A public celebration of the late Kristen Merrill’s life will held not at a chapel nor a graveyard, but at a bar.
On Sunday, Dec. 4, between 5 and 8 p.m. at downtown Salt Lake City’s Pierpont Place, friends will gather to toast the acclaimed singer around an open mic. A sign will ne posted: “In lieu of flowers, tell a joke.”
“I have no problem believing that,” said Steven “Doc” Floor, local musician, friend of Merrill and the performing arts coordinator for the Utah Arts Festival, about the instructions to mourners. “That says a lot.”
Merrill, a long-time fixture of the local music scene and “Byla Saliva,” a founding member of the beloved comedic girl group The Saliva Sisters, died last week from liver disease. She was 60.
Merrill was a self-described crone who disliked cut flowers and loved making her point by mooning people from car windows, said fellow Saliva Sister Rebecca Heal. But all who came across her remembered her most for her voice, which in the 1970’s was the focal point of memorable bands such as Rowboat, Steamboat, the Bel Aires and the Kristen Merrill Band. “When I moved here, 35 years ago, she owned the town,” said Andy Monaco, a fellow musician and neighbor.
Later that decade, Merill was able to blend her acerbic wit and music in The Saliva Sisters, which made its debut performing just one song at the Utah Arts Festival, dressed in garbage bags.
For more than 30 years — up until two months ago — Merrill was one of three frontwomen in the irreverent group that parodied Utah life with velvet voices and eye-winking charm. With colorful costumes that usually included a larger-than-life pair of lips (with drips of saliva, of course) as their hats, The Saliva Sisters were a fixture on the opening nights of the Utah Arts Festival for decades. Known for opening their shows by jumping out of cakes or other props, they were also an in-demand opening act for comedians such as Roseanne Barr and Joan Rivers as well as the featured performers for corporate and governmental groups such as the Western Governors Association and the Utah Gay Rodeo Association. The trio recorded three albums: “Spit Happens,” “Delusions of Granger” (note the Utah reference), and “Songs Our Mother Asked Us Not to Sing.”
“No one was ever better jumping out of a green garbage can than Kristen Merrill,” said Robyn Nelson, former executive director of the Utah Arts Festival who had The Saliva Sisters perform at her 40th birthday party. “They were always topical ... They were always such a huge local favorite.”
Babs De Lay, principal broker at Urban Utah Homes & Estates, regularly booked her friends The Saliva Sisters to participate in V-Day “Vagina Monologues” performances. “[Merrill] was the queen of one-liners,” De Lay said. “She was always on her game onstage.”
Fan of The Saliva Sisters need not worry that the beloved group will disband. Two months ago, with Merrill’s blessing, Karen Nielsen-Anson (as “Droolia Saliva”) joined Heal (“Uvula Saliva”) and Michelle Lunley (“Levator Saliva”) as a replacement in the group. The trio has a performance scheduled for this Friday in Elko, and Heal said the group had received three “nibbles” of interest from organizations on Tuesday alone. “We’re going to keep singing Kristen’s songs until they tell us to stop,” Heal said.
No one queried failed to have a joke ready to tell at Merrill’s Pierpont Place remembrance. Delay recalled the first joke Merrill ever told her, cribbed from W.C. Fields. De Lay asked Merrill once at a bar if she needed a water; Merrill had a whiskey in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. “Water? Don’t drink water. Fish make love in it,” was Merrill’s retort.
Heal hesitated before telling a joke she remembered that Merrill had one delivered. “I’m trying to think of something you can print,” Heal said. Then she remembered one: “Celine Dion walks into a bar. Bartender asks, ‘Why the long face?’”
Monaco had one more example of Merrill’s quick, feisty wit. He went with her to a jazz concert once, and the band was spectacular. After the show, Merrill went up to the band and said, “You guys are so deep in the pocket that you’re spitting lint.”
As we all know, spit happens.