John Waters – Interview

Caleb Everett
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John Waters is a name that conjures up company for life’s outsiders. As he says in his excellent stand-up vaudeville show, This Filthy World, his core audience are ‘minorities who can’t even fit into their own minority.’ Though his Jean Genet-on-ice filth and weathercock wit have been absent from the ghostly art cinemas for a decade he refuses to take a breather and rest on his impressive back catalogue. Thankfully.

Earlier this year he released the book Carsick: Hitchhiking Across America with John Waters, detailing his hobo-homo journey from Baltimore to San Francisco. The book is a two-part novella, imagining the best and worst case scenarios of riding with perfect strangers and then what actually happened during his travels. Later this year he’ll be bringing Carsick: This Filthy World Volume 2 to the UK.

Vada allowed this outsider of life to natter with John Waters about hitchhiking, his upcoming shows and, perhaps bizarrely, the Carry On films. Still, beats asking about Divine eating dog shit.

I’ve just finished howling at Carsick. It’s like Jack Kerouac on poppers without the safety net of a car.

You know, in On the Road, he didn’t hitchhike that much. He was in a car – his own car. He did some hitchhiking but not a lot.

Tame stuff compared to what you did. Was the danger of hitchhiking particularly inviting to you?

Hitchhiking, intrinsically, is sexual and dangerous. At the same time I never really felt scared. I was scared that nobody would pick me up and that I’d be waiting by the side of the road for a week. What happened to me wasn’t as outrageous as what I imagined before I left. That was very much like my movies.

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Did you write the fictitious parts of the book before setting off?

Yes and I’m really glad I did. I put all my fears into it, so I couldn’t have written them after the trip. The tedium of it was something that I never imagined, but I also never imagined how lovely people were. Just kind Americans who, sometimes, didn’t think I was a homeless man.

Did you have any bad experiences?

No, I really didn’t. The only bad experiences were standing by the road for 10 hours. I never thought I’d get a ride with a ministers wife or a coalminer or a Republican elected official. It was all pleasant surprises. The only drag was the waiting… but we need some drama.

I really did get the chance to think standing alone on the road with no fame. I had money but I didn’t use it. So, I was like Crackers and Cotton at the end of Pink Flamingos living in gas stations. On bad days I felt like that but it wasn’t as much fun as being the filthiest person alive. It was like being a homeless person. Although I was a faux homeless person. I knew, if I wanted to, I could have called a helicopter.

You’re bringing Carsick: This Filthy World 2 to the Royal Festival Hall in November. Is this show entirely about your travels?

This Filthy World 2 is not really about my book. It’s a completely updated version with a little bit of the book. I always feel if I’m asking people to buy my book the show should be different – I don’t want to plagiarise myself. You’re buying two different things and they should be different material. Two different trips.

Will you be hitting the bars of London after the show?

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No – the only public signing I’m doing is at the South Bank and I’ll stay as long as you want me to.

You’re playing Manchester after London. Have you been to Manchester before?

Never. I was at the Liverpool Festival last year and I’m looking forward to seeing if Manchester is like Baltimore. Liverpool definitely was but I know Manchester and Liverpool are quite like San Francisco and LA. They like to be competitors.

Baltimore reminded me a lot of Manchester.

You’ve been to Baltimore?

Yes, I travelled through the States when I was a teenager. I only did a bit of hitchhiking. It was mostly Greyhound Buses.

In Baltimore, if anybody hitchhikes they’re assumed to be either a pervert or a hooker. If you hitchhike in Baltimore you’re asking for it.

Being the film buff you are, Brighton Rock and 10 Rillington Place can’t have escaped you and the star of them, Richard Attenborough, died recently. Were you a fan of Attenborough?

Err… no. (laughs) It’s the tyranny of good taste. I’m sorry he’s dead. I won’t spit on his grave but I’m not wearing black.

What about the Carry On films?

I like them! I remember they played in America and they were hits here. In the days when the art theatres of Baltimore advertised free espresso coffee, we’d watch them and it’d be a radical thing. One of the Carry Ons played for 50 weeks in one theatre. I don’t know what they’d be like to see today. Do they age well?

Some of the early ones have aged well. There are a few scenes in Carry On Screaming! that could slot comfortably into a John Waters film.

Maybe they were an influence and I didn’t even realise. I couldn’t scream any dialogue but I did like them.

One of the last people to tour with a witty monologue was Quentin Crisp. Did you and Quentin ever meet?

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His show was really good and I did meet Quentin. I loved him and I went to see Quentin before he ever left London, when he was in his famously filthy apartment. I’d read The Naked Civil Servant, I was over in London and so I looked him up in the phonebook. He had no idea who I was but he’d talk with anybody who came over… and I was anyone. He just sat there in a robe with that great lilac hair, in an apartment that was anything but plush, being lovely.

Did you meet after he left London?

We met a few times in New York but he had no recollection of the London visit. I was a really big fan of Quentin, early on. He moved to America – next to the Hell’s Angels, which I love. He said they were ‘superior human beings’ which I might even quote in Carsick. He was still very lovely but he had success by then and success didn’t sit well with Quentin. He was too headstrong which is why it was not so surprising to me when he refused to back down after the AIDS comment he made in the 80s.

Are there any film plans on the horizon?

No. I’m having a huge film retrospective at the Lincoln Centre called 50 Years of John Waters, which is a huge tribute. I’ll never get anything like that – not even after I’m dead! I’m just glad to be here for it. The film business, as I know it, is no longer. You see, my last book was a hit but my last movie was not. So… I go where I wanted.

John Waters will be performing his stand-up comedy show Carsick: This Filthy World Volume 2 at the Royal Festival Hall on 11 November 2014. You can find more information on the Southbank Centre website.

Image courtesy of Pam Van Damned Visuals.

About Caleb Everett

Manchester-based writer / singer / performer. I welcome all comments and correspondence - even if it's just a death threat.