Preparing to interview John Waters is an intimidating task. So many questions race through the mind: Will he be deliberately obscure? Will he bait me with his humor, only to laugh when I miss a reference? Will he reek of pretension, as so many film aficionados do? Will he, in other words, be a difficult interview? It’s only natural to expect this from a man often referred to as the Pope of Trash, a man whose tastes are so far removed from what’s deemed “normal”. Waters, after all, first caught the world’s attention with Pink Flamingos, a film that features—among other disturbing things—a transvestite eating dog feces. Since then, Waters’ films (which include Cry-Baby, Hairspray, and Cecil B. DeMented) have gradually become more mainstream, but they’ve never been your typical Hollywood fare. What might he do to a poor interviewer in a conversation?
Turns out, John Waters is—quite unbelievably—a very normal person. No, not normal in a jeans and t-shirt and minivan way, but normal in a down-to-earth, laid-back way. There are no airs about him, no inflated sense of self-importance. He doesn’t even seem weird or odd or bizarre, which is how you envision the man responsible for exploring endless taboo topics—or what he likes to call “extreme tastes”. To the contrary, he seems like any other person who is truly passionate about a topic: engaging, exciting ... excited. The slightest mention of something he finds intriguing is enough to prompt explosions of stories, witticisms, and innuendo. He converses like you wish you did.
At the present, Waters has several projects in the works. His film Hairspray was turned into a Broadway musical, and now the show, in turn, is being made back into a movie starring John Travolta. Waters has also finished shooting his parts for a new television series on, of all stations, Court TV. Titled Til Death Do Us Part, the show chronicles real-life tales of marriages that end in murder. Waters serves as both a character and narrator, cleverly named the Groom Reaper. Not only does Mr. Reaper appear in the reenactments of the marriages, he also narrates the tragic fall from eternal love to murder.
On this particular day, however, Waters is not discussing film or television. Instead, he’s discussing another project, this one involving music. In 2005, Waters decided it would be interesting to compile yuletide tunes for an album titled A John Waters Christmas. Featuring such tracks as “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” and the innocently creepy “Happy Birthday Jesus”, the album was a look into the fascinating mind of one of pop culture’s most infamous figures. And if that isn’t disturbing enough, Waters decided to take the idea a step further by compiling a collection of ... hold on ... love songs; released in time for Valentine’s Day, it’s titled A Date With John Waters.
What becomes most apparent during our conversation is that Waters truly loves what he does. He doesn’t try to seem off-kilter or exploit his topics for attention; no, he’s truly fascinated by outsider culture. And, yes, while the idea of a John Waters love album seems strange, it’s a damn fine compilation. Moreover, as Waters himself explains, it’s designed with the goal of getting laid in mind. I told you he’s a very normal person.
This is your second holiday compilation, the first being A John Waters Christmas. How did you come up with the idea of compiling holiday albums?
Well, you know, actually, this album is coming out for Valentine’s Day because it’s a great tie-in, but you can have a date with John Waters any week of the year. I’m open, right? So it’s really not like a Christmas album that really could only be on the shelves at Christmas. You know, a date with John Waters could happen any time of year; I just thought that Valentine’s Day is a really good time to tie it in with. I mean, later I want to do a Mother’s Day album, President’s Day. You know, I want to do the reverse of Hallmark greeting cards for every single holiday. I’m the anti-Hallmark here.
The Fourth of July has inspired some terrifically bad songs.
The Fourth of July, yes! [laughs] But I don’t have bad songs. I basically think that I find songs that are incredibly original and maybe alarming, but I don’t think any of them are bad. I think they’re so good, they’re great—they’re so weird, they’re great. I don’t look down on any of them. I don’t think any of them are what you’d call campy. I understand some might think that, but I’d argue over any of them they might bring up, even the novelty ones I use.
Indeed, some of them are bizarre; but, as you said, they’re not campy at all. They’re actually really solid tunes.
And I don’t think any of the ones on my Christmas album were campy, either. They were weird, some of them, and they were amazing that they’re in existence, like “How did this record ever get made?” But not campy. None of them are done to be ironic. I don’t think any of these songs were made to be ironic.
How did you select the songs? Is it that you have a memory connected to each song or just that you just find something endearing about each song?
Some of them are songs I’d play when you came over. I go through thousands of records. I work with a guy named Larry Benicewicz, and, basically, he knows my taste and has every record known to man. Since we’ve done so many soundtracks with similar kinds of music, he really knows my taste and so he brings some songs to my attention that I didn’t know. And what I’m trying to bring to you is ... I hate oldies stations that play oldies I’ve heard a million times. I’ve been sick of them for decades. I’m trying to bring songs to you that maybe you’ve never heard before, or even ones—if you’ve heard them—they’ve never been in this mix. They’ve never been right next to “Jet Boy Jet Girl”. You never have Patience and Prudence and Elton Motello singing together on a double bill, even when you put five CDs on of your own and push shuffle.
What about the track listing? Did you purposely juxtapose the innocent and the naughty? The Patience and Prudence song, “Tonight You Belong to Me”, is very sweet and then comes “Jet Boy Jet Girl”, which is worthy of confession.
Yes, “Tonight You Belong to Me” is sweet, but it’s the first record I ever stole. So, basically, I shoplifted that record when I was eight-years-old. And Patience and Prudence sound like they’re so innocent that they could be the bad seed or The Omen. And “Tonight You Belong to Me”? Isn’t that kind of creepy for children to be singing a love song about tonight you belong to me? There’s something about it that is so wholesome that it creeps me out, so I’m hearing it in a way that it’s intended. But then you think, “Wait a minute, if you came to my house on a date with me and I played you that record?” You might be running for the front door.
You know, you could ruin one’s game by jumping from “Tonight You Belong to Me” to “Jet Boy Jet Girl”.
Well, not the kind I like! The only ones I’d date would go for that. They’d have a sense of humor, and they’d understand extreme tastes.
You mentioned this isn’t a Valentine’s Day album per se, but it’s a tie-in to Valentine’s Day, which is such a dreadful day for so many people.
I like Valentine’s Day. You don’t really have to do anything. Do you think there are people who are depressed because they didn’t get a Valentine’s? I mean, I don’t get many. I get some from fans, my mother sends me one, usually family. My friend Pat Moran sends me one, and every once in a while, a couple of my “friends with benefits” have sent me one.
Interesting, though, that the first compilation was for Christmas, and this one is tied-in to Valentine’s. Those are the two most depressing holidays for many people!
President’s Day depresses me [laughing]. That’s the holiday. No, I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day because you don’t have to do anything. And I like Thanksgiving, too, because I don’t have to buy anybody anything. And I like Christmas. That’s always my favorite holiday, because then it’s so overboard. But Valentine’s Day? Are that many people depressed because they didn’t get a Valentine’s? Well, I don’t know. If so, then you can give them my album. I think it’s a pretty inexpensive gift. No one gives boxes of candy anymore. No one wants to be fat! So I’m trying to come up with some alternative gifts for you to let somebody know that you like can be a secret admirer. I mean, when I was young, you sent Valentine’s to people and you didn’t sign them. Or you wrote something mysterious, so they’d be like “Wow them.” Or, that you want to sleep with them. Or, you find them attractive. Or, you, I have an admirer. I don’t even know who it is. I thought that was the point—cruising without responsibility!
One thing I noticed about your first compilation, A John Waters Christmas, is that you know a lot about the backgrounds of the songs. What about these songs?
I know the background on all of them.
Were you drawn to them because of their histories or did you like them first and gradually come to know their histories?
I think I always knew these songs and liked them, but when I knew that I was going to put them on my album, I found out the history about them. And I found out a lot of stuff about them that I didn’t know before. Like Eileen Barton, I didn’t know much about her before. She’s the one who sings “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d've Baked You a Cake”. It came out in 1950, and I don’t really remember it from then. I think my mother use to sing it. It’s the kind of song that sounds like an insane housewife on diet pills, knowing she’s going to get laid. That’s how I think it sounds, but I don’t think that’s why it was a hit. You know, she had no children, she was single ... I mean, she was 81 years old when she died, and she had this one, one great big record. I found that she never got a penny of royalties; she never got paid once, which happened a lot. And even when this record, I don’t know. When you do a record like this, you have to sign two deals—with the writer and with the publisher. That’s who gets the money, still. So I’m sorry she didn’t know that her record was back in print, with, certainly, maybe a different kind of fan than she had had before.
Some of these old songs are just as sexually suggestive as today’s songs. Older generations always point the finger at rock as being lewd and lascivious, but some of these older songs are just as sexual.
Absolutely. “The Night Time Is the Right Time” by Ray Charles really sounds dirty. I mean, it really sounds dirty. And “Ain’t Got No Home” is like a novelty song where [the singer] wants to be a boy, a girl, and a frog. That’s tri-sexuality.
He even sings in a frog’s voice.
Yes, he even sings like a frog, and that’s what I’ve always been trying to figure out. You know—you can be the boy or the girl, but I get to be the frog. I don’t know quite what that means; I’m still trying to figure that out in the autumn of my years.
“Johnny Are You Queer?”—that’s an interesting song. The music is so 1950s sugar, but the lyrics are mature, to say the least. What’s the background of that song?
Well, I don’t even know so much. I think of it as a one hit, too, but what I do know is that most every woman I know who is in the arts, when they talk about when they were young, their first boyfriend was gay, and they didn’t know it. And maybe the boy didn’t know it, but they kind of found that out, and they were friends later, and they usually went on to find great, straight boyfriends. But I think it’s a fair question, and today it’s a question that probably every date has to ask: Are you gay or straight? You can’t tell anymore. Especially in rich kids’ schools, they’re trend-sexual. They’re not gay, but they want to be for politics or it’s cool to be gay in rich-kids’ school, and it’s very uncool to be gay in poor schools, which is kind of very weird, in a way. I didn’t know it was a class issue.
That is weird. And then, of course, you’ve got your metrosexuals, who are men who like football but also like to decorate.
Yeah, but they’re like fake gay people. They aren’t gay, but they act like what people used to think gay people act like.
They want all the positive stereotypes or attributes of being gay without the stigmas.
I like gay outlaws. You know, to me, I don’t ever want to assimilate so much. I find that kind of boring. It’s kind of exciting. Any sexuality—I don’t think any of them should be against the law, but the fact that you’re an outlaw does make the whole trying to find sex a little more exciting—because you’re a criminal!
What do you think, then, of gays trying to assimilate, as it were, into the larger culture? What do you think of gays wanting to marry and demanding partner benefits and such?
For the presidential election, I’m saying never put gay marriage as an issue, because the Republicans want that as an option, because you lose. But, my campaign thing is to make heterosexual divorce illegal. That is my policy.
I think the murder rate would go up.
Well, everything would. They’d change it real quick if that happened. So I very much believe in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage; therefore, I pray they’re never allowed to get divorces.
More heterosexuals would stay single if they knew they couldn’t sever the ties, for sure. Back to the music ... Edith Massey’s take on “Big Girls Don’t Cry” ... I know you worked with her a lot, but it’s kind of creepy.
Well, I don’t think it’s creepy. Edith’s been dead a long time now, and I think her fans would like to hear her doing something new. I mean, it brings her back to life some. She is an outsider singer, that’s how I look at her. At the same time, her phrasing ... Frank Sinatra could really phrase some lyrics, and so could she, but in a way that’s almost impossible to duplicate, and completely accidental, I think. I mean it’s not something she did on purpose, and so I think it’s kind of endearing to hear her sing that. Edie meant that when she sang that song. Actually, it’s done professionally. The session singers with her are good. It’s her best record, believe me. She has worse ones!
Yes, the production is very nice.
That’s what I mean, the production values. It’s like Edie Goes to Hollywood. She should have gone on American Idol—she would have won.
What do you think of American Idol?
I’ve never seen it. I’m not against it. I’m happy. We have people in Hairspray on Broadway who were on it. People in Hairspray (the movie). I’m all for it. I love that it’s a success, but I haven’t seen it because I have a bad relationship with the television.
I was floored when I listened to “All I Can Do Is Cry.” I have to admit, I had never heard that song.
That’s my favorite on the album. That’s Miss Tina Turner, very different than what she does today. This is Tina at her rawest, her angriest, her most soulful, and I think at her very, very best.
She almost sounds like Janis Joplin fronting a choir.
Yeah. She really is angry. Her nose is wide open. She used to sing that, and I love that expression. Her nose is wide open singing this song. She is pissed off.
I have to ask: Since this album is titled A Date With John Waters, what would a date with John Waters be like?
Well, I would bring you over and play this album and try to get lucky. I wouldn’t be talking about the future of independent film!
Unless it helps you get lucky in the end?
Well, I think you do get lucky in this album. You get lucky around “The Night Time Is the Right Time”. It’s built in trying to loosen you up and get you comfortable. I think the sexual act would be on “The Right Time” and then “Hit the Road to Dreamland” is after and “If I Knew You Were Comin’” is in the morning, and “Bewildered” is when you leave because, if you ever really like somebody, it’s scary, don’t you think?
Um ... very, very scary.
So, basically, that’s the thing I know. When someone leaves, and you think, “Wow, I actually like this person,” it’s like “Oh, no ... now this.” It’s always complicated. It’s bewildering.
Yes, it’s always a combination of guilt, worry, and “Let’s do it again!”
What other projects do you have in the works? You mentioned Hairspray.
Big show on Court TV that begins on March 19, 10pm. It’s called Til Death Do Us Part.
And you play the Groom Reaper?
Yep. And it’s about real marriages where the bride and groom kill one another. I think it’s a pro-divorce show, basically, because all of them get “divorced”.
// Notes from the Road
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