Kiki and Herb
Kiki and Herb Will Die For You
adies and gentlemen, you’ve been a wonderful audience, and if I could love, I would love you all.
Kiki & Herb are an exaggerated portrayal of entertainment archetypes: the perennially-trashed Kiki, a failed bar diva stumbling through all the old favorites with the help of her hysterical, misled pianoman Herb, who aimlessly bleats out disjointed, love-affirming generecisms like “I’ll always be here for you!” and “tear down these walls!” with an almost maniacal energy, regardless of context. Often times, the songs are driven into the realm of discord, further reinforcing the punch of their B-grade schlock. Andy Warhol once opined that he could “only really understand amateur performers or really bad performers, because whatever they do never really comes off, so therefore it can’t be phony.” In this 145 minute Carnegie Hall document, Kiki & Herb solidify themselves, paradoxically and shiningly, as experts of amateurism. Their passionate exaggerations throw a net wide enough to capture the beauty of the figures they portray, expressing the bitter charm of their failed dreams, the strangely touching obliviousness of their drama, and the comforting cheapness of their humor.
The duo’s primary achievement is exposure: glossy, high-steppin’ revues are revealed as nightmarish and appalling, streaming with mascara, missed notes, and boozy flailings, soaring into the nauseating heights of melodrama. In the same stroke, they enshrine botched dive-bar cabaret, infusing it with feverish emotion and dedication. In turn, they reassert the transparency of pop music (regardless of how venerated), mixing cultural champagne (i.e. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”) with piss (“Sex Bomb”), and make it aqua vitae, the only thing behind the bar. And when they tackle more “serious” numbers, it’s important to remember the wisdom of James Joyce: “the mocker is never taken seriously when he is the most serious,” and “gob, there’s many a true word spoken in jest.” In a way, it’s the farthest thing from a “joke”- Tom Jones and Ian Curtis were both self-condemned as musicians to present something (even if purely aesthetic) in such a way that it resonates with an audience; both suffered from the same humanity-induced frailties of expression. This knowledge is encoded into Kiki & Herb’s existence, it’s what makes the music tick--they understand the quaint trappings of “authenticity,” trading on its fluidity and inconsistencies, all the while abstractly sounding their own ruminations, pains, and experiences simply by performing.
Kiki and Herb Will Die For You details the image of the tragic entertainer, not the artist, but someone who trades on being boisterous, passionate, comedic, and showy for sustenance. At one point in their story, Kiki claims she couldn’t sing because her heart--the source of her voice--was broken. There’s soul-searching, there’s floundering, there’s an ashram, but even though she’s lost her voice, they can still do a spoken word record. The hilariously heretical “The Revolution Medley,” strings together “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Wu-Revolution” (with Herb monolithically intoning “THERE’S ONLY ONE GOD” over Kiki’s warbling of “Wu-Tang mothafuckawawawah!”), then slips into a climactic rendering of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” over the sweaty ecstasy of brick-fisted piano chords before getting caught up in the twister, a cabana-rocking version of “Once In A Lifetime” contorting the “same as it ever was” coda into polyester-clad hack-blues sludge.
Kiki & Herb’s story is funny in the way that desperation and degradation often is: Kiki waxes nostalgic about going to rehab in the 80’s, being impregnated by an employee of Popeye’s Chicken named Yasaweh, who brings buckets of the stuff home for her to nourish her growing child. One fateful day, he gets pulled over and ends up going to jail for drug possession, leaving her to find her way with Herb to employment on the Princess Cruise Lines, a flippantly delivered, yet grisly picture of low-rent struggle. On the heels of this vignette, Kiki dedicates “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You” to Yasaweh, in a spotless, beautiful, and sympathetic performance to an uncharacteristically silent audience.
It’s gestures like these that level the playing fields of earnestness, tearing apart the foundations of our emotional psychology by tempering the absurd with the heartfelt, the subtlety of our feelings with their excess, and showing their ultimate interchangeability. It’s easy to miss the fact that in Kiki’s ensuing banter about Nancy Reagan at President Reagan’s funeral, she says “and you know what--I almost cried for that woman, and then I thought, fuck you!” a reminding echo of the forceful distortion of our emotional assumptions we’ve just been put through.
The word “tragic” isn’t for show here--it’s their flamboyant cultural performativity that alternately makes them potent and distinctive, but also potentially very unappealing. Kiki and Herb are, to a certain extent, camp, kitsch, ironic- but at the same time, it’s moving, cerebral, and calculated. Writing it off solely as the former denies its overwhelming vitality, and reading it as solely the latter puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the listener to explain why a heaving, extreme version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (cleverly and bizarrely laced with lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”) could be so gripping. Ultimately, it is what it is, and reactions are reactions, regardless of the nature of their justification- this music is as serious as any other, or as ridiculous as any other; it’s the duality and the impossibility of subconsciously holding on to the intentions of Kiki & Herb that makes their statement so powerful. Ten minutes into the near-two-hours of Kiki and Herb Will Die For You, Kiki screams “DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE,” which, with this record, seems alternately necessary, needless, impossible, and unavoidable--Kiki & Herb’s jumbled rewards come with embarrassment and confusion, but their efforts never fall short of being utterly compelling.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARCH 7, 2005 - MARCH 13TH, 2005