John Waters

  • by Andre Torrez
  • Tuesday June 30, 2015
Share this Post:

"Hello?" he says as if my call was unexpected and that an interview wasn't scheduled. The unmistakable voice, cheerful in tone, answers the phone after only a few rings.

I don't need to ask, but as a formality I proceed with, "Is this John Waters?"

It is of course; the 'Pope of Trash' is cooking himself dinner as we speak.

I ask what's on the menu. "Chicken, steamed veggies..." I hear fumbling as he's suddenly, in a rare moment, speechless.

"Those Asian noodles."

Another momentary pause as I hear packaging crinkle through the phone line.

"Soba noodles!" he exclaims victoriously.

I can't see him, but I envision the 69-year-old legendary director, screenwriter and author �"mostly known for his perverse, iconoclastic, yet hilarious films�" wearing an apron like Kathleen Turner's Beverly Sutphin or Divine's Edna Turnblad. They both portrayed the types of ersatz doting mothers used before his lens in a motif that mocked what was supposedly America's more innocent times.

That's probably not the case, but I'm surprised that Waters takes time for laborious domestic chores while balancing a phone conversation and maintaining his busy schedule. I know he resides in a few places, keeping a home right here in San Francisco's Nob Hill and another in his native Baltimore. But for now he's in Massachusetts. He tells me he's got an hour to make dinner, eat and then be at the Provincetown International Film Festival by 6 p.m. With how fast he's talking, I believe he can make it.

Less than a month ago, Waters made a San Francisco public appearance on his book-signing tour at Green Apple Books to promote Carsick, his latest work about hitchhiking across the country. He returns to the Bay Area this Fourth of July Weekend to host the sixth annual Burger Boogaloo, a two-day music fest making its third consecutive appearance at Oakland's Mosswood Park.

"I'll be Bob Hoping it," he says about his role at the gig, with no reservations about agreeing to partake in the show.

John Waters

He says the idea was initially presented to him by his agent.

"Oakland and Baltimore are not so different. It's my kind of crowd. I'm very at home at punk shows," says the self-professed Jonathan Richman fan. "I hated Studio 54. I was too old."

Richman, who founded the Modern Lovers, is just one of over two-dozen acts the Boogaloo boasts on a bill that caters to ravenous fans of punk, garage-rock, at least three international groups, and a heavy dose of local California flavor. Acts like Nikki Corvette and The Gories exemplify the festival's spirit and its knack for booking groundbreaking artists from a specific niche, while still spanning decades of talent.

It isn't hard to imagine Waters fraternizing with the show's organizers. Burger Records, pretty much a cult with a following that matches that description, specializes in reissuing hidden gems often from the troupe of bubblegum, psych and 1970s punk.

Shannon and the Clams play Burger Boogaloo

They have an impressive stable of current musicians and bands they associate with, who they back by releasing their records and tapes. Likewise, the East Bay's Total Trash Productions are at the heart of this presentation. The fact that they've combined forces with the director of Mondo Trasho is disgustingly kindred.

Waters jogs through his memory and compares the engagement to a Fangoria show he once did in Vegas with Slayer as the headliner. It's apparent from reading Carsick, and if you've seen any of his films, that music plays a major role and has influenced his taste and artistic style.

His affinity for off-kilter country, rockabilly and obscure oldies is employed throughout the book as a sort of hitchhiker's soundtrack. Of course some of the selections, like Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike," are almost too perfect.

"Don't skip ahead in the book. You've gotta read the whole thing," Waters playfully chastises me for cheating. I explain that I only did so because I was pressed for time and I wanted to get a sense for the book's final section, since it's broken up into fiction and nonfiction components. It starts off with a best-case scenario, moves on to the worst, and finally, what really happens on his journey of car rides with strangers.

Almighty Defenders play Burger Boogaloo

By now I'm fanning out and tell him I'll never forget the first time I saw Pink Flamingos and its masterful use of Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It," or the scene set to Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers' "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent," where Divine steals from a butcher, unabashedly pilfering a slab of red meat, stuffing it up her dress in between her thighs.

Waters would later have the opportunity in the mid-1980s to interview rock 'n roll's flamboyant originator for Playboy. But it ended in near disaster when an overprotective and down on his luck Little Richard (living in a motel at the time) made his interviewer sign a nondisclosure form.

John Waters’ new book Carsick.

"You shouldn't always meet your heroes," Waters reflects.

As an aside, he clarifies Divine's look as he's done in countless interviews before, saying it was Jayne Mansfield meets Godzilla.

"People were always confused. Divine wasn't trans," he says perhaps confusing the terminology, but stressing that who would go on to become the epitome of a drag queen was first and foremost intent on being an actor.

He shares a lesser-known tidbit when I mention I got to see one of the sculptures he made at a Union Square art gallery a few years back.

Waters' work of art depicted the great soul duo of Ike and Tina Turner, with a nearly life-sized Ike hovering over Tina, pulling her strings as a puppeteer. It's a scathing commentary, but one I sadly agree with. We bond over the fact that Tina's true talents were harnessed best under Ike's tutelage.

Then he blows my mind with a stunning visual when he says that he and Divine went to see their soul revue live in 1966.

"Ike & Tina were a huge influence." He's still talking about Divine's look.

We touch on TV (he's not exactly its biggest fan), pop culture and the current climate of being too politically correct. He lapses into the recent past, calling the newly-christened Caitlyn Jenner by her former name as a man before coming out as transgender and revealing her new self to Vanity Fair .

"Bruce Jenner is a Republican. Can't we make fun?"

John Waters’ sculpture of Ike and Tina Turner. photo: Andre Torrez

Speaking of politics, he credits President Obama on his efforts towards LGBTQ equality [a couple of weeks prior to SCOTUS' landmark decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the U.S.].

"Obama did make it better, but it's different in the ghetto. It's become a class issue," he argues, touching on race and socio-economics.

"Pretty soon the only minority left will be straight people," he jokes.

He cracks up when he mentions "asexuals" and "adult babies."

"This is all gravy," he says reflecting on how projects he takes on nowadays are like a bonus. He sounds grateful for a career as lengthy and fruitful as his.

"This makes my friends puke, but my dream came true already."

As if he senses our time is up, which it was, he chimes in to ask, "Have you ever been before?"

"What? To the Burger Boogaloo?" I return. "Sure!" I say, sounding like an excited teenager talking about his favorite summer concert festival. I tell him Ronnie Spector was there last year.

"Did she host or perform?" he sounds genuinely curious.

I tell him she performed and how great her voice holds up.

Geeking out over this would be our final exchange of mutual admiration. Before hanging up, Waters tells me he saw her play at a Christmas concert out East, and to say hi at the Boogaloo in Oakland.


Burger Boogaloo takes place July 4 & 5 at Mosswood Park, Oakland.

Film director/author and trash camp icon John Waters MCs the annual underground rock punk and R&B music concert, with The Mummies, The Pandoras, Troublemakers, Untamed Youth, Almighty Defenders, Apache, Shannon & the Clams, Jonathan Richman, Nikki Corvette, Sneaky Pinks, The Black Lips, and many more; a dozen food and drink trucks and sellers, 21+ beer garden. $39-$95 (2-day VIP pass). Also July 5. 3612 Webster St., Oakland.