John Waters: Roles of a Lifetime
Author: Aaron Tilford
October 4, 2011
“I am neurotic. But at the same time, I’m quite happy being neurotic. I think you must figure out a way, as Freud said, to turn hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”
John Waters is primarily known as a filmmaker (e.g, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Hairspray), but he has also been an exhibited fine artist since the early 90s and a published author since the early 80s (Shock Value , Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters). In his new book Role Models (Farrar, Strauss, and Grioux, 2010) he examines the lives of some of his personal role models (including Johnny Mathis, Rei Kawakubo, Tennessee Williams, Leslie Van Houten, and Little Richard). In our conversation we discussed what makes a role model, the nature of genius, a lost Johnny Mathis album, rats, the death penalty, Prozac, and his summer reading list.
How did Role Models come about?
Role Models came about because I knew it was time to write another book. Whenever you’ve told the stories in your head to your friends so many times that nobody else can stand to listen you know it’s time to write a book. I couldn’t get a movie made. And I always need an outlet to tell stories. I had written two other books that I liked and enjoyed doing it, so I just decided to do it. New Directions had asked me to write the introduction to the Tennessee Williams’ Memoirs. That sort of gave me the idea to do it. I always knew I had that book in me and as soon as I thought about it I came up with all the people in like five minutes. I mean, it took a year of research before I started writing it. But it was a book that came very naturally to me.
I was going to ask if writing that introduction to Memoirs was the inspiration for the book.
It was the inspiration, but I guess all those people have inspired me for years in a way. I didn’t realize that they all had something in common which was lives that were much more extreme then I’ve ever had. I think I learned from every person in that book something about how to be myself. Usually when people talk about their role models they…it sounds like it has to be John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, these heroes of society. To me, role models are people that have gotten through life under very adverse or even successful conditions— for many people instant success is incredibly hard to handle too. It was like going to a shrink, in a way, writing the book. I realized all these people gave me the nerve to be myself.
I really enjoyed Role Models. And Crackpot was actually a formative book for me.
Well, thank you. That was a book, and Shock Value, those two books are still in print. They’ve never gone out of print and Shock Value came out in 1980. It’s been in print for thirty years. I’m really proud of that.
I remember when Crackpot came out giving it to several friends as a gift, even photo copying some of the essays to send to other friends. And since then I’ve developed a little fascination with Johnny Mathis myself. So when Role Models came out…
This is the first interview where somebody has said that. So that’s good.
I had numerous friends tell me, when they got the book before I did, that Johnny Mathis was included, which of course thrilled me. Were you nervous to interview him?
Well the very first time I saw him — it’s in the book — he just pulled into [the] Tower Records [parking lot] in a convertible next to me and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s Johnny Mathis!” I’ve seen him since the book came out. I went to his show again recently. He was lovely and he thought the whole thing was hilarious. He was really a good sport about it. He joked to me and said “You made me famous again.” And I said, “Oh, I hardly did that.” He’s so effortlessly famous. I was nervous when I went to his house; only because I knew his lawyer was going to be there. But the lawyer was really nice too. Once we started talking the lawyer saw that I wasn’t out to get Johnny Mathis, which I certainly was not, and Johnny Mathis was lovely and funny and nice and not one bit uptight. I was such a fan and at the same time he is the kind of person I knew that— I was never going to meet him. Almost everybody else in my life that I’ve wanted to meet I have met, to be honest, through film festivals, or going to parties. I’ve met a lot of people that I’ve wanted to meet. But I knew I would never meet him.
He’s kind of like royalty.
Although I could have met him at one of Roddy McDowall’s dinner parties when I was in LA. Roddy would have a complete mix of people—that you would be astounded to meet. That’s where I met Dale Evans and Roy Rogers in their outfits.
I was so stupefied to look over and see them standing there in fringed cowboy outfits.
They were about a hundred years old (laughs). I guess there I might have met Johnny Mathis because he used to go to those parties too, but I didn’t meet him the two times I went but that would have been the only place I ever would have met Johnny Mathis. He doesn’t go to events. He doesn’t do that. He does not participate in being famous.
He certainly doesn’t have to promote himself.
Well, that’s amazing though when you think about it. He’s not an oldies but goodies act. His shows are still sold out and he does almost no promotion for them and they’re still packed so that is amazing, that’s effortless, that’s hard to do to be in show business for — how many years? Since the early 50s — sixty years.
Did you know that he recorded an album with CHIC?
No, I don’t think I did know that. What was that like?
It was shelved. It was never released.
Mathis was apparently partying a lot. It was around the time that he told Us magazine homosexuality was “a way of life that I’ve grown accustomed to.” CHIC had just written and produced the album Diana, for Diana Ross. After that they did a complete album with Johnny Mathis. It was set to come out but the record company decided it was too outside of his image.
Did you ever hear it?
I actually have it.
What does it sounds like?
It sounds like a CHIC record with Johnny Mathis singing.
That’s funny. I wish he would team up now with Eminem.
I don’t think that’s going to happen.
I don’t know; he did a country album.
I’m sure it was very smooth.
Yeah, it was. But he said to me is he’s always wanted to do a jazz album. That’s what he really always wanted do. He said he wanted to be Lena Horne, which was funny, I thought. Maybe Johnny should do a Chet Baker tribute; wouldn’t that be good.
That would probably be perfect. I think he was on his way to the Olympics, wasn’t he? At some point he had to choose between being an athlete and a singer, I think.
That I didn’t know. He became a singer really young. I mean he sang in bars in San Francisco when he was really, really young. Maybe he was an athlete. I don’t know, I would never answer that (laughs). My research wouldn’t have turned that up.
You describe your 1987 interview with Little Richard for Playboy, that is revised and included in Role Models, as “kind of a disaster.” He was defensive, denied saying things accredited to him in his 1984 biography. And the waffling between the “good” God fearing Little Richard and the “bad” pleasure seeking rock’n’roller Little Richard seemed confusing at best. I don’t suppose you’ve heard from him since the book came out?
No, I haven’t. I read another interview that he did in GQ in London recently, but it was the same! He was still flipping out. It was the same, in a way. He kind of hasn’t changed his tune. They actually went and found, who’s the woman, Angel [Lee Angel, a longtime stripper friend, once girlfriend, of Little Richard’s]? That he said had three sons with Buddy Holly and she said, “Oh, well he has a good imagination.” Now that could be because today she’s alive and a grandmother and maybe she doesn’t want her grandkids to know about being in sandwiches with Little Richard [and Holly]. The [GQ interview] was amazingly the same in a way. He would rebel when he was asked questions about the stuff that he wrote. I still love Little Richard. I mean, he’s alive and well, and he really is one of the last survivors of an era. That Little Richard interview happened a while ago, so I would try again. Certainly if I saw Little Richard I would go over to him. I don’t know that he’s mad about it. I never heard from him though. I have no idea what he thinks since the book came out. I’ve had no contact with him. I doubt I’ll run into Little Richard.
Do you sometimes think the price of genius is crazy?
No, I think there are geniuses that struggle, certainly. But I think there can be happy geniuses. I think there are some. I think there are other ones that are driven really crazy like Glenn Gould one of the only role models sort of missing from the book, because I wrote about him before, but I really love him. I think that real geniuses have great moments of happiness from their work. And most people in real life never get even the inkling of work that makes them that happy. I’m not saying me. I’m saying people that are true geniuses. In my book, I certainly think that Tennessee Williams was. Little Richard was a genius in a way to be working in a bus station kitchen and make wop bop a loo bop [on] the sounds of the pots and pans and turn it into a number one record. That’s poetry.
And the performances, the make up, the outfits, the hair….
Amazing. He was really amazing. He was ahead of his time. People just didn’t know what to say when they saw that. If you look at the first shots of Elvis Presley too. He looks like he landed from a spaceship too, and he was twitching and all that, and Little Richard at the same time. Parents just quivered at the sight of that, with Little Richard with the jeweled outfits and the pompadour and everything. He was just amazing. I remember as a child seeing him and freezing in my tracks and realizing that there was an alternative universe I wanted to be part of.
A friend of mine saw him in concert back in the day and remembers the bathroom at the show being filled with drag queens.
Well, he used to be one himself. He used to be Princess Lavonne, or something, in the sideshow. He was in sideshows! I mean, talk about somebody who paid his dues and worked his way up through show business. I mean, that’s pretty great.
Was there anyone you were considering for Role Models that didn’t make the cut?
I don’t think there was a cut. I think there were some people I didn’t put in because…I’d maybe written about Ingmar Bergman, I didn’t have Mai Zetterling, I didn’t have Alice Crimmins, the murderess, who I based Divine’s behavior on in Female Trouble… There were a lot of people that I considered, but I thought I’d either done them before or else it wasn’t enough for a whole chapter. They were more like role model juniors. Or I had written about them in Shock Value, or I had written about them in Crackpot.
On to something a little more serious, the chapter on Leslie Van Houten, one of the Manson family members, it’s serious stuff. It’s not funny.
No, there are no jokes in the chapter. Every time I discuss [the situation] I say “If we’re going to discuss [Leslie] I’m going to be very serious.” Since the book has come out she has been turned down again [for parole].
I was going to ask. It’s terrible. The chapter is heartbreaking.
It’s heartbreaking, but you know she did a terrible thing, but it was not her idea. She does not say this. She takes full responsibility. But I say sometimes…she was seventeen years old and met a madman. It’s been forty years. I don’t think any woman has been in prison in San Francisco longer than Leslie, really. There might be one other one, but I’m not sure. I think she has earned the chance of parole, I do. And I never criticize the victims either, when they come and say every devastating thing they can say to prevent her release. I put in that chapter. I thought I had to. Where a defense lawyer does not have to do that. But I don’t criticize them. I never would say they were wrong. I would never have a direct comment to them because I think that’s none of my business.
Leslie [particapted] in a terrible crime and the victim was not my mother. It was not my relative, so I can’t really criticize the victims’ feelings.
I think she has tried to figure out how to have a life in prison… that she could try to make up for the terrible things she did. I think she has had a life of trying to make up for what she did and helping people that are in there. I think that has given me faith in someone who has great patience. I am the most impatient person in the world. When she got turned down this time she did not go into a devastating depression she said, “Well, I’m going to start working for the next time. I’m getting my graduate degree.” It’s not even offered in there. She has gotten good psychiatric reports. She always gets them. Nobody says she’s a danger. Nobody says that. Even Victor Bugliosi who wrote Helter Skelter doesn’t feel that.
It’s too high profile.
It never goes away. That’s the thing. No one expected, even then, that it would be a case that would continue to be brought up and revived and written about for forty years. No, I don’t think anybody; including the original prosecutors…I think Bugliosi predicted the girls would serve twenty years each. Susan Atkins just died in prison. Leslie really is the one that has it…if any of them get out, have a chance, just from the very fact that she, thank God, only went one night.
Leslie is very intelligent, and I think she has not, thank God, taken the easy way out, by saying, “God forgives me.” Well she can be religious but that doesn’t mean, you can’t take responsibility for what you’ve done, and I think she does not blame it on drugs. She does not blame it on Manson. She said, “It’s me, it’s me. I was there. I did it.” And “You can’t be a cult leader without followers and I was a follower. And I made him a cult leader.” That’s not saying “diminished capacity” even if there was a hung jury on her second trial when that law was possible. God knows I believe she did act under diminished capacity, but she does not even say that today because she feels it is in a way not taking responsibility. Until you earn what you did you can never get better.
In the chapter you talk about earlier on attending some of the trials and being kind of caught up in the sensationalism of it.
I apologized for that.
I’m just curious how your friendship with her has changed your approach to the references to killers and crime in the work you produce, and it’s part of your humor and your movies.
Not anymore really. I think after I taught in prison and my friendship with Leslie over twenty some years did change that. I don’t go to trials anymore. The networks asked me to be a commentator for the trial for Casey Anthony and I said no. I was appalled at the public reaction to the verdict of that. I was appalled by the “lynch mob news people.” That to me was shocking, because I don’t watch television. I did turn on those few nights and I was stupefied at how these people on television act, like encouraging lynch mobs. I felt like we were in the 50s and it was the Ku Klux Klan or something. Oh my God, I was shocked. I haven’t been shocked in a long time.
And, yes, Casey’s like Dawn Davenport. She used to be really like a bad mother, and a liar. Even if Casey killed that baby I don’t think a twenty-two year old woman from a really screwed up family deserved the death penalty, which they were talking about, which was really stupid.
Yeah, the death penalty is tricky. It’s a mess.
I’m against it. You don’t tell people that killing is wrong by doing it. If there’s one in a million chance it’s a wrong [verdict]…well you can’t make mistakes.
And I always said if you’re going to have lethal injection can’t they at least pick their favorite drug to OD on? It seems that would be at least a little better.
I have to tell you my favorite part in the book is the section about, porngrapher and Marine aficionado, Bobby Garcia.
Well, I don’t even know where Bobby is today. I don’t. He’s no longer there. I don’t know where he is.
Well he sounded hard enough to get a hold of to begin with.
It was hard to find him where he was, to be honest.
It was horrific, it was scandalous, but there was also a lot of love in it.
I didn’t mean it to be horrific. I was never horrified. He was a kind person that was obsessed. He was an outsider artist to me. That’s what he was. And, yes, it was alarming where he lived.
His kindness really comes across in the writing. He seems like a kind and gentle person.
Bobby is kind and I wanted to be kind and he said that to me when he got out of the car. And I don’t know if he knew that line in Tea and Sympathy — “when you talk about this, and you will, be kind” — but he said that to me. “Be kind, be kind.” And I tried to be. He said not one Marine ever even knew that they were on DVDs. He said, “They don’t watch gay porn.” And nobody really seemed to be a victim in any way there really.
It seems like he did it out of pure genuine love. It certainly wasn’t financially motivated.
I think he tried to make money, but I don’t think he’s very good at it, obviously. He didn’t save much when I saw him. No, he did not do it to make money. He did it for himself. That is it. He is obsessed. That is the only way really he could have any kind of sex, I think. Was he a healthy person? Maybe not, but he didn’t seem to be unhappy. He wanted to get back to work. He didn’t have any money. He was obsessed by his animals. He had a million animals. He was obsessed by royalty, which I said in the book. He just sat around and read Majesty magazines. He didn’t only think about Marine dick. He thought about Princess Di too. And he was, I’m sure, glued to the TV set at the last royal wedding.
I’m sure he was.
Sitting there like Willard, with rats, with mice around.
Oh the rats, the rats are the limit! All the scratching and clawing. That’s the horror–the rats. I also love how the chapter steers into a kind of self help for the neurotic when you talk about lovemaps.
John Money, a famous psychologist, taught me that.
I am neurotic. But at the same time, I’m quite happy being neurotic. I think you must figure out a way, as Freud said, to turn hysterical misery into common unhappiness (laughs).
And I agree a little depression now and again doesn’t mean you need medication.
No! You’re supposed to be depressed sometimes. If somebody dies you’re supposed to be depressed! That’s what life is. Up and down. Not just walking around and feeling even. However I know people whose lives were saved by Prozac. But I don’t want be walking around in a daze, kind of not happiness or unhappiness, just nothing, feeling nothing. To me there are extremes in life and some days you should feel a little down. I don’t have chemical depression, thank God. I’ve never in my life, like, ever been like that. So, that’s a blessing. I don’t like to take anything really.
Even when people took downers… I tried them and thought “God, sitting around itchin’ and scratchin’ ain’t my idea of fun.” You know, it’s good for jazz to take heroin, because jazz is the sound of heroin. You can’t really hear jazz unless you’re on heroin. I have listened to jazz on heroin and it does sound a lot better, but I only took heroin twice and I thought, “This isn’t worth it just to listen to Coltrane.”
Before this interview I was thinking back to Crackpot and your chapter in there called “Guilty Pleasures” about art films that you guiltily enjoy.
Now I write my ten best list every year in Art Forum so I guess that could be my “guilty pleasures” every year.
It could! I was going to ask you what your “guilty” literary pleasures were but then I realized that the chapter “Book Worm” in Role Models kind of answers that.
Well, but I don’t consider those books “guilty” pleasures. If I had a guilty pleasure I guess it would be something that like I just read: the number one best seller in the country…and I cannot believe it…Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life, by the woman that was kidnapped and raped. It’s really gruesome! Is that my guilty pleasure? Maybe, because I’m reading a best seller. But I’m amazed that this book is the number one best seller in America? People are sitting on the beach reading about her being raped when she’s eleven? I mean, it’s amazing to me that this book is the number one best seller. It’s a beach book? That’s what people are reading at the beach this summer?
I guess people are pretty hardcore these days.
I wondered, did she read it to an audio book of it? I hope not!
Do you ever think about writing a novel?
That’s the hardest thing. I have thought about it, but every time I think of it that way it ends up as a screenplay. When I think of fiction it always has ended up as a movie.
That’s about all I have. Is there anything else you want to talk about?
No (laughs). I just read a good book, it’s certainly not a gay book, it’s called Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore by Kelvin Sewell and Stephen Janis. Kevin’s a top homicide cop. It’s really good. I’ve finished that. What else have I read here, let me look on my book shelf for what I’ve liked recently…well, A Stolen Life shocked me…I’ve read Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, I’m reading next Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates by Jay Bahadur. What else have I got lined up to read…Kay Thompson, her biography, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding by Sarah Burns, and a biography of John Fowles. That’s my reading for the rest of the summer.