As part of the Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend events and presented by WORD Bookstore, John Waters came to Greenpoint this past Friday, September 10, to discuss his new book Role Models. Role Models is a collection of stories about, you guessed it, role models Waters has collected over the years. There to ask him questions about the book was Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times.
During the conversation, Waters quipped one-liners like, “I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t been to jail for at least one night,” followed by an audience survey of how many people had spent time in jail—a night, or more. He playfully boasted about how singles get the best seats after finding himself next to Yoko Ono (as well as Joan Kennedy who didn’t know who Waters was) at Elton John’s seventieth birthday party. He hardly ever bragged but just once he mentioned the time he did the jitterbug with Richard Serra at SqueezeBox.
A reoccurring theme of the night was the “Johnnys.” Both Johnny Mathis, who earned the first chapter in Waters’ book, and Johnny Knoxville, Jackass superstar, were mentioned several times. Waters mentioned how excited he is for the new Jackass movie to come out—Jackass Number 3,officially titled Jackass 3D, and when asked who his “dream boy” might be, Johnny Knoxville was a quick response, though shortly followed by “any of the Jackass boys.”
Based on Waters’ unconventionality, characters like Bobby Garcia, amateur porn maker (specializing in horny Marines), and Lady Zorro, the lesbian stripper, did not come as a shock. Some of the straighter characters, on the other hand, were harder for some to swallow.“I think knowing me, people are probably more surprised at Johnny Mathis, because I didn’t know how he was going to turn out, but I liked it. When I’ve been touring, wherever I go, they play his music when I come on, and he invited me recently to come see him,” Waters said. Mathis has a country album coming out next week, and Waters is going to go see him play in Baltimore.
In the Johnny Mathis chapter, “Johnny and Me,” Waters asks the question, “Do we secretly idolize our imagined opposites, yearning to become the role models for others we know we could never be for ourselves?” He had an answer for himself. “Yes, in some ways. I’m always interested in the opposite of myself, and it’s a very good psychological exercise—when I taught in prison I did it, when I taught a first grade class recently I did it—play the opposite of yourself. What is the opposite of yourself?” For a host of obvious reasons, it’s easy to assume that Johnny Mathis just may be the quintessential “opposite” of Waters. He didn’t disagree. “Maybe it was Johnny Mathis in some ways, yeah. Even though in a way we’re alike, but we’re very different too,”Waters said.
Of course, role models, typical or unexpected, are not always who we think or hope they’ll be, as was the case with Little Richard, one of Waters’ inspirations. “Sometimes you don’t need to meet people that are your role models. I have and generally it’s gone well and even when it goes bad, it’s different than how you expected but I’d like to try again with Little Richard.” LR, “toying between religion and rock and roll,” was a different kind of eccentric than Waters wanted him to be, and clearly, than Waters himself.
So is Leslie Van Houten, or at least she was forty-one years ago when she was famously arrested for killing the LaBianca couple, part of the Manson Family murders. Kellogg wanted more detail out of Waters on Van Houten’s crime, but Waters argued that he had given plenty of gory facts—and proceeded to go over them with a slightly furious intensity. What more could she have wanted? It was clear that in telling the story of his friendship with Van Houten, Waters wanted to paint a full picture. He did not want to underestimate the severity of Van Houten’s heinous crime, but he did want to show that people can and do change, that people deserve second chances and that Van Houten was one of them.
Having been obsessed with the Manson trial from the beginning—Waters attended the original trial and it hugely inspired Pink Flamingos—he has also since struck up a genuine, close friendship with a reformed and wonderful Leslie Van Houten. But after visiting Van Houten in prison for twenty-five years, Waters wants to make sure she knows she doesn’t owe him anything if and hopefully when she gets out. “I was there to help her while she was in there. If she got out and wanted to vanish away from her terrible past and not see anybody and live a secret, new life, I would be happy with that. She doesn’t need to thank me, is what I’m saying. I certainly want to see her and hope I see her and we’ve talked about that, but I thought that was the best gift you can give someone that you’ve been visiting in prison for the whole time and trying to help them get out, that you don’t expect anything in return.”
The evening ended on a lighter note with a Q&A, followed by a book signing. One audience member asked Waters what inspired him to have the“Singing Asshole” character in Pink Flamingos. It turns out a friend of Waters just happened to know a guy with such talent, and if you’re making a film like Pink Flamingos, there’s no way you pass that up. There were some doozies—do you watch Jersey Shore, who do you think is the “fugliest” man in Hollywood, but one of the last questions about fashion faux pas was a real score. Waters, known for his savvy style and impeccable taste, without skipping a beat, rattled off his “don’ts” with fervor: no white after Labor Day, skinny jeans over age thirty are a bad idea (yikes!), no capes, top hats, unicycles . . . It was clear he could have gone on and on.
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