John Waters came to Stanford looking for “rich-kid arsonists” to hack Trump’s porn downloads

The Prince of Puke visits Silicon Valley to discuss education, his new summer camp and the odds of orchestrating a White Stripes reunion

“My whole life has been a trigger warning.” (Original illustration by Kaz Palladino/Awkward Affections)

Evil nuns, LSD, daytime burlesque shows.

Yes, the education of John Waters includes the kind of details that you might expect of the always (waaaayyy) outside-the-box indie filmmaker, such as 42nd Street movie houses, hairdressers posing as his mom for the purpose of playing hooky and expulsion from NYU by way of “the first marijuana scandal ever on a university campus.” No, nothing much to see here.

John Waters is best known as the maker of about a dozen films, including Pink Flamingos, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. (Photo by Greg Gorman)

But wait, there’s a fascinating—and almost, almost surprising—postscript to this trajectory, that comes many years later in the form of Waters being asked by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to give the commencement speech for their graduation ceremonies in 2015. And indeed, the prospect of the “Pope of Trash” (or, if you prefer— “the People’s Pervert”) offering life advice to young graduates on the cusp of their careers certainly raised a few carefully-pencilled-in eyebrows.

Yet Waters kinda killed it in a way every parent, provost or circus contortionist might have hoped. He encouraged the students to “fuck up the world in a beautiful way,” reminded them that true wealth means not having to be “around assholes at any time,” and ultimately challenged them to make him nervous.

Little surprise that his speech went viral and soon served as the basis for a new book and album (on none other than Jack White’s Third Man record label). More notably, the speech confirmed what Waters terms as “the final irony”—the fact that after years on the fringe, he is now an insider, an almost iconic elder statesman of all things truly counterculture who appears as popular today as ever.

Here in the Bay Area (where he is an occasional resident), Waters hosts Burger Boogaloo each summer, a popular punk rock music festival in downtown Oakland. This week, he’ll appear in conversation at Stanford University to speak on his long and colorful career, as well as his new role as an unlikely life coach for college students.

We caught up with Waters to discuss his thoughts on Silicon Valley, trigger warnings and his still unrealized duet with the Insane Clown Posse.

When I first heard about you speaking at Stanford it struck me as a mismatch, but having listened to your album I now think that it’s the perfect dose of punk rock perspective for college students…

I think the college students need more punk rock, because they’re being lazy and now they’re being shown up by the honor roll high school students— the new rebels in America—who are truly amazing. I think the high school students might save us all, including the college students.

So your album anchors off of your RISD commencement speech, right?

Yeah certainly, I’ve exploited it many times. It came out as a book, and then an album. The ballet is next, I guess.

What was it like for you, as the perpetual outsider, to be asked to give a speech like that?

It was funny because I had never heard one before, since I’ve been thrown out of every school I ever went to. I never really graduated from anywhere except grade school.

But you know, I was proud, and without irony. It was RISD, which is a good arts school. If they had had schools that would encourage kids like me, at the time when I was in Junior High and High School (which they did not), maybe I would have ended up there.

So, it felt a little bit like the end of the Wizard of Oz, when you get a brain handed to you. But then, I kinda wanted to get ruthless and demand tenure and just become a terrible mean academian.

Did it cause some introspection in terms of your own education?

Well, no one who ever paid me a check for anything has ever asked me once if I went to school. But — I’m not a brain surgeon. To be a filmmaker you don’t have to go to school. At the time, film schools would not have let me make Pink Flamingos, but they would today. So I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t go to school. I’m just saying, for me, if you really are obsessed and you know what you want to do, you do not have to go to school. You go to school to figure out what you want to do, don’t you?

And this whole thing with trigger warnings is hilarious to me, because I thought that is why you went to school — to have your values challenged.

But you also make the case that the outsider is in fact the new insider…

Yeah! Wouldn’t you say that both Trump and Obama consider themselves outsiders? The “insider”—that’s the dirty word. So for me, I like being an insider now, because it means you snuck in somehow and you have power (which for me is just bizarre) and then you can use it to screw up things in a good creative way. If you’re an outsider, you never get to decide policy, you never get to change anything.

In the 60s — we lost. The revolution didn’t happen. We won a lot of things, but in the long run, it didn’t happen, which I always found kind of humorous in a way, because I never believed it was gonna happen, but I liked the anarchy that was surrounding the possibility of it.

John Waters’s new album—Make Trouble—includes a full recorded studio version of his RISD speech, as well as small vignettes of him reflecting on his education. (Third Man Records)

So how did your commencement speech not only turn into an album, but an album on Jack White’s record label?

Ian Brennan, who is my promoter and the booker for all of my Christmas shows and other places (like he got me into Coachella and Bonnaroo), he knows that world and has himself won a Grammy for world music. (I got a Grammy nomination in the spoken word category for Role Models, which was shocking to me. But I got beat by Joan Rivers, who was my friend. But death was a good career move that year. And….she would not mind me saying that.) So Ian hooked it up.

And I had met Jack before and knew him a little. He had come to me another time and was trying to get me to work with the Insane Clown Posse, which I wanted to do! But the song just wasn’t right at the time. I thought that was a good combination to do it with the most hated and despised rap group. I wanted to re-do “Freaknik” and have us come out together. But that never happened. So who knows? You never know what can happen in the future.

So in terms of your album and the topic of education, I was actually thinking of something I heard Jack White say in a documentary, where he talks about the importance of “the struggle” as an essential part of the creative process, and I’m wondering if you think that’s true or is it more of just a romantic notion?

I think that everybody struggles in the beginning. I don’t understand when kids come to me and ask “How can I get a movie made?” If you have to ask, you never will. You have to think, I’m gonna get a movie made and you can not fear rejection or being turned down. Because, you’ll be turned down a lot, but it’s like hitchhiking — you just need one person to stop. If every car stopped there would be a traffic jam and you’d never get there. So to me, it’s just a lot about thinking, I’m gonna do this. And you can’t fake that really.

Being that I’m here in Silicon Valley, I have to ask about the section of your commencement speech where you tell students to, “Use tech for transgression.” And then you encourage students to make you nervous. So I’m wondering what makes you nervous these days?

I sort of always wished that Silk Road had a hustler line. They never did, you could sort of buy everything else, but you couldn’t shoot your load on Silk Road. So, I’d never go on the Dark Web because I always figured they’d bust me or something, but I do kind of find hackers interesting: if you’re up in your bedroom shutting down a branch of the government. [They are] the new juvenile delinquents. But they should do more interesting things, like find out Trump’s porn downloads.

But I think it’s great, all these kids who just sit in Starbucks around Silicon Valley and think up something and then they sell it for a billion dollars. I think that’s wonderful, even when it hasn’t happened yet, with no ads or anything. I’m for that, it’s like me pitching a movie and they give me the money (which I’m always shocked, when I go in and pitch an idea and they give me six figures). It’s the same thing, we’re both kinda scamming, but if the idea works, it’s pretty exciting. A pitch is a kind of standup act.

Real quick, cause I think it ties back to your album, tell me about John Waters Summer Camp?

I’m doing that again this year. It’s in Kent, Connecticut, and it is a real restored summer camp that they use for corporate events, and it was their promoter’s idea to do this, and it worked incredibly well and sold out in like two minutes. This year we’re doing it again and Mink [Stole]is coming and Traci Lords is coming. It’s gonna be great.

The campers had really bonded well. That first year I’d say the average age was maybe about 40, half gay and half straight. People came on their honeymoon, people came from all over the world. Everybody got along and then kept in touch all year. It was like Jonestown with a happy ending.

The reason I’m asking is because on the last track on your album you talk about John Waters Reform School…

I forgot that’s on there, I actually had a real offer to do that….

Well, isn’t the summer camp just one step away from that?

Yeah, but you can’t be sentenced to it. I wanted to do [the reform school] only for rich kid arsonists, because arsonist is the one thing that no reform school will take. So it would be rich fire bugs. Only juvenile delinquents that even the most liberal reform school places will not take. So there has to be a special grant for these children who just want to play with matches too much.

For the past few years, Water has hosted the Burger Boogaloo in Oakland, a punk rock festival featuring the likes of Iggy Pop, the Gories, Shannon and the Clams and Guitar Wolf. (Via Burger Boogaloo website)

I’m asking because in light of your talk at Stanford, aren’t you now just one step away from being asked by one of these universities to teach a class?

(Laughs) Well, teaching is a whole different thing. The only time I ever taught was in prison. And I taught in different prisons, so if I was ever going to teach again, that is the only place I would like to teach. But I think that academia is so mean-spirited the way the way the teachers kinda cut-throat each other. I always read about it and I’m always shocked.

But I’m for it, for getting great teachers, which is the most important thing in the world, I don’t care if it’s Stanford or the poorest college in the world. You can’t bore your students, it’s the ultimate sin.

That’s why it would be a good fit, because who would be more engaging and stimulating than you?

You got to find what their interest is, even if it’s a terrible interest. I think you have to be able to discuss everything, find people’s interests and make them feel safe in their interests. Even if it’s not an interest you especially want for your kid. Because you can’t order them up and they can’t order you up either.

Just to wrap up, any chance you can talk Jack White into reforming the White Stripes for Burger Boogaloo?

I don’t really book Burger Boogaloo, I just give them a lot of ideas. And I’m sure that would be a good idea. It would be the same for David Byrne, who I’m friends with. I think the Moldy Peaches are the one I would push for a reunion.

Ok, it was worth a shot.

The John Waters album Make Trouble is available as a 7" vinyl via Third Man Records and for download on iTunes.

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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