The first time I saw Kiki and Herb perform was in the spring of 1999. They had a Wednesday night engagement at Flamingo East, a gay club in the East Village now best known for Pop Rocks, its cotton-candy, 18+ night. Kiki and Herb had the second floor; downstairs, people were drinking $10 martinis and discussing the Columbine massacre. I went with three friends. We were half of the audience. I’m always terrified when I realize a show is empty. If it’s bad, if you get tired, if you’re really gassy, you can’t leave. (Well, you probably can, but I’m too polite, too easily embarrassed.) Even worse, I noticed that one of the guys sitting in front of me was “Clark,” a gay Mormon I’d been disastrously set up with in college. He was drunk.
And so was Kiki. Or so, I should say, was Justin Bond, the thirtysomething man who played Kiki, a seventysomething lounge singer who was a turbulent mix of Rosemary Clooney, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and Wendy O. Williams. While her accompanist, the long-suffering Herb (played by the long-suffering Kenny Mellman), slammed away at his piano, Kiki scream-sang and told stories. What differentiated Kiki from other drag queens was her song choice (Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film),” Mary J. Blige’s “Deep Inside,” Belle and Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” and the like) and her deeply felt, fully constructed, deeply wounded personality.
A quick bio: During the Depression, Kiki’s parents gave her to an orphanage but kept her sister. At the home, Kiki met Herb: “He was a gay Jew ’tard before it was cool to be a gay Jew ’tard.” Eventually, she became a stripper, then a singer, an activist and a drunk. She had three children. One died, one became a mother-hating gay travel agent and one—Miss D—was taken away by social services. Eventually, Kiki and Herb ended up performing on the Love Boat in the 1980s. They were tossed overboard, but then found their way to San Francisco and New York, finding people who loved their music (“tuning into our sound”) along the way. Faced with violence, drugs and rejection, Kiki and Herb were indestructible.
But Kiki wasn’t about cross-dressing and transgression for comic effect. Kiki was post-drag. Like Hedwig and Dame Edna, Kiki was a great dramatic character, and her performances were transcendent. Hedwig was a modern, punk-rock Tiresias. Edna is the extremity of celebrity. And Kiki was rage personified, the ultimate result of twentieth-century oppression transmogrified into scathing humour. It was well within her character to throw a tumbler of Scotch at my disastrous blind date Clark when he talked through one of her songs. It shattered as it struck Clark’s table; glass flew in every direction and Scotch droplets hit my face. Then she declared that it was difficult to care too much about the victims of the war in “Bosnia Herzevagina,” as she called it, “because face it, ladies and gentlemen, they will never be a part of our audience.”
And now, no one will ever again be part of their audience. You’ll notice that I refer to both Hedwig and Kiki in the past tense. Hedwig exists only on film now, and Kiki and Herb are dead. (Edna lives on, of course.) Between that 1999 show and September 19, 2004, Kiki and Herb became the queen and butler of New York edginess. They sold out their weekly engagements at Fez, gave infamous performances at the Knitting Factory, released a demented Christmas album and starred in an off-Broadway show for a year. But then Justin Bond decided to move to London and go to graduate school. So they found some producers to rent out Carnegie Hall and the result was “Kiki and Herb Will Die For You,” which happened once and only once on September 19. The CD will likely come out in December.
It took me weeks to get around to buying tickets for the show. I kept thinking, as a good self-hating hipster homosexual would, “It’ll never sell out. There will be orchestra seats on the day of the show.” Then I discovered, two weeks before, that the only seats available were (yay!) $29 and (boo!) in the rear balcony. When we sat down, we laughed as blood flowed from our noses. It was like seeing a show at Madison Square Garden, except from these seats you could watch thousands of edgy fags kissing each other’s cheeks instead of thousands of forty-year-old guys from Queens in KISS T-shirts spilling beers on their girlfriends. Nevertheless, just as when KISS exploded onto the stage in a ball of fire, when Kiki and Herb entered stage right, they looked like ants. Tiny gay ants. I wished I’d brought binoculars. The guys sitting next to us had a pair, but they didn’t offer to share. Bitches. But I’d seen Kiki and Herb so many times, I knew from the way they jerked their heads, from the songs they screamed, from Kiki gallivanting across the stage, what their faces looked like: contorted, ashen, insane.
The only main differences between Kiki and Herb at, say, Fez and Kiki and Herb at Carnegie Hall were in sizes: a bigger stage, a bigger budget for Kiki’s dresses and a bigger fine if they went past their 11:30 PM curfew. Otherwise, the changes were subtle. They weren’t drunk, for instance. (They were often sloshed during their epically long, chaotic shows. Once, Kiki stormed off-stage because someone was talking and then didn’t come back for twenty minutes. Another time, she threw a beer bottle at a man, hitting him in the head. Once, she crawled on a table, knocked over everyone’s drinks and, writhing, screeched the lyrics to Pulp’s “This is Hardcore.”) Kiki did drink from what looked like a Scotch bottle, but I don’t believe it was anything but water, or maybe apple juice. Perhaps Vitamin Water? Whatever it was, she was in control, and very mindful of her audience.
She sang songs that we wanted to hear. “Flamingo” is one of their signatures, and Kiki sings it so fast (usually with the “go” as an exclamation) that it sounds like lounge speed-metal. When a song gets repetitive, they speed up the refrain. This is sort of their calling card, their “Whatcha talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” They did it on Annie Lennox’s “Why?” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” which, along with “Flamingo,” made up part of the opening string of songs. They were all old Kiki faves. Then she stopped the show with a bombastic “Windmills of My Mind,” which I’d never heard her sing before and which she introduced with a long, rambling buildup about her friendship with Grace Kelly. (It was somewhat reminiscent of Elaine Stritch’s long and rambling—and funnier—story about getting drunk with Judy Garland, found on Stritch’s At Liberty.) More than stopping the show, the song knocked Kiki out. As she lay on the stage, Herb belted the Decemberists’ “I Was Meant for the Stage” and, I hope, launched his post-Herb career. In the past, Mellman’s singing has been, to put it bluntly, atonal. I was astonished by this performance, as was the audience. Thrusting us back into ironyland, they then did “The Rainbow Connection” and ended the first act. The audience loved every moment. In fact, the roar from the audience—mostly men without dates, as Kiki mentioned—was eerily, creepily reminiscent of the cheers following every song on Judy at Carnegie Hall. When Kiki pointed out her daughter, Miss D, in the audience, I did my four-finger whistle and hoped against hope that I would be able to hear myself on the recording.
After the intermission, Kiki and Herb did a medley from their (fictional) 1972 spoken-word album, “Whitey on the Moon.” It consisted of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Lose Yourself,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “Release Yo’ Delf.” She mixed in some “Wu, mutherfucka!” and somewhere a hole was ripped in the space-time continuum. Matter. Anti-matter. Boom.
Then there was a singalong (“Dominique”), more irony (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”), a gloriously insane aria (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and encores full of special guests (Rufus Wainwright, Jake Shears and Sandra Bernhard helping on “Those Were the Days.”)
Then Kiki and Herb closed with “Running up that Hill.” They do it more slowly than Kate Bush, with a great deal of anguish and devoid of irony. It was one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced at the theatre.
You don’t want to hurt me,
But see how deep the bullet lies.
Unaware I’m tearing you asunder.
Oh, there is thunder in our hearts.
Maybe I took the lyrics too seriously, too personally, too politically. They had, understandably, set a different kind of mood for this show. While the songs, the singing, the audience and the jokes were all vintage Kiki and Herb, the banter was not. The stories were more bitter than they’d ever been. I’d never heard her talk about the drowning of her first daughter or being beaten by her first husband. She was much more anguished than I’d even seen her. When she spoke of Reagan’s death, she cackled and told Nancy that she got what she deserved and that the former president really got what he deserved. “What’s Reagan’s legacy?” Kiki asked. “Herb, how many of our friends died of AIDS? Well, that’s Reagan’s legacy.” The bitterness from Kiki is to be expected. The character is an aged, crazed lounge singer. But I felt that Bond’s rage was seeping through. I felt that Kiki and Herb’s death was really Justin Bond giving up on New York, on the revolutionary arts scene of the 1990s, on the war waged by him and John Cameron Mitchell and Tony Kushner and Doug Wright. One of the great ironies of the year is that Angels in America played on TV and didn’t seem at all dated. It must be frustrating. I’m frustrated.
When Ted Gideonse was seven, he saw Richard Harris in Camelot. He doesn't remember any of it. Alan Cumming in Cabaret, however, is embedded in Ted's hippocampus. Ted has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. (I Am) The Fourth Wall appears monthly.