No one has their look down quite like John Waters. Flamboyant designer suits, a neat coif, and trim pencil mustache define the provocateur as much as his 50-year career as a filmmaker, visual artist, writer, and comedian: Classic, vulgar, and entirely unmistakable.
But before John Waters was John Waters, Self-Deigned Pope of Trash and Prince of Puke, he was a lanky kid from Baltimore crashing punk clubs in a leather jacket, his long, greasy hair dangling precariously over a lit cigarette and, of course, that pencil mustache. It's from this ether, from the opening chords of Elton Motello's genderfucking "Jet Boy Jet Girl," that John Waters, Cult Icon was forged. Today, at 71, amongst the punks remains where Waters feels at home, which is why he is returning to host punk extravaganza Burger Boogaloo in Oakland this weekend.
"I feel like a real, true filth punk elder when I'm there," Waters says on a recent June afternoon, in anticipation of his third year helming the Burger Records event. This year's lineup at Mosswood Park features Iggy Pop, X, Buzzcocks, Shannon and the Clams, and many more. "I love the festival, I think it has a spirit like no other one. Punk now is more than ever defiant about the natural order, and at the same time, it is anarchy in a way. I think it's a tribe."
Fifty years after punk's advent, Waters is still helping wreck things amidst a cultural climate that feels as confused and ripe for defiance as when he was sporting his leather. We spoke with him about the shape of punk to come, the rise of PC culture, and keeping your sense of humor in the age of Trump.
Noisey: What is it that makes you feel at home at punk shows?
John Waters: When I see people with a mohawk, I think, y'know, that's not that new [Laughs]. But it is to them, and I'm sure their parents hate it just as much as the ones did when I was young. So, it is about rebellion, it is about fashion, it is about music, and it also wrecks all those things. It purposefully makes fun of the tradition of music, when groups come out and have 20 songs all that are ten seconds long which sound exactly the same [Yells], y'know? "Thank you very much, I love you. Now to our next song." [Yells again] I find that delightful, and I find it almost like a biker gang. It's an art mob, it's a secret world that you have to adjust your taste to.
Are there any younger bands that you're excited about seeing there? What are you listening to these days?
Well, I'd love to see the ones I don't know, that I have no idea who they are. I do my research on all of them, but some y'know, like the Mummies, I'd never seen 'em really for a really long time. So it's exciting to see even punk nostalgia, because I never realized there could be such a thing. But of course there is! Punk came out in the 70s. But there're new kids there that are 16 that are punks.
What does punk mean to you? What does it mean now?
I look for what is going to be the next thing to get on peoples nerves that they try to do, and the fashions are great there, y'know? Yes, there is the traditional punk there with safety pins and all that, which is anything but new—it's almost nostalgic! If you're young, it's almost camp —even though I never even use that word—because they're bringing it back. Like when I was in the hippie era, people wore clothes from the 30s 'cause that's what they found in thrift shops. So the best punk there will have on the one thing from the thrift shop that nobody bought, the ugliest thing that's not even ugly enough to be worn ironically. That is what I look for. See who has the real fashion balls there—y'know, to wear something that offends people but no one has ever seen before.
"It's all about how you wreck something."
Right. Because it's also pretty easy to go to the mall now and get like, pre-fab ripped jeans and a studded leather jacket. Though I'm pretty sure no one going to Burger Boogaloo is doing that.
But even if you went and bought ripped jeans at the mall, that's better than wearing a preppy outfit from the mall! [Laughs] Theres nothing the matter with wearing mall clothes if you alter them, or you turn them into something else, or you make fun of them in a way. It's all about how you wreck something. How you wreck something is what punks do in a really good, creative way. Including music.
This festival has kind of a nostalgic vibe. Given our current political climate do you expect that we might see a resurgence of punk, or that sort of spirit in music?
Anarchy these days is certainly more discussed, and there are more practices on colleges, but I don't think there are enough. When I do my college shows, I always say, stop studying! Why aren't you in the streets? The weird thing is that right wing people are acting like they're using punk tactics. It's like Spy vs. Spy now—the left wing radicals and the right wing radicals are infiltrating each others' world and fighting it out. So, the right wing is acting more like yippies today than the left wing, just the politics are on the other side.
How do you see that playing out in music?
It depends. The tactics are weird like, last year someone burned a flag. That seems so dated to me. I don't know, to me it's all about protest and symbolism and anarchy and humor, humor, humor. Punks always had a devious sense of humor. And that's what I'm for, because when I was young the yippies used humor as terrorism, and that's what I think we should be doing today to infiltrate and to mortify the enemy, and Trump is an easy target because he reacts to everything. Humor is the most important thing. It's how you change people's minds. I'm not exclusionary. I have friends that voted for Trump. Not many, but I do. Punk rock has lots of humor in it. And I think thats why it's lasted.
At the same time, on the other side of the spectrum, there's a rise in PC culture that sees a lot of humor and comedy being policed. When you do these comedy shows and visits to college campuses, do you feel like you need to tread lightly now?
No, I don't. And no one ever gets mad at what I say, no matter what I say. Because I think I am politically correct. Weirdly, underneath it all. Because I'm not mean-spirited, and I don't think I make fun of political correctness. I mean, a trigger warning? My whole life is a trigger warning! I thought thats why you went to college, to accept that challenge. But that's only in rich kid schools. Believe me, they don't have trigger warnings in Baltimore [Laughs]. It's a class issue.
But you're right—liberals are fascists. Oh my god, just show a black person looting a paper towel and they go crazy. They become Nazis. So I make fun of that and I talk about that, but nobody ever gets mad, because A) I'm marveling at human behavior. When I see all these crazy right wings now, they look kinda punk-ish—some of them. And you gotta remember, in punk there were two kinds of skinheads. There were the racist kind, and the ska kind, and they were very different. The same way in Baltimore there's this one shop that sells leather stuff, so all the gay S&M guys go there, and the real bikers go there, and they're wearing the same outfit, but they just don't talk to each other.
"A trigger warning? My whole life is a trigger warning!"
So in a way, its the same. Are there punk rockers that are Trump supporters? Maybe! I don't know. It's confusing now. But I understand every time the militancy [of PC culture]. I mean when the riots happened in Berkeley, I felt nostalgic. Cause I loved to riot when I was young, and I was jealous cause they all had shields. And I never had a shield made out of duct tape and stuff, so that was my new fashion accessory. Maybe I'll bring one to Burger Boogaloo. [Laughs]
When I was at Burger Boogaloo, it was kind of amazing, everybody's totally going crazy, stage diving, throwing stuff, then I come on, everybody's real polite, applause, there's laughter. So I thought that was lovely, y'know? How they treated me with punk respect. But I treat them with respect, and I've done research on all the bands and they know that I really like that world. But I'm not gonna be stage diving at 71—although, Iggy does!
You have a long standing relationship with him, it must feel pretty wild to team up with him at a festival like, this many years later.
Oh, are you kidding? I don't have to team up, he's the star of all stars at Burger Boogaloo. It's like God himself's gonna appear. It's gonna be like the miracle scene in La Dolce Vita.
Do you think the kind of provocative stuff that he used to do, or the equivalent of a movie like Pink Flamingos, could even get made now? Because of this broader sensitivity that seems to be happening?
Yeah, because that political movement—that's some people, that's not everybody, believe me. I just played in Oklahoma, I mean deep in mid-America country. And nobody ever gets mad—the people that come to see me, they want me to say things that make them a little uncomfortable. It's called "The Filthy World!" Y'know, if my show was "Politically Correct World," that would be a different thing.
To me, political correctness is about respecting people and understanding different viewpoints without judging people. Well I do that, but—the problem is losing sense of humor. First of all, I think I make fun of myself first. From the beginning calling my films trash epics and everything. One critic complained about that earlier, that I beat them to the typewriter. Well, maybe I beat the politically correct crap, even though I don't think they dislike me! I don't know. I've never been attacked for really anything I've said, and some of it is pretty ludicrous. They just laugh, because I say it with love. I only make fun of things that I love.
You've often talked about revolutions, and that's been an underlying theme of a lot of your work. Do you think that could realistically be brought about right now?
Well, what kind of revolution? I remember in the 60s, people actually were sitting around reading Lenin, and y'know, I'm not that. But a revolution would be if we get him out of office, before the four years. That is a kind of revolution. To be honest, I don't understand why there isn't a demonstration every day.
I think the left wing is still stunned, they don't know what to do. And the right wing, if Hillary had won, they would've beat people up for a week ,and then just gone back home. But they won, and they're stunned they won! [Laughs] So only lately they're getting pissed off and beating up people again. But in a way that will backfire, of course. It just adds to international assholeism which Trump is guilty of. The whole world makes fun of him. And no matter what he says, he reads all his press. That is the way to get him to lose it, to keep harping on his assholeism.
"See, I'm always looking for the impossible."
Like you were saying about hitting the streets earlier though, there still seems to be a lot of inaction. Why is that, do you think?
'Cause they're stunned. And the times are so different—now it's hackers, they're the terror. That's a juvenile delinquent. They're the people that are shutting down the government. They're having just as much fun as we did when we were at riots. But what they should do these hackers is get stuff on all the right wing politicians, like publish all their porn they look at, to humiliate the enemy. But they like anarchy too, that would just slow down everything, y'know. I understand that, y'know I always wished they had a dating system on Silk Road. [Laughs]
I feel like they probably would…
They don't. They don't have a bad boy naked page on Silk Road! Where you tip in Bitcoin. [Laughs] See, I'm always looking for the impossible.
It's much for people to stay within their comfort zones, on Facebook, or in these dispersed communities of the internet, rather than congregate in real life.
It's lazy social living on the internet. I'm on the internet too. But it's not interesting, its not funny, it's just all of these people have too much time on their hands. I don't have time, I wanna be harder to reach, not easier. But yeah, if you just stay on Facebook or on your computer all the time, you're not going to ever change much. Because it's already changed, the big change has happened—the computer and the internet and all that stuff. But now what? Use it to change stuff!
I don't know if people make that connection. That it takes getting together in real life. Though I guess with something like Burger Boogaloo they do.
Yeah. And at Burger Boogaloo everyone isn't looking at their phone. Which is rare these days. I'm not saying every person doesn't have a phone, I look at my phone too, but still I think it is a tribe that you don't quite get to see. I went to the women's march in San Francisco, and it was a great feeling, but then I thought, it just ended that one day? How come it didn't happen every weekend? I mean every week—every day!—Trump does something hideous, so I'm just amazed. And y'know, I'm not out either, walking down the street tonight alone with a club and a pole to break windows and stuff—I don't think it would be very effective [ Laughs] But still, it is young people's duty sometimes to go out there and cause trouble, political trouble. And even on both sides! I can't blame the Trump ones for rioting either, really. But we'll see how the punks are feeling about it this year. I'll try to egg them on.
Andrea Domanick has bad taste. Follow her on Twitter.