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December 7-13, 2005

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John Waters

Whose Presents Are These, Anyway? The truly shocking thing is that John Waters' Christmas album is unabashedly pro-Christmas. His one-man show supporting the album comes to the Fillmore in San Francisco on Dec. 14 and to the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Dec. 15.

How John Waters Stole Christmas!

Crazy carols, ex-cons, meet-and-greets and Christmas terrorism—it's all in a season's work for John Waters


By Steve Palopoli

WHEN I interviewed John Waters in 2001, he was encouraging people to pick up his trash—that is to say, his early films Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester had just come out on DVD. These are the movies that scared the bejesus out of one generation and defined the notion of cult film for the next. I had the honor of watching Female Trouble on the big screen that evening with Waters himself and a crowd who consider him as well as Divine—the film's 300-pound transvestite star—nothing less than outlaw heroes. What I noticed most was that Waters got as much sheer, honest-to-God enjoyment out of it as everyone else; here was the King of Shock Cinema, and what his friends had done up there on the screen was cracking him the hell up. Suddenly, it came to me: the outrageousness, the sharp-dressed cool, the rapier wit—could it all be a cover for a sincere streak a mile long? "You're crazy!" I can hear you saying in my head, thanks to the fact that I am crazy. Maybe so, disembodied voice! Maybe so. But answer me this: Which man who once filmed his lead actor eating dog shit now has a Christmas album? A Christmas album that, while weird, is actually pro-Christmas! Ding, ding, ding! That's right, A John Waters Christmas is a collection of his favorite Christmas tunes, and while there's of course plenty of twisted stuff on it, Fat Daddy's "Fat Daddy (Is Santa Claus)," Stormy Weather's "Christmas Time Is Coming (A Street Carol)" and several of the other tracks are simply great and rare Christmas songs by any measure. This year, Waters is reprising his one-man show, A John Waters Christmas, as well—he'll perform it Dec. 14 at the Fillmore in San Francisco and Dec. 15 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. He spoke to Metro about all this time he's logging with yule.

METRO: Do you find people are surprised to discover that you would do a Christmas album and tour that does have some sincerity to it? That it's not just a joke?

JOHN WATERS: The reviews have been very respectful, actually. And last night, I turned on the Christmas lights in Baltimore with the mayor. I pulled the switch. And while I was doing interviews, they were playing "Santa Claus Is a Black Man," which couldn't be a better song to play in downtown Baltimore. But there was the final irony, that myself and the mayor turned on the Christmas tree lights for all of Baltimore, with my album playing in the background! I thought, "Anything can happen." That's why I do love America. Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos played on television this summer—how can that be? I mean, cable, but still ...

OK, but when you decided to do this, was part of it that you just wanted to screw with Christmas? You've joked in the past about how important it is for you to give young people a negative influence to look up to.

No, I just thought, you know, these are the songs I play at my Christmas party every year. I collect Christmas albums—I always thought Phil Spector had a great one. Brenda Lee had the best one of all. Diana Krall's new one is nice. I like Christmas albums. The problem is not that many people do. And they're all so straight! I mean, like, why didn't Ol' Dirty Bastard do one? There's very few rap Christmas carols, and I think they'd be great, like "O Fuckin' Little Town of Bethlehem." Or, I always thought the Shangri-Las should have done one, like "My Boyfriend's Cuter Than Joseph." There's so many songs that you could imagine that would be so great at Christmas.

In that same spirit, let's imagine that a network executive who's losing his fragile grip on reality sees your show and says 'Good God, John Waters, I'm going to give you your own Christmas variety show.' Obviously, Charo and the Dallas Cowboys have to be on, that's a given. Who else do you invite?

Believe me, I've already thought about it, and don't be so surprised if I do have one someday! Who would I have? Like Ray Buckey [of the infamous McMartin preschool trials]. He didn't do it, you know. I'd have him, I'd have Larry Layton, one of the People's Temple people. You know, all ex-criminals that were paroled that were OK. When Johnny Walker Lindh [the famous "American Taliban" convict] gets off, I'd have him. Basically, "special guest stars" that I think got a raw deal. And we would probably raid midnight masses. Or more fun would be to break into movie stars' homes and open their presents while they're out. Like a reality show, I guess you could do.

Like 'Cops,' with the shakicam and everything.

Yeah. Like I'd say "Look, we're at Charo's house, and she's not home, let's open her presents!"

Would anyone die?

No, no one would be hurt at all! And we'd leave their presents, we'd just open them and pretend they're ours for 20 minutes. And react how we think Charo would react. Then we'd go to another movie star's home.

Wow, that's really the ultimate violation. You unwrap the presents and then just leave them there, naked.

I know! You come home and someone's opened all your presents and not stolen them. It would be Christmas terrorism.

So what do you actually do in the show? What do you talk about?

It's my obsession with Christmas: what I want for Christmas, what you should want, how to handle every holiday disaster. It's about Christmas crime, it's about Christmas movies. I try to reinvent all of my movies, if I had to reinvent them as Christmas movies.

If you made a movie that had 'A John Waters Christmas' as the soundtrack album, what would the movie be like?

Well, I think what I would have done is the music videos for each one of these songs. And I could really imagine Little Cindy's. I've always turned down music videos, because I thought, "I'm going to save it for one day when I do my own." But I think it would be perfect—if I could do the music videos for each one of those songs, it would be an hour Christmas special.

You might still get to do that—hasn't the album done very well? It was such a hit last year you couldn't get it two weeks before Christmas. It's the power of Miss Terry Gross—basically, I did her show for an hour and she played so much of it that a half hour after the show was over it went to No. 8 on Amazon.com's entire Christmas list. You couldn't get it anywhere, they couldn't reorder in time.

At the end of the liner notes, you wrote 'see you next year,' which made me think a second Christmas volume might be in the cards.

No, actually, I think the real next volume—it was going to come out on Valentine's Day, and I still hope it does, but I'm not sure if it is—it's called A Date With John Waters. And that's all romantic seduction music I would play if I had you over. And if that goes well, we want to have Breaking Up With John Waters.

Maybe you could eventually do one that combines it all, like, 'Go Out With John Waters on Christmas'?

And break up with him on New Year's Eve? Maybe! That could happen in the Christmas special, you know? Basically where you get to date someone, or someone wins you. I'm in this thing right now for some charity where you win a date with me. And I thought, like, suppose I try something? Am I allowed to? I always think, "If they pay that much, I'm going to have to do a lap dance!" Even on these tours, they have this thing called the "meet and greet" area where people pay more money and you spend quality time with them. I feel that is my lap dance. I'm basically like, "Do I have to go over in the corner with each one of them?" I don't mind! It might raise the price a little if I have to do a real lap dance.

Well, you have to kill time before the show anyway.

I know, meet and greet! Fuck and greet! And over in the corner they have little booths where they take you back for a lap dance.

What initially made you think people would respond well to 'John Waters' being juxtaposed with 'Christmas' in the title of anything?

Well, there's a long history of it. First of all, I really do love Christmas, and in my book Crackpot there's a chapter called "Why I Love Christmas." I read it on NPR, and it became sort of a famous thing. And then, I have a spoken-word act called The World of Filth that I do about 20 to 30 times a year at colleges and nightclubs and everything all over the country. And I've been doing it for years and years and years. So, I'd say maybe four or five years ago, a promoter in San Francisco said, "Would you ever think of doing a 'John Waters Christmas' kind of thing?" So I did my act there, and I've done it a couple of times since, and then I had worked with New Line Records because they put out my soundtrack albums, for A Dirty Shame and a lot of soundtrack albums for my movies. And it's all kind of the same kind of music—it's very little-known weird vintage music that usually is not done with irony. They're never campy to me, they're amazing! They're perfect. They're not campy, because campy means so bad they're good. And I think they're so bad they're perfect.

The narration in 'Little Mary Christmas' is absolutely the worst narration I've heard in anything, ever.

And it's so politically incorrect, too! He even says "crippled" in it, I think.

You must have slogged through quite a bit of crap to find the good stuff.

The hardest part of doing this thing is finding some of these songs, since I don't want to do oldies you're already sick of. I want to find ones mostly that you haven't heard. That make you say, "How could this have ever been released?" Or something that's just really a beautiful Christmas song, only still a little—you know, a little bit redneck, or very much rhythm and blues. None of them are white bread, and if they are white bread, they're so white bread that they're horrifying.

I thought you did a good job of tracking the album, in the sense that the horrifying songs are broken up with songs that are actually good, like Tiny Tim's 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.'

People think Tiny Tim's campy. I never thought he was. I thought he was a genius. The funniest thing is that he wasn't gay, either. I just read a second biography of him. People always thought he was gay. He was never gay. He was a buff on 30s and 40s music; he was this incredibly knowledgeable person who I remember playing around in Greenwich Village for years before "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." He was a beatnik.

I don't know if you ever heard his version of 'Highway to Hell,' but it's way more fun than the original.

I have heard it! Also, same thing, the Chipmunks had a punk album!

Oh yeah, I love that you put a Chipmunks song on there. I think it's time for some real appreciation of Chipmunks records.

Notice that all these songs where they couldn't think what to do, they would add Chipmunks at the end. They didn't call them the Chipmunks—there was, like, the "Nutty Squirrels." I used the Nutty Squirrels in A Dirty Shame. There were rip-offs of the Chipmunks. There were spin-offs that stole the idea. I guess anybody can speed up a record.

The weird thing about "Sleigh Ride," the Chipmunks song on your record, is that there's no Chipmunks "shtick" developed yet. There's no Alvin being bad, or Dave Seville yelling at them. It's just the vocals sped up. It's weird.

Like, it's "classic Chipmunks."

Interestingly, if you just scan the titles here, you have no idea what's in store for you. You might think 'Here Comes Fatty Claus' was a bunch of weight jokes or something. The truth is almost beyond description, like the ultimate Grinch song.

It's a working man's song! It's like if you go out Christmas Eve when you're supposed to be decorating the tree with your family, get drunk, and you're in debt in the neighborhood corner bar, singing about being in debt. I can imagine it speaking to a lot of people. And what's really outrageous to me is that just because of that one song that has the word "shit" in it, I have to have a parental warning sticker on the album. Whereas in a movie, that would get you a PG. They have a version that's bleeped out, just like rap songs, for the radio. "Here comes Santa with his sack of blank."

I don't want to suggest you're jolly or anything, but one reason I'm not totally surprised you have a sincere streak is that when we watched 'Female Trouble' you seemed to be getting as much genuine enjoyment out of it as the rest of us.

Well, it was a new version, and I could hear dialogue I could never heard before. Female Trouble is my favorite of my Divine movies. When I look back on it, that was my real vehicle for Divine—it was completely written for Divine. It just came out as a book too—the screenplay is out. It's with the screenplays for Hairspray and Multiple Maniacs, as if that's a triple feature that anyone would ever book. The truth is I almost never watch my old movies, unless I have to. And when I have to, I enjoy them, and what I enjoy is not so much the movies as seeing them with an audience and hearing the people laugh. To be honest, a lot of times when you see your old movies, the only things you see are the mistakes and the parts you don't like. But I'm proud of all of them. People say, "Which is your favorite?" but they're all the same to me. If you'd never seen a John Waters movie, I think you could pick Hairspray, which is I guess the most family friendly, or you could pick A Dirty Shame or another one of those that's the least family friendly, and you'd still know what I'm about. They're still the same genre, they're saying the same things. They're rooting for the same morals. I actually think, scarily, my films are politically correct.

Well, like Ed Wood's 'Glen or Glenda'—which I love but which is technically a disaster compared to your films—the movies you did with Divine actually made people get what Divine was doing, as outrageous as it was.

Before Divine, drag queens were square. They wanted to pass. And they hated Divine, because Divine would show up with a miniskirt and a chain saw, weighing 300 pounds. So he was making fun of the whole thing in a way, of being a monster. 'Cause Divine was my Godzilla, really. He was! A punk monster before there was punk. We didn't know that word, but Pink Flamingos was basically a punk movie. The audience was hippies who were violent. They didn't know about punk yet, because there wasn't such a thing, and they looked like hippies, but they weren't. They hated hippies. But they were still, you know, anarchists and left-wing, it wasn't that they were Republicans.

Was 'Cecil B. Demented' an attempt to recall that time, or even poke a little fun at the atmosphere that surrounded your filmmaking back then?

Hopefully I have a better sense of humor than Cecil—Cecil was driven and a fascist. But certainly there are things in there that remind me of our old days. All my movies are a little bit autobiographical—I'm a little bit of Hatchet Face, I'm a little bit of Pecker, I'm a little bit of all of them, really.

What's something people will learn about you in the Christmas show?

Well, I think hopefully it will be that I never talk down to the audience. You know, sometimes I mention things I want or talk about things where people might not have any idea what they are. But I promise you, if you look it up, you won't be disappointed. It's good homework.


John Waters performs A John Waters Christmas at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Dec. 14 and at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Dec. 15. Jonathan Richman opens both shows. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com.


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