John Waters inspired a generation of artists and bands with his celebration of the outsider. Duglas T Stewart of BMX Bandits talks to his creative idol ahead of the director’s visit to Glasgay!
The underground legend John Waters, director, screenwriter, author and so much more, is coming to Glasgow for the first time. He will present an updated version of his one-man monologue show This Filthy World and sign copies of his new book, Carsick, as part of the Glasgay! Festival.
Some of us have been waiting a long time for this. In mid-1980s Glasgow, myself and a bunch of misfit friends had found each other and were starting out our creative lives. This included my own group BMX Bandits, The Soup Dragons, Primal Scream, The Vaselines, The Pastels and future art stars Jim Lambie and Ross Sinclair. While we all had our preferences and idiosyncrasies, certain figures were unifying inspirations. From the mid to late 1960s New York, Andy Warhol, his Factory superstars and The Velvet Underground were certainly a major influence. From the less glamorous location of Baltimore, Waters and his regular players, his own superstars, were just as important to us. I carried a copy of Waters’ book Crackpot with me in my Sesame Street satchel for years. Waters and those who inhabited his films weren’t the kind of people you would see in normal movies and would be dismissed by mainstream society as oddballs, weirdos and deviants. Our kind of people. A lot of it was about shock value, for Waters and for us.
Waters’ greatest and most notorious star was Divine. Divine was an unapologetically outrageous, overweight and glorious drag queen. The ultimate shock moment in Waters’ canon is Divine eating dog poo in Pink Flamingos. I’ve still not fully recovered from seeing that. The Vaselines covered Divine’s trashy disco hit You Think You’re a Man But You’re Only a Boy on the flip side of their debut single and The Soup Dragons paid tribute with their transatlantic hit Divine Thing. We loved the shock value and the humour, but also that in Waters’ world the outsiders and downtrodden were the heroes, the winners.
Now Waters is apparently respectable, even accepted by the mainstream. His new book Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America had a seven-week run in the New York Times bestseller list. His 1988 film Hairspray spawned a smash hit stage musical and movie starring John Travolta. He’s played characters in The Simpsons and a Mickey Mouse cartoon and The Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in New York recently held a major retrospective of 50 years of John Waters.
I speak to Waters in New York and ask him if this kind of acceptance sits uneasily with him. “Not at all. I love it,” he says. “I’m finally filthy and respectable at the same time, which is even funnier than when everyone just thinks of you as filthy. Carsick being in the bestseller list is kind of amazing to me because in this book I’m raped by an alien from outer space and I have a magic singing asshole that does a duet with Connie Francis... and that’s on the New York Times bestseller list. Things have certainly changed since I started out. But I’ve never been a struggling, misunderstood filmmaker. I’ve always had an audience. People always came to see my films. Some people didn’t like them but came anyway to be shocked or outraged.”
Divine was a big presence in his early work but died just three weeks after the Baltimore premiere of Waters’ version of Hairspray.
“Even after all this time,” says Waters, “I still feel shocked that he’s dead. Those early films were really vehicles for Divine, my Jane Mansfield and Godzilla rolled into one. There’s still a bit of Divine in everything I do. All the original gang have burial plots booked in the same cemetery as Divine. We call it Disgraceland. Before Divine drag queens all wanted to look like glamourous movie stars or their moms. Divine changed that.”
When I tell Waters that he and his stars had been aspirational figures for me and my misfit friends he is clearly pleased. “That’s good, we were role models. I wrote a book about role models, people who gave me the freedom not to listen to everything you were told in school and freedom to be what you wanted to be. For me they included Tennessee Williams, Johnny Mathis and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. We got told in Catholic school we should go and break her windows because she got the Supreme Court to remove prayers from schools. My role models were always people who lived extreme lives, whether they were good or bad.” I tell him that his influence has trickled down a generation in my family – when other kids ask my son who is his favourite Pokemon or football player he might ask them in return for their favourite serial killer. This delights Waters: “I feel like I’m a granddad.”
William Burroughs dubbed him “The Pope of Trash”, a title that has stuck with him. How did that feel? “For me it was like being anointed by God. It was like getting a sainthood. I felt like Pope Pius.”
Has he ever felt any resentment that there’s a whole bunch of people out there who love the Travolta movie and the stage show who don’t know his original Hairspray? “On no. Hairspray is the gift that just keeps on giving. It’s the only thing I’ve done that’s a really big success. I like the big Hollywood version and I liked the musical too. I liked mine better and I did it first, but I’m very grateful for all the versions and their success. They are now doing it in almost every high school in America, which is really bizarre. Because of political correctness they can’t cast because of race or weight, so you sometimes end up with a skinny black girl playing Tracy, which is really confusing but I guess it’s postmodern in a way.”
I tell Waters I am grateful to him for introducing new words like “shrimping” and “tea-bagging” to my vocabulary. “Well you’ll love the show because I have a whole bunch of new ones for you. You’ll have a lot of new vocabulary to impress your friends with. The show’s not just fun, it’s educational too.”
And how does he feel about being part of Glasgay!? “Well, I always make fun of gay rules as much as I do straight rules and there feels like there are lots more gay rules these days. We have to be so good all the time. I make fun of that, but I’m proud to be part of this great gay festival. Gay people have always been a big part of my audience, although originally it was gay people who didn’t even fit in with their own minority. I always say just being gay is not enough, but it’s a good start. I like that this festival feels very inclusive. I’m against separatism, let’s all be together and be crazy together. It’s much more fun that way.”
John Waters appears in This Filthy World, Vol 2 at the Academy, Glasgow, 14 November, www.glasgay.co.uk