl in Baltimore. “When I met her she had radiation pencil marks on her neck, and a turban because she didn’t have any hair, and she had cancer in her jaw so a lot of her teeth were missing. She was this presence, like an oracle or something.” The image shocks me, and in the days since, has come back to haunt. “And I got to know her, and she recovered—she had this head of flaming red hair and always had red nail polish on, and she’d go out for dinner with these gentlemen she met at the track and, you know, had steak. She was scary.”
I arrived at their show a few minutes late, pretty excited about the world, pretty excited about the hamburger I had for lunch and the music I was going to make later that night. Feeling good. Twenty minutes in I found myself gripping my pen, tears streaming down my face. What? It happens. Halfway through the interview, I stall—
“I just…part of me doesn’t know what to say. I mean, when I watch you, I feel so uncomfortable, so exhausted.”
“Yes—we did it!” Justin beams. It’s not that he’s usually unhappy, dour, or overly serious, but he senses the shadow over what they do. For the first time in our talk, he’s thrilled, no strings attached.