John’s Love, He Delivers:
The John Waters Christmas Interview
by Tony Phillips
After 40-years of filmmaking, any iconoclast’s influence is bound to bleed into other arenas. So it’s only natural that after recent forays into publishing, fine art, even Court TV, director John Waters arrives in the nick of time with a sack bigger than even old “Fatty Claus.” And Southern Californians must have been extra naughty — or is that nice? — this year because in addition to Waters’ collection of warped Christmas 45’s like “Santa Claus is a Black Man” on his new CD, the man himself will take UCLA’s Royce Hall stage on December 17th for his one man Christmas show while his fine art career survey Change of Life — featuring his first three, previously unreleased films — runs through the holidays at the Orange County Museum of Art. As Rudolph and Gang sing on one of the songs featured on A John Waters Christmas, this holiday double-threat may just be payback for being “pushed and shoved, kicked and beaten, scratched and clawed doing your last minute Christmas shopping…”
So John, lots of little elves running around these days, I imagine.
I have so many projects in development. I’m obviously doing the re-release of the Christmas album and a ten-city Christmas tour, which begins at the Fillmore in San Francisco and ends at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. And, of course, I’m coming back to UCLA, where I was last year. That’s going to be fun. I believe with Peaches, right? She’s my opening number.
She’s quite a number, that Peaches.
It’s going to be great. I’ve worked with Peaches before. We’ve done a show together. Then I’ve got the Court TV show that I’m appearing in. I’ve got the here! Networks series, which comes out on February 3rd. That’s called John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You. It’s sort of like Loretta Young. Every week they come to my house and I talk about the movies. And they’re really letting me push the envelope with that one. I’m showing things like The Fluffer, Porn Theater and Irreversible, movies that you’re amazed would ever be allowed to be on television.
Wow, it’ll be fun to see Irreversible on TV.
Yeah, wait until you hear my introduction, too. I do it in the attic.
I was surprised to learn Christmas is your favorite holiday. I guess because that Christmas scene in Female Trouble is burned on my brain.
That actually happened in real life, a Christmas tree did fall over on my grandmother. I, of course, really exaggerated it. It wasn’t like she was pinned under it and the paramedics had to come. But certainly, it led to that scene in Female Trouble where Dawn Davenport, played by Divine, doesn’t get the cha-cha heels she wanted and she knocks the Christmas tree on her mother and screams, “Fuck you, you awful people. I hate you!”
Is that pretty close to your Christmas?
No, I actually have a nice Christmas. And it’s my turn this year to cook Christmas dinner for my parents and brothers and sisters. I get home from this Christmas tour the day of my annual Christmas party. The next day is Christmas Eve and then I have to cook dinner for my whole family so I’ll probably be in a mental institution. You and Santa can come visit me in the mental institution.
Well, at least the album’s done. Tell me how it happened.
I was obsessed by every single one of these songs and none of them were in print, really. I wanted to have music that would be like, if I invited you over to my house for Christmas, what would I play? And I couldn’t even play it myself because I didn’t have “Santa Claus is a Black Man” and “Here Comes Fatty Claus.” So all these meant a lot to me and I wanted to get them in the right order at the right time.
What’s special about these songs?
I think the best thing about these Christmas carols is none of them are ironic. They’re amazing, surprising, startling and weird, but I think even “Here Comes Fatty Claus” was basically a drinking man’s blue collar song about going into debt at Christmas. I don’t think it was supposed to be ironic. When Little Cindy sings “Happy Birthday Jesus,” she’s doing it seriously. Even Tiny Tim was a great serious musician. I don’t think any of these songs were meant to be funny. And I don’t think they’re funny. They’re perfect.
I always thought Tiny Tim before was so ahead of his time with the whole gay marriage thing.
But Tiny Tim was straight.
Tiny Tim was never gay! He was always straight, married many times. He loved young girls that were under age, but he was totally heterosexual.
That’s amazing to me.
Yeah, a lot of people thought that, but I always knew he was straight, I mean, he got married on Johnny Carson! And Miss Vicki wasn’t a man.
I always assumed she was a beard.
No, he was obsessed by women: young girls. And both biographies say that.
In your CD linear notes, you’re pretty ambidextrous with your use of Christmas and Xmas. I take it you don’t subscribe to that fundamentalist Christian belief about not using Xmas?
Well, that’s funny. I never even thought of it that way, but that wouldn’t stop me from using it. I’m not against anyone having religious holidays, as long as they don’t make me do it. It’s the same way I feel about any religion, fine. If that brings the person comfort, happiness, optimism, anything, I’m all for it. Just don’t make me do it. I don’t come over to your house and make you watch Fassbinder movies.
So what can people expect from the live show?
It’s about my obsession with Christmas. It’s everything that I want for Christmas, what you should want, how you should celebrate it, Christmas movies, Christmas crimes, sexual Christmas. It’s really about the obsession I believe each and every one of you should develop for Christmas.
Well, is Christmas gay? Is Santa Claus gay? I mean, he is a bear, and that’s sort of a new term, comparatively, to Christmas. So I guess Santa Claus has always been erotic to people that like bears. Is he a pedophile? Children sit on his lap. There’s a lot of things you can read into it so I always thought they should have different Santa Clauses for different occasions: like a fancy Santa Claus, a drunken Santa Claus, a gay Santa Claus, a black Santa Claus, everything to appeal those children. For gay children, wouldn’t it be fun if they could go to a gay Santa Claus?
I would love it, but then I love Orange County. It’s like Los Angeles’ Staten Island. I’m so happy your museum show has found its way back there.
I was recently in Orange County. I’ve been on tour in all these places that have this reputation of being very right wing. Well, I’ll tell you, you could have fooled me from the audience. The Museum show was packed. It was a great opening. Everywhere is the same in some ways. I mean, yes, I’m sure there are big conservative groups there, but I didn’t see them. I don’t meet those people and they generally don’t attack me. A contemporary art museum is not usually going to be filled with Christian right-wingers. They hate contemporary art.
You also recently curated some of Warhol’s porn?
Well, it was my show, but I did a sidebar show called Andy’s Porn at the Warhol Museum and that was only in Pittsburgh.
So that’s not going to tour?
No, they let me look through the permanent collection at the Warhol Museum and I curated a whole show of Andy’s personal pornography. We had peepshows with glory holes and Lysol. We had nude pictures of Jean Michel Basquiat. It was great. Then I had pictures of OJ Simpson, because that’s obscene. I had a picture of Roy Cohn right next to an asshole painting. It was really a show I was proud of, but no museum could get away with showing that except the Warhol. I loved how people lined up on opening night to go in my gloryholes.
Did you have to explain that to anyone?
Well, I think it’s pretty obvious when you’re in a little booth. And then we had pasted up Andy’s Polaroid of Divine like customers who didn’t pay their bill. You know how they always have that pasted up in porn shops around the cash register, like do not serve these people?
Well, I’ve heard. Now, how are you doing with our mutual magazine OCD? Have you got it down to less than 100 monthly subscriptions?
No, it’s at about 160 now.
Wow! John, that’s way more than the last time we talked.
I know, but there are more magazines, you know…I do get a lot. They piled up so much, a whole bunch of them fell over on me. They were at the end of my bed. And I think Cocteau was killed that way, wasn’t it by his own publicity or something?
Well, there are worse ways to go, I suppose. Look at the Collier Brothers.
Oh, there’s a great book about them. But they’re all in one big rack, like a dentist office, the current ones. The problem is the ones at the foot of my bed on this trunk. Sometimes if I’ve been away for a long time, they pile up so much. I just heard “Bang!” which is startling. But I stayed home yesterday and read about a hundred of them. I didn’t do one thing but read. I really needed to do that.
Well, we’re in good company. Isaac Mizrahi has it too. He recently told me he can get through an entire New Yorker in about five minutes.
You know, he and I live in the same building in New York.
There’s a tip for the Board of Health! Now speaking of fashion, you’re one of the only people I know with Commes Des Garcons sneakers. Have you added any important couture pieces recently?
Well, I’ve always like Commes Des Garcons. I modeled for them in Paris on the runway. It was really ludicrous. I think that she is a great artist: Rei Kawabuko, the designer. I have many, many pair of Commes Des Garcon penny shoes. I like that, I like Yohji, but I get underwear at The Gap. The Japanese designers I like. I also like Paul Smith and I like agnes b. a lot. Now when I was young, I never would buy clothes like that, but at my age, you need all the help you can get. When you’re young, you find stuff in the garage and wear it and designers copy you.
Stop fishing, you fit into agnes b!
But I had to go to Brooks Brothers to buy just turtleneck jerseys: everyday beatnik outfits.
The Village Voice recently re-ran a feature from your Beatnik era. It was a Glenn O’Brien piece. You and Divine were hanging out in John Springer’s office waiting for the Female Trouble reviews to come in.
I remember that! I have to find that.
I saved it for you, part of my magazine OCD outreach. But you were smoking!
Oh, I smoked a lot.
So Judith Crist’s review comes in while you guys are hanging out. And she called the film “disgusting, crude, revolting…” So Divine says, “At least she didn’t hate it.”
[Laughs] Well, Glenn O’Brien is still around. At the time we did that, Glenn was the editor of Interview.
Do you ever look back at Divine and think, like true love, a muse like that is a once in a lifetime thing?
Well, I think, certainly…yes, when you’re young, and you start out with somebody and team up and become known together…He was angry in real life, so he could understand how to say my words of rage. I always said that Divine was my Godzilla. And Divine…I certainly miss him. I’m mad he’s dead. I thought that the other day. And I’m still shocked that he’s dead, in a weird way. Now that I think about it, if he was alive he’d be 60-years-old. In A Dirty Shame, he probably would have played Big Ethel. Who knows? I would hope that I would be with him at Christmas, because he was really Christmas obsessive, even more than me. By then, hopefully, he would have done a Christmas song, and I could have had that on the album. Maybe he would have been a big star, you know, because he was supposed to do Married With Children playing a man. That would have been one of the first gay characters on a sitcom. If that had worked, who knows what could have happened?
With everything you have going on, do you have time to think about your next film?
I thought it up, but I haven’t pitched it because I’m afraid someone will say yes. I have another project too, that’s coming before and I can’t really talk about that.
Oh, come on….
Well, it’s about my other one-man show. Somebody is going to shoot that and release it. But yeah, I know what my next movie is going to be. I thought it up this summer and I’ll think about it more. I know what it is, but it’s way too soon to talk about it.
Well, let’s wrap this up on a Christmas note. What’s on the top of your list, either to give or receive, this year?
Well, I saw in one of these magazines that there was an art book that came out of all the nude men that used to be in Old Reliable which was my favorite porn magazine. I used some of it in my Art of Sex book. I have a page about that, so I’m really glad that someone thought that was art too. So that’s what I want for Christmas. And I will probably give that to people too.
Thanks, John, and like your record says, “Happy Kwanza, Merry Christmas and have a nice time.”
Thanks, Tony. You too.