I was originally commissioned to write this piece for a Channel 4 website, but due to 'artistic differences' with the editor who proposed 'something edgy' then balked at my first draft -- which just goes to show me (am I still blind in one eye?, I must be): never compromise. I had a hard time spelling that word. It just leads you down a path that even a £100 fee isn't worth. So, as I've done for the past - um - decades, I carry on in my own sweet-and-sour way.
How do you describe the indescribable? Kiki and Herb are the creation of Justin Bond (Kiki) and Kenny Mellman (Herb).
The deranged award-winning lounge duo/drag/punk/ cabaret act.
Kiki is a washed-up boozy chanteuse whose life has passed her by. Herb is her piano bashing life-long accompanist, he is also a homosexual, jew and retard (in Kiki's slurs). Kiki's singing style is Sarah Vaughn crashing into Courtney Love on a dark road, or Judy Garland's last croak.
At any given moment they careen off the rails into Kiki's hilarious monologues which are tragic-comic. Fantasy and reality collide head-on and pile up, under an amber spotlight where the show biz addled star on the skids -- a has-been who's never really been -- screams/belts out Nivara's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Imagine one of your old booze-soaked crazy aunts getting up at a wedding reception and losing it and you'll be close to what Kiki is. But she couldn't do it without Herb. Herb is the pianist's equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, tinkling away behind Kiki's lost words or thunder-bashing the keys in retarded overexcitement. He even sneaks in snatches of Lou Reed's 'Berlin'.
I call Justin and Kenny in their hotel room in Washington D.C. -- The Plaza -- where they've been doing their show for the past 30 nights. A five-day break in their native NYC, then they come to London for the Xmas show. I've known them for a couple of years. I first saw their shows when I lived in NYC.
Justin/Kiki answers the phone. I'm trying to picture the hotel room in D.C. Are there matching sofas and curtains? Can they see the White House or the holey Pentagon?
How is Justin dressed? A known androgyne, I'm sure he's in stirrup slacks and a blouse, and he usually wears his longish blond hair in a plat at the back. I wonder if Kenny (Herb) is in a polyester suit? Perhaps not. Actually, over the phone all I can 'see' is a floating blackness and now Justin's deep, slightly southern voice.
Justin: Hi Bertie! What've you been up to?
Bertie: Well let's see. I made a little film with Mike Diana called Peehole which was shown at the Horse Hospital in September. I'm trying to get to Holland coz Mike's over there now and I want to do Peehole 2 where I take him to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam in Nazi uniform and get him to hide...
Justin: Wow! That's fucked up!
Bertie: Anyway, tell me about the Xmas show.
Justin: Well let's see it's our take on Xmas, sort of anti-Xmas! I mean really anyone born on Xmas day doesn't come to a good end! Xmas is for all the lost souls, the jews, the retards, the dispossessed, of course Herb and Jesus are all of the above!
Bertie: I can see Kiki getting up on that cross and...
Justin: That's Easter, Bertie!
Bertie: How did you start doing Kiki and Herb?
Justin: Well, it started in San Francisco in the early 90s. We were doing these fucked-up punk songs on piano and my singing and I'd start to free associate these rants and ravings and Kenny would kinda do the same on piano. We'd get invited to all these fag parties as the entertainment and I'd get drunk and go completely nuts. Then it slowly evolved from there. I wrote monologues and the act came together. I was drinking a lot and even ended up throwing a tray full of steak knives at one audience!
Bertie: I hate to use this term, but it sounds very 'punky'. I think what you do as Kiki is'nt drag: you're an actor. How do you see it?
Justin: Well, I am an actor -- Kiki's a character I play. I wear drag in my everyday life.
Bertie: I think your performance is 'shamanistic' in terms of how it affects the audience. It has a visceral energy. You're entertaining us, but it is not merely a show, but a happening of sorts, changing people's consciousness. I know that sound pretentious…
Justin: Not at all, I love it.
Bertie: What do you do to get into the part?
Justin: Well, I used to just put the make up on and clothes and have a couple of C.C. and ginger's (Kiki's favourite tipple: Canadian Club whisky and ginger ale) the transformation is total when I spray on the perfume!
Bertie: It's a smell that transforms you from Justin to Kiki?
Justin: Yep! It's called 'Gingy' by Mary K… when I hear Herb say "I can smell Kiki", I know I'm there.
Bertie: And Herb?
Kenny's voice sounds miles away and reed-thin as Justin reiterates his reply:
Kenny: The jacket!
Kiki and Herb are in the bizness of unhinging us by way of entertainment, by the deconstruction of pop songs, which take on new meaning, a greater poingnancy.. you have to see Kiki to understand how he weaves surrealism (the persona) with traditionalism (the songs) together to such an outstanding effect.
Every now and then you meet people who have a certain spirit -- I don't want to use the word 'punk' because it isn't quite right, but it certainly comes close -- individuals who are totally themselves and creatively do what they want regardless, don't compromise, retain unorthodox and subversive ways of being and being creative. Some of them are friends, others I know by their work/reputation only and like the Queen's Honours List, I shall name them here as yuky old 2002 is drawing to a close and I have nothing new or profound to say about it except: "There's the door, what's your hurray?'':
Courtney Love, Kathy Acker, Nicola Tyson (painter), James Hollands (curator of Horse Hospital gallery), Justin Bond (Kiki), Andrew Gallix, Six (photographer), Michel Houellebecq, Michael Bracewell, S.J.Curtis, Domini Maucondui, Sandy Daley, Mike Diana, Siouxsie, Simon Periton, Philip, Beth Gibbons, Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko).
There's a Stranger in the Manger:
Runs from 6 December-11 January 2003 (9.30pm) at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London. £10-£15. Box office: 0207 478 0100. There's a special performance and party on New Year's Eve, hosted by kiki and Herb at Cafe Lazee next to Soho Theatre (£25).