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John Waters Returns for Burger Boogaloo in Oakland 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2016

If you're going to book an emcee for a two-day festival focused on cult heroes and scuzzy punk-rock, you can't do better than John Waters. For the second year in a row, Oakland's Burger Boogaloo festival, presented by Orange County's Burger Records, has turned to the director of such perverse classics as Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Polyester to take over hosting duties for the garage-rock and punk-themed event.

"It's a really well-run festival," Waters says. "I saw grandmothers pogo dancing. I made a joke that we were all middle-aged and full of rage and everybody cheered. I couldn't tell if people in the crowd were skinheads or bald."

Waters is no stranger to the festival circuit. He's taken his one-man show on the road to big outings like Bonnaroo and Coachella, and has plenty of opinions on the precursors of the modern festival scene and popular music.

"I never went to Woodstock," says the 70-year-old (who was 23 when the festival took place). "[It] sounded like hell to me even then. I was also probably the only person that didn't like the Beatles. They were too cheery for me."

Instead of upbeat pop, Waters is more drawn to punk-rock, making him the perfect candidate to host Burger Boogaloo, which is centered around unconventional and indie acts, like Shannon and The Clams, Thee Oh Sees, and King Khan & The Shrines.

"The punk-rock world has always been, for me, a really seductive world," he says. "I've always felt comfortable in punk-rock clubs my whole life, so I'm happy to be asked to come back there."

A man who lives for filth and meticulously groomed pencil mustaches, Waters has been a part of the cultural zeitgeist since the early 1970s. A native of Baltimore, his film career was marked by a penchant not just to push the envelope of taste, but to drop kick it over a cliff. Along for the ride were a recurring group of Waters' friends, dubbed the Dreamlanders, including Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, and the drag queen Divine.

Also notable was Waters' inclusion of controversial public figures in his work, ranging from mobster Mickey Cohen's onetime girlfriend and convicted felon Liz Renay to the locally notorious Patty Hearst. For Cry-Baby, Waters recruited Traci Lords, who was best known in the '80s for using a fake driver's license to appear underage in pornographic videos and in Penthouse spreads. Waters says his casting of Lords, who will join him on stage at this year's Burger Boogaloo, was in no way a stunt.

"Well, I didn't really need more infamy at that point in my life," Waters says. "Infamy has never been a problem. I felt for her, and it was in the news, and I thought she looked great. She came in and read for the part. If she hadn't been able to do it, I wouldn't have hired her, but I knew that if she parodied her image that she could change it."

He also has some advice for anyone attending the festival in hopes of getting autographed memorabilia or an intimate moment with Lords.

"I'm going to give lap dances, she's not," he says. "I would advise fans to leave porn boxes at home, because believe me, she's not going to sign them! They're kiddie porn! When they frisk you, you might be arrested!"

Waters' warped sense of humor has been a cornerstone of his sustained popularity as a cult icon. While some were drawn to his films from the get-go, over time, his depraved genius has also become more and more celebrated by the mainstream. Last fall, the British Film Institute hosted a retrospective of his filmography, an experience Waters equates with "being at your own funeral, and being lucky enough to hear the eulogies." In 2014, New York's Lincoln Center held a similar celebration.

While his last feature film to date was 2004's A Dirty Shame, Waters has managed to stay busy. Earlier this year, he curated "Home Improvements," an exhibit at San Francisco's FraenkelLAB that inverted mundane objects with a little bit of twisted glee. Waters has also curated exhibits for galleries in Minneapolis and Provincetown, and says it's all just another job to him.

"Every morning I get up and I think, 'Yip yip yip yip yip,' from that Silhouettes song, 'Get a Job,' " he says. "That's always the soundtrack in my head."

In addition to filmmaking and art curation, Waters has taken up the written word. In 2014, he published Carsick, a book that chronicles an impromptu hitchhiking adventure he undertook to get from Baltimore to his apartment in San Francisco.

"I actually hitchhiked today!" Waters says when Carsick is mentioned in our interview.

With contagious energy, he relays a story about having to take his bicycle to the shop in Provincetown, Mass., and getting a lift home. It's staggering to see how active, impish, and alive Waters remains nearly 50 years after Mondo Trash, his debut full-length film. He's now writing another book, Mr. Know It All, which he says is focused on "how to avoid respectability at 70." As for the city he sometimes calls home — he also has residences in New York, Baltimore, and Provincetown — Waters isn't ready to close the door on San Francisco just yet.

"I read somewhere that someone in the Tenderloin stole an ambulance and crashed, so I wouldn't say there's no edge left in San Francisco," he says. "I had my wildest youth there. I also take the bus everywhere, and believe me, every single person on the bus is insane in San Francisco, but in a non-threatening way."


About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.


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