I have John Waters on the line, cult film-maker, writer, visual artist, collector and curator, journalist, raconteur and lifelong music fan. His voice, that unmistakable purr, camp but measured, a highbrow hick so happy to talk. The subject/s? Anything. Everything. He’s back in his home. Baltimore. The only place John Waters could come from. We know that now. Due to his work; forever referencing the place – casting it as a character in his films, writing about it with fondness; always a twinkle in his eye, that twinkle poured out through his “voice” on the page and on the stage.
John Waters will make his first New Zealand appearances next month. He will perform his spoken-word show, This Filthy World, in Auckland and Wellington.
The perfect person to answer a question I’ve always wanted to ask: what’s new in Baltimore?
“Well, I don’t know!” Waters responds with utmost enthusiasm. “Ah, I just got back into town. I’ve been in Europe. But, ah, I tell ya what, I’ll find out by the time I get to New Zealand. I’m out tonight meeting the new head of the Baltimore Theatre. And I’ll host a dinner party tomorrow. So I’ll find out the gossip.”
And just when I think the reference has slipped by, Waters follows on. “You know they just celebrated a statue in honour of Frank Zappa, near to where we made the film Hairspray. It was a shame to miss it. I know his widow, Gail, was there. It would have been great to be there. So I’ll catch up with that too at some point”.
Waters has recently released his latest memoir/set of essays, Role Models. Music features strongly with a touching tribute to the work of Johnny Mathis and the story of his awkward interview with Little Richard. Where that particular piece is a cautionary tale of the age-old maxim that one should never meet one’s idol, the book shines a light on the lives of people that Waters finds inspiring; it empathises with outsiders, it shocks and amuses. It is an exploration of some of the motives and movements that have shaped Waters as a person and artist. Like his film work, it has parts that will polarise, perplex and please. Probably in equal measures.
The influence of music pervades and permeates Waters’ work. How important was music to John Waters then and how important is it now?
“Well, music has been a constant. Yes. Rock’n’roll was huge! My first hero wasElvis Presley, when I saw him I just wanted to be him. I wanted to swap! I wanted to wiggle my hips like that. And it was the same with Little Richard. You have to remember that the 1950s are remembered fondly now because of the music. But the 1950s were horrible!” He breaks off for a chuckle. “I mean really, truly horrible. And so rock’n’roll freed me. In my room listening to rock’n’roll records was a great place to be – it felt like freedom. There were three black stations in all of Baltimore. I grew up with rock’n’roll and old rhythm’n’blues and hillbilly music. And, you know, Hairspray was a true story.” More laughter. “No, but really, it was a true story. Lots of the scenes in that film happened – in real life. It’s the way it was.”
You can feel the influence of rock’n’roll in so many of Waters’ films. Hairspray and Cry Baby might seem the obvious candidates, but his filmography is littered with litanies, strewn with sharp-talking teens with alliterative names. Characters that could just as easily have stepped out from between the lines of a rock’n’roll song. Johnny Angel-types. People who really do remember walkin’ in the sand. Hometown heroes born of fiction that go on to reveal a truth based on and around the movement (in all senses of the word) of music.
“Yes, music was always an influence on my writing,” Waters confirms. “Always. In fact, to this day, I’m listening to music and using it when I write for the screen. It fills the position for me as a narrator; I look to the songs that can help carry a story, or a part of it; carry a theme for a character perhaps. In that way the songs are absolutely written in to the script. We worry about paying for them and securing the rights after.” Here the laugh is Vincent Pricemeets Johnny Knoxville. (In a way it doesn’t hurt to imagine John Waters as the middle ground between Price and Knoxville.)
Waters is best known, to this day, for his underground hit, Pink Flamingos, a low-budget film, shot with his buddies, that exists to shock. The flimsy premise is a fight for the bragging rights of “filthiest person alive”. Released in 1972, Pink Flamingos still shocks and confuses to this day.
Waters calls it “an act of cultural terrorism”. He explains, “it was a form of rebellion; it was the spirit of the age. And a chance to go against that. It was a chance to confront the mainstream. But you know it was also just a lot of fun. And if I hadn’t made my movies, the early films and Pink Flamingos, somebody would have. It might have had to wait until the Jackass franchise. But it would have happened.”
You can draw a line from Pink Flamingos to Jackass quite easily.
“Oh sure, absolutely”, Waters says proudly. “And I love Jackass. Johnny [Knoxville] is great; he’s a sweetheart. He’s sensitive and funny and he’s not at all homophobic, but he’s also definitely straight. But what’s amusing to me,” and the chuckle is seeping in to this story, “is that I went to Jackass 3D here in Baltimore. And I loved it! But the theatre is full of grown men with their young sons. They’re all watching these guys on the screen shoving things up their butt. I mean it’s a thin line between these worlds, isn’t it?”
Waters has not made a film since 2004. That was A Dirty Shame. A satirical sex comedy that paraded a range of fetishes.
Waters is still collecting fetishes, even though he’s not sure if he’ll make another film.
“Recently I heard about Balloonies. These are people that need to have balloons blown up, to be in a room where party balloons are blown up. And when the balloon pops they orgasm.” He stops for a laugh. “Now, what sort of birthday parties were they having as children, do you think?”
And while Waters can laugh about Balloonies, he’s not impressed by the Adult Babies fetish (“I ain’t marching for them”).
His show, This Filthy World, was filmed in 2006; it is a collection of stories that explain some of the steps in Waters’ world and some of his theories on and around pop-culture, stories about his role models and the people he has worked with.
“It’s almost entirely different to the DVD version – the show is always changing. I might keep one or two jokes in there that work, like all my writing I hope that there’s some wit to amuse and some bits that shock but this is essentially an all new show.”
While he wears several hats – acting, directing, writing – and jokes that he could have a few different business cards, a few different job-titles as he goes through customs, Waters is sure that it’s writing that comes first.
“I’m interested in the press. I am of course a member of the press. I’ve written articles for a bunch of places and continue to. My films are all written by me, I consider them writing projects as well as working in a visual medium. And I like to read, to stay informed. I follow the press but you learn to make it work for you. The press has never been interested in who I am sleeping with because I don’t sleep with celebrities. And the people I sleep with have never been bothered by the press as a result. I share plenty of things about myself but I’m not going to tell the presseverything. You have to keep some things private for your own sense of self respect.”
Waters is an old-fashioned book, magazine and newspaper reader. So does he follow the press online?
“Well, yeah, I have my computer on all day. I check emails. I read some stories online, sure. But I like my newspapers with breakfast and I won’t watch movies on a cellphone screen the way these kids do today. Then again, my movies probably look quite good on a little screen; the smaller the screen the better!”
Outside of his unfortunate encounter with Little Richard, John Waters says he’s never had a bad interview.
“People are nice – you treat them with respect, they usually do the same. I’m interested in people that live outside the mainstream, that have lead extraordinary lives. That’s really what my book Role Models is about. It’s about people that have led extraordinary lives. That takes courage. And it’s interesting to me. I’ve always been interested in extreme lives. Take Little Richard – when I first saw him I thought a Martian had landed for chrissakes! I mean he was just put here, landing on earth, to cause havoc. I felt that from the moment I first laid eyes on him and ears on his music. It blew me away.”
Like Waters’ films, his book Role Models doesn’t just present characters to laugh at – he empathises, he sees the art in the endeavour; he shines a light not on the freak at the centre – his method is to examine the cracks and crevices of the story. The light shines due to the position he takes.
“I’m working on another book already but I can’t tell you about that.” I can picture his pencil moustache lining up for a smirk. “I never tell people about my work when I’m in the middle of it. But I definitely have another book coming. Writing is exciting. But then I’m always working on several projects. I have a lot of art-related work these days. I’m busy with shows and talks and exhibiting. And writing about art. I’m busy touring too – I’ve been lucky to see a lot of this world, far more than I ever planned to see, really.”
And since we started talking about music – and since this is a music blog – we’ll end on a music note. Among Waters’ many artistic endeavours is a set of compilation albums: A Date with John Waters, for example.
“I’ve always loved novelty music. I like very serious music too but a good novelty tune is a lot of fun. I still love CDs. I think one of the most important inventions in music was the shuffle button. Oh I just love that! I load my player up with all sorts of CDs and just shuffle through ’em. But you know I gave up listening to music from The Beatlesthrough to punk music. I took a break there. I never liked The Beatles, because to me they ruined Motown. I liked punk, however, and I like some rap music too. I still listen to music; still buy music. It still helps me to write. I still think about music a lot. It’s so tied to our other cultural pursuits.”
It was fun to skim the surface with John Waters.
Are you a fan of his writing, his films? Will you be going to see his show, This Filthy World? Do you have a favourite John Waters film or book? I can say, easily, that Role Models is the best book I’ve read this year. And one of the best I’ve read in many years. A book I know I will re-read.
What do you like – or not like – about John Waters and his work? And I hope you enjoyed this interview; it was fun to interview someone not directly related to music but whose work is so clearly informed by it.
Between late 2007 and early 2016 I wrote a daily music blog at Stuff.co.nz called Blog On The Tracks. I’m reposting some of the entries here because the discussion is still valid or entertaining or because you might have missed them the first time.
Click here to see the original post from 2011.