John Waters | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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John Waters

Jan 01, 2007 John Waters Photography by Greg Gorman Bookmark and Share

As a true legend of outsider films, it should surprise no one that director John Waters also has a taste for the obscure and eccentric in music. Following 2004’s compilation CD A John Waters Christmas, his second set is a celebration of Valentine’s Day entitled A Date with John Waters, with a similarly unconventional set of songs designed to seduce you into submission. “All of these songs, I really like, and I’m trying to play them for you if you were coming over to my house,” says Waters.

Under the Radar: Having already worked on a Christmas album, was putting together this project a different process?

John Waters: Well, no it wasn’t in a way, because it’s the same kind of thing. First, you start with the records that you have, that you love, and that you think would work best. The concept of the album was basically that I’m trying to seduce you with music that I love, all types of music in the same way. Usually, though, when you bring over people to your house to listen to a great record, it’s not a brand new one, because you figure that everybody has those records. The newest records, they’d have just bought that week. So I tried to get these back in print, like the soundtrack to The Imitation of Life, which has been really rare for a long time, and it’s a great Douglas Silk movie that I like. And then put in things like [Elton Motello’s] “Jet Boy Jet Girl,” which is kind of the first gay punk rock song ever. I don’t know if there’s a second one. [Laughs] It’s like putting a soundtrack together. If you look at all of my soundtracks, they show that the kind of work that I really love is redneck novelty or Hollywood kind of stuff, and at the same time I like jazz. But I also like novelty weirdness and rhythm and blues, which is certainly what I grew up with in Baltimore. I want to do every holiday, but I want to get down to where it’s really obscure, like Veteran’s Day. Who does an album for Veteran’s Day? I want to do one. Then, I guess it would be all about soldiers or war and stuff. And then you could do one about Columbus Day. That would be really hard. I guess it would be about discovering new things. It’s curating, really, in the same way that I had a television show called John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You. It’s about taste, and that’s what I’ve always made fun of or used in all of my work, no matter what it is, from the very beginning.

UTR: Did you find that the process for selecting these songs was a lot more wide open than for the Christmas record?

Waters: Not really, because I always thought the best songs about love are about breaking up. Most songs are about breaking up. That’s why Breaking Up with John Waters is the next one I want to do. But there are very few songs about functional love. [Laughs] These are pretty much [them], except [Earl Grant’s] “Imitation of Life,” which could be a real wrist-slitter if you’re drunk, and [Shirley & Lee’s] “Bewildered,” which is really what anyone is if they really like somebody, when you can’t show them that you like them or it turns them off—all that kind of craziness. I really like every one of these songs, for real. In the same way as my Christmas album, I never picked anything because it was so bad it was good to me. I really do love all of these. [Ike & Tina Turner’s] “All I Could Do Is Cry” is the one that I really wish I could do the video for, because I just picture Tina Turner—and she was a huge influence on me when I was young—when she was with Ike, and he had a moustache and wore processed hair and came in on an old school bus. The shows that they put on, Ike and Tina Turner, were so amazing that it’s almost impossible to imagine what they were like, seeing them at the time. They were so great. She was a huge influence on me, even through Divine. Tina Turner was the one, of all the singers, and Ike—I try to look like Ike still. I just never succeed.

UTR: Do you think your musical tastes run toward obscure things?

Waters: Well, yeah. I don’t think anyone wants to buy a compilation album, especially from me, if they know every song on it. I think the point of it is me showing you new songs that I think are great, that I think you’ll really like, that maybe you don’t know—or that in this context you don’t know. At the same time, I put a song by Mink Stole on here, and I didn’t even know that Mink could sing. And she gave me this record that I thought sounded great. All of these songs, I really like, and I’m trying to play them for you if you were coming over to my house.

UTR: Have you used these songs to seduce someone before?

Waters: Not in this exact order to seduce someone. I’m going to have to try it this weekend to see if it actually works. That takes a long time, though. How long is this album? [Laughs] I’m a fast mover. I say you get three songs and you’re out! No, I guess this is about the right time. I guess it depends on the time of night that it is, and whether you’ve had dinner and a lovely date or something a little more…anarchistic. Have I ever actually used it? I would say that “Jet Boy Jet Girl” would probably be the closest one, and certainly I played “All I Could Do Is Cry” for many, many people when I was young. I don’t know that I’d put Edith Massey as the first one, and Shirley & Lee is so beautiful. And “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake”—they’d probably run out of the house if you put that on first. “Hit the Road to Dreamland” is sort of winding it up. You don’t want to put on such a slow Dean Martin thing right at the beginning. [Ray Charles’] “(Night Time Is) The Right Time” is always the one that I think is the most sexual on this album. That, to me, is the dirtiest song in the best kind of way.

UTR: Do you think there’s any common thread that runs through all of these songs?

Waters: Yeah: Originality and humor.

UTR: Do you think that’s something that you’ve grown to appreciate more over the years?

Waters: I think I’ve always appreciated it, from the very beginning. Listen to the soundtrack to Pink Flamingos. Some of that stuff there, it was still rockabilly, it was redneck, and it was kind of obscure then, too. I never pick the obvious. I never wanted a Beatles soundtrack, let’s put it that way.

UTR: The majority of these songs aren’t terribly recent. The most recent is probably the John Prine and Iris DeMent song [“In Spite Of Ourselves”].

Waters: Yeah, they’re not the most recent. You know, old chickens make good soup. If you wanted me to pick [those], that would be called Youth Spies. And I have youth spies that tell me the newest groups, and I do buy new music and have lots of new music. But that would have to be a different concept album, not A Date with John Waters. Well…I guess in real life I might play newer music. It depends how old the person was. You certainly don’t want to put on “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry if you’re dating a younger person. It depends on the age level. But I do like new music, but I don’t think it lends itself well to compilation, to me. These are songs that time has changed in some ways. I mean, the newest song is actually the Mink Stole song.

UTR: Since some of these songs document unsuccessful love…

Waters: Yeah, but all songs are about unsuccessful love. “Jet Boy Jet Girl”—I don’t think that song’s successful. “Ain’t Got No Home”—that’s about tri-sexuality. “In Spite of Ourselves” is, I think, a really pretty love song. “All I Could Do Is Cry” is bitter, yes. “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” well, that’s fat liberation. “Imitation of Life”—we’re all living an imitation of life, believe me. “Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun”—well, if the person you’re dating can’t make you uptight sometimes it will never last. You’ll be turned off. “Johnny Are You Queer?”—hey, that’s a question that people have been asking me my whole life. “(Night Time) Is the Right Time”? It is. It’s better to have sex at night than in the day. “Hit the Road to Dreamland”—that’s the name of my early film company, Dreamland. That’s just a Dean Martin song; it’s upbeat. “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake”—I can’t think of a happier song. And “Bewildered”—yeah, when the person leaves, it’s always bewildering if you like them. You think, “Oh God. Now what?” But none of it is breaking up. None of it is “stay with me!” I could do a great album like that. That’s a different sound. I wanted it to be more upbeat. You might be uptight about the date you had, but later. This is when it’s going well. You haven’t shown your hand yet.

UTR: Are you going to tour with this album, too?

Waters: Yeah, sure, probably. They always make me tour for everything. Are you kidding? I’m a carnie.

UTR: Do you play any instruments yourself?

Waters: No. Not one. I can’t sing worth a note. I would have sung all of them if I could! If I could sing, believe me, I would have an album already.

UTR: You must have a pretty extensive music collection.

Waters: I do. I write with music, too. All of my films, when I write a script, I turn a soundtrack in with the script. Always. Not the score, because that is done later, but the actual source material. I’m from The Flying Saucer school, which was this first novelty record that told a story by saying, “Meanwhile, the flying saucers were here. Come on, baby, let’s go downtown.” It told a story by using lyrics. I still do that. I never got over that.

UTR: Do you think your musical tastes have changed over the years?

Waters: No, because I like rap now, and rap is the exact kind of thing that makes parents uptight as black rhythm and blues did when you were a white kid then. I think it’s exactly the same.

UTR: So who are some contemporary artists that you particularly enjoy?

Waters: Oh…let me think. I bought Snoop’s new one. I bought Eminem’s new one. I like Aimee Mann’s Christmas album. I like all kinds of music. I play jazz. I play opera. I play classical. I do keep up with some new ones. I like punk rock. I listen to the radio. I have XM radio, and I listen to five stations. This is what I listen to: I listen to the ’50s, I listen to Snoop’s station, I listen to Fungus, which is punk rock, and I listen to Soul, and there’s another one that is new, ecology-kind of music. That’s what I like best. And I listen to classical and opera when I’m at home, because I need aggression. On Sunday, I might be playing a four-hour opera. There’s no kind of music that I don’t like. I used to say that I like everything except for bluegrass, but I really like Prairie Home Companion. I like Oh Brother [Where Art Thou?]. So I don’t even dislike that anymore. I love country, but I love old country—not a lot of the middle of the road, modern country. I think I like all kinds of music.

UTR: So what would you like your listener to take from this album?

Waters: Well, I would like you to say, “You’ve got to hear this song! Listen to this.” To me, that’s the compliment—the word of mouth of wanting to play it for someone else. Do I think this will work for everybody on a date? I don’t know. I’d like someone to try it, no matter what you’re into, and tell me if it works. A lot of people tell me that my movies are a litmus test on a first date. It’s either not going to work or it is. If you take someone to Pink Flamingos or A Dirty Shame on a first date, and they hate it, and you like it, it ain’t gonna work. So, I think this is the same thing. If you play it, and they say, “Get that off!” it’s probably not going to work, if you like it.

UTR: Sure. Are you working on a film right now?

Waters: Yeah, but I’m not going to talk about it, because I’m in the middle of all kinds of meetings, and it’s bad luck. But, yeah, it’s a children’s movie.

UTR: Oh…

Waters: But a John Waters children’s movie. (an unofficial John Waters site) (the label releasing A Date with John Waters)


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A Val-Day follow-up to John Water’s recently reissued X-mas collection, A Date with John Waters (New Line) follows the format of that, set with a mix-tapey blend of camp, out-there novelty numbers, undeservedly obscure r & b tracks and tracks whose inclusion are dictated as much by their personal significance to Waters as anything else.
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