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Death Becomes Them

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This is Kiki and Herb: two misfits who met as kids in a mental institution half a century ago and teamed up to conquer the world — with a cabaret act chockablock with songs like Eminem’s "Lose Yourself" and Butt Trumpet’s "I’m Ugly." Despite boundless ambition and endless sacrifice, they are, by all accounts, failures. None of their dozens of comeback tours have gone anywhere. Kiki’s gay son won’t talk to her; one of her daughters met a watery end. Deeply angry and misunderstood, Herb lives from one gig and one young (very young) lover to the next. Since the duo’s heyday in 1967 Monaco, it’s been one long, sloppy kick-turn to the grave, which has finally, mercifully arrived. On the eve of Kiki and Herb’s farewell performance at Carnegie Hall, Nerve sat down with creators Justin Bond (who plays Kiki, the sixtysomething "boozy chantusie") and Kenny Mellman (a.k.a. her resentful accompanist Herb). — Ada Calhoun

The show is called "Kiki and Herb Will Die For You." Is this really a farewell show?
Justin: It very well could be. I’m going to school in London for a year, so it’s definitely farewell to New York for a year.

What are you studying?
Justin: Visual design, performance installation. At St. Martin’s College. I got inspired by that Pulp song "Common People": "She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge / She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College."

Couldn’t you be teaching?
Justin: I could, but I’d rather be a student. I taught at NYU and I thought it was boring. Why teach? I teach by example.

Are you going to London too, Kenny?
Kenny: No. But I’m sure I’ll be over there a lot. I was thinking about moving there, but the stars aren’t right.

Is it true you’re thinking about franchising Kiki and Herb, having, say, Deborah Harry play Kiki?
Justin: I love that idea, but our producers were too lame. Anyone who wants to take over is welcome.
Kenny: Jennifer Jason Leigh was on the list. That was my big dream, to see Jennifer Jason Leigh play Kiki, but my dreams were shattered.

You cover everything from Belle and Sebastian to Styx. How do you pick your songs?
Justin: I try to pick songs with very few lyrics.
Kenny: We try to keep the lyric content down.
Justin: Not the content. Just the words. I like to say profound things, but in very few words.
Kenny: Oh, you know, we try to highlight songwriters of the past twenty or thirty years, who are actually just as good at writing songs as the people you usually hear in cabaret. But nobody seems to get around to doing them because cabaret is kind of stalled. And there’s something about the songs that fits into the Kiki and Herb universe – the philosophy, the psychology of it all.

And that philosophy is?
Kenny: Decay.
Justin: Unfulfilled dreams, sacrifices made. Political disillusionment. Disenfranchisement. Taking action in the face of imminent death. Disappointment, but not giving up in the face of it.
Kenny: All the disses.
Justin: It’s just one big dis.

What do you consider your best show ever?
Kenny: Two years ago, our New Year’s Eve show. It was New Year’s Eve 1967, in Monaco.

Of course, that’s the year Kiki and Herb were performing at the invitation of Princess Grace, and everything was going great until the tragic death of Kiki’s beloved daughter, Coco. (Kiki left Coco alone and went below deck to satisfy her own "carnal needs," because "Where could a little girl go on the deck of a boat?")
Kenny: Kathleen Hanna [Bikini Kill, Le Tigre] played Coco, and when she drowned, there was a flash of light. I remember that moment so clearly.

Then there was the legendary show you did in lower Manhattan not long after September 11th.
Kenny: Was that the "Last Thursday Ever" show?

Yes. It started out being the last Thursday ever and ended up being the last hour. As you got drunker, the time we had left to live got shorter and shorter. It may be the best-ever parody of the terror alerts.
Justin: That was a good show. I was drunk … ooh!

Is the booze always real?
Justin: Not always. When we were doing the Off-Broadway show [Kiki and Herb, Coup de Théatre], it wasn’t.
Kenny: There was some liquor involved.

Is drinking an important part of the Kiki and Herb experience?
Kenny: It was part of the conception of Kiki and Herb, so as we get older it becomes harder and harder to keep to that plan. They had their different drinks, though now it’s one drink [Canadian Club and ginger ale]. It was conceived of as involving liquor.
Justin: It was also conceived on liquor.
Kenny: Recovering alcoholics tend to enjoy Kiki and Herb.
Justin: But children of alcoholics sometimes have a problem with it.

Have your parents seen your show?
Justin: Yes, my mother likes it, although she doesn’t like when I use the F-word. But a bunch of people who have never seen us before are coming to the Carnegie Hall show. A bus, the Hillbilly Express, is being chartered from the town in Maryland where I grew up. These are people from my church, my high school, aunts and uncles … they are going to die.

Is it safe to say you have an obsession with death?
Kenny: Perfectly safe to say.
Justin: I don’t have an obsession with death.
Kenny: The characters do.
Justin: I don’t think Kiki does. She’s matter-of-fact about it. I don’t think she’s obsessed about it. She just has to keep reminding people about death, lest they become arrogant.
Kenny: Okay, the characters don’t, but the show does. The show has a very odd obsession with death and with decay, like I said before. It is about these characters who are slowly dying onstage, as we all are in real life.
Justin: The characters did come out in the early nineties and were a reaction to the AIDS crisis. We were in the midst of all this dying. So Kiki and Herb were kind of a scream in the night.

Politically, have things changed since then?
Justin: Not really. It’s come around full circle. Back then, Bush Sr. was in office. AIDS deaths were going up. We were at war in the Middle East. The economy was going to shit. Everyone was doing nothing and pretending that the things that were happening weren’t actually happening. Now, ten years later, it’s the same story, different day. Nothing’s really changed.

So how can you leave?
Justin: Because I’m smart. I give up. I can actually say I have given up all faith. So therefore I’m leaving. I really want to get out of here, because I can’t deal with it.
Kenny: What did they call it when all the AIDS activists retired? Protest weariness? After a while, you want the kids to take over what you’re doing because you can’t continue to have all that anger in you.
Justin: I’m disillusioned about politics. But I’m not disillusioned about life! I could stay here and be around all these things that upset and irritate me or I could go somewhere. At least I feel like I’m being proactive. When you’re in the UK, you know a large percentage of the country agrees with you. Here, even if democracy worked, most of the country doesn’t feel the way I do.
Kenny: It’s very depressing. Do they serve alcohol in this place?

On the lighter side, do you get groupies?
Justin: I don’t. Kenny gets groupies more than I do.
Kenny: Which I finally figured out. It’s because they want to be Kiki. So they get this strange obsession with Herb, because he’s quiet and meek. I’ve had people who I’ve dated who were like that. They thought they were Kiki.
Justin: Meanwhile, I’m standing outside smoking a cigarette being completely ignored. Come to think of it, all three of my boyfriends I met playing Kiki.

Have you been married?
Justin: In the early nineties, I was married to Elvis Herselvis. We got married because we loved each other. We had a big wedding, not legal, but all these people came. We had a reception and a dance. It was romantic. Then we moved in together and lived together for several years. We’re still friends, but then she got a GIRLFRIEND. That’s how it goes with those lesbians. They’ll drop you like a lead balloon.

Would you get married again, for real?
Justin: Hmm…. no.

How about you, Kenny?
Kenny: Sure.
Justin: I don’t know, maybe I’d get married, but not to any of the boyfriends I have right now. My boyfriend really wanted me to do the whole domestic partnership thing, but when I finally said okay, he kind of dropped it. I was actually kind of glad. Hmm, who would I marry? Someone for E.U. citizenship. A minimalist Belgian fashion designer!
Kenny: That’s very specific.
Justin: You have to be specific. What about Hedi Slimane?

Can you talk about the sexual proclivities of Kiki and Herb?
Justin: Kiki’s a swinger. She likes boys and girls. She likes being taken out for a nice steak by a gentleman, and it doesn’t matter what that gentleman has downstairs, as long as he acts like a gentleman. That’s her bag. She likes to be treated like a lady, and she always says, sometimes it takes a woman to treat you like a lady. Cause you know, Kiki used to be a stripper, so you know a lot of those strippers really don’t like men anymore. I know a lot of my friends who are lesbians work in the sex industry, so I think Kiki has no problem with that.

She was engaged to black presidential candidate Dick Gregory, right?
Justin: Right, she was engaged to Dick Gregory. And she was married once. And she has a biracial daughter.

And Herb?
Kenny: Herb likes young gentlemen.

How young?
Kenny: Not illegal.
Justin: It depends on what state you’re in.
Kenny: What state or what country.

How does the mental retardation figure in?
Kenny: Well, the thing about the mental retardation is that as children, Kiki and Herb were diagnosed as "retards" but that’s not to say whether they are or not. Everyone who was different back in the ’30s, or whenever when they were diagnosed, was just "retarded." I think Herb’s more of a high-functioning autistic.
Justin: That’s how I think of myself, too. Kiki and Herb are both high-functioning autistics.

During this time apart, are you two going to miss each other?
(General laughter)

Do you spend a lot of time together now?
Justin: When we’re on tour, we go out together.
Kenny: It’s like any band. When you’re on tour, you spend a lot of time together, and when you’re home you have your own lives.
Justin: But our lives intersect a lot. And we like running into each other.
Kenny: Generally.
Justin: But if we’re home, I wouldn’t call him and say, "You wanna go out for a drink tonight?" But I wouldn’t do that with many people, because most of the people I want to see hang out at the same places I do. We like each other.
Kenny: We never would have worked together as long as we have otherwise.
Justin: I mean, I’ve hated him more than I’ve hated anyone in my life, but that’s how it is.

Can you reassure people that Kiki and Herb will return to New York at some point?
Justin: I would hope so. My course is finished in September 2005. I have no intention of coming back then, but I have no intention of staying.
Kenny: Of course, Kiki and Herb should have died years ago.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Doug Wright said about you two: "Death was not kind to Kiki and Herb — it took far too long to come." Must they die now?
Justin: We’ve become too successful to make it real anymore. We have to kill them off because they’re doing so well. Once they get to Carnegie Hall, that’s it … My nose hurts – what does that mean?
Kenny: Cocaine?
Justin: Thanks, Kenny. I thought maybe it meant someone somewhere loved me.  

To buy tickets for the Carnegie Hall show (September 19th) or to purchase their Christmas CD, Do You Hear What We Hear?, visit kikiandherb.com.

©2004 Nerve.com