[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
This conversation with celluloid-transgressor-turned-authority-on-all-things-wicked John Waters originally ran back in 2010 upon the publication of his book Role Models. We are re-running on the occasion of Waters bringing his one-man Christmas show of shows to the Troc on Thursday. Stay tuned, we will be giving away a couple pairs of tickets. As for the the interview, we talked about LSD, outsider porn, fuzzy sweaters, uptight gay bars, Charlie Manson, Johnny Mathis, censorship, why the Chipmunks are far superior to the Beatles, and why he hasn’t made a film in year.
PHAWKER: Before we get started, I want to enter this little fanboy anecdote into the record: My first real girlfriend and I went on our first date to see Pink Flamingos at the midnight movies. We were all of 16. We were appalled and possibly somewhat aroused.
JOHN WATERS: Oh, that’s good! Well, the scary part is that you were aroused.
PHAWKER: Not sure it was the movie per se. I mean, we were 16, you’re kind of permanently aroused at that age, as I recall.
JOHN WATERS: [Laughs]
PHAWKER: But wait, it gets better. Three years later, you came to Allentown, my hometown, to shoot scenes for Hairspray at Dorney Park, and she wound up as one of the featured dancers in the movie! That was big doings in Allentown. We didn’t get a lot of John Waters movies coming through town.
JOHN WATERS: Oh, I love that story.
PHAWKER: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is, in the book, you say you started taking LSD in 1964, which is pretty early on the acid-eater timeline, not quite Cary Grant early, but still. Please explain.
JOHN WATERS: People I knew stole it from Shepherd Hospital, where they were using it to treat alcoholism. It was Sandoz acid. I didn’t really know anything about acid and we took it and it was incredibly pure and strong and I guess it changed me. If I had children and they told me they were on acid I would be very nervous about it. I never had a bad experience, but many of the people I tripped with every week have died. I think it all depends on the person. I realized on LSD that I could do what I dreamed of doing. As I say in the book, my mother always tells me not to tell people that. If somebody gave me acid today I would be horrified. But now they have salvia and meow meow and all these new ones which they say are even more intense. I try to keep up with all the new drugs without actually doing them. The last drug I took in my history of drug-taking was cocaine, but I didn’t like that. And I never took Ecstasy because the idea of loving everybody was repugnant.
PHAWKER: How very John Watersian. You also mention in the book, and I thought this was hilarious and deeply cynical, you and your posse sent away for a UNICEF kit and went door to door taking collections that you used to buy acid.
JOHN WATERS: I am embarrassed to admit we did do that. But we were underprivileged ourselves, we didn’t even have enough money for LSD. In hindsight, I give to a lot of charities these days, so I think I made up for my bad karma. Actually, I don’t believe in karma because a lot of good people that I know are dying of cancer and most of the assholes I know don’t.
PHAWKER: You say in the book that you ‘came out’ when you were 17.
JOHN WATERS: I never ‘came out,’ I never said that. That phrase is so corny. I never ‘came out,’ I just was. People were way more afraid that I was something worse than gay. No one ever brought it up because they were too afraid to find out. I never fit in with any minority world, and I never fit in with the gay world. Even when I lived in Provincetown, half my friends were straight and the other half was gay. I always ran with mixed crowds. We all fled what we came from to find some new sexual confusion. I still like sexual confusion. If I would go to a gay bar, the person I would like wouldn’t hang out in gay bars either. They would be one of the four lunatics in a hipster bar.
PHAWKER: If this isn’t too personal a question, what was your a-ha moment when you realized you were gay.
JOHN WATERS: When I saw Elvis twitching, I don’t even think I knew what sex was then but I knew that something was wrong, because nobody else in my class was responding with the same enthusiasm. I fell for Elvis’ pelvis.
PHAWKER: You write about your first trip to a gay bar in Washington, DC when you 17…
JOHN WATERS: It was called The Hut and each table had a phone and your phone would ring and someone would say ‘Table three would like to buy you a drink.’ So you cruised by telephone, basically. It was really square, and I was looking for someplace that was Beatnik. It was fuzzy sweaters, which I don’t mind sometimes, but it was all fuzzy sweaters and no irony. And the drag queens all wanted to be their mother and looked like Bess Myerson , Miss America 1945. I remember thinking, I may be queer, but I ain’t this. And then when I went to Provincetown for the first time, I remember thinking, I may be queer but I am this. It was something different, a sense of rebellion and having fun. And while I am completely for gay marriage, I have no desire to mimic something that heterosexual people do — and not very well.
PHAWKER: Switching gears, you mention in the book about a Maryland State Board of Censors. Were state censor boards common back then?
JOHN WATERS: Maryland was the state in the country to still have one. I was actually planning an invasion of the Censor Board office during Desperate Living because I knew they were going to cut it to shreds. Thank God governor Hughes got elected and he closed the Censor Board the next day. But it was run by a woman named Mary Avara and she was a national joke, she was Johnny Carson. She was the Clara Peller of censors — you know, the ‘where’s the beef’ lady? She looked like a cross between her and the ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ lady. She once said to me: “Don’t tell me about about sex, I was married to an Italian!” You laugh, but it wasn’t funny when you hand her a brand new print of Female Trouble you just gotten from the lab and spent your last penny on and she hands you a scissors and makes you cut out 36 frames. She said, ‘that’s a vagina’ and I said, ‘That’s Divine, he’s a man, that’s not a vagina.’ It’s funny in hindsight but it wasn’t funny that day. She’s lucky I didn’t take those scissors out of her hands and do a little censoring of my own!
PHAWKER: You say in the book that you envied Johnny Mathis for being so ‘popular, so mainstream, so unironic’. That seems like a curious statement from a man who’s entire career has been at war with all that.
JOHN WATERS: Of course, because he was the exact opposite of me and the opposite of me is what I am curious about. Johnny Mathis was a great success without really ever trying. He never had to go out and do what I’m doing today, a press tour. He never talks to the press and his concerts still always sell out. He is the one celebrity that never had to participate in the fame game.
PHAWKER: You write in the book that the Chipmunks are far superior to the Beatles, please explain.
JOHN WATERS: The Chipmunks are sexy, I am sexually attracted to Elvin. The Beatles ruined rock n’ roll and they put Motown out of business. Look, today I think the Beatles are OK, but the Chipmunks lasted longer and they made more money. The last Chipmunks movie, which I was supposed to be in, grossed something like half a billion dollars worldwide. I love the Chipmunks. When people would take too much cocaine, they would start talking like Elvin, and then I would have sex with them. The animators that did the original Chipmunks sent me a still of Alvin masturbating that they did for me. So I have a personal sexual relationship with a chipmunk.
PHAWKER: Hmmm. Moving ahead to Charles Manson, you make a convincing case in the book that Leslie Van Houten, ex-member of Manson Family who is currently serving a life sentence for murder, should be paroled. That she has been rehabilitated and paid her debt to society — you point out that she has spent more time in prison than any Nazi war criminal. Early on in the chapter, you write about how you were deeply fascinated by the crimes and you went to the trials and even visited some of the Family members in prison afterwards. Maybe you could explain to me the enduring power of those crimes to maintain such a hold on the national imagination for all these years. Certainly there have been killers with much higher body counts since then but it keeps coming back to Manson as the bogeyman. My own theory is that the Manson myth continues to be nurtured by the media because it fits the narrative that the Establishment wanted told, that this is where the hippie lifestyle leads to: death.
JOHN WATERS: That’s right, the Manson murders ended the 60s, which is something that [ex-Manson Family member] Leslie [Van Houten] feels terrible about. Not only for her crimes and her victims but for the impact they had on society. Now parents can say ‘If you take LSD this is what will happen to you’ and it did happen to her. Charlie still keeps up the crazy act because he knows it get lots of media play and perpetuates his infamy. Manson has become a Halloween costume. But every time Leslie goes before the parole board they play that footage of her and the other Manson girls skipping around and laughing and singing during the trial when she was clearly out of her mind — and Leslie looks at that now with complete horror.
PHAWKER: You mention in the book how [prosecutor] Vincent Bugliosi predicted that the girls would serve 15-20 years. It’s now been almost 40 years.
JOHN WATERS: I think that Bugliosi is still the fairest of all the prosecutors that have handled the case and parole hearings since. When that chapter was originally published on the Huffington Post I did a lot of TV about it and Bugliosi actually followed me one show and I said ‘Mr. Bugliosi knows that she’s no longer a threat to society, or any community, and she has taken responsibility for her crimes is truly sorry’ and they played that for him and he did say ‘I don’t agree with that’ he said ‘Yes, but sometimes it’s beyond that, it’s the crime.’ Well, she can’t change the crime. But she has changed every other possible thing in her life.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the outsider porn guy, Bobby Garcia. He specialized in luring straight Marines into performing gay sex on camera.
JOHN WATERS: I wrote about two guys that I call outsider pornographers, Bobby Garcia and David Hurles. Bobby Garcia specializes in Marine porn, these are straight guys that mostly just jerk off for the camera. Some will go a little further…are we allowed to talk about this?
PHAWKER: Sure.This is Phawker, baby, not the Maryland State Board of Censors.
JOHN WATERS: Sometimes he blows them and if he’s really lucky he rims them and once in a while they fuck him. What’s amazing is how successful he was, at the height of his career there were traffic jams of horny Marines outside his apartment waiting to come in to jerk off in front of his camera. As Bobby always said, Marines like three things: blowjobs, porno and pizza. He was an outsider artist because his porn was the only thing that he could look at, the only thing that turned him on. David Hurles went even further, he only filmed scary heterosexual men that could kill him. Mostly convicts and prisoners. I’m hosting an exhibit of his work at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York the first Friday of June.
PHAWKER: I’ve always wondered what your parents made of your work.
JOHN WATERS: My parents were very supportive — my father loaned me money to make my movies and I paid him back every penny — but I couldn’t exactly call them fans. My father’s greatest line was at the premier of of [2004's] Dirty Shame, he said: It was funny, but I hope I never see it again. My parents were very supportive but scared at the same time.
PHAWKER: Speaking of movies, what’s next for you, it’s been a while…
JOHN WATERS: Do you know any other $5 million independent movies that are getting made, if you do tell me, because I don’t know of one. I have had a movie ready to go for a couple years but all the studios are out of business. It’s not a good time. But I’ll get it made one day somehow.