Skip to main content

John Waters: A Bad Influence Picks His 'Role Models.'

The writer and filmmaker known for the cult classics Pink Flamingos, Cry-Baby and Hairspray reflects on the many people who have inspired him throughout his life — from playwright Tennessee Williams to the crazed martyr Saint Catherine of Siena — in a new memoir, Role Models.

36:24

Other segments from the episode on June 3, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 3, 2010: Interview with John Waters; Review of historical summer reads; Review of Elizabeth Cook's album "Welder."

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20100603
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
John Waters: A Bad Influence Picks His 'Role Models'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

William Burroughs once called John Waters the pope of trash, and Waters
says he's been milking that title for decades. His 1972 midnight movie
classic "Pink Flamingos" helped earn him that title, but the Broadway
musical adaptation of Waters' 1988 film "Hairspray" and the subsequent
adaptation of that musical into a movie musical starring John Travolta
won Waters a place in the heart of mainstream of America.

Waters has become an icon of the independent film world. Now he has new
book called "Role Models" that's about people who have inspired him.
Those people include Tennessee Williams, Leslie Van Houten - who was one
of the Manson girls, is now in prison and looks back in horror at her
crimes - clothing designer Rei Kawakubo, a couple of pornographic
filmmakers, and here's the real shocker: Johnny Mathis.

(Soundbite of song, "Chances Are")

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS (Singer): (Singing) Chances are, 'cause I wear a silly
grin the moment you come into view. Chances are...

GROSS: John Waters, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really great to have
you hear.

Mr. JOHN WATERS (Filmmaker): Well, thank you for having me again.

GROSS: So I'm going to start by asking you to read from the first
chapter of "Role Models," and this chapter is about Johnny Mathis, who
was, shockingly, one of your role models. So why don't you read an
excerpt of that for us?

Mr. WATERS: (Reading) I wish I were Johnny Mathis: so mainstream, so
popular, so un-ironic, yet perfect - effortlessly boyish at over 70
years old with a voice that still makes all of America want to make out:
heavenly, warm. Yes, I'll say it out loud: wonderful, wonderful.

Is it because Johnny Mathis is the polar opposite of me, a man whose
greatest hits album was on the Billboard charts for 490 consecutive
weeks, versus me, a cult filmmaker whose core audience - no matter how
much I've crossed over - consists of minorities who can't even fit in
with their own minorities? Do we secretly idolize our imagined
opposites?

GROSS: That's John Waters, reading from his new book, "Role Models." I
was shocked to see that Johnny Mathis was, like, the lead chapter...

Mr. WATERS: He probably was, too.

GROSS: Well, I mean, he's - as a singer, he's such a, like, a romantic,
and you're so not in your art. I can't speak about your private life. So
what is the attraction to him?

Mr. WATERS: Well, because Johnny Mathis is the opposite of me. First of
all, he's - he doesn't do any publicity, ever. Have you ever seen a
picture of Johnny Mathis at a world premiere? At a party? He does no
promotion whenever he has a big tour, which he does constantly still. I
went to them. They're sold out, with no advance publicity.

He doesn't try too hard at all. He tries not at all, which is, you know,
for my entire life, I always have to think up new projects, go out on
the road. I'm like a carnie, basically. Go sell the work, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I have a one-man show. But so does Johnny Mathis, have a
Christmas show. And so do I, but I try to imagine our very, very
different audiences because Johnny Mathis, to me, is to me the type of
mainstream that I will never, ever be able to have. And everyone wants
to have hits like that. But at the same time, Johnny Mathis said to me:
I always wanted to be a jazz singer. So, in a way, your opposite
sometimes isn't exactly what you believed him to be, too.

So I didn't know Johnny Mathis, and to get to meet him was not easy
because I'm sure they Googled me, and I'd be nervous, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: So he was lovely, though, when I went to his house and
everything.

GROSS: So I always assumed that the reason why Johnny Mathis didn't do a
lot of interviews was because he was in the closet and didn't want to
have to speak about that.

Mr. WATERS: Well, I wrote to him saying that I was not coming to him
with any agenda, sexist, moral, racial, anything, and I didn't. And I
didn't. And I never asked him those questions. I don't really think -
obviously, if he wanted to talk about any of his personal life, he did.

He just said some of my fans think they're Mrs. Johnny Mathis. You know?
And I know what he meant. What does he have to share his public life
with? I'm not always for that. You know, I get weary of reading these
people that tell every personal thing to reporters they just met that
day, and that's when I realize they don't have friends. That's what
friends are for, not reporters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's a line in the paragraph that you read in which you
describe yourself as a minority who can't even fit with your own
minority.

(Technical difficulties)

Mr. WATERS: I love that expression, and, you know, it goes the same way
as I guess all things that, you know, being gay...

GROSS: It's now burnout disorder.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, now it's like ADD, all these ones they didn't have
when I was young. Just pay attention. You know, no, I believe in some of
this stuff. I think it's overprescribed. But I don't think it was ever a
problem, me reading too much.

People always say to me: How can you read so much? And I say, easy, you
don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and you don't watch television.
It's simple. You'll read all the time. And I'm on airplanes all the
time.

So it's - I love to read. It's how I relax. I don't find that a
compulsion. Cataloging them is just being nice to my...

(Technical difficulties)

Mr. WATERS: ...had a moment of hassle ever in school or anything. But
mostly, I had - as long as I could read and have playtime and be by
myself and have some friends, I was satisfied in my creativeness as a
kid. I gave puppet shows when I was 12. I had a career in show business.
I knew what I wanted to do.

I was unhealthily interested in everything - the condemned movies,
nothing rock 'n' roll - everything that you weren't supposed to like,
but somehow that didn't seem to bother me. And then I read Tennessee
Williams, in a way. And Tennessee Williams let me know early that
through reading, certainly - and not the books they had me read in
school. I didn't read because of those books - I learned that there was
another world - bohemia, basically. And I didn't know about that. I
lived in Lutherville, Maryland. My parents didn't know about that. They
certainly didn't want me in it.

GROSS: So you mentioned Tennessee Williams. He's a chapter in your book,
"Role Models," and I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt of your
chapter on Tennessee Williams.

Mr. WATERS: Okay. This one is called - okay, "The Kindness of
Strangers."

GROSS: Let me just say, this is John Waters, who is my guest. His new
book is called "Role Models," and each chapter is about somebody else
who, in one way or another, was a role model or an inspiration for him.
So this is Tennessee Williams.

Mr. WATERS: (Reading) Years later, Tennessee Williams saved my life. The
first time I went to a gay bar, I was 17 years old. It was called The
Hut, and it was in Washington, D.C. Some referred to it as the Chicken
Hut, and it was filled with early 1960s gay men in fluffy sweaters who
cruised one another by calling table to table on phones provided by the
bar.

I may be queer, but I ain't this, I remember thinking. Still, reading
everything Tennessee Williams wrote, I knew he would understand my
dilemma. Tennessee never seemed to fit the gay stereotype even then, and
sexual ambiguity and turmoil were always made appealing and exciting in
his work. My type doesn't know who I am, he stated, according to legend.
And even if the sex lives of his characters weren't always healthy, they
certainly seemed hardy.

Tennessee Williams wasn't a gay cliche. So I had the confidence to try
to not be one myself. Gay was not enough. It was a good start, however.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So he gave you confidence to be gay but not fit a stereotype of
gay. What were some of the other...

Mr. WATERS: He gave me the confidence to be a beatnik, really, to be a
gay beatnik or to be - not even to be a beatnik who is gay. That's very
different. You know, you went into a field of all different kinds of
rebels, and their sexuality was always - still, my friends, it doesn't
matter if they're gay or straight. If I'm friendly with somebody, that
has literally no interest to me whether I like the person or not. And
I'm always amazed by people who'd say, oh, you should go with this
agent. He has all gay people. Well, why would I go with him? It's like
saying he has all black people(ph). But are they good? Are they bad? I
mean, that's what counts.

So I always liked the gay people that had trouble even fitting in the
gay stereotype, because I don't like rules of any kind, and I seek
people that break them with happiness and not bringing pain to
themselves.

GROSS: So what were some of the cliches you did not want to be as a
teenager?

Mr. WATERS: I wanted to be an outlaw. You know, that's why I have
trouble now. You know, I understand wanting gay marriage. I would never
vote for somebody that was against gay marriage. I purposefully have no
desire to imitate a rather corny tradition of heterosexuals, to me. I
would owe three alimonies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I basically think that it's more fun to go against the
rules, or make up your own rules. Or sexual confusion, I think, is fun.
Heteroflexibility is something that really makes me laugh, that term.
And kids today are way more like that. You don't have to just be gay or
straight. They don't care, really. And I like that. I think it's funny
and more liberating, in a way. It's sexual anarchy, which is exciting.

GROSS: So how have you changed in terms of what you want to do with your
fame and with people's interest in your life? Because in some ways,
you've turned yourself into your art, you know, because you do shows,
one-man shows. You've written more personally, you know, over the years.
And people are dying to hear about you.

Mr. WATERS: Well, I don't know. I use my own personality to find out
about others. My personality is why probably Johnny Mathis let me in the
house, or why the outsider pornographers I left in the house(ph), let me
in and trusted me.

And I think I've only written about people that I look up to, that have
- even if they've had terrible things happen in their life, because
they've had a more extreme life than I've ever had.

And I respect people. I, as a writer, everyday think: What would it be
like to be that person? And if you're a journalist or a writer, you get
to be that person. Wouldn't everybody like to barge in people's houses
and ask them personal questions? I don't get why everybody doesn't want
to do that.

But when you're writing a book, you're allowed to do that. That's
acceptable. And that's why people tell me everything. On airplanes,
strangers confide in me the most deepest, darkest secrets, and I think
because they think I'll understand. And I generally do understand. I've
taught in prison. I've counseled people. I actually would be a good
defense lawyer. I would be a good counselor. I would be a good shrink,
actually, and I believe in all those things.

I've been arrested. I've been to the psychiatrist. So I think you have
to participate in whatever business you are trying to be involved in.

GROSS: So getting back to Tennessee Williams, you've read all of his
books, and you've read all of lots of people's books. You collect books.
You have over 8,400 books, all catalogued.

Mr. WATERS: I like to read books. I don't collect books. Sometimes
people say they collect books, and they don't read them. I like to read.

GROSS: Right. Now, we've kind of medicalized things like that. You know,
it would come under the term, for a lot of people, obsessive-compulsive,
because you not only read a lot, but you have to own a lot, and you
catalogue them and everything. So have you ever fallen into the
medicalization of your own passions?

Mr. WATERS: I think, you know, the terms are changing. I read today that
there's no such thing as a nervous breakdown (unintelligible).

GROSS: I read that, too.

Mr. WATERS: I love that expression. And, you know, it goes the same way
as, I guess, all things that - you know, being gay used to be...

GROSS: It's now burnout disorder.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, now it's, like, ADD or all these ones they didn't have
when I was young. Just pay attention. You know, no, I believe in some of
this stuff. I think it's overprescribed. But I don't think it was ever a
problem, me reading too much.

People always say to me: How can you read so much? And I say easy, you
don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and you don't watch television.
It's simple. You'll read all the time. And I'm on airplanes all the
time.

So it's - I love to read. It's how I relax. I don't find that a
compulsion. Cataloging them is being, just being nice to my heirs.

GROSS: Do you have heirs?

Mr. WATERS: Of course. As much of a control freak as I am, you don't
think I have my death plotted? I even know where I'm going to be buried.
We all bought plots, a lot of my friends, where - it's, like, People's
Temple Graveyard.

GROSS: Well, I know, and you say that - is it the same cemetery that
Divine is in?

Mr. WATERS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So why do you - if you don't mind my asking: Why do want to be
buried?

Mr. WATERS: Because I love the idea of graveyards. I like people
visiting. I used to go into graveyards when I was young, and Divine
would steal flowers for parties. We'd have a couple beers. I like the
atmosphere. I like the worms go in, the worms go out. Maybe I believe in
the resurrection, the only thing I've been ever taught that sounds like
a good idea. But then I panic about real estate prices and what are we
supposed to wear, and are we nude? So I go into that in the book, my
paranoia about the recession.

GROSS: You're the only person I've ever asked that to who wants to
buried because, like, you really like graveyards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: Oh, yeah. And I do like graveyards. A lot of people like
graveyards. They're peaceful. They're quiet. And we're all going to be
buried. So all our friends can have one-stop shopping.

You know, if you want to come, you can say hi, Mink(ph), hi to everybody
around. And I like the idea of it. It's - and my mother - at first, I
thought it would be strange to tell my own family because my mother said
I think it's a great idea, because your sister is going to be buried
where her husband is. You know, so I like the idea of...

GROSS: Did your parents feel bad that you're not getting buried next to
them?

Mr. WATERS: No, they didn't. I was afraid to tell them. They thought it
was a fine idea. They totally understood. I went to the graveyard where
he is buried, and they quoted me...

GROSS: Where Divine is buried?

Mr. WATERS: My father is buried.

GROSS: Oh, your father is buried, yeah.

Mr. WATERS: And they quoted me prices that - I didn't know, I never
bought a grave. But it sounded like a rip-off to me. And they showed me,
like, tombs, like they thought Rudolph Valentino was coming out there,
they were going to sell to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: And I thought wait a minute. So I went and asked the woman
where Divine is, because I like the little graveyard. And she told me
the price. I said: I'll take a double.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I've got, like, a lot of room around me, too, because the
price is quite fair.

GROSS: Two bathrooms.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah. It's like a two-bedroom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So have you thought it through, like, what kind of, like,
tombstone you want?

Mr. WATERS: Oh, yes. I kind of want it to be modeled after Pasolini's.
And I want mine to just say - my father's is the same, and I didn't
realize it until I saw it recently, his graveyard, because he only died
a few years ago - just say John S. Waters, Jr., the day I was born, the
day I died.

Who wants to risk a joke that has to last eternity? Humor changes. Talk
about an old joke that was on your - I think it's the only time it
should be quite simple, on your gravestone.

GROSS: What's on Divine's stone?

Mr. WATERS: Praying hands. But his parents put his real name and Divine
on it, which was...

GROSS: Ah, I was wondering. Yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. WATERS: ...quite loving. And people - oh, my God. They write stuff
all over it, and they leave stuff and leave doughnuts and dresses. And
it's visited quite a lot.

GROSS: So my guest is John Waters, and his new book is called "Role
Models," and each chapter is a different person who was a role model or
an inspiration to him. Let's take a short break here...

Mr. WATERS: Okay.

GROSS: ...and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Waters, and he's a
filmmaker who is probably best known for films like "Pink Flamingos" and
"Hairspray." And his new book, "Role Models," is devoted to people who
have, in one way or another, been a role model or an inspiration for
him.

So let's get to somebody else in the book, and this is Rei...

Mr. WATERS: Kawakubo.

GROSS: Thank you. And he's a designer.

Mr. WATERS: It's a woman. Yeah.

GROSS: She's a designer who was not known to me.

Mr. WATERS: She's pretty famous. She did come to Garcon, one of the
first Japanese fashion labels that deconstructed fashion. She's been
around quite some time - hugely successful in Japan.

GROSS: Okay. You describe your look as disaster at the dry cleaners.
Why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, I like her clothes. She always has something the
matter with it, something that - so I love the idea - when you spent
more money than you should on an outfit for fashion, no one thinks you
spent money. They think you got it for a nickel somewhere in a thrift
shop.

But, actually, since it's on purpose, it's like getting dressed in
reverse. It's sneaky fashion. It's wearing outfits that you like that
regular people just think is something the matter with it, and you've
got a bad coat on.

So I love the idea of the humor and the wit of that. I think over 40,
you need a little help with clothes. I firmly believe in thrift shops.
Young people are copied by what they can do with thrift shops, and the
key to that is not getting on your parents' nerves, getting on the
cooler people three years older than you nerves. That's how you start a
trend.

And, of course, all designers watch trends. I mean, I see people on the
street that are homeless that actually look like outfits that I've paid
a lot of money for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: And I find that delightful. I find it delightful. My father
used to say: You bought that? Something is - they saw you coming, boy.
But they did see me coming, and I was eager to get it.

GROSS: Now, in this chapter about clothing in your book, you write
about, like, the kind of macho, gay S&M look that used to be popular,
with the leather and chains. And you say: Young people today don't feel
guilty about being homosexual. They don't need to be paddled or whipped
anymore, or I suppose to wear that particular look.

Mr. WATERS: Well, the funniest thing about the S&M look and the biker
look is it's exactly the same, only in Baltimore, there's only one store
that sells those clothes. So both the shoppers have to go there looking
for the same outfit, but they are very diametrically opposed in their
real life, a tough guy, you know, bikers and the gay S&M men. But they
really do wear the exact same look.

And they're both having a little trouble recruiting these days, because
young bad boys want to be Eminem. They don't want to be Hell's Angels -
although I love the Hell's Angels and still think they really have a
look. What can you say, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I know a couple of them, and they went to the punk rock bar
with me. You should have seen people's expressions when I walked in with
them. And they knew it wasn't a Halloween costume.

And the same way that the S&M crowd, who I have nothing against -
somebody told me recently I was wrong, that new ones, young ones, are
coming in, and they dress like non-racist skinheads. That's the new S&M
look, which I'm for that. I just thought, the other thing, it looks so
silly at the beach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you...

Mr. WATERS: It's hard to be into sadism at the beach. I mean, I don't
know. It just seems to negate that.

GROSS: So have you actually seen, like, bikers and gay S&M men shopping
in the same store?

Mr. WATERS: Oh, yes, in this one store. It's closed now. It used to be
right next to the Holiday House, which is my favorite real biker bar in
Baltimore. But I still go there, and I filmed a lot of "A Dirty Shame"
in.

GROSS: And do you think that that look came from the need to be paddled,
which came from guilt?

Mr. WATERS: The gay version of it?

GROSS: The gay version of it, not the biker version.

Mr. WATERS: Some, yes, I think, but straight people will have the same
thing. There are straight S&M bars. Hellfire used to be a great one in
New York. It was a really good one.

I think it all comes from weirdness about sex when you're young and
guilt and shame and all that. Yeah. But I don't think it's necessarily
gay or straight, I think just S&M, period.

GROSS: Okay, this is far too personal...

Mr. WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: ...so I'll try it, anyway. Do you like costuming when it comes to
actual sex?

Mr. WATERS: No. You mean, does someone have to be in a certain outfit?
No. I'm not that specific, thank God. But what somebody has on - I
always really think that if boys turn their belt halfway to the right,
like so the buckle is in - on the side - Marlon Brando did that. Joe
Dallesandro did that. It's a look of confidence I like. I like somebody
that pulls off an effortless look. But, no. I don't have to have
somebody dressed as an airline pilot or that kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: No. I would start laughing. I would start laughing. Yeah.

GROSS: That's what I was wondering. Is there something that's inherently
absurd at some point?

Mr. WATERS: Everyone's sex life is funny except your own. Really. Every
person's is. And yours never is.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. WATERS: Well, because the lengths that people go to and the extremes
and the conditions and the mental exercises and guilt and shame and
happiness that everybody goes through, and what they'll do for sex is
never-ending and mind-boggling and very interesting to me. And I don't
think, a lot of times, people choose any of it.

I - a friend of mine, I think I have it in this book, where her mother
had Alzheimer's, and she - for years. So she knows a lot about
Alzheimer's, the community. And I said, well, ask them: Do people forget
if they're gay or straight? And the worker said never once. They don't
know who their family is. They don't recognize - but no one suddenly
doesn't remember if they're gay or straight.

Well, doesn't that prove, really, that you're born that way?

GROSS: My guest, John Waters, will be back in the second half of the
show. His new book is called "Role Models." I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with cult filmmaker John
Waters, who directed "Pink Flamingo" and "Hairspray." His new book "Role
Models" is about people who have inspired him, including Tennessee
Williams, Johnny Mathis, a lesbian stripper and her daughter, and a
couple of pornographic filmmakers.

In writing about pornography and pornographers in this chapter, you
write: I know that true love is supposed to be companionship, growing
old together, blah, blah, blah. I thought that's what friends were for,
not sexual partners. Some of us want hot, lunatic, porn sex and we want
it forever.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, that's true. I have great friends that I grow old
with, that know everything about me, that I'm intimate with,
intellectually and everything, but if I'm going to go to the trouble of
living with somebody, sharing my life with them, I want great sex. I
don't understand not doing that. I understand both things, but to me
they're separate - that I have friends that supply all that, and if I'm
going to have a partner I want to have great sex with them.

Still, not give that up. And that doesn't always happen, but a lot of
times it does. I'm not criticizing that either. Every person is
different. I'm a healthy neurotic. I know I'm neurotic. I don't want
what everybody else has. I don't need another person to make me feel
whole.

GROSS: But...

Mr. WATERS: I feel crowded.

GROSS: So you've stayed single.

Mr. WATERS: Yes. Oh yes. I've had - yeah, certainly I've had. I've lived
with people but I'm not good with living with people - as roommates,
boyfriends, anything; family, anybody. I'm better to live alone because
I don't want somebody that would allow them to live in my house that is
so decorated that it's obviously I live there.

GROSS: Okay. So in the getting too personal category, so if you include
yourself in the category of people who want hot, lunatic, porn sex
forever...

Mr. WATERS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...you're in your 60's now.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that desire quieting down a little bit with age?

Mr. WATERS: No. Not really. I'm not saying... You know, I don't think it
is. I think in a way, you give up everything if that stops. I believe
when you're 80 years old you still have sexual appetite, and I think
it's healthy. And I think if you give up on that it's like not going out
anymore. It's I always think tomorrow is going to be better, even though
in reality hey, you're 64, are you going to get the, you know, no. But
you never know. There is a thing as gerontophilia, an ugly word for a
lovely thought. That's the sexual attraction to old people. There's
somebody for everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So in writing about being single...

Mr. WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you write, who will surround us single men on our death beds?
I've long accepted the fact that unless some hideous disease gets me
first and I have to make forced small talk with dedicated caregivers, I
will die alone.

Mr. WATERS: Oh yes, everyone dies alone though, don't they? But I've
always known I'll die alone. It's okay. You know, I sometimes visit
people when they're very, very ill and I don't want people to do that
when I'm like that. I want people to remember me how they knew me. If
that happens to me, certainly my closest friends, I want me to visit.
But I'm saying every person I know I don't expect to file in some
hospital and look at me as I'm hooked up to some machine. I don't want
that. So I probably will die alone and I think maybe I'll just drop dead
in an airport. That's seems like what should happen. I'm always in them.
And that wouldn't be so bad. Be public. You'd be going somewhere.

GROSS: Would you have to go through security if you're a corpse or?

Mr. WATERS: Well, I have a closed coffin. That's in my will because
they'd draw my mustache on wrong. But still, as long as - if I drop dead
in public, what's the difference, really? I mean when you're dead you
don't know and I know where I'm going and I would be well dressed.

GROSS: When you say you know where you're going, you mean the graveyard.

Mr. WATERS: To the, not to the afterlife. To the...

GROSS: Not the afterlife. Right.

Mr. WATERS: Yes. I'm going to limbo. No. No.

GROSS: You don't believe in an afterlife.

Mr. WATERS: I don't. But I'm not saying I don't know anything. There
could be Mars. There could be whole other worlds we don't know about.
Let's just say I don't believe in any of the ones I've heard so far. But
I'm hopeful.

GROSS: Okay. So...

Mr. WATERS: And I have an imagination so, you know, maybe there's
something nobody knows about.

GROSS: So there are a lot of single men and women, a lot of people gay
and straight, who are either not married or who think they will outlive
their partner or spouse and who have no children, who wonder what is old
age going to be like without, you know, without like, the partner, the
spouse, the children to watch out for you, take care of you, look in on
you, whatever. Do you think about that?

Mr. WATERS: I do, certainly, especially when I have elderly parents
myself, and you see it and you go through it. I had one prisoner that I
helped get out of jail who said I can't pay you back, who said when
you're old maybe I'll be your chauffer. Maybe I'll help out. Maybe I'll
call him up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a thought.

Mr. WATERS: That's not tragic to me. In a way that would be lovely.
Yeah.

GROSS: That would be lovely. But do you seriously think about that?

Mr. WATERS: Yes. You can't not. Especially my dad died last year; you're
in hospitals with people. My mother's had her ups and downs in health.
You cannot think about that. I certainly do not expect my nieces and
nephews to. And if you outlived your friends, it depends how old you get
to be. But I have young friends. That's another thing. You got to keep
making young friends for that exact reason. So somebody will bring you
the eyebrow pencil when put it in the hospital.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You keep bringing up the eyebrow pencil. You pencil in your
mustache.

Mr. WATERS: A little a bit.

GROSS: Part if it.

Mr. WATERS: I mean it's there but it needs help, just like everything
needs help that causes, you know, that has some kind of style to it. It
just doesn't come naturally. It needs a little help.

GROSS: So you mentioned you father died about three months ago?

Mr. WATERS: No, about two years ago.

GROSS: Two years ago. And so were you on good terms when he...

Mr. WATERS: Yes. My father, as I said, I don't know if I said this in
the book or not, but we worked out all our issues and the issues we
didn't work out I turned into a career. My father, yes, I think he was
proud of me at the end. It took a while. We had yes; we learned maturity
is learning not to push each other's buttons. Everybody can do it. And
it's either that or carry a verbal abuse whistle with you. So whenever
they get on your nerves or you get on their nerves you blow the whistle
and that makes them stop.

I think my whole family, a long time ago, realized that we were lucky,
everybody. There was no real tragedies in our family. My brother died
last year. That was a terrible tragedy, with a brain tumor.

GROSS: Sorry.

Mr. WATERS: But however, people knew that our family turned out pretty
well. And you can't order up your kids and you can't order up your
parents. And once you realize that, I think you make the very best you
can with whatever hands you are dealt - and that's what families are.
And I think we did.

GROSS: So you made your peace with your father, not shortly before he
died, but just like over the years?

Mr. WATERS: True, it was a work in progress for a long time. Yeah. And
I'm happy now. That's the one good thing about having, you living longer
and your parents living longer because you're just so much more apt to
be able to work those things out when you're elder - when you're older
not when you're 20 in the height of teen lunacy or craziness.

GROSS: You know, because as you've said, you've made a living selling
shock...

Mr. WATERS: Well, surprise I think.

GROSS: Surprise, yeah. And some of your films, particularly, some of
your early films like "Pink Flamingo" have some very like vile, you
know, repulsive thinking people in them.

Mr. WATERS: Hmm. I don't know that I totally agree, but okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. WATERS: They were certainly using anarchy to get their point across,
and they were rebelling against their particular worlds at the time, and
lusting after things that maybe you shouldn't. But I think the morals in
all my films were quite obvious and the good guy won in every one of the
movies.

GROSS: Nevertheless, I think people are really surprised by how, just
kind of like nice, and funny, and easy to talk to you are. Like earlier
in your career before there was as public a John Waters as there is now,
I think people thought that you would be this really peculiar person who
might realy traffic and filth and...

Mr. WATERS: In the old days they did.

GROSS: I'm talking about the old days. Yeah.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, I used to stop at colleges and they'd have a pound of
marijuana in the car for me. Please. Please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: You know, I don't want to do this. Yeah I think in the
beginning. But I think through writing books, maybe more, and more of my
public speaking and stuff, is that they realize that I'm not the
characters I think up. But no director is, usually. Not that many. Does
Stephen King go out there and do that? I mean, why do they think I
would?

GROSS: Okay. So I want to quote something you say in the book. You talk
a little bit about being in therapy and you say: a psychiatrist once
told me early in treatment, stop trying to make me like you. And what a
sobering welcome smack in the face that statement was. Yet, somehow,
every day of my life is still a campaign for popularity, or better yet,
a crowded funeral.

Mr. WATERS: Oh, isn't everybody in show business under the same thing?
That they're insecure people that have to go into a field that where
strangers have to tell them they're good for the rest of their life? I
figured that out a long time ago. Yes, I thought it was a great thing
when the shrink said that - I'm not there to make friends. You're
supposed to talk about the things that make you the most uncomfortable.
I'm paying for this. Let's get my money's worth. So I used to, after
that, go in and think of the things that made me the most uptight to
talk about, which is what you're supposed to do with a psychiatrist.

I believe in the talking cure. You know, Freud said the best thing ever,
that line that's, I think, so brilliant is turning hysterical misery
into common unhappiness. What a great, great line.

GROSS: But I find it such a paradox in what you spelled out there. That
you're the person who has like defied every convention in your life and
in your art - the person who you say, even you're a minority group,
you're an outsider of. And, I mean, you turn that into an art and a
career. And yet, you tried to get your psychiatrist to love you and you
say that every day in your life is a campaign for popularity. Isn't that
a paradox?

Mr. WATERS: No, I think it's probably being a healthy neurotic -
everything that I'm trying to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: A healthy neurotic, huh?

Mr. WATERS: Yeah. Only...

GROSS: Paradoxically enough.

Mr. WATERS: But only a neurotic cares if everyone like them, you know?
And in show business, certainly, it is a - politics, it's all the same
thing. You have to get people to like you. And by writing books, by
making movies and everything, I think you're continuing to do that. And
a crowded funeral is a nice thing. I like that. But the older you get
the less chance that has of happening. That's another reason to make
younger friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: So they can fill in, like at the Oscars when somebody goes
to the bathroom, they have somebody to sit in the seat. I want them at
the funeral.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Since you write about your mustache in the book, I feel like I
should ask you about it. You know, we've talked many times over the
years but I don't think we've really talked about your mustache
technique.

Mr. WATERS: Well, I reveal every possible moment of my mustache life in
this book, even panic when I don't have it on right. But it's very
simple. It's just, it's there. It's there for real. I shave it with a
Bic razor or whatever kind of razor from the top every day. Use cuticle
nail cuticles to cut it on the bottom. And then if it's a little gray or
you miss a place you just sketch it in with Maybelline Velvet Black,
which is my favorite. And I tried the expensive kind, the smear-proof
kind, the waterproof kind, but they just don't do it like Maybelline.
And it has to be sharpened every time. And those little sharpeners break
all the time, but I keep buying them and I have them in every place I
live, in my car. It's always like it's kryptonite. Is kryptonite what
Superman made him not powerful?

GROSS: It makes him weak - kryptonite.

Mr. WATERS: Oh it makes him weak? No, this is opposite. This is spinach
for Popeye. It gives me power to have my mustache on right and I'm
clicked in mentally. But, you know, I don't even think I have a
mustache. I mean to be honest, I never think about it. If I shaved it
off right now I think there would be a scar there. Like white where
'cause no sun has ever hit there. I don't even believe - I say I don't
like mustaches. I don't even think I have one. I've had it so long.
Nineteen, um, 64. So that's the longest running mustache. And it's never
changed either.

GROSS: Why do you think you need it?

Mr. WATERS: I don't need it anymore. Well, I fantasize; if I ever
committed a crime and went underground, I could grow a beard that would
be probably - gray in it, certainly. And I'll wear a baseball hat and no
one would ever recognize me.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's
always really great to talk with you.

Mr. WATERS: Well, thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: John Waters' new book is called "Role Models." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download
Podcasts of our show.

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends four books for summer
reading.

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
127238420
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20100603
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Summer Titles That Will Transport You Into The Past

TERRY GROSS, host:

If, like book critic Maureen Corrigan, you crave a mental health break
from the world of the here and now, you'll want to check out her summer
reading list of books that will take you places while staying home. Time
travels back to, among other places, pre-World War I England and the
streets of old New York.

MAURREN CORRIGAN: When summer rolls around, I put on my shorts, equip
myself with a water bottle, and hit the armchair. My summer excursions
are mostly mental, thanks to my homebody temperament and to the shaky
economy. Reading, however, is the ultimate small d, democratic vacation.
It offers all of us, not only recession-proof adventure, but transport
to times gone by that even the most luxurious outward-bound expeditions
can't reach. These summer books — fiction and nonfiction about
celebrated moments, figures and even foods of the past — will lift
readers far, far away, out of the constricting realm of the familiar.

The most important washed-out summer vacation in all Western literary
history took place in 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, her lover and husband-to-be, the poet
Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont, were among
the houseguests of Lord Byron at his villa. Rain kept everybody inside,
and out of boredom; a plan was hatched to launch a horror story-writing
contest. Mary won, hands down, the minute she started scratching out
"Frankenstein."

Literary scholar Daisy Hay describes that infamous house party in her
smart, engaging new book called "Young Romantics," which is a collective
biography of that much-written-about web of poets and novelists.

Two things make Hay's book fresh. First, incredibly, she unearthed an
autobiographical manuscript by Claire Clairmont that was moldering in
the New York Public Library. Second, Hay's sympathies clearly lie with
the young women of that unconventional circle, who had to pay a much
heavier price for living out the ideals of free love. Claire Clairmont,
for instance, had an affair with Byron and then bore him a daughter. By
law, she had to surrender the baby to him. Byron farmed out the girl to
a convent, where she died of a fever. No wonder Claire, in that newly
discovered manuscript, damned the worshippers of free love who preyed
upon one another and turned their existence into a perfect hell.

Free love worked out better for the dishy World War I poet Rupert
Brooke, who wrote the immortal lines: If I should die, think only this
of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever
England.

Jill Dawson's acclaimed novel about Brooke, called "The Great Lover,"
was published in England last year and has just come out here in
paperback. Its premise - based on biographical fact - is that the
daughter Brooke had with a Tahitian woman in 1914 writes, in her old
age, to the house in England where he once lived. A former housemaid who
knew Brooke all too well writes back with her memories. Dawson's elegiac
novel summons the bisexual, charismatic Brooke back to moody life.

All this ruminating on English poets in summertime is making me drowsy,
so let's change locales and quicken the pace. The 1939 World's Fair
opened in Flushing, New York, on a hot Sunday in April, and its slogan
was: World of Tomorrow. The advent of World War II, however, put the
kibosh on all the futuristic optimism the fair tried to generate with
its introduction of such wonders as Lucite and air conditioning. In his
forthcoming and entertaining new work of narrative nonfiction "Twilight
at the World of Tomorrow," James Mauro takes readers into the years of
planning for the fair, to its close in 1940.

Hot Dog Day was a popular event at the fair and, of course, by 1939, hot
dogs had become the ultimate New York City street food. In her
fascinating work of gastronomic history called "97 Orchard," Jane
Ziegelman chronicles the lives and diets of five turn-of-the-last-
century immigrant families, all of whom lived at that address, which now
houses the New York City Tenement Museum. It was personally chilling for
me to read that no other immigrant group arrived in the United States
with a culinary tradition as skeletal as the Irish, due to subsistence
farming and then to the Great Famine. It was chilling, in a different
sense, to learn about the back-aching days of shredding, salting and
pounding that went into the German ritual of making sauerkraut. It's
great to savor the past, but these backward-glance books may also prompt
you to give thanks for antibiotics, feminism and food processors.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. A
complete list of her summer reading recommendations is on our website:
npr.freshair - make that freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by Elizabeth Cook, a singer-
songwriter he says is just outside the mainstream of the country music
industry.

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
127375233
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20100603
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Elizabeth Cook: Transcending A Cult Career

TERRY GROSS, host:

Elizabeth Cook is a Florida-born singer and songwriter who first
performed on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry stage in 2000. She hasn't become
a star over those past 10 years, but she's attracted a following within
the industry for her emotionally raw lyrics and for working with well-
respected producers such as Rodney Crowell, who produced her previous
album, and Don Was, who produced her new, fifth one called "Welder."

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of song, "All the Time,")

Ms. ELIZABETH COOK (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) I'm crazy about you,
baby. It don't do no good. I could tell it to the movie out in
Hollywood. I tell it when I'm sober, and I tell it on the wine. I tell
it to the judge, I love you all the time. I chase you down that mountain
and I chase you up that creek. I chase you starting Sunday through the
end of the week. Now go ask your mama and see if she don't mind. You got
to know by now I love you all the time. You got to know by now I love
you all the time.

KEN TUCKER: That's Elizabeth Cook, kicking off her new album with a
rolling and tumbling country song. Its twangy vocal and harmonies with
Buddy Miller let you know that she's locating herself just outside the
mainstream of the country-music industry. If we didn't get that outsider
message clearly enough on that opening number, she invokes hip-hop
gangsters and the movie "Boogie Nights" on the next song, "El Camino."
And by the fourth song, she's making you wonder just how much the tune
"Heroin Addict Sister" is autobiographical and how much is fiction.

(Soundbite of song, "Heroin Addict Sister")

Ms. COOK: (Singing) She asked for her momma's bathrobe and a pot of
potato soup. She's gonna dry out this time if it kills her. She wants
the whole family in the loop. She can outsmart death like a stuntman.
She's a cat with 99 lives. She's my heroin addict sister, and I've known
her all my life. She's my heroin addict sister, and I hate to see her
go. And I hate to see her holding on at the end of the same old rope.
She pushes tiny...

TUCKER: As I suggested earlier, you don't start competing with Carrie
Underwood and Sugarland for big stadium tours and country music awards
with songs about heroin and joyriding with guys who do cocaine. But if
you're good, you do something more than become the latest generation of
country music outlaw, and Cook is good on almost every song on "Welder."
She sings in a high-pitched curl of a voice that can suggest innocence
she shrewdly contrasts with her lyrics - such as this one, a jaunty
novelty song called "Yes to Booty."

(Soundbite of song, "Yes to Booty")

Ms. COOK: (Singing) Why can't I just let you love me? We've been working
all week, and it's Saturday. The weekend rolling round's like a weight
off our back. You thought you'd celebrate with an ice-cold 12 pack. When
you say yes to beer, you say no to booty. You holler, come on, baby. Why
you acting so snooty? Well, if you've slept with a drunk man, you
understand it's not that hard. It's common knowledge around here when
you say yes to beer, you say no to booty.

TUCKER: The album's title, "Welder," is taken from her father's working-
class profession, and throughout the album, Cook hits all the country
music touchstones. Song about laboring on a farm? Check. Rowdy song
about drinking? You just heard it. Song about Mama dying? Check. And
just when you start thinking that Cook is a bit of a put-on artist, she
gives you a first-rate honky-tonk duet with Dwight Yoakam called "I'll
Never Know," or this song, a beautiful ballad that resists any sort of
easy classification, called "Not California."

(Soundbite of song, "Not California")

Ms. COOK: (Singing) Who's the girl inside of the blue screen light? The
sun is just pouring out. Everything's out of sight. Turn around, the
room is just black and white. She's whispering nah nah nah nah nah nah
nah. Nah nah nah nah nah nah. And it's not true. And it's not fair. And
it's not new. And it's not California here.

TUCKER: "Welder" is the kind of album that certain sorts of country
music fans are going to buy and pass around like a talisman, valued by
the initiated as impure stuff to be savored. Elizabeth Cook may be
content with this sort of cult status. But on her best songs, she
demonstrates the ability to transcend a cult career. Whether or not that
even matters to her, well, that's another subject, a subject she could
probably write a whole other album about.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed Elizabeth Cook's new album "Welder." You can hear three tracks
from it, including "Not California" and "I'll Never Know," on
nprmusic.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
126832559

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:00

'White House, Inc.' Author: Trump's Businesses Offer 'A Million Potential Conflicts'

Forbes magazine investigative journalist Dan Alexander has pored over business records, mortgage documents and government reports — and even staked out some Trump properties — to assemble a detailed picture of the president's business interests. He says the president has broken a number of pledges he made about how he would conduct business while in office.

09:30

Country Singer Mickey Guyton Opens Up About Race And Gender In 'Black Like Me'

Guyton's hit song, off her EP Bridges, is about feeling like a stranger in one's own land. The issues Guyton raises pose new challenges — not just to country music, but to our country itself.

22:30

Jeffrey Toobin On 'Tough As Nails' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Toobin spoke to Fresh Air in 2013 about his New Yorker profile of Ginsburg, written as she marked her 20th anniversary on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg died Sept. 18 at the age of 87.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue