Witch on Heels

New York

Left: A view of the Kiki & Herb performance. Right: The crowd on 25th Street. (Photos: Julian Fleisher)

Your diarist is wicked hungover but still committed to writing five hundred words about Kiki and Herb’s free concert Thursday night following the opening of “Founders Day,” the Jack Smith-inspired summer show at Grimm/Rosenfeld. (How many words is that?) The charming, disarming, and often alarming pair serenaded their adoring audience from a third-floor fire escape across 25th Street from the gallery. Framed by a spotlight against the brick façade of the gallery building, the mise-en-scène was very West Side Story meets Evita. Every once in a while a truck went by and blocked the talent. The mix of dumpiness and Hollywood fantasy was a fitting homage to Smith, the pioneer performance artist and filmmaker who died without a bean, got a posthumous retrospective at P.S. 1, worshipped—literally, with a shrine—B-movie actress Maria Montez, and filmed his best-known but still obscure flick Flaming Creatures on a Lower East Side roof in 1963.

With a nod to Smith, “wherever he is,” Justin Bond (a.k.a. Kiki) regaled every art world homosexual who was in town that night (plus Alan Cumming) with inspired song stylings, political commentary, and fire escape-straddling, at one point riding that banister like a giant blonde witch in a red sequined halter dress—a good witch evoking the Dionysian, anarchic, and profoundly transformative (when it’s done right) powers of art and drag to pierce our various little identity bubbles and the illusion of separateness that keeps us, um, separate. (Did I mention I’m hungover?) Ladies and gentlemen, it was a love fest. Between-the-ditties patter included swipes at the “Nazi pope” and at teetotaling religious types who run around blowing things up—which makes religion a bit more dangerous, Kiki philosophized, than tippling. I’d love to see her and Ann Coulter go at it on one of those Fox political gabfests. Justin had just arrived from his new base in London the day before the recent terror bombs, he’d told me earlier. One went off near his place. “It probably would have woken me up,” he deadpanned. On keyboard, Kenny Mellman (a.k.a. Herb) was brilliant as always, and as strange, intermittently erupting from a state of trancelike absorption into Tourette’s-like vocal outbursts. His howls were the perfect foil for Kiki’s wit.

They ended with a rousing sing-along version of a crucifixion ditty: “I’m bang bang bang bang bang bang banging in the nails!” The delighted crowd of “bitches and motherfuckers,” as Kiki lovingly addressed her flock, gleefully sung along like happy campers. Everyone was smiling.

Left: Kiki of Kiki & Herb. (Photo: Adrian Rosenfeld) Middle: “Scotty” and Sandi Dubowski. Right: Roland Perleman and Jared Geller. (Photos: Julian Fleisher)

The after party was at Siberia, the skankiest bar I’ve ever been to, with “nightmarish bathrooms” (as advertised on Citysearch). John Cameron Mitchell was the DJ, “perhaps winning a small battle with his own diminishing relevance,” observed one bitch, who nevertheless had “to give him credit for spinning some really cool tunes.” I chatted with filmmaker Sandi Dubowski, NYU MFA department chair Nancy Barton, and Scotty, a burly guy in a blue bunny suit. The late performance (which I didn’t stick around for) was “a mess,” Julian Fleisher, who produced Kiki and Herb’s concert CD and authored The Drag Queens of New York, said the next day. “Decent performers, Taylor Mac and Hattie Hathaway, and Divinia Handbag. Behind them onstage on the (skanky) couches, some director was directing two Joe D’Allesandro types to wrestle and Petit Versailles was waving a big black dildo around while Hattie Hathaway—who’s really the downtown drag community’s historian—was talking about Maria Montez and her relationship to Jack Smith, and these guys were rolling around in an almost lackadaisical way, oblivious to everything around them. Hattie’s little lecture was a perfect bookend to the evening, which began with Jack Smith’s penguin (in the show at Grimm/Rosenfeld). She was trying to tie the whole thing together, but was overshadowed by these low rent whatevers. Well, that cleared the room.” Fabulous.

Rhonda Lieberman