Images courtesy of Nadja Sayej.

john waters on karma, the art of selling out, and dropping acid at 70

i-D talks to the iconic filmmaker and author about his latest book 'Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.'

by Nadja Sayej
21 May 2019, 3:47pm

Images courtesy of Nadja Sayej.

John Waters, the self-proclaimed Pope of Trash, just turned 73. His birthday was just in time for the release of his latest book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, which is out today. The book is filled with hilarious anecdotes from his life, from flying first class on short-haul flights (“even the bathrooms are still outhouses in the sky with toilet seats way too small for the average size of fat-ass Americans”) to underground art (“there’s no new youth movement in New York or LA that you’re missing, its too expensive for any revolutionary ideas to even breathe”).

We caught up with Waters after his stand-up set for the Ballroom Marfa spring gala at the Paradise Club in Midtown (the dress code was “filthy and glamorous”), where he talked to i-D about pissing on trains, who he’s voting for, and the art of selling out.

What are you doing for Pride this year? It’s been 50 years since Stonewall.
I always say that I am for pride, but I always feel that gays and straights should stick together. I’m not a separatist or anything. When I first went to a gay bar, I thought, "this is so square." I thought, I am queer but I ain’t this. I was looking for Stonewall with drag queens and hustlers and crazy people. I’m glad. Was Stonewall sparked by gay icon, Judy Garland's death in 1969? I don't think so. I don’t think that inspired gay rage. But I’m all for it, definitely. Is this the 50th year?

Yes. It's been 50 years!
Well. I love walking by there and seeing the George Segal artwork in Christopher Park in the West Village. It’s been there forever. I love that the Stonewall Inn was never an “in” bar, it was always criminals and outcasts. It was the one bar that uppity gay people wouldn’t go to. That’s why I liked it. The uppity pissy queens would never go there! So, it was the criminal gay bar, which I miss. I wish there was a criminal gay bar today for me in Manhattan, I’d go in a minute but there isn’t one.

Do you go to Brooklyn?
No, there ain’t one there either. The last good gay bar in Manhattan was called Squeeze Box. It was a punk rock gay bar that was two-thirds gay and one-third straight — that’s the best because you can recruit.

Why did you write Mr. Know-It All?
I wrote it because I wanted to tell all the stories I have left in me and to give my opinion on everything. I don’t know if I have a story left. I’ve told a lot of them.

Do people come to you for advice a lot?
They do in a way but finally at 73 or 74, I forget. I’m 73. As you get older you forget your age. You have the right to give advice. You can never give advice when you’re young. I wrote a book called Role Models, which is all about people who gave me advice, which gave me a kind of permission to be what I wanted to be. I think I’m at the stage where I’m old and I share what I learned to other crazy people who might want some advice.

What is the most valuable message in the book?
To only whisper "I love you" to people when they’re asleep. They can hear it subliminally, but it doesn’t require them to say it back. It doesn’t demand an answer and you can’t be disappointed. It has no control.

Alan Cummings wrote in his New York Times book review of your book that you think it's ok to be a one-trick pony, as long as you’re okay with having a sense of humor about doing the same thing over and over?
You have to do it but vary it, and you have to keep it up with every generation and you have to reinvent yourself constantly. If one thing doesn’t work, you just tell stories about them. If the movies don’t work, I write books, I do spoken word, I always have a way to tell a story. That’s all I need.


In essence, are you a storyteller?
Yes, I’ve always been a writer, basically. I wrote the books, I made the art shows, I never made a movie I didn’t write. I wouldn’t know how to. The most fun is thinking it up. That day you think up the character. That’s what’s fun to me.

Is it true all your dreams have come true?
Yeah, they have. Isn’t that so sick that it could make you puke? I’d puke if someone told me that. That all their dreams come true. That’s a sickening thing.

You’re not saying it in a cheeseball way though.
But it is cheesy. And I have. I never thought I’d live to be this age and I never thought all these things. I’m happy about it and amazed about it. But I can understand puking when they hear that.

Didn’t you once say that someone barfing during your movie is like getting a standing ovation?
I did say that, I said that a long time ago. At that point in my life, Pink Flamingos had come out. But if someone watched Pink Flamingos today and liked it and barfed, that would be okay. That movie was made to get a reaction.

Do you feel like you sold out?
I always wanted to sell out! Nobody bought me enough. I thought every movie I made would be a giant commercial hit and should play in every movie theatre [laughs]. I never understood the “cult filmmaker” thing. That just means smart people like it and nobody pays to see it. I always wanted to be commercially successful. I read Variety magazine when I was 14. I learned about show business every day. I always wanted to make a living; I didn’t want to be a struggling artist at 73. Or angry or bitter at 73. You can be angry and bitter at 23, it's really sexy. At 73, it's really depressing.

But you’re not!
No, I’m not bitter about anything! People have been really fair to me in my life.

When people ask me what John Waters is like, I always say you’re a humble person.
I think I am, I’m lucky that all this happened.

I’m surprised you’re not more of a diva, why is that?
Diva, what do you mean? I’m not sitting in a car out front, they treat me well.

You let people take selfies with you.
Are you kidding? That’s hardly like they’re asking me to change a flat.

Who is your favorite comedian?
That’s a good one. I like Chris Rock. I don’t go see comedians. My favorite of course is Lenny Bruce. In my book I talk about John Stanley. It’s in the book. He is still my favorite comedian. None of us would be here without Lenny Bruce, though. He went to jail for saying fuck. Can you imagine? I would have probably gotten the death penalty for my comedy set tonight. Just for what I said. He was my favorite.


What is the biggest delusion you’ve had in your life?
I don’t know if I have any delusions. The biggest regret I have is smoking so many cigarettes. That’s the only thing in my life I regret. Delusions. If anyone tells you can’t do this because of where you were born or where your life is, but I understand, I don’t believe in karma, I wish I did because Mike Pence would be dead and Divine would still be alive.

Why did you do LSD with Mink Stole when you were 70?
Why wouldn’t I? I always wanted to dare myself to do that, I dare myself into things all the time. I hitchhiked across the country. I think those two things were equal. Tripping was more of a risk, but I could have been murdered hitchhiking. But tripping? You don’t know what it could be like to do it again. I did it when I was young, I never had a bad trip. Mink and I had known each other for 50 years that summer, and we dropped acid with my younger friend Frankie (not a boyfriend or anything, just a really good friend). You don’t want to do acid with just two people in case one of them goes crazy, so you want a third one. It shouldn’t be a boyfriend or girlfriend). It was a great experience and is the most sentimental chapter in my book, in my opinion.

Did you see the "Camp" exhibit at the Met yet?
I didn’t see it yet, they sent me an invite to go, a catalogue and everything

I was insulted you weren’t featured in the exhibition.
Well I wasn’t invited to the opening, but I really felt like the roach dress from Hairspray should have been in it. I thought the roach dress was couture, let me tell you.

You’ve said you’re going to vote for the fictional MAD magazine politician, Alfred E. Neuman?
MAD magazine was even before Lenny Bruce. To me, MAD was the very first thing that made me rebel. My parents got me a subscription. MAD was so important to everyone my age. But as much as Mayor Pete is in, he should know who Alfred E. Neuman is. I don’t care if you’re 30. It’s Alfred E. Neuman. In “What me worry?” there was a female version of Neuman named Moxie Cowznofski, that popped up in the 1950s. I had an Alfred t-shirt, I would vote for him over all the politicians out there today, I’d vote for him first. I miss Alfred.

Who else do you miss?
I miss Divine. I miss the people who unfairly died before their time. But there is no fair death. In your life, you have to do everything you can possibly do, read every book, see every movie. People ask me: "Why don’t you slow down?" I say: Because I only got this one time! I’m going to experience every possible thing I can. Until I can’t. I wish I believed in the resurrection. The only Catholic thing I like the idea of. There’d be an extreme housing shortage.

Speaking of religion, Justin Bieber has found god, what do you think of that?
I’m a little depressed about that but it's up to him. I was more into him when he was more of a hell-raiser. I still think he’s cool. I even have a Justin Believer scarf. I always thought he was cool. He’s a great pop star.

Who is your favorite abstract artist?
Of course, it would be Jackson Pollock, and every time I piss on the train standing up, even in the first-class car, it is a Jackson Pollock painting. No woman should ever sit down on a train and pee. It's impossible. It’s a Jackson Pollock painting. And it looks like the Warhol oxidation piss painting.

Do you really feel like the art world is the last place you can actually be controversial?
In a way it is. It’s the only last place where censorship helps. If someone comes out against you. Every movement in art started with people’s fury against it. Abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, video art, all of them were hated at first. You have to be hated at first.

What happens if you keep getting hated?
If you keep getting hated it wont last. As I say in the book, two people have to like you besides your mother. In art, only one. Wait, two. One good dealer and one collector.

As you say: “you can’t be an anarchist with three houses.”
No, you can’t, I tried. And a summer rental. [Laughs]

john waters
Pink Flamingos