D.C. Council Member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Maryland Sen. Jamin Raskin (D-Montgomery County) join the Politics Hour team in the studio.
Baltimore’s so-called “Pope of Trash,” John Waters, hitchhiked across the country and lived to tell about it. Veering between truth and fiction, his new book tells of rides with rabid fans who torture him with lines from his cult films and a young Tea Party Republican who picks him up–twice. The director of cult classics like “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray” joins Kojo to talk about his new book, his films and what he loves about Charm City.
- John Waters Filmmaker, actor, and author of "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America" (FSG, 2014)
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Watch the full video of our show with John Waters, who joined Kojo in studio to talk about his new book and long career.
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Excerpted from CARSICK by John Waters, published in June 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by John Waters. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Baltimore based filmmaker, John Waters is best known for breaking taboos and assaulting audiences with outrageous characters and, well, sheer camp. He became a cult favorite with films like "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble." His 1998 film, "Hairspray," tapped a broader audience and went on to become a hit Broadway musical and later a family friendly movie with an all-star cast.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut, John Waters, has never been completely comfortable in the mainstream fold. Two years ago, he took a chance on another kind of, if you will, transgression, hitchhiking from his Baltimore home to San Francisco. His latest book chronicles his cross country journey and the encounters, real and imagined, on the road. Joining us, in studio, is John Waters, filmmaker, actor, bestselling author. He is best known for the film and Broadway musical, "Hairspray," as well as movies like "Serial Mom" and "Pink Flamingos." His most recent book is "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." John Waters, welcome, good to see you.
MR. JOHN WATERSThank you, and I actually had a car today. I didn't have to hitch, like from Baltimore to Washington, would be hard about...
NNAMDIYou drove from Baltimore today? Really think...
WATERSNo. I flew -- I took the train...
NNAMDIOh, you took the train.
WATERS...from New York.
WATERSBut hitchhiking, even when I was young and I hitchhiked all the time, I don't think I ever hitchhiked to Washington from Baltimore or back. It, I think, it would be very difficult.
WATERSWell, because Baltimore-Washington Expressway is dangerous. I wouldn't want to be stranding on the -- there are all drunk.
WATERSI wouldn't want to be standing on the side of the road there, with my thumb out. People swerve over at you.
NNAMDII think I agree with you on that. If you'd like to join this conversation with John Waters, call us at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and watch the live video stream of the conversation. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. You are famously a control freak. Why would you put yourself in a situation where you had no idea what would happen next?
WATERSWell, because to give it up. It was my mid-life crisis. Let's see, you know, I'm so organized. My life is so scheduled that I wanted to see what, what could happen if I just gave that up. It scared me, I wanted to give myself an adventure that I was, kind of, reluctant to take.
NNAMDIIt's somewhat ironic, you set out on this cross-country hitchhiking journey, hoping for the best. But of course, the worst experiences would naturally make the best stories for the book. Were you conflicted about what you might encounter?
WATERSWell, that's why I wrote the first two parts of the book, was me imagining the 15 very best rides, which are sexual, dramatic, ridiculous and the 15 very worst which is where I die in the end, really. So I had imagined so much before I went that I didn't really know what to expect when I left. And what I left, what I found out was very un-extreme people that were from middle America, a world that most of my characters are never about and when I wrote The Best and The Worst, they were -- nobody was from middle America.
WATERSAnd then how great they were and how interesting they were and how completely open-minded they were to any ideas and completely unimpressed that you were in show-business, if they even believed you were.
NNAMDIWhat makes you unique is that you could, first, imagine the worst and then nevertheless, go out and do the trip anyway.
WATERSWell, imagining the worst was fun, the same way I like villains, you know, imagining all sorts of horrible stuff that could happen to you. And my Best and Worst, you know, my assistant, one of them said, I don't know, I can't tell the difference between the Best and the Worst because your best is the worst to me.
NNAMDIYou hitchhiked regularly as a teenager. It's my understanding that your mother expected you to hitch a ride home from school. But times have changed, what's hitchhiking like now?
WATERSThe only thing -- it hasn't changed. The only thing difference is, is that there aren't any other hitchhikers. You used to have to fight for a corner in the '60s. But today I saw one, the whole way. I didn't see any other hitchhikers. And one time, a homeless guy came up to where I was standing and I thought, Oh, it's another hitchhiker, I got very territorial.
WATERSBut then he said, Hi. And I thought, you know what, that was the only person that spoke to me, all day, in this community. Hi, I said right back. Nobody was very friendly to a hitchhiker because they thought I was a homeless person bumming money, really 'cause I had a cardboard sign. And believe me, hitchhiking, you don't look good when you're hitchhiking. It's not a beauty regiment.
NNAMDII want to jump ahead here because you'd mentioned looking like a homeless person, bumming money. You are an actor, yet you failed to convince a grandfatherly man who gave you a ride during the real trip, that you are who you are.
WATERSBecause I didn't care, I didn't -- if they didn't believe me, that was fine. I have to give -- I do interviews about myself all the time. When I was going across the country, I wanted to hear their story. I didn't want to hear mine. If, I did talk when people wanted to and it was like phone sex, the more you talk, the longer they take you. And sometimes they'll take you way longer than you were going to, they'll take you to the other side of the city, which is what you always want, not right before the city 'cause then they're all local rides which are your enemy when you're hitchhiking, a local ride.
NNAMDIAre you compelled to make conversation when someone gives you a ride?
NNAMDIIs that one of the rules of being a hitchhiker?
WATERSWell, what would it be like if you got in the car, when someone was hitchhiking, and they had said -- and they didn't talk? It would be really scary if, if you said some -- please don't talk to me. I knew it -- I can't imagine. Your job is to talk and to listen. And there are rules, I think, of politeness, hitchhiking.
WATERSThe radio was never on, I never got in a car when the radio was on, even though I imagined an entire play list in the fictional parts, a song for each rider because when you're -- people picking up hitchhikers, they want to talk. They, they want to -- it's, it's an improve session in a way. It is being an actor because, at first, everybody's acting a little bit themselves, to not scare the other person. I think that's the first rule, don't scare them.
NNAMDIAnd that kindly, grandfatherly man offered you $10.
WATERSHe did which took my, took my breath away. When he took out his wallet and he let me off and it was pouring rain and he let me off at an entrance ramp and I didn't, I didn't know what he meant when he handed me the money. I was so stupefied, I didn't even know what he was trying to do. And then I realized that, I was so touched by it. And I wouldn't take it. But later, another woman would not leave the ramp until I took the $20. And then I passed it on to another traveler.
NNAMDIOur guest is John Waters, filmmaker, actor, best-selling author. His most recent book is called, "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." It's a really fun read. You can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and catch the live video stream there. One of my favorites from your imagined worst that could happen, scenarios, was a fictional ride with an individual named Adam who is, in fact, a fan, well maybe even more than a fan, but not the kind you would like to meet. Can you read a little bit from page 123?
WATERSSure. And let me set it up by saying, I love my fans. They bought me this outfit, they helped me pay for my house. They, you know, when people say -- come over to me and say, I'm sorry to interrupt, will you do a cell phone picture? I always say yes. But there's, every once in a while, there is a fan that is too much of a fan and they won't let it go. And so this is my imagined ride, it's a fictional piece of something that I would fear happening to me.
WATERSAll right. "Taffy Davenport, he yells, and it only takes me a second to realize, he's reciting dialogue from one of my movies. Thanks for stopping, I say, jumping in and happily buckling my seatbelt to the sound of Hitching and Hiking by Johnny C, playing on his CD player. Great, a country song that laments a failed hitchhiking journey, just what I don't feel like singing along with. There are two kinds of people, Ms. Sandstone, my kind of people and anuses, he answers, mimicking Mink Stole's delivery from "Pink Flamingos."
WATERS"Can you take me somewhere near I-70 West, I beg? Oh, meeting somebody, who, he answers in a foe rage, repeating another line from my movie, so obscure that even I can't place it, at first. Okay, I answer, realizing this fan won't quit. Just let me off somewhere, going West, going toward gangbang or something, he responds, this time channeling David Lochary. No, just a road-trip, I answer, refusing to play along with his little dialogue game. I mean, I'm flattered he knows the lines this well but geez, give it a break. We were just wondering, he continues in character, what you were planning to spend your VD today, that's all hussy, he shrieks with laughter."
WATERS"And I just sit there in stupefied silence. My cheek hurts. I pull his rearview mirror over and see the bruising already coloring one side of my face, beauty, beauty, look at you, he mumbles, just as Paul Swift did, fumbling his lines in 'Female Trouble,' I wish to God I had it too. He sees me wince in pain at the cut on my leg and switches to a whole other monologue, I love the taste of it, he rants, like Devine. The taste of hot, freshly killed blood. Suddenly he grabs back the mirror to his side of the car and takes an exit, I'm sure I don't want. Hey, I yell, I told you, I need to go West. You know I hate nature, he answers, again switching film references, this time to 'Desperate Living.'"
WATERS"Look at those disgusting trees, he quotes, Mink Stole's character, Peggy Gravel. Steeling my auction, let me off, I shout in panic. But he just speeds up, all natural forests should be turned into housing developments, he screeches, still in Mink mode, as he swerves into a driveway of a suburban home and slams on the break. I wish I could stuff my whole head in your mouth and let you suck out my eyeballs, he growls in a piss-poor imitation of Turkey Joe's line in 'Desperate Living,' dialogue that I used to be proud of and now curse the day I wrote it."
NNAMDIJohn Waters, reading from "Carsick," it is his latest book. It's called, "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." A crazed fan who tortures you by speaking only in dialogue...
NNAMDI...from your films. Is this, maybe, revenge for all those you've offended over the years?
WATERSMaybe. I've had people do that. It happens sometimes when I, I go to a college appearance and I get out of the car and the woman that's picking me up has drawn on my mustache. That happens a lot, I'm fine with that. And I have people that have said, the first couple lines in dialogue, but this is my nightmare, they won't quit and they won't stop. And there are fans, sometimes, that are insane, they go over the top and, and this one gets worse. This is just the beginning of that scene, it gets much worse.
NNAMDIHave you ever written dialogue or said lines and playing parts that people came up to you with and you simply couldn't remember at all?
WATERSOh, it happens all the time. I, I had a girl, that I walked down the street in New York, walked past her and she said, I'm glad I got an abortion. I thought, Oh my God, why did that girl say that to me? And I'm walking and then I realize, Oh, wait a minute, you wrote that line, it's in "Polyester," thank you, so nice meeting you.
NNAMDII remember interviewing the late Maya Angelou, sometime in the 1980s and showing her a clip from a play in which she was performing and she watched it for about three minutes and then at the end it, she said, I have no idea where that came from. I have no memory of it, whatsoever.
WATERSWell, I've written things that, that come back and they haunt you and said, Did I really say that, you know? So -- but, yes, once you write something down, it's there forever. And now on the Internet, believe me, it never goes away.
NNAMDIIt never goes away. Here's Steve on the phone in Vienna, Va. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHey, this reminded me of two situations. One is a more recent one, if you remember the movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis." And that was a long, a long hard trip but...
WATERSYeah, with a hitchhiking scene, yeah.
STEVEYeah, yeah, but a lot of -- yeah, that reminded me of it, but when I was in high school, which was '64 to '68, I hitchhiked every day with my brother. We went to a Jesuit high school and it was in St. Louis. So it was from one end of Forest Park to the other end. And, so when I went to college, I -- it was just like second nature to me. I kind of figured, well, the way I'm gonna get back home, which was, by that time, was in Dayton, was by hitchhiking.
STEVESo, so I had a few adventures but the, the most prominent one, I remember, is I got picked up, I was going back to school. Got picked up by a couple of guys who looked like James Dean, that's all I can say, is that they had...
STEVE...like, cigarettes rolled up in their...
WATERSBoy, I wish that had happened to me.
STEVE...oh, it, it was amazing. And, and these guys were -- all I can describe them as, is, you know, "Rebel Without A Cause." They were -- we went through Indianapolis, I remember, right after a snow storm. And the big sport was looking for people who were waiting at a bus stop or something and spraying them with puddles.
STEVEAnd, and then we got up by, yeah, well they were the, the ring road, what was it, 294 or something like that, around Chicago. And they didn't pay for one toll. They would just draft in behind somebody and just barrel right on through.
WATERSI always had that fantasy of just smashing the gate too, of when the gate comes down, just smashing through it and see what happens. But I've never done it.
NNAMDIThat's a great fantasy. And, Steve, thank you for sharing that experience with...
WATERSWell, I don't think it was a fantasy. I think it was real, he was saying.
NNAMDIOh, he -- it was real in his case.
WATERSYeah. In my case -- yeah.
NNAMDIAnd in your case, what was also real was the hitchhiking just about every day from school.
WATERSWell, I -- that's what he did. In Catholic school and private school, always, the parents said it was fine to hitchhike. The same perverts were out there picking you up. It was no difference. I guess there were serial killers then too but you just didn't seem to hear about it. There weren't as many movies that had the villains and all the hideous stuff that happens in movies about hitchhiking. It's never good.
NNAMDIHey Steve, again, thank you for your call. You too can call us, 800-433-8850. Are you a John Waters fan? What's your favorite John Waters film, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. John, your very first real ride surprises you, a woman with a baby in the car. What kind of people pick up hitchhikers these days?
WATERSWell, she did recognize me but I'd been standing in the rain for about 45 minutes a block from my house. And she was taking her little daughter back to the daycare center and she just felt so bad she couldn't take me further.
NNAMDIYeah, but she did a double take when she realized it was you, yeah.
NNAMDIYeah. And the next one was a minister's wife who picked me up. But a trucker picked me up, a copy, an independent rock band. All type picked me up, an animal rescuer, a Republican elected official, a Republican mayor. You know, I had Democrats, Republicans, there was no real type. Everybody said, a woman will never pick you up, this'll never pick you up. But generally I would say mostly it was heterosexual men that bragged how much they love their wife and how smart she was and how beautiful, which was very encouraging.
NNAMDIAbout 80 percent of Americans recognize you when you just walk around. What percent...
WATERSIn airports, not on the highway because, first of all...
NNAMDII was about to ask about that.
WATERS...I had a hat on which I never wear. People went by me and said, well was that John Waters? Why would it be me standing in Bonner Springs, Kansas on the freeway? So they would come back sometimes and pick me up or open the door and say, where are you from? And I'd say Baltimore and then they'd know and start laughing and cheering.
WATERSBut one woman who was an ex-marine, she was great. She pulled over and tried to give me money and then realized it was me and started screaming and laughing. And then she was trying to change costumes in the car while she was driving so we could do a photo-op. And she took me 50 miles further. She was just going home. She was going one exit on the -- to drop me off at a good place to hitchhike.
NNAMDIMore about Baltimore later in the broadcast. There were also points in this journey where you say you needed to be unfamous. Can you talk about how you navigated that kind of double-edge sword of being a celebrity?
WATERSWell, I said I wanted to be unfamous until I was stuck. And as soon as I was stuck I was featuring a heavy mustache. You know, I was praying that I would go in the breakfast room and somebody -- in the Holiday Inn and somebody would recognize me and give me a ride back. It never happened. People were very unfriendly in the breakfast rooms. I don't know why, because I had my sign out. And in one Holiday Inn the woman told me if I didn't leave she would call the police.
WATERSAnother time my sign was ruined from the rain so I went in the store and said, can I use some cardboard. And the woman said, you know it's illegal to hitchhike on the freeway. And I thought, you -- yeah. But then she very condescendingly let me go in the back where the shed was and rip up boxes...
NNAMDIAnd you were not the most deft person with the cardboard...
WATERSNo. I'm really bad at doing things like that. Not everybody can write a movie. I can't break down a box. I'm telling you, I cut myself on one of the staples.
NNAMDIThat makes two of us.
WATERSYeah, I can't do it. There is some -- when I have to plug something in I start crying.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll resume our conversation with John Waters. His latest book is called "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America." 800-433-8850 is our number. Have you ever hitchhiked or picked up a hitchhiker? What was your experience, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is John Waters, filmmaker, actor, Best Selling author, best known for the film and Broadway musical "Hairspray" as well as movies like "Serial Mom" and of course "Pink Flamingos." His most recent book is "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." There's a chapter here where a copy mistakes you for another celebrity. It's in the fictional section of the book but I'm assuming that like most celebrities this actually happens to you.
WATERSIt happens to me a lot where people -- I'm on a plane and the flight attendant will lean down and say, you were good in "Fargo." So -- Steve Buscemi. So this is an old joke, so I told Steve Buscemi this and he said, they think I'm Don Knotts. And one year my Christmas card was Steve dressed as me. And it really confused people because he's younger and it did -- I mean, they drew the moustache on him and everything. And it was a funny card, you know. So Steve is -- we're certainly friends but...
NNAMDIHe's scary now in "Boardwalk," isn't he?
WATERSYeah, yeah, he's great.
NNAMDIYou got picked up by a young Tea Party Republican from Frederick County, not far from here, and he gives you a ride not once but twice. Can you tell the story of meeting the Corvette kid?
WATERSIt was pouring rain. I'm in Millersville. You say it's not so far from here. It's not that close. And I'd never been there so I really -- when you really feel like you're hitchhiking it's when you don't know where you are, where you're standing, which I didn't. I was standing in the pouring rain looking like junky Mary Poppins and a Corvette pulls over. It's like a joke. It's like in "Polyester" when Tab Hunter pulls over to the barn. But it was his mother's Corvette and he was on his way to have lunch at the Subway sandwich shop nearby.
WATERSHe picked me up. He didn't know who I was even when I told him. Never heard of my movies, nothing and he drove me to Ohio.
NNAMDINineteen years old, right?
WATERSHe just drove me to Ohio. We just kept talking. And his parents were concerned. And then he dropped me off. We had a great time. And then he kept texting me the rest of the way saying, I'm gonna come get you, joking. And I got stuck in places that took a long time. And it was like four or five days later and he texted me and said, well -- and I got a big ride -- a good ride through Kansas and he said, you're kidding. I've been driving 48 hours at 80 miles an hour and I'm almost caught up to you. And he caught up to me in Denver.
WATERSAnd then his parents were really concerned. I said, is there an Amber Alert out for you or anything? Am I going to get in trouble here? And then he took me all the way. Then I just gave him the keys to my apartment, said let's just drive there. I want to get some real rods. And he was great. It was a completely innocent thing. It was an adventure. I don't -- I couldn't understand why people said, why would he do that? For an adventure. You know, it was like fun. He was going to get his lunch at the Subway. It was more fun than that. It was the beginning of the summer. He'd get to go across the country. He had a good story. We had a good time.
NNAMDIBut the conversation. You're the gay liberal famous for a film in which a drag queen eats dog excrement. So what did you talk about all those hours on the road with a religious Tea Party Republican?
WATERSWell, I don't know how religious he was. He -- we talked about everything, about his life, about women, about men, about humor, about what San Francisco was like, about -- I don't know. We just had a great time. It was very much like father and son in a weird way but swingers tried to pick us up, a Colorado swinger...
NNAMDII saw that.
WATERS...kept texting him. I said, you gave him your phone number? I said -- and he was naïve in some ways and then he would blush when they would, you know, say to him like, hey let's get together, I thought. And then we checked in this one motel and the maître d' kept trying to hit on him, ringing his bell in the middle of the night, bringing him the gift basket. I thought you're supposed to bring me the gift basket.
NNAMDIWhat's up with this?
WATERSBut he didn't know what a gift basket was. He was totally confused by it. So -- and then he was so confused he locked himself outside. And so then I had to go down -- and it was weird. You know, in Reno when you check in, they don't ask the person for any ID or anything. What, do they just write on there, trick, you know? I -- to me it was so shocking. Of course we had separate rooms but, you know, I'm amazed that they don't ask for ID or anything. Really, it was amazing.
NNAMDIWell, his mother kept calling him all the time and you kept imagining that she would be Googling you and becoming more and more -- did you ever find...
WATERSWell, it's good to Google me, yeah.
NNAMDI...did she ever find -- did you ever find out if she really did Google you?
WATERSWell, I know that they kept saying as if the -- how do you know it's him? And then once I heard him say, what do you mean who is it? It's your son. She thought I'd answered the phone pretending I was him and he was locked in the trunk. Now, I don't blame his mom and dad for being a little concerned. But at the same time, I kept saying to him, well let me talk to them. He never let me. So I figured that was his business. He was over 18. You know, there was nothing going on at anyway sketchy except that we ran away together on this ridiculous trip that was like a reality show suddenly, but no one was filming.
WATERSBut I always thought that in the beginning if I ever did get a scary ride, I'd always planned to say, you know, I'm shooting a reality show and there's a satellite filming us right now. And if you leave the camera will be able to follow you. And I think that might've worked.
NNAMDIIt probably would've worked in today's NSA environment.
WATERSYeah, that could be true.
NNAMDIIt probably would work. This kid sounded like he was pretty open minded. That cannot always be said for people on either side of the political spectrum, including on the left. Is there something in your view to the charge of liberal intolerance that we hear these days?
WATERSWell, I think liberals can be just as fascias as Republicans. And I've seen that because I have an assistant who's Republican. And of course all the liberal friends I know when they have a conversation, they never assume anyone else could possibly not agree with them. So they talk as if no one ever -- that is fascism in a way. Now I think Republicans do the same thing. They have all Republican friends. But to me, if you can't listen to somebody else and you want to change their mind, make them laugh. That's the only way people will ever stop and listen.
NNAMDIYou have talked about this in gay culture which you call gaily correctness.
WATERSGaily incorrect, which I am a lot because I joke now when I go to all the colleges, we have enough gay people. I want people to come in. We have enough. I think you have to audition now, you know what I mean...
NNAMDIYou've got to...
WATERS...in front of a panel of perverts where you get gay ID.
NNAMDIYou have to get qualifications to join the club.
WATERSYeah, yeah. It's not a numbers game.
NNAMDIIt's John Waters and he's discriminating. His latest book is called "John Waters -- Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." He joins us in studio. You can see the live video stream at our web site kojoshow.org. Here is Tom in Baltimore, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMI notice that in "Hairspray" and something that I observed myself was some of the bigotry that was shown by the people involved with the Buddy Deane Show and some of the prejudices about letting black kids on the show. Was that done intentionally in the movie? Because if it was, she did it very well.
WATERSWell, what really happened in "Hairspray" was exaggerated. I gave it a happy ending. Really the Buddy Deane Show went off the air because it wouldn't integrate. And I don't think that was Buddy. I think it was the station management. The Milk Ranch Show here was not integrated. American Bandstrand (sic) was not integrated. It wasn't anywhere. And the kids were find with it. The odd irony was if you listened to all black radio and all black music and the only black people who were allowed on the show was they actually called it Negro Day. Or the entertainers could come on and lip-sync their song but they could, of course, never dance with a white person.
WATERSSo this was actually the norm then. So I wanted to point that up and show that -- and is it so odd today -- if there was a teen dance show on today and kids still slow danced, which they won't, could black and white kids slow dance together at 14 on television today? I'm not so sure.
NNAMDIGood question. Thank you very much for your call, Tom. We'll see if someone chooses to answer that question with a reality show. You were picked up at one point by an indie rock band, here we go magic...
NNAMDI...they recognized you, they tweeted about it. Those tweets went viral. It's my understanding that you taught those kids some subculture terms that were new to them, including trend sexual.
WATERSWell, trend sexual is a lot of times women that want to be gay but aren't. And they pretend they are for a straight guy, which I think is heresy. I think, make them do it then. There's a blouse. That's my favorite word. That's a feminine top.
NNAMDIYes. Oh yeah, I get that. It's a bare term.
NNAMDII get that, yes, yes, yes. According to the Spin magazine piece, when they recognized you and turned around and came back they said, get in, sir. I always freak out when people call me sir these days because I don't think of myself in that term.
WATERSI don't either but -- and they didn't mean this, but also I hear people say that in the S and M world, which really makes me freak out because I'm not going to take out a whip and hit them or something. But that is S and M talk a lot. I think they were just being very respectful to me. And I am a filth elder so I'm used to that when people treat me with that kind of very reverent -- it was very sweet of them and very nice.
WATERSAnd when they're -- when I'm getting in a car, as long a ride they gave me, they can call me anything they want.
NNAMDINot only did pictures of you taken by various rides or various of your host go viral, at one point you discover a pirated tote bag with a picture of one of your hitchhiking signs on sale for $19.99.
WATERSYeah, a day after it was online of a picture of me with a hitchhiking bag that was tweeted from the rock band. That shocked me and they didn't even send me one.
NNAMDIAnd this was even before you finished your journal.
WATERSOh yeah, it was before I finished the -- but it was like I was instantly marketed by somebody. It was called a hitchhiking tote and it had my I-70 West sign on it. And they were smart enough not to reproduce mine. They sort of did it themselves so it wasn't even like my stolen handwriting. I thought it was fine. It just shocked me kind of.
NNAMDIYou imagine various songs playing during your rides including some well-known and some very obscure, everything from Marvin Gaye to Nervous Norvus. How'd you create this playlist?
WATERSWell, I had people that I've worked with on the soundtracks of my movies, like a guy named Larry Beneshewitz (sp?) who I work with. And also I like this kind of music. I have this kind of music. And I would go online and look up hitchhiking songs, you know. And I love novelty songs. I like weird -- these are oldies but goodies you never heard of before, believe me. I haven't heard of them. So they're really obscure. And most hitchhiking songs are country western except for the most famous one by Marvin Gaye, which is rhythm and blues "Hitch Hike." But most all hitchhiking ones are country songs.
NNAMDIAnd of course these are -- this is the playlist that accompanies the book "Carsick." On now to Dave in Reston, Va. Dave, your turn.
DAVEHey, how you doing?
DAVEFirst of all, I want to thank you for being one of the directors that brought me into kind of the indie side of movies. But that aside, I have a quick hitchhiking story. I'll say it pretty briefly. A buddy of mine and I are going up 81. I've got a bassoon, my friend's got his guitar and we're heading up north to Syracuse area. And this guy picked us up. We get in the car. He takes off like a bat out of hell maybe, you know, 90 miles an hour. The car is shaking and he starts eating pills and drinking beer. He has a 12-pack.
DAVEWe don't think much of it. So this guy says to us, you know, that he's on leave from the VA mental hospital and he got the car from his friends in the pen who fixed it up for him.
DAVEAnd then he pulls over to the side of the road. We don't know what's going on. I'm trying to -- I'm the bassoon player so I'm kind of shaking in my boots. He gets out and he just starts pissing on oncoming traffic and pissing and pissing. And he yells, I got a purple heart.
DAVESo we stay in the car and get to Wilkes-Barre, Va. Get in...
WATERSYou didn't get out? You didn't get out at that point? All right.
DAVEAt that point, you know, when you're around somebody you're unsure of, sometimes you just think staying put is better than running.
WATERSYeah, you're right. Plus you had a ride.
DAVESo yeah, well, he got in and we went to this bar in Wilkes-Barre. He came in with us and she asked for -- a lady asked for IDs from both me and my buddy and then asked for his. He pulled out his purple heart and slapped it on the bar. And it was just a great moment.
WATERSAnd then not -- you left the ride there.
DAVEYeah, we had reached our destination temporarily.
WATERSYeah, and you never in your next ride saw the car upside down along the highway in flames.
DAVEI would not be surprised one bit but actually I think this guy was maybe a bit of a savant.
WATERSYeah, you know, I never saw one car accident the entire way. And I never had one bad driver, which was amazing because I am a backseat driver. And I always thought, that's going to be really uncomfortable if I say, hey slow down. Pull over.
NNAMDIDave, thank you very much for your call.
WATERSThat was a good story.
NNAMDIHitchhiking across the country may not be a scientific study but people will want to know exactly what did you take from this about Americans in America today?
WATERSWell, I believe in the basic goodness of people. I've already said that. And it was proven correctly to me. I didn't have a bad ride. Everybody went out of their way to help me for whatever reason it was. And that -- we've got a lot of space in this country. There is room for people. All these people that are saying we're the borders and nobody can come to this country. Why? We have plenty of room.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of that room is in motels. And after this trip you got to know your motels pretty well. What was the best and worst of that experience?
WATERSDays Inn I'd get my vote as the best. They had good lighting. Holiday Inn the very worst. I mean, really you can't read even one thing in a Holiday Inn room. Is it because it's supposed to be so romantic? You know, not everybody goes for a weekend of Eros in the Holiday Inn, believe me, on Route 70. And they just had the worst food too I think.
WATERSDays Inn I would say was the best of all.
NNAMDIWhat surprised me, for all the highs and lows it seems hitchhiking is in reality tedious much of the time. Have you had enough of hitchhiking for one lifetime? Would you do it again?
WATERSWell, I like hitchhiking dates. It's a good thing. So you want to come hitchhike with me to the beach? And it's kind of romantic and sexy to go on a hitchhiking trip with somebody. I think that's a good date. But for real I would never hitchhike across the country again. I don't have to do it, you know. I know what it's like but I do know that I can always do it in a time of any kind of emergency when you're stuck. But I would not be afraid to do it.
NNAMDILet's get another hitchhiking story from Gretchen in Washington, D.C. Gretchen, what's your story?
GRETCHENHi, Mr. Waters. I'm a big fan of yours in Baltimore. Thanks for being here today.
GRETCHENMy story is about -- well, it's a while ago. I was at -- I working at a Clinton inauguration event. And it was in one of those arenas outside of the beltway. And we were coming out at 2:30 in the morning and lots of cars and limos. And I saw this person hitchhiking by the road. I thought, well that's weird. So I stopped and asked him, where you going. He says, I'm going back to Washington. And so he went, I need to get my mother. So I was thinking, well, what if this is like a mass murder or trapped person, blah, blah, blah, which did not make any sense, but I still thought about it.
GRETCHENSo he gets his mother and they -- she gets them at their house. She's wearing a fur coat. I'm still thinking about the mass murder story and -- which is again bizarre. So anyway we start going and I start talking to him. And it comes out that he's a Jesuit and I cannot see his collar because it was winter and, you know, we're wearing coats and so forth. So we're talking and talking and talking and it dawns on me that I'm talking to the president of Georgetown University at the time. His name was Father Leo something, very, very nice time.
GRETCHENNow so I take them all at Georgetown University and we say goodbye and he had asked me a question on the way. And the next day I get a call from my husband. He tells me, we have tickets here for a Hoya game courtesy of Father Leo. He wants us to come on X and X date. So anyway, I thought that was a sweet hitchhiking story.
WATERSWell, but why was he hitchhiking? The vow of poverty?
GRETCHENNo. I don't know. I think he came as a group and I think somehow he lost his group in the crowd. But he was there with his elderly mother in the fur coat and everything. And he was not a mass murder, which was a good thing.
WATERSYeah, but, you know, you never can tell if they're mass murders. Believe me, all the people that got in with Ted Bundy didn't know it. Right.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. One of the things you have to do when you're hitchhiking is not only make conversation. You have to listen. You like listening.
WATERSYeah, I'm a good listener. And you have to listen because people don't pick up hitchhikers who don't want to talk in any way. They're interested in you but they need somebody to talk to too. And they've all survived something. They've all gotten through something, which I love a survivor. I like somebody that's beaten -- you know, gone down and gotten back up. And it seems they -- all people that pick up hitchhikers have done that. Maybe it was their childhood. Maybe they had a drug problem or a liquor problem at one point. But they've all gone beyond that. So they want to help other people. They do.
WATERSAnd they really mostly did think I was just a homeless man, especially I had this hat that said scum of the earth, which was a movie title which I should've never worn. That was a really stupid choice of a fashion accessory. You couldn't see it from the side of the road but in the morning in the breakfast area when I would be trying to make eye contact and people saw scum of the earth, it didn't make them invite you to get in the front seat especially.
NNAMDIAnd you can, I guess, be a really moody hitchhiker. You can't go into someone's car, someone who wants to talk, and maintain a stony silence. They won't take you very far.
WATERSOr worse, look at your Blackberry, look at your -- run your business and take phone calls about you. No. You have to be kind of in a good mood. And they're going to ask you what the trip's been like. And I would say I was writing a book. But I had a sign once that said, writing a hitchhike book. No one stopped because of their privacy. They think, what kind of book? Maybe I don't want to be in your book. You know, it puts people off.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy you can shoot us an email to email@example.com. Do you have a favorite Baltimore neighborhood? We'll talk a little bit about Baltimore when we come back. Are you a fan of cult movies like "Pink Flamingos," 800-433-8850? You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the live video stream or ask a question, make a comment. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is John Waters. His latest book is called "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." He's a filmmaker, actor and Best Selling author, well known for the film and Broadway musical "Hairspray" as well as movies like "Serial Mom" and "Pink Flamingos." John, we got a tweet from Sarah who says, "As a Baltimore native I love that John Waters shows the world of -- a version of Baltimore that isn't out of The Wire. "
NNAMDIPeople associate your name with Baltimore. You set your films there. And although you also have homes in New York and San Francisco, you consider Baltimore home. What's compelling to you about Charm City?
WATERSBecause it has -- Baltimore has such a great sense of humor about itself. The people, they are not impressed. They're not trendy. It's still cheap. It's the only place left in the world where you can get an amazing real estate deal. It's cooler than ever, I think. We got Edge and I love The Wire. She said not like The Wire. The Wire is part of Baltimore the same way my movies are, the same way Barry Levinson's are. They're all a part of Baltimore. Each part is made out of extreme things. But Baltimore to me is the sense of humor.
NNAMDIYou're good friends with David Simon, the creator of The Wire. You married him and his wife. You say that The Wire portrayed precisely one side of Baltimore.
WATERSSure, one -- there is -- it isn't an exaggeration. You think "Pink Flamingos" is an exaggeration. Come to Baltimore. You'll see people that look like Devon standing right on the corner. And my friend said, why in Baltimore do people dance at bus stops? They always do. You see people waiting for the bus dancing, eve in the worse neighborhoods.
NNAMDIWhere do you take people when you show them around Baltimore?
WATERSOh, all over. I can -- I take them to The Wire neighborhood. I take them to east Baltimore. I take them to Hamden which is great. It's hillbillies and hipsters mixing together.
NNAMDIWhat of Baltimore do you still really like, because Baltimore is undergoing something of a transformation? What of the Baltimore that you know and love that is still there and what do you think may be lost with gentrification?
WATERSI don't think it's that gentrified. I think, yes, there are some neighborhoods that have some of those places but they need those neighborhoods or otherwise it would just die. So I'm not against the gentrification of parts of Baltimore. To me Hamden's the perfect example. It's old school, kind of redneck in a great way. But at the same time there are great restaurants there, but they're not pretentious. I hate it when people try to quote "act rich" in Baltimore. Please. Let's not celebrate how great we are and how original we are. We don't do rich that well.
NNAMDIBaltimore's also attracting young people, artists, musicians. What's the draw of Charm City for this new generation?
WATERSCertainly the music scene there is amazing with Dan Deacon and Beach House. And there are so many great groups. Because it's cheap and there's Bohemia there. That's why you can afford to live there. And I think there's a real Bohemia there which almost in every other city it's too expensive to have Bohemia.
NNAMDIWell, you know, given the cost of housing in Washington and how it's rising, I love the phrase you use in Baltimore. Baltimore still makes a dollar holler.
NNAMDIMakes a dollar holler. Jean Hill said about -- a great actress that was in one of my movies unfortunately died last year -- she said, we know how to make a dollar holler.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Richard in D.C. "I saw you in Chicago for the 20th anniversary of "Pink Flamingos" screened along with (word?) . I've seen and loved each iteration of "Hairspray," cannot imagine my cultural life growing up gay from the 1960s to now without John Waters. Big thanks." We also got a tweet from Kelly who said, "I listened to the first five minutes of the interview. I'm buying the book right now."
WATERSOh wow, that's good. Good. Thank you. And I don't think it'll disappoint you because I think you'll laugh when you read the book hopefully, hopefully. And it's a page turner. There's -- and it's like -- if you like (word?) movies, the first parts are very much like them. Every one of these characters seems like they escape from a can in my house -- from a film can.
NNAMDIIt is certainly a page turner. As I mentioned to you earlier, actually abandoned the NBA finals to continue reading this book. You have...
WATERSNow there's a blurb.
NNAMDIYou said that your rejection of all things proper and tasteful is a result of your upbringing. What was your childhood in Baltimore like and what were you into as a kid?
WATERSFull of good taste. You know, my parents taught me the tyranny of good taste. And I'm glad I know it because you can't have fun with bad taste unless you know the rules. And my mother certainly did tell us the rules of good taste. And I actually think today that I do have good taste. I -- you can't use bad taste for humor without knowing -- having good taste. So to me I'm never mean spirited. I look up to the things I make fun with. That's why I don't like reality television because it asks you to feel superior to the people that you're watching. I never do that, I hope. I don't think I do.
NNAMDIThe judges all do.
WATERSYeah, but I -- you know, to me I don't get reality television. Just walk outside. In Baltimore you are in reality. This trip of hitchhiking across the country was a reality show. You should make your own reality show, not watch some of the others.
NNAMDII get the impression that, I don't know, growing up and throughout adulthood you have always internally been kind of a happy person.
WATERSWell, I never wanted to be like everybody else really. And my parents were -- made me feel safe. That's the only job a parent really has. And no matter how nuts you are, if your parents have made you feel safe, I think you work out your neuroses eventually to have a fairly happy and productive life. But you can't always get that. It's not fair. Life isn't fair.
WATERSSo if you're young and you have been dealt a really bad hand, you can bitch about it until you're 30, and I think by 30 you've got a -- you know, this is it. Too bad. You know, you got to get over it.
NNAMDIGet out of my basement. Here is Jana in Rockville, Md. Jana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANAHi, John. This is Jana Pannikon (sp?) and I'm currently living in Gaithersburg, Md. But I am the aunt of Joshua Grinnell (sp?) , aka Peaches Christ.
WATERSPeaches Christ is not only a great performer, a really good producer in San Francisco.
JANAAnd I just had to call and say hello because through Joshua we have all become John Waters' fans. And I have to tell you that one time I went to the Kennedy Center. They were showing in a small theater a movie. And, you know, to be honest I don't remember if the movie was about you or Divine but I remember seeing your parents speak in that movie.
JANAAnd it just really struck me. They were -- they had topic and I totally hear what you're saying about them making you feel safe. Because they were so proper that you could tell that they loved you and they were supportive of you. And that was just so cool.
WATERSYeah, I think they knew what else could I do? Was it be this or prison? So they might as well embrace the film career, even though the films I made were horrifying to them and it embarrassed them very much in the beginning. But they paid for it and I paid them all back too. I paid them back every penny. So it was a very good relationship I have with my parents. It took me a long time of being an adult to realize that, but now that I look back on it I think how incredibly loving they were in a very difficult child that I was.
NNAMDIJana, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Cory who says, "'70s Italian horror movies, John Waters and John Cage showed me that beauty and art was everywhere and had nothing to do with taste, intellectualism, class or money. I went from being an uptight classical music obsessed elitist to a man who loves desperate living, drag queens and thrift store crap."
WATERSOh, how the mighty tumble. Well, that means you're a trash elitist, which I'm for too. I am too. There's nothing the matter with elitist people if they have a reason to be elitist. If you are smarter than anybody in the whole world, if you just thought up the best movie, I don't mind that you're an elitist. I just have problems with elitists for no apparent reason.
NNAMDILet's talk about movies for a second because you say writing books for you now is much better in terms of making a living than making independent films. What is it that has made it so much more difficult to make independent films?
WATERSThe collapse of the DVD market which was...
NNAMDIThat's what I didn't quite understand. Can you explain that?
WATERS...the entire DVD market was the profit. And now no one buy -- it's over. They make computers that don't even have DVD things in them.
WATERSThat and the global business to China, which is they just want tent pole movies cost a hundred million dollars to have no movie stars in it really and no special effect -- just all special effects. You don't even need subtitles. So -- and the last thing they want is a comedy. That is the most uncommercial international movie you can make today because what's funny in each country is radically different. What's scary isn't, what's frightening, what's sexy, but what's funny is -- really varies in...
NNAMDIAnd especially in your case where you depend so much on wit...
WATERSWell, they don't want wit. That's what -- the last thing that they're looking for. And I hope if I've ever been successful that that is what I'm using.
NNAMDIOnto Ed in Washington, D.C. Ed you're on the air with John Waters. Go ahead, please. Oh Ed, my fault. Here you are. Ed, are you there now?
EDOkay. Yes, I am. How you doing, Kojo and John?
EDThank you for the memories. Thank you for the memories, all the wonderful work you've done. It just brings some bright spots in my life in thinking back to the first time I saw some of your flicks. And thanks for all that. But, you know, I saw you on Craig Ferguson. I heard you with Terry on Fresh Air and boy, I am just chomping at the bit to get that book.
WATERSThank you very much. Thank you. Those were good shows. I've done both those shows many, many, many times.
NNAMDIThank you very...
EDYeah, and I've had great experiences hitchhiking myself back in college days back in the early '70s pitching, you know, Thanksgiving nights from Buffalo, New York down to Dallas.
WATERSWhy don't you try it again now this summer?
EDWell, you know, this summer it may be a little bit tough. You know, family man and all that but I will try to get it...
WATERSTake your children with you.
NNAMDIYou could have a whole new reality show all of your own, Ed. Thank you much for your call. You've had a huge influence on underground culture but popular culture has shifted dramatically in the decade since "Pink Flamingos" came out. Outrageous and shocking are almost the norm now. do you think everyone else caught up with where you were back in the '70s?
WATERSWell, I'm not going to say that. I think I had an influence in some ways but now the big budget Hollywood comedies are about bad taste. So it's not so transgressive anymore. And a lot of times they don't use whit. And it isn't funny. But some of them are. I mean, like the hangover started. Whenever you have one thing that works, you're going to have 50 bad copies of it, which is what Hollywood always does. So -- and I could name a lot of bad ones, but there's some good ones.
WATERSSo I'm not -- it is what America imports now and humor is the kind of movies that I used to make. At least that but then you have Johnny Knoxville, who I think is the most like in spirit that we were like when we were young making movies. But his movies make $100 million, which good for him.
NNAMDIEven in films like "Pink Flamingos" though it seems the point was never shock value alone. The filthiest people alive somehow came off as, well, likeable family. Can you talk a little bit about what you wanted to say about American culture?
WATERSI wanted to say it was -- I know it's out of context but that was the year "Deep Throat" came out, pornography had become legal. And it was a joke on what can't you do anymore. And the ending of that movie, there was not a law against that. Today there is, even in the porn world but I certainly -- we never did it for sexual reasons. But today that is the only thing that's illegal really.
WATERSAnd so it was a publicity stunt in a way but, you're right, the filthiest people alive are leaving -- were living a nice life. A very oddball family in retirement and they were attacked by jealous people that wanted to social climb in the world of filth. So, yes, the morals of the film are the same as "Hairspray," don't judge other people.
NNAMDIDavid in Washington, D.C. You're on the air, David. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDAll right. I saw John -- I saw you on the Bill Moyers Show about a week or so ago. And I was surprised that no one commented at all on your suit.
WATERSWell, it's not a -- you know, maybe if I did Rupaul, they would comment on it, you know. It was by Issey Miyake, that's who. It's a good one, yeah.
DAVIDYeah, it was well built in the sense that, you know, the patterns match right and left and all that. Just curious that you...
WATERSWell, they don't really match. That's the point of that suit. They don't match.
DAVIDWell, I was just curious. Do you have to pay a lot for the outrageous suits that you often wear?
NNAMDIYou heard it's a designer suit.
WATERSYeah, you need all the help you can get at my age. When I was young I would get the worse thing in the bottom of a Value Village bin that hadn't been sold for two years and then carried my own crayon, cross it off and mark it down myself, which was half shoplifting.
NNAMDIThe Value Village bin. I've been there and I saw that suit on Bill Moyer. That was very, very good looking. John Waters, filmmaker, actor, Best Selling author. His latest book is called "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." Thank you so much for joining us.
WATERSThank you for having me. It was fun.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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