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Still Waters

Waters at his first premiere, for Roman Candles, in 1966.  

“Brigid Berlin said the funniest thing about how do you be bad at 66. And there is no way really except through your work,” Waters said. (He has adjusted this quote over the years. In Shock Value it went like so: “Brigid Berlin, the best of the Warhol superstars, recently commented to me, ‘How can you be bad‚ in your fifties?’ ”) “Liar,” Waters growled at a man who indicated he was going in the opposite direction of town and did not stop to pick us up.

As Waters, the man William Burroughs called the Pope of Trash, has continued peddling indecency and irony, the audience that is experiencing his work—or some version of it—has changed drastically … it’s as if they’ve been bonked on the head by a very different kind of turd. When I went to see the musical Hairspray a few months ago, the woman sitting next to me had an American Girl Place shopping bag at her feet. The line “manipulating the justice system just to win a contest is un-American” was met with uncomprehending blankness—not that Waters would ever have included a line so baldly political in his original. Gone from the play are the truly weird bits; it’s a less subversive, less berserk Hairspray, as is the film remake. John Travolta in a fat suit is a fun gag. But when Divine played the role of the mother, Edna Turnblad, in the original Hairspray, Waters fans were reminded of the other times he cast Divine as a mother: electrocuted in Female Trouble, performing fellatio on her own son in Pink Flamingos. (Waters had the son say, “Oh, Mama, you’re the best,” throughout the act.)

Mark O’Donnell, who co-wrote the book for the musical Hairspray and has now co-written Cry-Baby (both with Thomas Meehan), says the stories are fundamentally similar: “All John Waters movies are the good guys versus the bad guys, but the bad guys are really the good guys—and the bad-good guys always win.” Which is true, except that in John Waters movies old and new, the winners aren’t the noble, lovable, persecuted variety of bad guys. In A Dirty Shame, the sexaholics really are freaks—they have addictions like mysophilia, the fetishization of grime, or they’re into Roman showers: drinking beer and vomiting on each other. In Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner’s unhinged heroine doesn’t just send obscene letters to her fellow housewives (“I’ll get you, Pussyface,” one threatens), she’s a murderer. In Pink Flamingos, two actors have sex on top of chickens and actually fuck them to death. Even Waters’s most charming and well-known heroine, Tracy Turnblad, is a horny, fat, fame-craving teenager—racial integration of the television show she wants to star in is a happy by-product of her quest for stardom in the Waters original. In the musical and the remade film, Tracy is a spunky freedom fighter.

Waters is entirely unconcerned about his oeuvre becoming softened as it goes broad. “In a way, the most subversive thing I ever did was think up Hairspray, because now families are sitting there watching two men sing a love song,” Waters said, as a car finally pulled over. “Who would ever have thought that Jerry Mathers, who I grew up with”—the child star in the title role on Leave It to Beaver, who now plays the father in Hairspray—“would be singing to a man in a dress on Broadway in something I wrote!”

He has the satisfaction of being a truly original, truly influential American artist. If many people know Waters only as that weird Hairspray guy (or, soon, perhaps, that weird Cry-Baby guy), he certainly isn’t going to let it disrupt his beauty sleep. Che Guevara becomes a T-shirt; Joey Ramone gets a street named after him; the Pope of Trash becomes the King of Broadway. The iconoclast becomes the icon, or he becomes irrelevant.

“Thanks for stopping!” Waters said to the driver who let us in. The man, who looked like James Taylor, said it was no problem, and that he knew Waters’s work, and pointed out his own house as he drove by it. “Were you the one who came out one time and we talked?” Waters asked. “No? Well, once I mentioned in a gossip column that I hitchhike here and this person who read it came out with coffee for me the next day and I was so shocked! I think it was this house over here.”

Waters is constitutionally inclined toward routines, which dovetails nicely with the demands of his particular type of fame. There are plenty of people who are more famous than Waters, but relatively few, living, who are more iconic. Because being an icon takes commitment. You have to develop a shtick and you have to stick with it and you have to publicize it. Anna Wintour better not get sick of bangs. Tom Wolfe has to keep on wearing white. It’s these little signature details that make all the difference. This works fine for Waters … he isn’t just hitching today, it’s one of his things. When he comes up with or hears a good line, he repeats it ad infinitum. When he develops an affection for something—Divine, filth, Provincetown—it’s permanent. And, as he’s fond of saying of Baltimore, “when you find a good look you stick with it.” When I contemplated the skinny mustache from close proximity in the car that day, it looked almost penciled on.