The central narrative was that, after a motley career, Kiki and Herb were trying to get back in the game. They’d known each other since they were children in a mental institution, where Herb was picked on for being gay. Probably the most memorably intense medley told the story of when Herb was raped in the boys’ locker room. It worked itself up into a barely controlled crescendo, culminating in a frenetic, spellbinding, sung-spat version of the “horses” part of Patti Smith’s “Land” (“When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by / Horses, horses, horses, horses / Coming in in all directions / White shining silver studs with their nose in flames”) before quieting itself again, Kiki flat on her back. “That was sort of based on something that happened in my life,” says Mellman. Kiki and Herb, he adds, “was like Gestalt therapy.”
They moved on to other venues, and a community began to coalesce around the show. The novelist Michael Cunningham would go every week “without fail,” but found himself a bit intimidated: How do you talk to Bond? Later, he took his writing students to show them that “a character doesn’t need to be sympathetic but deeply real, and God knows Kiki was unsympathetic but deeply real.”
One of the onstage jokes about Kiki was that she had traveled in star-studded worlds, getting to know everyone from Picasso to Princess Grace. In a way, Bond and Mellman had too. In 1998, Christopher Ciccone invited them out to L.A. to play his sister Madonna’s 40th-birthday party; when Kiki slammed down a cocktail—a signature move—in front of the singer D’Angelo, he kicked her. Things went downhill from there. In the middle of the set, Madonna asked, “Don’t you have happy songs?” The aged Kiki replied, “I hope you’re performing happy songs when you’re my age—oh, you already are.” Yoko Ono has played onstage with Bond. Deborah Harry introduced him to her vocal coach. Sandra Bernhard became a collaborator. Bond grew so close to Rufus Wainwright that he became, in Martha Wainwright’s phrase, “really a family member.” When the Wainwrights’ mother, Kate McGarrigle, was ill with cancer, Bond, visiting her in Canada, “put on the apron just like an older woman, assembled the sandwiches, spread the mayonnaise, cleared the table, and put the dishes in the dishwasher.” (He’s playing in the McGarrigle tribute at Town Hall this month.) A pre–Scissor Sisters Jake Shears, then known as Jason Sellards, saw him play and decided that he, too, needed to be onstage (they’ve opened for each other, and Sammy Jo remains the Scissor Sisters’ tour D.J.). He’s friends with Tilda Swinton and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), and avant-garde musicians Casey Spooner and Nico Muhly. John Cameron Mitchell cast him as the unflappable, all-knowing pansexual orgy host (named Justin Bond) in his 2006 erotic liberation film, Shortbus. Mitchell helped introduce Bond to the sensitive heterosexual pianist Thomas Bartlett, then an undergraduate at Columbia and today an artist known as Doveman. Bartlett, who produced Dendrophile, sometimes has Bond over for dinner at his parents’ apartment uptown (Bond and Bartlett’s mother have not-dissimilar hairstyles).
Despite the attention he was getting as Kiki, Bond began to lose interest. “There was always this sort of love-hate tension with that character,” says Sammy Jo. “The intensity of it being a reaction to the whole AIDS epidemic. Then people began living. It changed from that—his voice against this horrible disease—to the internal conflict of him playing this dilapidated woman. He couldn’t get onstage and be glamorous and sing pretty songs.”
“You take on a lot of toxicity to get people to feel the emotions,” says Mellman. “We made a decent living”—Bond even could afford health insurance, something he doesn’t have at the moment, which means he has to get his hormones from the subsidized Callen-Lorde clinic in Chelsea. “But we were doing hundreds of shows a year.”
After a well-received 2003 run Off Broadway, Bond went to London to get his masters in scenography at Central Saint Martins, where he learned to be a director, partly so he would never have to be directed again. But before he left, Kiki and Herb had a “farewell” performance at Carnegie Hall. That night, Kiki slurred sentimentally to Herb, “I just want you to know that you’re terrific, and I don’t know what I’d do without this fella … We’ve been working together a very, very, very long time.”
“It just keeps going on and on and on and on,” Herb cooed back.
The farewell was premature. When Bond returned, they kept going, but this time they were playing Broadway. In the goofily expanded narrative, they had become immortal after drinking the milk of a cow that consumed Jesus’ placenta. (The Catholic League was not amused.) Kiki later would compete with Mary Magdalene for Jesus’ affections.