where the writers are
Between the Covers with John Waters
Role Models

I’ve just finished John Water’s latest funhouse of memories and musings, Role Models. There’s a spray of pink slips of paper sprouting from the top of it now – markers of captivating passages. I know, I know. With an e-reader you can highlight, search for keywords and deodorize a room at the same time. I’d rather run my hand over the nicely textured cover and use pieces of paper, thank you. That is, until someone gives me an e-reader (the one that shows colors, please).

Mr. Waters, whose name is synonymous with “filth” and has spent, I’m sure, far more on therapy than the budget of all his early films combined (Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, to name just a fewlures us in with a fairly safe but highly amusing chapter on his adoration of Johnny Mathis. He even quotes Freud’s line about psychotherapy as “transforming hysterical misery into uncommon happiness.” So we’re not only going to get his tales of the people he’s had mad, lasting fixations on but some high brow stuff, too. Sounds like my kind of book.

We traipse through unknown (to me) off-color stories about Tennessee Williams. Then it’s on to the sad tale of Leslie Van Houten, one of the unfortunate young women to be caught in Charles Manson’s spell and still in prison for it. He lightens the moment by next introducing us to his favorite fashion designer Rei Kawakubo who creates clothes Goodwill would reject and cost a fortune.

And then he gets to the Baltimore role models chapter.

Bring on the filth, throw out the airbrush gun. We’re up to our necks in foul-mouthed freaks. I tip my hat to Mr. Waters for his wonderful way with words, delicious dirt about himself and others, and insanely thorough research. When he interviews someone, no matter who they are, he’s done his homework.

He gives just enough of a reprieve from the lowlifes and larger-than-lifes that he loves by breezing into a chapter on his favorite books, none of which I will be running out to get but I loved seeing them through his maniacal eyes. The next chapter about his interview with Little Richard for Playboy had me caught in an insanity that felt like I was being pushed up the wall by centrifugal force. In “Outsider Porn” he tracks down more way-off-the-radar weirdos in the worst neighborhoods (one in California lived in a kind of cabana along with two 750-pound pigs, roosters and hundreds of rats and was famous for . . . Well, if I couldn’t share it at a dinner party last night, you’ll just have to read about it).

I found myself wondering if Waters ever wished he’d had a video camera with him instead of just his tape recorder while interviewing his subjects. Could there be a John Water’s reality TV show in the wings? Then it hit me. Reality TV today is just an early John Water’s movie with much better looking people.

His chapter on his “roommates” – his art collection in various homes – was illuminating. I’ve always marveled at how art aficionados can lay on the hype about something that would make most people say “My five year-old could do that!” With Mr. Waters, he goes much deeper than a gallery brochure. This is an example of his interpretation of a Cy Twombly work.

From here he segues into “the amazingly aggressive and powerful female artist Lee Lozano, who in 1971 vowed for ‘art’ never to speak to women again.” For 28 years she kept her promise. He wonders how she managed with her mother when Ms. Lozano became ill at the end of her life and lived with her parents, as do I. How exactly did that work? He supplies a few possible scenarios.

But when John Waters explains why he lives alone by calling love “that terribly exciting disease that, to me, feels like another full-time job,” I realize he isn’t just a role model for the mega-misfits, he’s a paragon for a large part of the population who enjoy being single, or at least find it a lot easier to negotiate than Couple Land. That one paragraph could put Match.com out of business.