Filth Elder John Waters Gives Advice to the Next Generation of Freaks

"I’m [trying to share] whatever I’ve learned to get this far in life, which is certainly further than I ever thought I’d get."

John Waters is your filth elder. At least that’s how the write-director describes himself today.

Waters’s new book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, offers an entertaining mix of hilarious memoir (he took acid for the first time in decades at the age of 70) and advice for the next generation of freaks (“accept something is wrong with you … something has always been wrong with me, too”).

Profiting off of filth for the past 50 years, Waters—best known for notorious and idiosyncratic films like Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, among others—chatted with NewNowNext in advance of his hosting gig at Oakland music concert Burger Boogaloo on July 6 and 7.

Mr. Know-It-All reads like a self-help book for freaks. Does that sound accurate?

Exactly! It’s a self-help book for insane people. Don’t you think all of the people at Burger Boogaloo would be able to take my advice in the right way? [Laughs] I wrote a book called Role Models where I kind of talked about all of the people when I was young that gave me permission to be who I wanted to be, so after 50 years of doing that I’m kind of trying to [share] whatever I’ve learned to get this far in life, which is certainly further than I ever thought I’d get. So I think my advice is humorous, but I believe everything I tell you to do.

So you have no issue with having heroes? Some people get weird about that.

No, I still have heroes. I think that’s great! I think you have to have somebody to look up to that gives you freedom, and that’s what heroes have always been to me. That’s what role models are about, really—people that give you permission to be who you want to be, the first things your parents don’t like, the first things that go against what you’ve been taught that you felt, Wait a minute, I maybe reject how I’m being raised [in order to go] this way. Everybody turns into their parents in a weird way, and I think I took all of the great stuff my parents had, which was a lot of good stuff—I was lucky—and rejected the few little things I didn’t like.

Did you expect to live this long when you were younger?

I guess. I never thought, Oh, I’ll die young. I never romanticized that, but looking back on my life [laughs] I’m surprised I didn’t. Except, my parents always made me feel safe. I’d like to honor my parents for that. As much as I rebelled, and what parent would be proud their kid made Pink Flamingos, I put my parents through a lot of grief and they never said, “Get out.” I knew they would be there for me in the long run, and that is why—I don’t know why I’m as crazy as I am. They had a very functional, happy marriage for 70 years.

I didn’t grow up with much terrible things happening to me. There was the whole gay thing, which was hard at that period, but I didn’t fit in the gay world, either. The first time I saw the gay world I thought, I’m queer, but I ain’t this. I was always looking for Bohemia. When I finally realized that, even my mother recognized that would be the only place that I could find myself. She used to drive me downtown, and my parents were very straight—my mother’s brother was undersecretary of the interior for Nixon. I grew up an upper-middle class conservative family. They got less conservative because I was their son.

Evan Agostini/ImageDirect
John Waters and his parents at the opening night of Hairspray on Broadway, 2002.

She would drive me down to this beatnik bar and let me off in the alley, and the people in the bar wouldn’t let me in because they knew I wasn’t 21, but she said, “Maybe you’ll meet people here you can be friends with,” and I did! They were Maelcum Soul and Pat Moran and people that were in my early movies, so she made the right decision, and my father lent me the money to make Pink Flamingoes. He never saw it—he would have hated it—but I paid him back every penny. I look back at that and think, God, that was really loving. You don’t realize the loving things your parents do for you when you’re young because you think, [groans like teenager] Why shouldn’t they? But later in life, you realize, Oh my god, they were pretty great.

Do you worry about losing your edge as time goes on?

No! I don’t think I’m losing it. What other 70-year-old takes LSD? No, I don’t feel like I’m losing it at all. It’s almost the opposite. I am amazed at the young people who come to my shows—Look, I’m hosting a punk rock show! I’ll surely be the oldest person there. I don’t know with some of those groups, but I bet I’m still the oldest.

Do you think doing psychedelics when you were younger helped shape how you see the world?

Completely! It gave me the confidence to be who I wanted to be. My mother always said, “Don’t tell young people that,” so I’m not. I’m telling old people to take it now. [Laughs] But only if they took it then and had a good experience.

Do you think young people are losing their edge? There’s less drinking and drugs and craziness than there used to be.

No! They’re having just as much fun being hackers. [Laughs] The hackers are the new juvenile delinquents. They’re having just as much fun as we did stealing hub caps in the 1950s and taking LSD in the ‘60s.

Catherine McGann/Getty Images)
John Waters and Divine, 1988.

So you don’t care about the whole rock star mentality?

I think it was an easy thing. The rock star had huge success all at once, too early. Mine was a gradual thing. … The rock stars became these huge things, and it’s overwhelming to people, especially if their parents didn’t make them feel safe and if they didn’t have something stable to keep them grounded. I always knew that it wasn’t real. I always had real friends. I don’t trust anybody my age who doesn’t have old friends. Old friends keep you from going crazy. They’re the reality check that you always have, so sometimes when you have a big failure, it’s nice. They’re glad to have you back for a while.

I like to ask everyone this question: What’s the worst thing in the world?

The worst thing in the world in my life was AIDS. Seventy-percent of my friends died. But every generation has terrible things. You know, I didn’t know anybody that died in Vietnam, to be honest. Everybody I knew knew how to get out of it. Maybe all those people that went to Vietnam didn’t know anybody who had AIDS. Now what’s happening is the opioid thing. Everybody’s dying from that. That’s the new thing that’s killing everybody. There’s always something horrible that attacks the creative community. It was syphilis before my time. I would have definitely had syphilis and been a commie in the 1950s. [Laughs]

How did you get started with Burger Boogaloo?

Well, Ian Brennan, who’s one of my agents really, [is] in the music world. … He got me the gig, and I love doing it because I’ve always loved punks, and it went over well. So this is my fifth. I come every year [and] look forward to it. I’m excited. Those are my people. [Laughs]

Has your taste in music changed over the years?

I like all kinds of music. I like punk, I like opera, I like country, I like every kind of music. I think as soon as you stop listening to new music and say yours is better, you’re an old fart and you don’t matter anymore.

Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

Did you have dreams of being a musician when you were younger?

I have in my new book a part about how I’m going to become the oldest geezer rap star. [Laughs] I describe my fantasy of being a rock star at the end of the music chapter.

What do you think about Pride?

I love the idea. Stonewall, people forget, was a gay criminal bar, basically. It was illegal drag queens and hustlers. It wasn’t a fancy gay bar. It wasn’t a she-she gay bar at all. It was gay radicals that were thrown out of all of the other gay bars. I love the fact—especially since that was the day Judy Garland died and how much more of a cliché can that be—that that inspired the rage of a gay riot, in sorrow, is an amazing story. I wish they had gay riots when I was young. I was looking for one, but I could never find one.

Do you have any interesting Pride stories?

I don’t know if I ever celebrated Pride. I was before that. I never came out. It always seemed like that was like a bar mitzvah. I just figured everybody knew. I always hung around with straight people and gay people. I’m against separatism. The first time I ever went to a gay bar, I thought, I might be queer, but I’m not this, but then I went to good ones! The last great gay bar I remember was in New York, called Squeeze Box, and it was a punk rock gay bar. It was the best. It was really, really good.

I went to The Stud in San Francisco—not the one where it is now but the old one—and it was a sort of hippie gay bar. I wish I had gotten to the bohemian gay bars, but they were kind of gone by the time I got to New York, so I guess I’m looking for the next gay hacker bar. [Laughs] Is there such a place? That’s where I want to go shoot my load on Silk Road. [Laughs]

Thor Benson is a traveling journalist who is currently located in Los Angeles. He has contributed to publications like The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and elsewhere
@thor_benson