John Waters is an American film director, screenwriter, author, visual artist, musicologist and comedian. His many credits include 19 films, nine books and a retrospective of his artwork at the New Museum in 2004. Once reviled for his transgressive and hilarious 1970s cult films--Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living (the Trash Trilogy)--several of Waters' later films achieved significant mainstream success, with Hairspray (1988) and Cry Baby (1990) adapted to hit Broadway musicals.
Waters frequently socialized with William S. Burroughs during the Bunker years in the Seventies. Burroughs, "The Pope of Dope," dubbed Waters "The Pope of Trash," a moniker he wears with pride to this day. Waters is featured in the 2010 documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within.
On February 20, 2014, Waters brought his one-man stage show, This Filthy World, to the Lawrence Arts Center (LAC), part of a series of events related to the exhibition William S. Burroughs.Creative Observer, opening January 17, 2014.
The interview was conducted on October 23, 2013 by Ben Ahlvers, LAC Exhibitions Director, and Tom King. Recorded by Marlo Angel.
John Waters: I'm no authority on William Burroughs but I can tell you what I know.
I grew up loving William Burroughs. The first thing I wanted to be was a beatnik so what's the first book you have to read? Junky, basically. I can't remember if I read Junky or Naked Lunch first. I was real young, in junior high. I liked William way more than Allen Ginsberg--I wasn't much of a hippie, I was more of a yippie.
I met Burroughs at his place in New York, in the Bunker. I loved going there, he had these great social events. William Burroughs always looked like he was 100 years old. He would serve warm vodka in washed-out peanut butter jars. No ice. I always snuck a look at his bedroom. I saw him also at the 930 Club where I played a lot. He took me to crazy parties in New York sometimes, parties with really strange people. He was always very nice to me and I think James Grauerholz had a lot to do with that.
He branded himself; he always had that look. He kept one look his whole life, which is very important to do. He was gay and a junkie and didn't look the parts. I never thought he was politically incorrect: he wasn't racist, he wasn't homophobic. He had that signature voice--he should have done animation voice in Hollywood. I also love the fact that he obsessively went for Scientology at first. And then turned against it.
LAC: Did Burroughs inform your work?
Waters: Wouldn't you say the singing asshole in Pink Flamingos has something to do with Naked Lunch? When I first read him I knew that he was in a secret world, a pervert that wasn't upset about it. He was a proud pervert. Very old school, way before gay liberation, even though he ways always out. He scared gay people because they were so square then and he was so cool. But everyone liked him in a weird way. I mean, did anyone ever give William Burroughs shit for being gay? I can hardly imagine him getting gay-bashed.
LAC: What are your thoughts on his artwork?
Waters: Well, its tough. As you know, the art world hates celebrities that do art. They are incredibly suspicious of it. I saw his artwork way later. I love the idea of drawing with guns, thats so William Burroughs. I'm surprised he didn't use needles. He was doing all the things that were in his novels but on canvases in an art gallery. It seemed like a logical extension of what he always did.
LAC: Where do you think Burroughs' work fits into the art world today?
Waters: I'm not sure. He certainly has a stronger place in literature than he does in the art world. I think a lot of people in the art world don't even know about Burroughs' art, to be honest. So I think its great you're doing this show. Maybe a lot of people that only know his books will discover his art. The centenary is the perfect time to bring out work that people don't know. The only time I ever saw his artwork was at the show in Los Angeles [Ports of Entry, 1996, LACMA] . It was a huge show. I don't remember the critical reaction but I always thought Burroughs was beyond criticism. Does he care? Actually, you care more as you get older but you get better at pretending you care less.
LAC: Why does Burroughs matter culturally, in the big picture?
Waters: He matters culturally because he lasted six or seven decades. He stayed true to himself--he started as a beatnik and he ended as a beatnik. An incredible, eccentric character who looked normal. He never changed for anybody, never answered his critics, and continued to be avant-garde--a word that most people feel is a dirty word today.
LAC: One of the things I learned from this project is that Burroughs was making visual art all along the way and not really talking about it or showing it.
Waters: So he always was and we just didn't know it? I'm trying to remember seeing his art when I was in the Bunker but I was usually just looking at him. I was just so excited to be there.
LAC: How old were you then?
Waters: In the 70s, and I was born in 1946. I wasn't a kid. But he was such a part of my life when I was a kid, when I was forming who I was going to be, that he was definitely a hero.
LAC: Did you find him prescient or prophetic about modern society?
Waters: I don't know if he'd like those descriptions. I think he was a salesman. He was the Exterminator. He was the one that came at you with a formed literary vision that no-one had ever seen before. And he did not suffer fools. He didn't answer his critics and he didn't give in to trying to be commercial. Naked Lunch is commercial in spite of itself.
LAC: Why do you think he became a counter-culture hero in the Seventies?
Waters: Because he was so original. Everybody read his books, especially when you're a young kid trying to rebel. I wasn't reading Salinger, I was reading Jean Genet and William Burroughs. As a young gay man, I thought, "Finally, a gay man who isn't square." That was very influential, to realize that there really was a Bohemia. Didn't matter if it was gay or straight, I just wanted to be in Bohemia because I lived in Lutherville, Maryland then. Burroughs was my imaginary friend.
LAC: You wrote a book about contemporary art...
Waters: I wrote one a while ago called Art: A Sex Book. And I just finished my new book, Carsick, because I hitch-hiked by myself across America last year. I got stuck in Bonner Springs [Kansas]. It was the very worst place of my entire trip, a nightmare. I waited 10 hours there without getting a ride. Finally, a nice guy who worked at the Lawrence Wal-Mart picked me up.
LAC: The talk we've got you scheduled for at LAC is on February 20th, 2014. It's being billed as This Filthy World but any Burroughs insights like these would be well-received.
Waters: I'll work it in. I look forward to coming to William Burroughs' place. Its like a pilgrimage.
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