Photography By Matthew Placek.
When tickets were released last fall for Seeking Asylum!, Kiki and Herb’s upcoming reunion in New York City, fans went nuts, buying seats like groceries the day before a hurricane. Performances sold out in minutes, and by the time an extension of the show was announced, Joe’s Pub, the venue hosting it, had posted signs at the box office that read, “No individual buyer can purchase more than eight tickets!”
Consisting of a drunk, delirious septuagenarian lounge singer (played by Justin Vivian Bond) and her long-suffering gay piano player (Kenny Mellman), Kiki and Herb reinvented downtown cabaret and thrust a hot, angry knife through the stiff dogma of the Bush era. But in 2007, at the height of their popularity, they hung up their hats. Now the legendary duo is back.
On a recent February afternoon at a Lower East Side bar, Bond and Mellman admit they haven’t even begun rehearsing for the impending engagement (which runs April 21 through May 22). Bond, dressed in black, sits across from Mellman, who sports a sweatshirt emblazoned with a moon face, along with biblically long hair and a beard. He’ll have to shave to reprise his role, and Bond, who also goes by the nickname V, will have to look less lovely to portray the haunted, manic Kiki.
But they aren’t worried. “We’ll get a rehearsal studio and pick some songs, and I’ll think of some stories that would go good with them,” says Bond. “I’ve started a Dropbox of songs I can totally hear Kiki screaming,” adds Mellman. They’re cavalier about the show mainly because the hard part is over: They’ve agreed to do it.
Their collaboration always danced on the edge, a virtuosic display of improvisation, musicianship, and the friction between absurdly funny comedy and the surprising pathos of songs by the likes of Dan Fogelberg or Eminem (as Kiki and Herb, they’ve covered both). The act originated in San Francisco, and often involved Bond and Mellman taking mushrooms and seeing what came out of their mouths and fingers. It was the early 1990s, and AIDS had blown through the community.
“Kiki has always been a great way for me to deal with death,” says Bond. “We started these characters when a huge number of our friends had died. I definitely feel better coming from a place of anger than sadness.”
“We were channeling grief and anger for sure, addressing the AIDS crisis,” says Mellman. “But we talked around it, never addressed it directly.”
They moved to New York in the mid-’90s, and in their new home Kiki and Herb gained a substantial following. Then came an Off-Broadway run, a Broadway run, and finally a gig at Carnegie Hall. But the freedom Bond and Mellman felt conjuring their emotions through their outsize alter egos eventually began to feel like a prison.
“It took up all our time,” says Bond. “For me, it started to create a tremendous amount of resentment and frustration. During the prime of my creative life, it kept me from growing…and that was important to me.”
So like most white-hot firebrands of popular culture, they flamed out. It’s no secret that their breakup was acrimonious for a time.
“It was like a marriage, and we weren’t married,” explains Mellman. “It was one of the most important relationships in my life. Then we didn’t speak for a few years.”
Their split was a wise choice. Distance allowed them to pursue their own songwriting: Mellman is now a sought-after arranger and a member of the punk-rock band the Julie Ruin (fronted by riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna), and Bond has released two solo albums (as well as a memoir).
That they’re at it again has everything to do with their maturity and boosted confidence as artists. They have yet to iron out the show’s details because they trust themselves and the rare chemistry — the electricity — of Kiki and Herb.
And where have their personas been themselves? “I always thought of Kiki
as living in those projects on 4th Street and Avenue A,” says Bond, “but she hasn’t been in the country.” Instead, the pair “has been released from undisclosed locations in Syria and Thailand.”
Adds Bond, “Herb has been charged with things…but never found guilty.”
They won’t reveal any more, but Bond and Mellman will say one thing: Their creations are showbiz survivors, much like they are.
“They’re just as talented as Neil Diamond or Billy Joel — they just didn’t have proper management,” says Bond. “Also, Kiki had a vagina and Herb was gay. That causes problems.”
Styling By Michael Cook. Hair And Makeup By Angela Di Carlo. Shot At The Library At The Public, New York City. Bond: Dress By Halston Heritage Available At Bloomingdale’s. Bracelets By Kentshire Available At Bergdorf Goodman. Mellman: Shirt By Thomas Pink. Jacket By Samuelsohn. Watch By Daniel Wellington.