Most audiences know Justin Bond as a woman—and what a woman. Since the early ’90s, when Bond and piano accompanist Kenny Mellman unleashed their cabaret duo Kiki and Herb on the world, Bond’s boozy, corrosive Kiki has been peeling paint off the wall with her furious wail. A typical set list, in between Kiki’s increasingly alcohol-fueled reminiscences, leans toward covers of songs by bands like hardcore rappers Wu-Tang Clan.
But Kiki’s blend of mirth and misery often ends up in very dark places; she doesn’t provide the peculiar sort of cynical hope Bond communicates elsewhere. He served as a sexual Pied Piper in John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus and even conquered the Sydney Opera House for three weeks, singing the entirety of the Carpenters’ Close to You album (“I had three peas and a glass of whiskey before the show, just like Karen”).
A visit to Seattle initially gave Bond the impetus to devote himself to queer performance. On Sunday he’ll return the favor by gracing the Triple Door with Rites of Spring, an original song-and-story show celebrating what he’s dubbed “the Neo-Pagan revolution.” And, as you’ll discover in this phone interview, you may be queerer than you think.
What’s this “Neo-Pagan revolution” business? Well, I started writing music when I was in a Radical Faerie sanctuary, and the first song I wrote was this kind of chant. These Faeries asked me if I would write a chant for Beltane.
A chant for who? For Beltane—May Day, the beginning of spring, the pagan celebration of fertility? Perhaps you’ve heard of fertility? Anyway, my musical director and I were talking one day about how when these Christians go to church every Sunday and do their prayers and sing their songs they’re basically casting spells. And most of their spells are casting us outside of the circle so we decided it was important for us to start making our own spells and counterspells for our community. So that’s what these songs are.
You are one of those people whose work is difficult to describe to anyone who isn’t familiar with it—because it’s funny but it’s not a joke. How would you sum up what you do? It’s definitely based on the ridiculousness of reality but I also try to dig a little deeper. I think that what I try to do is hold up a reflection of the world that’s both witty and inspiring.
Is Rites of Spring similar in tone to what you do as Kiki? My friend calls me the most optimistic nihilist he knows. Kiki didn’t have that optimism. So this is more personal and the anecdotes and stories are my own or about people I know. As far as the structure of the show, it’s very similar—it’s story, song, monologue, song—but it’s not an endurance show where you have to sit there and see Kiki get progressively drunker and drunker.
Tell me more about how you came up with Kiki. She’s actually a little bit scary and moving—a mixture of humor and pain. I always wondered what people were laughing at. There were times when I would have to pull back because I was like, “They’re laughing too much—and this isn’t really funny.” When I created that character I was in my mid-20s. And I had a lot to say politically but I thought that if I said them myself it would sound too strident so I created this crazy, alcoholic, old woman who could basically get away with saying anything. And then I said it in this fucked-up way so people could approach the show on various levels. If they were like, “Oh, it’s drag! Look at the big clown!” and that’s what they were into and that’s as deep as they wanted to go, well, that was there for them. Or if they wanted something that was funny, it was funny. If they wanted something that was a little bit more profound, if they wanted to go there, they could go there. I gave the show that character and the music gave the audience a lot of different entry points to appreciate it in whatever way they were capable of.
Kiki’s comments after Ronald Reagan’s funeral—beginning with “You know, Herb, the saddest day of my life was when John Hinckley missed”—sustained me through many bad times. Oh, thank you. I really got off on saying that in front of my parents and all of their friends at Carnegie Hall. [Laughs] That was one of the high points in my life.
How do your parents respond to your work? We did Wu-Tang Clang in DC and I was singing, “Wu-Tang, mutherfucker,” and all this stuff. My mom called me. She started giving me critiques on what I should take out of the show because it was offensive. I gave her a lecture and basically told her that I only wanted praise and compliments and unconditional love because I didn’t need her to be a critic or a teacher because I’ve been educated and I was a professional. [Laughs] Ever since then she’s only said nice things and we’ve gotten along beautifully.
What a good mom. She just needed a little education on how to be a good mother, that’s all.
Did you ever think you’d play Carnegie Hall? Of course I did! I never had any doubt. I’m just shocked it took me as long as it did to get there.
Did you go to college to study performance? I majored in acting but I really hated it. I went to Adelphi University in New York. I was a couple of years behind Jonathan Larson, who made Rent. And I was also in college with Clinton Leupp, who ended up being Miss Coco Peru. We went to the same drag academy—that’s what we call Adelphi now, much to their chagrin. Then I went to study Shakespearean acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. I finished school and said, “I don’t want to be an actor. I can’t stand actors.” I came to San Francisco and got involved in queer performance with Gender Outlaw author and performance artist] Kate Bornstein.
I actually came to Seattle in 1990 when Alice B. Theater had a National Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival. It was the year the NEA Four were defunded so it was very crazy and really inspiring. It was when I was in Seattle that I made up my mind that I was going to dedicate my life to being a queer performer and to making queer performance. But I also refused to allow myself to be limited to queer venues or a queer audience. I felt like it was important for me—not to appeal to a mainstream audience in any way but to work as hard as I could to help other people who were queer to find themselves as queer regardless of their sexual preference or gender identity. Because I think there are a lot of queer people who just aren’t necessarily gay.
Meaning…? Queer in their worldview. So that time in Seattle was when it happened for me.