Why Kenny Mellman Needed to Revive Kiki and Herb

The Julie Ruin member reflects on his longest relationship — musical or otherwise.

I was on a plane to SXSW when the first block of tickets went on sale for the Kiki and Herb reunion shows. I thought the fact that I couldn’t access the Public Theater’s website was due to spotty airplane Wi-Fi. I cried when I realized that eleven shows had sold out in less than three minutes and had crashed the website. Not even Hamilton had done that.  

It had been eight years since the last Kiki and Herb show, a Christmas show at Carnegie Hall in December of 2007. (Truth be told, we played one more show — Perez Hilton’s thirtieth birthday party in a conference room at a hotel in Beverly Hills. I try to forget about that one and choose to think that our last show was at a much more prestigious venue.)

We had been performing as Kiki and Herb for almost two decades; I had started working with Vivian Justin Bond when I was twenty. We played everywhere from rock clubs in San Francisco, California, to the Sydney Opera House in Australia. From a boat moored on the Thames in London to our own Broadway show. We played the Knitting Factory, Bowery Ballroom, Queen Elizabeth Hall — we opened for the Scissor Sisters on their first big UK tour and opened shows for the Magnetic Fields, Le Tigre and Rufus Wainwright. We sold out Carnegie Hall not once but twice. And then it was over. I knew how bad band dissolutions could be: Frank Black sending the rest of the Pixies a fax, Richard and Linda Thompson having to go on a last tour while in the midst of a divorce — Linda sometimes turning off Richard’s mic mid-song.  But I was blindsided when Vivian told me, in front of the Astor Place Starbucks, that V wanted to end Kiki and Herb. It felt to me like that gut-wrenching moment when a lover says they don’t love you anymore. It felt completely and undeniably final.

We had begun Kiki and Herb in a mushroom-induced creative whirlwind in San Francisco in the early ’90s.

We had begun Kiki and Herb in a mushroom-induced creative whirlwind in San Francisco in the early ’90s. When I was still in college, I met V via a mutual friend who knew that V wanted to sing and that I was a good piano player. We, as ourselves, began performing odd covers in rock and punk clubs around town, and had done well enough to have a gig at Cafe Du Nord on the night of Gay Pride in 1992. V hosted the Pride stage for a few hours in the afternoon and I was chanting and drinking along the route.

We knew we weren’t going to sound pretty that night, so V decided that we would be Kiki (a character previously invented so V would not have to be pretty or nice at parties) and that I would be Herb, her co-dependent piano player. They were meant to be in their sixties, on an never-ending comeback and usually three sheets to the wind. That night we stayed in character: we drank and interacted with the staff and patrons and got on stage and did our material in their voices. Kiki was gruffer and more tipsy-voiced than V, and Herb banged the piano messier and louder than I usually did and yelled backups like a wolf. We got a standing ovation.

Soon we got a regular gig at this long-gone place called Eichelberger’s in the Mission and honed the act. We took mushrooms in the cab on the way to the show every night. I would not recommend this to anyone else, but it somehow worked for us. We developed a synergistic performing style where no matter how far Kiki strayed away from the melody or structure of a song, Herb was right there. We took other people’s ballads and turned them into Grand Guignol operatic insanity. This was San Francisco in the ’90s; everybody was dying of AIDS, we were protesting the Gulf War and a million other things in the streets almost every night, and — for V and me and for a constantly growing audience — Kiki and Herb were cathartic. They screamed into the night.

The night that Kurt Cobain died, we did a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” mixed with the theme from M.A.S.H (otherwise known as “Suicide is Painless”). We constructed medleys around the JonBenet Ramsey disappearance. We never made fun of awful events, but rather we tried to make some sense of the unknowable.

It wasn’t all darkness. At some point we ended up with a stuffed cow on stage, which inspired a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow.” The cow ended up being named Daisy and the story went that Daisy had been in the manger for the birth of Jesus, had accidentally eaten the afterbirth, and thus had everlasting life. We were as high as fuck.

New York has a magical quality, one of many: if you really don’t want to see someone, it is entirely possible that you won’t.

We moved to New York. I lived in thirteen places my first year, including the YMCA and the residence hotel that later housed the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But we kept working and it all culminated in that last show (I still try to forget the Perez Hilton birthday party thing) at Carnegie Hall. And then…silence.

So I just stopped talking to V completely. I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain of that moment when V ended it. New York has a magical quality, one of many: if you really don’t want to see someone, it is entirely possible that you won’t. I can only recall seeing V once during that time. I was running an errand in the East Village and V was walking towards me. I nodded and grunted and then that was it. I still feel terrible about that moment, but I was deeply hurt.

I tried to move on, worked with other people, and, eventually Kathleen Hanna asked me to join her in starting a new band that became the Julie Ruin. I am avoiding talking about how sad, hurt, angry and toxic I was during this time. Although V and I never dated, we had been working together for seventeen years; it was the longest, most intense relationship of my life. Breakups suck. Friends are forced to take a side, partners are taxed beyond belief, and it was hard to get on stage again and feel whole and in control. And ours, within a certain scene, was the most public of breakups. Many people have told me it felt like their parents had gotten a divorce.

Then V had a fiftieth birthday show at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City and it seemed sad that I wasn’t there. So I emailed V to say “Happy Birthday,” and V said that, looking around the party, the one person who V wished would have been there was me. And the wall slowly started to come down. We met for drinks a couple of times; I played a few songs at a couple of V’s solo shows and it all felt really warm and nostalgic.

Last year, Joe’s Pub committed to a year-long celebration of V’s twenty-five years in cabaret. I suppose we could have done a couple of concerts of songs that Kiki and Herb had covered over the years, but over drinks we both agreed that if we were going to honor the seventeen years that we devoted to Kiki and Herb, we would have to do it right. We would put on the costumes, draw the black age lines all over our faces and put together a new Kiki and Herb show. Joe’s Pub supported us completely. We ultimately sold out twenty-two shows.

I am proud that we chose to make a show for that exact moment in time. It didn’t feel like a nostalgia trip at all.

We worked for much of the beginning of the year and began performing Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum! at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater on April 21, 2016 for a twenty-two-show run that ended on May 22. I know that we were both nervous. Nervous that we would hate doing it, I think. Nervous it wouldn’t live up to the expectations of the many who had never dreamed that Kiki and Herb would take to the stage again. Worried that people who had never seen us before would say, “That is what people have been talking about for years?” But all those fears in my heart and mind melted away as soon I walked to the piano bench and began the show.

I am proud that we chose to make a show for that exact moment in time. It didn’t feel like a nostalgia trip at all. We talked about the election, the Middle East, opioids — and did songs by Elliott Smith, MGMT, Fugazi and many more. I have been told many times that seeing Kiki and Herb was a life-changing experience for many people. If I at all can process how that could be true, it would be because V and I always gave everything we had. Back in the old days, I would often look down and see blood on the piano from pounding so hard. V would scream and shriek until V’s voice was raw. We were committed. To me, Kiki and Herb were real people. When Herb would look over at Kiki and sing, “You’re my everything,” he meant it. I meant it.

After the homophobic attack in Orlando that killed close to fifty beautiful souls in a gay club, I saw a friend post this on Facebook: “I really wish there was a Kiki & Herb show tonight so I could watch two people transform rage into cathartic art.” And, you know, amidst the rage and anger and fear, I thought the same thing.

There were so many times in the eight years when we weren’t performing that something terrible would happen in the world and I would think, “Man, I wish Kiki and Herb could be railing against this right now.” It would be for all the people in the audience, sure, but, selfishly, it would be for me. With Kiki and Herb, I could go deep into my emotional well and really feel rage and sadness and empathy to a degree I just can’t plumb the depths of in real life.

I have no idea if we will ever perform as Kiki and Herb again. I truly hope so. But either way, Vivian will continue to perform brilliant solo shows and make brilliant paintings and books, and the Julie Ruin will release our second record in July and go on tour. I am glad that, in this maddest of times in the USA and the world, we had a chance to embody those two old souls again. I needed it.

Kenny Mellman plays keyboards and sings in the Julie Ruin, Kathleen Hanna’s newest band. They release their second record, Hit Reset, on July 8, 2016, and head out for tour on July 14, 2016. For seventeen years, he was the “Herb” half of Kiki and Herb. One of his favorite moments was being animated with Stephin Merritt to sing a song on Bob’s Burgers. He lives in Brooklyn.

(Photo credit: Tammy Shell)