John Waters has written a memoir. That statement alone may be enough to make those who are familiar with his work lunge towards the nearest bookstore—or to Bryant Park on Monday night, where the inimitable auteur will be having a conversation with Paul Holdengräber as part of the free "LIVE at the NYPL" series. Everything about the cult film director—who has been called the "Pope of Filth," and is responsible for such classics of their own very off-kilter genre as Hairspray, Cry Baby, and Pink Flamingos—begs the question, "how did he get this way?"
Role Models, like everything else Waters does, is a memoir in the most nontraditional sense. It is a slowly revealing look at what, or rather who, made him the film icon he is today, through a series of bitingly witty profiles of the people who hold his awe. Among them are Little Richard, a lesbian stripper named Zorro, the insane Saint Catherine of Siena, and marine pornographer Bobby Garcia. Yet nothing here is for the sake of spectacle, or at least not entirely. Waters loudly professes his world view with sparkling clarity, whether defending "Manson girl" Leslie Van Houten or railing against the Catholic church. While this lends itself to the novel's sensible tone, it is tempered always by a healthy serving of profanity. In this book, the company is strange, the humor is brilliant, and the stories are, of course, outrageous.
I see you around Provincetown every so often. Do you live in Provincetown?
I don't, but I go every year. Me too, I live in Baltimore, I go to Provincetown for the summer. I go there every summer, that's where I base myself for the summer. It will be fun! I'm looking forward to it! I wrote a lot of Role Models from Provincetown.
I just finished your book, and really enjoyed it. You've gotten a lot of press for your chapter in defense of Leslie Van Houten. Yep, well, as far as the fact that no one doesn't bring it up, yeah. And I think it's the only time when I'm talking that I'm very serious. Usually when I'm doing press I'm trying to make you laugh, but I'm not trying to make you laugh in any way about that chapter.
Even the chapter itself has a much more serious tone that the rest of the book. I know you had that chapter posted on Huffington Post. Do you ever read the commenters? It's snark, and snark to me is not the same as a letter to an editor. A letter to an editor you have to sign your name, they verify it. If you don't sign your name to it, you're a coward. And it's meaningless. If you look at the comments on any website, they're snark. I mean, everybody just writes mean shit to everything! So I don't take it really seriously. I certainly expected that, I mean, my position, I'm heartily saying that I don't think everyone's going to believe me, it's a very, very hard decision. There are no easy answers to parole, and especially one that is this notorious.
You certainly sparked the conversation about it. There are people on both sides bickering in the comments. I think it's always going to be like that, no matter what parole hearings, no matter what they decide, there's always going to be people that don't agree. I just hope the opposition to my opinion will read my thing and at least listen. That's all I'm saying. I did listen to them in the article, I think I put the most devastating arguments against her parole in this chapter also.
That's definitely true. In the book, when Rolling Stone asks you to interview Charles Manson, you say you had "little curiosity about a man who had reminded me of someone you'd move away from in a bar in Baltimore..." Now. I saw him when he was young, at the trial. He had incredible charisma when he was young. He was electrifyingly scary. Now he does look like someone you'd move away from at an old man's bar at the Tenderloin or a bar in Baltimore somewhere. His charisma has been greatly reduced.
Did you ever end up interviewing him? No, I had no desire to, really. That's how I was led to Leslie, because my editors wanted me to interview Manson and I said, "Well I don't care about him, I'm more interested in the ones that came from backgrounds that could have been any of my friends' children today. Just be lucky you didn't have a child that met Manson in the sixties.
What do you think drew you to the Tate/La Bianca murders? At the time I was making movies for humor, plays on insane violence because it was the opposite of what hippies believed in, even though we were hippies and the audience was hippies, but we were making fun of that, and I've always kind of made fun of liberals even though I am a liberal. So we were doing this insane stuff in the movies for humor and when they came out you realize they were doing it for real. They didn't reallyat least the followers didn't really know the difference anymore between reality and insanity. And when you believe that the Beatles are talking to you you're living in sewer pipes and thinking you're an elf...
It's hard to understand that but I think I could understand that because I was around in those years. You can't imagine how insane 1969 was. I don't know, but probably it was the most insane year ever. Certainly in my lifetime. So I think it's hard for parole boards to try to understand it. But Leslie did not take the easy route out. She did not find Jesus and say he forgave her, because that would be too easy. She doesn't just say, "I was on drugs" because she says, "I took the drugs, it was my fault." She doesn't say, "Manson made me do it," even though that's what I say, but she says "It's my fault for making him a leader, and any cult that makes a leader is guilty of the leader."
If you ever can be rehabilitated it's about owning the crime, it's about taking the full responsibility for what happened. She did not get life without parole, and I believe that people can get better. And actually the prison she's at put her as a poster girl, since she went into that prison as a babbling, bald-headed girl with an X carved into her forehead and if she ever gets out, and she's a mature, repentant woman who wants to live a quiet, humble life, then they've done a pretty good job! Along with her working every bit as much as she can within the prison system, which is not a lot.
I love your chapter on Johnny Mathis. I've been doing all these radio shows, so now whenever I come on one they play Johnny Mathis records, which I love!
You most use the term 'role model' in that chapter. I think I set it up. It's the first chapter of the book, so I'm explaining what a role model is, and I sort of go off on tangents about different ones when I was young, and how when you're young everybody has role models. Everybody in the world could write this book! Everybody. I guess with mine you have to understand, you know... you'll notice Gandhi wasn't in my book! [Laughs] My role models might be a little startling in choice, but that's why I picked them! I don't completely understand them, that's why I'm interested in them. And they can be the opposite of me, or they can go through something very serious, or they can... I'm just always trying to imagine what it's like to be other people, and I think if you can't do that you'll never be a writer, because that's what writing is.
I was going to ask you about that, about how your role models can be the opposite of you or of anything you would aspire to be. By the end of that chapter you decide Mathis is your direct opposite, and there are quite a few chapters in which you start off in reverence or awe of the person you are profiling, and by the end you've exposed something seriously flawed about them. Yeah, there are people like Madalyn Murray O'Hair whom I loved when I was young because she took prayer out of schools, I do believe in separation of church and state, but then when you do research on her, she was a monster! She was such a monster you almost have to laugh about how horrible she was. She liked to be hated. So I'm always amazed, I'm the opposite, I'm in showbiz as a career for people who want to love! So if you go into something because you like to be hated. But she did! And so she was murdered. She probably liked being murdered!
You think so? Maybe! Because even at the end when she was hitby a man named Waters, by the waywho was so horrible that he pissed in his mother's face and set her wig on fire, that's an ugly little guy at home! But even when he kept her locked up with him, over a month, and she kept taunting him until he finally just wrung her neck. She couldn't even shut up! And she knew she would be murdered.
And she's still considered a role model, then? Yes, she is in a way. I went to Catholic school, where they told us to break her windows and such, which is just terrible when I think back on it, because she was correct! I don't care if people believe in Jesus, but don't make me do it, and don't make my children do it if I have kids. There's a million religions, why do we have to have just this one? She took it out of the school, and I agree with it. But with freedom comes some bad side too, which is a reason I would say some pornographers really go over the line. But we have to put up with the worst of pornography to have freedom of speech.
Has anyone ever compared your writing style to Joan Didion's? No! But I certainly love Joan Didion. I don't think I'm quite as spare as Madame Didion but certainly I am a big fan of Joan Didion and I have met Joan Didion in my life. Who isn't in awe of Joan Didion?
I happened to have read your novel right on the heels of reading a few of Didion's and I see a lot of the way you turn investigative journalismthese interviews you have with each of the people you profileinto something so introspective. That is certainly a great compliment and I thank you very much because I've been a big fan of her from the beginning. From her first book.
Unlike her, in a certain way, you maintain a sense of awe in them even after you've described some of the most gritty, awful things. I am in awe of everybody I write about because they're braver than I am. They've experienced things in life that are more difficult or successful or beautiful or terrible than anything I've ever had to do. So I am in awe, I look up to everybody I write about, even the ones I don't agree with. I still find them fascinating because I can't quite figure out how they survive.
You mention a childhood anecdote of Little Richard, that he gave an old lady a box of shit for her birthday. Now that scene in Pink Flamingos Is that really just a coincidence? [Laughs] I didn't read that book [on Little Richard] till I had done that scene in Pink Flamingos where Connie Marble sends Divine a turd, gift wrapped. Maybe I set a trend! I know it is a weird thing to do, you know, if you don't like somebody gift wrap a turd and send it to them. Is that illegal? I don't know! So we actually mailed that turd...when we filmed that scene where Connie walks into a post office, that was a real post office with a real post man there. He knew we were filming but what he didn't know was that there was a real turd in that plastic. We didn't have doubles, we had wrapped the turd that Divine had shit the night before, and they actually had it in their hands. They gave it to the postman, he gave it back and then we went and shot the scene of Divine receiving it. But they didn't ever ask what was in the box. We didn't say "we're mailing a turd." And he wouldn't have ever imagined we really were.
That's incredible. I was going to ask about that, it sounded as though it could've been sarcasm in Role Models when you say the Little Richard connection is a coincidence. I don't think I'm being sarcastic in the book, ever! I say there's no irony in this book. I really believe everything I say in this book, and look up in wonder at everybody I'm writing about in this book.
Should we be looking for any tidbits of information or aspects of other people in this book that have influenced your film work? This book is really not about my movies. I even wrote a chapter on my movies and didn't know if I really needed it and it was the one thing my editor said, "Do we really need this chapter?" and I said, "No! You're right! We don't!" But I had to write it to know we didn't need it. But you can see things, certainly. Like with [the chapter on] Zorro; I have a scene in Pecker where I have a lesbian stripper, a drag king, that says "What the fuck are you looking at" to the male. I've used many of these ideas, they've filtered down to my movies, certainly. Everything in my movies, my photographs, my one-man show, everything is me, really. I don't ever make a movie I didn't write. Every one of these things in Role Models are stories that have been in me. People say, "well you tested that material over three years ago!" [Laughs] So my friends have heard a lot of these stories.
Is Little Richard the inspiration for your mustache? Sure! Yeah, completely. That's why I wanted to meet him so much. He was the only [interview] that didn't turn out so well but I still want to meet him again, maybe we could try again, we're both older.
Maybe after reading this book? No, I think if he read this book it would make him nervous, with some of the religious stuff I say. I don't know. It's hard to predict Little Richard, how he's going to react to anything with me. I mean, I love Little Richard! I love that he's still alive. When he started and when I saw him when I was a little kid for the first time I knew there was an alternative universe that I wanted to be in, because of Little Richard. Isn't every rap star called "Lil' something" now? Lil' Richard.
I read that you went to NYU for "about five minutes." What was that like and why did you leave? I did go to NYU for five minutes, and was in the first drug marijuana bust on a college, and I was actually turned into a joke at Weinstein dormitory where I lived. I never even went to classes, I was on LSD. I think NYU is probably a great school today. But I couldn't have made those movies then, they wouldn't have allowed it. Now they would. But I should never have to school after 5th grade, because I knew what I wanted to do! You go to school to figure out what you want to do. If you know what you want to do, school is boring, and boredom turns to anger, and anger turns to drug experimentation.
Do you spend much time in New York now? Yeah, I have an apartment there, I love New York.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood? Historic Greenwich Village.
Any favorite restaurants down there? My favorite one is gone, Joe Jr., on the corner of 12th St and 6th Avenue. It was my favorite neighborhood coffee shop and I'm mad that it's gone and I put a curse on the owner.
Is Baltimore still your favorite city, despite changes? Yeah, It's my favorite. It's where I feel inspired and where I'm still in an alternative universe. It's a great one. If you ever come to Baltimore you would realize that my movies are documentaries. The chapters I wrote in the book about the bars there...some are gone but some are new and I've found some new ones since I've written that book. It's still a great town to hair done in or drink in.
You have a chapter on contemporary art. You seem to like the type of contemporary art that most people hate. No, I don't think so, Cy Twombly is one of the most famous artists alive. And Mike Kelley! But certainly there are some people that won't go there. Good contemporary art makes people angry. The people that refuse to look at it, contemporary art hates them. And I'm for that. I hate them too. These artists humorously hate people that refuse to participate in the magic trick, which is known as "seeing" contemporary art.
Do you like it because of the emotional response people have to it? The hate or otherwise? No! I like it because I can see it. Because I'm in on the secret. It took me a while to see it too, though. The art I like is always what at first makes me angry. And then you think "how great!" because it's new, and it just wrecked something else, and it made it seem fresh. Cy Twombly's over eighty years old and he's still one of the most cutting-edge artists there are. What a great, great artist. I'm in awe of people that can do that.
You talk about Rolling Stone and Playboy asking you to conduct interviews and write pieces. Do you ever think of yourself as a journalist? Certainly I'm a journalist! Crackpot, my second book, was all journalist pieces. When I go to find Bobby the marine pornographer [for Role Models], yeah I'm a journalist. Role Models has a lot of journalism to it. Yes, I do think I am a journalist!