Filmmaker John Waters is bringing his “This Filthy World” monologue to the Lawrence Arts Center on Thursday, Feb. 20, as part of the "Creative Observer" series celebrating beat writer and artist William S. Burroughs’ 100th birthday.
Waters was famously called “Pope of Trash” by Burroughs, a name earned because of his trashy, absurd cult films in the 1970s and 1980s — for example, his star actor, plus-sized drag queen Divine, ate actual dog feces at the end of “Pink Flamingos.” Two of his films, "Hairspray" and "Cry-Baby," have been adapted for the stage and received several Tony Awards and nominations. He hasn’t made a film in 10 years, but he has kept busy hitchhiking across America for forthcoming book, “Carsick,” which will be released in June.
Ahead of the sold out event, the Journal-World had a chance to speak with Waters about Burroughs, Lawrence (calling the city an oasis in Kansas where crazies come to hide) and his thoughts on just about every bizarre topic imaginable:
Nadia Imafidon: When did you meet Burroughs?
John Waters: I met him in the ‘80s, certainly not during the beatnik days. When I was younger, those were my heroes. The first thing I wanted to be was a beatnik. Not even a man.
He had a deadpan delivery and he lived a deadpan life. I believe William was exactly the same when his guests weren’t there. I don’t think it was ever an act. He learned how to play himself but that self was the real thing. William was exactly who he said he was. And made no apologies. Ever.
NI: Would you say you’re similar?
JW: I think I’m much more joyous in a way. I think to be honest I like women more than he did. Although I think he really did love his wife, and I think he really did feel terrible about shooting her. It had a huge effect on what he wrote and how he lived his life.
He certainly was a bad father. Well, I guess he wasn’t a great husband either — he shot her. And then his son committed suicide. I think shooting his wife was a terrible accident and I think him being a father was a terrible accident.
But I don’t have children so I shouldn’t be judging. Mine would be even more screwed up. I’m too self-absorbed. I’m a good uncle. I’d get you out of jail, get you an abortion, get you to rehab. And then I’d get you to tell your parents after I helped you do it.
NI: Why do you say you’re self-absorbed?
JW: Because my career is important to me and to have a child you should give up part of your life to raise that child. I don’t think I was ever willing to. I never even considered having a child.
NI: Back to Burroughs. Did he influence your work?
JW: Oh my God yeah. When I was in Catholic school I used to read some of his stuff. They weren’t familiar with his work so they’d say, “Isn’t it nice that he’s reading,” and I’d be reading something like “Naked Lunch.”
Today when I read cut-up novels, I’m not so sure. But when you’re young, you’re more open to experimentation. I just liked the fact that he had such a strong image so early. How he dressed was really a part of it because he dressed so square and he was so hip. I think that that was a contrast that I learned from... not that I ever tried to do that.
He had a signature look that really threatened people. He scared hippies and that’s what I thought of with Divine. He scared hippies too. So maybe he had a big influence.
NI: How did it feel to be crowned the Pope of Trash by Burroughs?
JW: Are you kidding? It was the best quote of my life. It was like the pope himself coming down from heaven to give me the Imperial Margarine crown and James Brown’s cloak. I’m trying to picture the Pope of Trash outfit: A robe like the Cowardly Lion and trash where the fur is.
NI: What will you be speaking on at the Arts Center?
JW: My talk is about to how to survive and endure pain if you don’t want to be normal. And how if you’re neurotic, you have to learn how to celebrate it. I talk about crime, art, movies, fashion, everything. It’s how to be insane and have a good life and embrace it.
NI: One piece of advice?
JW: If you keep going for the same person that’s not good for you, you have to decide if it’s worth it for the sex or not, and if it is, you just have to realize I’m going to suffer a little emotionally but it’s worth it. That is neurotic maturity.
I’m reading the giant Burroughs biography that just came out and I think he would agree with me because he had some (relationships) too that sometimes brought him emotional unhappiness.
NI: Tell me about your hitchhiking experience for forthcoming book, “Carsick.”
JW: How far would fame go when you’re standing on an entrance ramp? Sometimes not far at all. And sometimes it almost saved me from sleeping in the woods. The worst torture was a 10-hour wait. I would have gotten in a car with Ted Bundy with a sling on his arm in a Volkswagen.
I had many different signs, and I learned the ones that work and the ones that do not, and humor does not work.
Oh and another thing, a really nice person from Lawrence, Kan., picked me up hitchhiking near there — put this in if you can — he’s in the book and he was the only person that I forgot to give my "thank you for hitchhiking" card to. So if he reads this, tell him to come to the show because I owe him the card. I even have in the book, “if you read this give me a call, I’ll send you the card.”
NI: What are your thoughts on recent Kansas legislation [HB 2453] that would allow businesses to deny service to same-sex couples?
JW: In my book I have the imagined 15 best rides I could get and 15 worst rides. And because of the laws like that one in Kansas about homosexuality, I have a chapter about something really bad happening to me in Kansas. I’m only going to give you that. I go to jail in Kansas in the book.