Leave it to John Waters to write what is perhaps the first loving, learned homage to outsider pornographers. In one chapter of his new memoir, Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 320 pp.), Waters introduces Bobby Garcia, "the Almodóvar of Anuses, the Buñuel of Blow Jobs, the Jodorowsky of Jerking Off." Garcia — who has somehow convinced thousands of straight Marines to star in gay porn — lives in a run-down shack overflowing with pigs, roosters and hundreds of rats. But, to Waters, he is a genius.
Role Models is a paean to the people Waters claims as influences, but not all are so predictably perverse. In it, he reminisces about artist Cy Twombly and Clarabell the Clown from The Howdy Doody Show, Tennessee Williams and Patty McCormack, the actress who portrayed the murderous little girl in 1956's The Bad Seed. And aside from one serious, soul-searching chapter — about Manson girl and convicted murderer Leslie Van Houten — the book is surprisingly charming and riotously funny.
It's an especially good read for those familiar with Waters' hometown of Baltimore, a city "filled with nutcases who think they are totally levelheaded." Baltimore's own aficionado of filth names many Charm City natives as inspirations. There's Lady Zorro, the lesbian stripper, who would come out on stage naked and snarl, "What the fuck are you looking at?" There's Esther Martin, the foul-mouthed founder of the Club Charles, who inspired her daughters with such uplifting adages as "a cunt hair will pull a 20-mule team." And Waters devotes a good deal of his chapter on Baltimore heroes to his favorite scary bars, most of which — Hard Times, Morgan's, Boots — are no more.
But beneath Waters' exuberant, bawdy prose lies a challenge. "Filth is just the beginning battle in the war on taste," he writes. Parts of Role Models are, of course, shocking, some in the same sense as a certain famous scene in his classic movie Pink Flamingos. (In the book, the author wonders if it is as draining for Johnny Mathis to sing "When Sunny Gets Blue" over and over again as it is for Waters to have fans ask him repeatedly whether Divine really ate dog shit.) But the affectionate, respectful tone Waters takes with each profile — whether of a famous fashion designer or an unknown coprophiliac — is a deeper transgression. After reading the book, you feel that his fascination with those on society's periphery is accompanied by real empathy, a generosity of spirit that most of us cannot fathom.
Leslie Van Houten is perhaps the most notorious recipient of that compassion. At the age of 19, in the thrall of Charles Manson, she participated in the bloody murder of the LaBianca family. She is still in prison, and Waters devotes a long chapter in his book to her story and the story of their friendship. She is repentant and fully rehabilitated, he writes, and deserves to be given parole. The chapter was published last August as a five-part series online in The Huffington Post, and generated more than 400 comments, some of them furious. "Your fascination with Houten is pathetic and sad," reads one. "[Waters has] always courted the outrageous, so why should his appeal hold, uh, water," goes another. But the chapter is neither scandalous nor simplistic. It discusses the limits of redemption, the nature of accountability, and the purpose of imprisonment. And it reveals another side of John Waters, the repentant one. He writes that he is "[g]uilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case."
Role Models covers a great deal of strange, seemingly unrelated ground. It leaps directly from Van Houten to a section on Waters' wardrobe, a style he calls "disaster at the dry cleaners." After perusing "John Waters's Five Books You Should Read to Live a Happy Life if Something Is Basically the Matter With You," you're whisked to a drab hotel room inhabited by Little Richard. You'd think this eccentric narrative wouldn't hold together. But the book is, somehow, a brilliant self-portrait. It's a little like one of those photo mosaics so popular of late: Up close, it's a jumble of tiny colorful portraits. Step back, and there's the Pope of Trash himself. We recently reached John Waters by phone.
Metro Times: Why did you choose to write your memoirs in this way, by telling your story through the people who have influenced you?
John Waters: I had told the stories to the people in my personal life so many times it was time to go on the record with them. I say in the book what a great profession it is to be a writer when it gives you a chance to be nosey. Even people that you haven't met that you admire, you can just call them up and barge into their life.
MT: In the book you write that, "The ultimate level of celebrity accomplishment is convincing the press and the public that they know everything about your personal life without really revealing anything." Do you think the book accomplishes that?
Waters: If I really had something incredibly personal in my romantic life and I told you, a person I don't know, wouldn't that just prove I had no friends? I do reveal a lot about my personal life. I don't name names ... but I do reveal way more than I ever have in this book, I think.
MT: One of the role models in your book that was a surprise to me was [romantic singer] Johnny Mathis. I'm wondering what he represents for you.
Waters: I think Johnny Mathis in almost every way is the exact opposite of me, but that's maybe why I'm so intrigued by what his life could be like. He's an entertainer, he's been in show business longer than I have, but he couldn't be more mainstream. ... I'm amazed by what it could be like to be him. Every day, I look at people and think, "What would it be like to be that person?" I never imagine how anybody could ever say that they were bored, because just go watch people. And then you think, "Thank God I'm not that person." I think reincarnation is meaner than Catholicism. Then it would never be over.
MT: One chapter that has already stirred some controversy is the one about your friendship with [Manson girl] Leslie Van Houten.
Waters: Leslie does inspire me because what happens when you did something so terrible when you were young? Can you ever get past that? I believe that she has.
You know, I was originally very attracted to this case in a punk-rock way. I made movies about it, I went to the trial. It's a case that has haunted me from the day it happened. You can see it in every one of my movies, every book. I was drawn to that flame. ... When I did "the filthiest people alive" [a theme from Pink Flamingos], I had just come from the trial. And then I realized later, after teaching in prison, about how really irresponsible I had been.
[Van Houten] has taken complete responsibility for her crime and [in the book] I say the most devastating things the victims' families say about her equally. I say that they can never be wrong. She should have gone to jail. But the final thing is Leslie got — eventually, after three trials — life in prison, and not life without parole. So if you are taught for years that there is a parole system that you can earn by doing everything they tell you within the prison system and bettering yourself ... I believe that is not nothing. She did meet, when she was a very young girl, one of the most notorious madmen of our time, in the most volatile year certainly of my lifetime, 1969.
MT: Did you ever worry that sticking up for her might actually hurt her cause, given your reputation?
Waters: She said at first when we became friends, her supporters were very nervous about her being friends with me. She joked, "Isn't that ironic that he could hurt my reputation?" which I thought was funny. ... Are they gonna take sentences out of that chapter and use them against her at a parole hearing? We'll see. It's in July.
MT: I was gratified to see how many of your influences were little-known Baltimoreans.
Waters: Nobody can ever say, no matter how many places I live, that Baltimore isn't my home. Everything that's really influenced me in what I do and how I relax and what I love to do is in Baltimore. And I hope I paid tribute to the places where I have gone and the characters I've met, and how important they really are to my creative life.
MT: Do you think you'd have the same sensibilities if you'd grown up somewhere else?
Waters: Who knows? You can't say that. It certainly is a city that has always been extreme. And I, in the beginning, tried to shine a light on that when everybody was trying to hide it. Now, no one tries to hide it anymore. It's how we get visitors to come here.
MT: One thing that struck me in your book is the warmth you have for your "role models," even the murderers, the abusive mothers, the angry strippers, the porn addicts. Where do you think you came by this affection for people from the fringe?
Waters: I try to see why people act the way they do. I'm never interested in people whose behavior is easily explained. If I can never explain it, I will be the most interested. I'm interested in people who've had to overcome things or have done things that no one understands, or who lead an extreme life. I always said if I wasn't whatever I am — filmmaker, writer — I would be a defense lawyer for people that have done insane criminal acts. I probably would have done pretty well at it.
MT: Are there lines you're not willing to cross?
Waters: Sure. I'm not marching for adult babies. Lock those fuckers up! That guy [in the book] that was in the outhouse pit in the park where people were shitting on him, I thought, "That poor thing." Yet at the same time I felt humor in imagining the policeman's face when they asked him, "Why were you down there?" and he said, "I like the dank odors." Or the average mother flipping out that her child could never go in an outhouse again. But what parent lets their child go in an outhouse in a public park? Perverts are always hanging out there! Have you ever been in a park outhouse where there wasn't a pervert?
MT: You write that you are always up for meeting people with their parents. What do you think your parents reveal about you?
Waters: I tell my mother she's not allowed to read this book. She doesn't need to know about Bobby, the outsider Marine pornographer. She really doesn't. That's parent abuse, to let her read that. But I think you can tell through my whole book that my parents were incredibly supportive and made me feel safe, which is the one reason I'm a happy neurotic rather than an unhappy one. My parents encouraged my interests even though to this day they wish I was interested in something else.
MT: So about Bobby Garcia, the Marine pornographer: I have to admit you succeeded in shocking me.
Waters: Both my assistants said, "If I have to read that chapter one more time. ..." But Bobby, to me, was somehow touching. Because these are outsider artists. These aren't mafia movies to make money. David Hurles [another outsider pornographer in the book], who likes psychos? I'm having a show of his prints at my gallery in New York where I show, opening when the book comes out. Some of his pictures are sexy but they're funny now when you see them, because nothing dates worse than pornography. I mean hairdos instantly turn something from arousal to hilarious, and people in porn always have questionable hairdos.
To me these people have extreme sexual tastes, and that I'm always interested in. These two actually fetishize the butchness of people you'd think would be the most homophobic: Marines and criminals. They were saints of pornography. They got beaten up, they got robbed, just so they could get these pictures. The most fascinating thing is that they can only watch their own pornography, and that is what I think makes them outsider artists. Basically, they're doing this because of compulsion, because of an erotomania. They're erotomaniacs. It's another extreme life.
MT: I liked the part in the book about how you have a painting of a giant turd in your dining room so "guests are forced to confront the fate of their meal."
Waters: The [contemporary artist] Mike Kelley. It's an elegant, amazing turd. I love the piece. I guess anyone would look at it and think it was a turd. But it's not like a photograph of a bowel movement. It's not quite as graphic as you might imagine.
MT: I'm wondering if your love of filth is about challenging yourself.
Waters: Oh, of course, it's about challenging taste. Because actually Mike Kelley has used bad taste too. He's always been one of my favorite artists, but I'm certainly not alone in that. He has huge museum shows.
MT: Yeah, but not everyone puts him in their dining room.
Waters: You'd be surprised. I know a top collector in Baltimore, and she has a beautiful apartment in New York. And the Warhol piss painting is in her dining room. I always think in the summer you can smell it.
MT: Do you feel like you learned anything about yourself in writing the book?
Waters: Oh, my God, yes. You learn what you will admit to the world and what you won't. You understand that there really can never be such a thing as karma, because why do I know certain people that are major assholes and they're alive and great, great people who died of freak diseases? There is no rhyme or reason. But at the same time, I'm a positive person really. I always think that tomorrow's going to be better than yesterday. I don't write back so much with nostalgia — I write back with amazement. I'm thankful that these things have happened to me. Many people wouldn't be thankful to meet Bobby [the pornographer], but I am. And I'm happy to be able to bring my enthusiasm for people that others may not ever want to meet. Maybe I'm your passport to liking something you might feel guilty you are interested in.
Andrea Appleton writes for Baltimore City Limits, where a version of this article originally appeared. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.