For more than 50 years Baltimore’s favorite cinematic subversive John Waters has written and directed groundbreaking films such as Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry Baby and many others. The filmmaker, author, and raconteur explores sexuality, juvenile delinquency and Christmas in his song picks. His annual LA event – A John Waters Christmas – will arrive at the Comedy Store on Monday, December 5. Hosted by Eric J Lawrence
Photo credit; Greg Gorman
1. Clarence Frogman Henry - Ain't Got No Home
2. Elton Motello - Jet Boy Jet Girl
3. The Ikettes - I'm Blue
4. Billy Myles - The Joker (That's What They Call Me)
5. Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson - Fat Daddy
Eric J. Lawrence: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence and I am here with filmmaker, author, and raconteur John Waters.
For over 50 years Baltimore’s favorite cinematic subversive has written and directed groundbreaking films such as Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry Baby and many others -- including Multiple Maniacs, which was recently restored by the Criterion Collection. Today, we’re here to talk about five songs that have inspired him throughout his life. John, thank you so much for joining us.
John Waters: Well thank you. It’s good to look back and I think everybody has five songs that made him the person they are today. And it’s always the first kind of music you remember when you were young.
EJL: Well, what’s the first song you got for us?
JW: The first one that confused me was “I Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence Frogman Henry. I was in the 50s and I was really young and I heard him. I loved that he sang like a frog in part of it. And then he said he could sing like a girl, so I thought, “oh it’s my first bisexual experience.” I thought maybe I realized I was gay then. But then he started singing like a frog which confused me cause I thought, “are you sexually attracted to frogs? Am I trisexual? Is there such a thing as a frog queen?” I don’t know.
So it threw me, always, because he could sing like three people. It’s like the three faces of Eve. This was the three faces of Clarence Frogman Henry. And Clarence Frogman Henry sang “I Ain’t Got No Home” for many, many years, decades I believe, every single night in a club in New Orleans.
EJL: Well, here’s Clarence Frogman Henry singing like a frog in “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
*Song: Clarence Frogman Henry - “I Ain’t Got No Home*
EJL: That was Clarence Frogman Henry with “I Ain’t Got No Home.” What’s the next track you got for us?
JW: Well “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” here’s another song that was sexual because it was really, maybe the first, only gay punk song. “Jet Boy, Jet Girl I’m gonna take you around the world I’m gonna make you make you be a girl, I’m gonna penetrate…” I mean it’s kind of a great song.
It’s been recorded by many, many people since. Elton Motello I don’t know if he ever had another hit, but this was a great, great song.
In Provincetown where I live in the summer, Cookie Mueller, who was in a lot of my films, she had the first kind of one night a week punk rock party and they always closed the evening by playing “Jet Boy, Jet Girl.”
I still like punk rock, I’m very comfortable in the punk rock world it’s always been down-low on the gay scene. Punk rockers, I think they’re all secretly gay.
I like their attitude, their defiance, and I’ve always felt very comfortable in the world of punk. They’re still there! That world is still big! I host a big punk rock nostalgia festival every year in Oakland called Burger Boogaloo. I say to them, “we’re middle-aged and filled with rage” as a joke and they cheer!
EJL: Well here’s a rarity, it’s Elton Motello, “Jet Boy, Jet Girl.”
*Song: Elton Motello - Jet Boy, Jet Girl*
EJL: That was Elton Motello’s ’77 single, “Jet Boy, Jet Girl.” What’s the next track you got for us?
JW: Well, “I’m Blue” by the Ikettes, I mean I love Ike & Tina Turner, but The Ikettes were their backup group and I think this was maybe their only one. But it was a great song. I used it in my original “Hairspray” movie, it’s a song you did the Dirty Boogie to, it’s the song that all the white kids listened to on Black radio.
It was kind of the first dirty dancing song and I remember everyone screaming “Gong Gu-gu-gong gong.” Which are really peculiar lyrics when you think about it. And now there are so many different versions of this song. When I hosted that punk rock festival, this Asian women group, the one that was in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, they sang it. It’s a perfect song for everybody. It’s one of the sexiest songs to dirty dance to, ever.
EJL: Music seems really important for your cinematic work. How do you go about choosing the music that you use for your films?
JW: Well, I turn in the soundtrack with the first draft of my movie. The music in my movie is the narrator. It tells the story just like “Flying Saucer” did, that first novelty hit where they told the story by really, stolen lyrics from songs that came to be known as sampling. I think that was the first novelty record that ever sampled music, was “Flying Saucer.”
And I think I copied that. I use music to tell the story, instead of having a narrator. Well instead of that, I put music in, where the lyrics tell the story—that make the story flow.
EJL: Well here’s The Ikettes with “I’m Blue [The Gong Gong Song].”
*Song: The Ikettes - I’m Blue [The Gong Gong Song]*
EJL: That was The Ikettes with “I’m Blue [The Gong Gong Song] as selected by our guest John Waters. What’s the next track you got for us?
JW: One called “The Joker” by Billy Myles. I don’t know that he had another hit either. I heard this song when I was very, very young in a bowling alley where I lived. Where my parents took me, and all juvenile delinquents hung out. I wanted to be one so badly. And this one juvenile delinquent played this song over and over. And it started to get on my parents nerves and I loved him more and more every time he played it. I loved the song so much, I used it as the theme song when I had a television show that I hosted called “John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You.”
EJL: You know so much of this music is sort of off the beaten path and I think that is an easy way to describe some of your work as well. Are there songs that you would hear on the radio, that qualify as classic rock or standards in that way, that you react to?
JW: Some…I mean “Ain’t Got No Home” was a giant hit in the 50s, one of the biggest hit records of all. The other three were not especially hits. Do I dislike hits? No, I can get sick of them. But I’d rather much prefer a song that doesn’t fit in. That’s been forgotten. That’s something that I think it’s great, whether it was popular or not doesn’t really matter to me.
EJL: I’ve read also that you’re a big book collector. Are you a big record collector?
JW: I had lots of records when I was young. I still have a turntable. But I don’t buy new records. My record collection is great, but they’re all in bad shape because I’ve played them all the time. They’re not in pristine shape.
And all those little things you download are just going to evaporate on your computer or something. You’re never gonna be able to look at them, you’re never gonna be able to hold them. You’re never gonna see the great covers of art they have on some of these things. So to me, the packaging is part of it. The same way I still like books. I like to hold a book, I like the cover of it. I like keeping it, I like looking at it.
EJL: Well here’s a classic from yesteryear from 1957 from Billy Myles, it’s “The Joker.”
*Song: Billy Myles - The Joker*
EJL: That was “The Joker (That’s What They Call Me)” from Billy Myles. For the final track you picked a Christmas song, which I know is something that’s kind of close to your heart. What song have you got for us?
JW: Well, I love Christmas as you know. I have a Christmas touring show, and a Christmas album out -- this was the first track on it.
It’s called “Fat Daddy”. Fat Daddy was the Black disc jockey in Baltimore that all the white kids listened to. And when they had Black Day on the Buddy Dean show—which people think I made that up and that was a parody, it wasn’t, they really did have it, they called it Negro Day—Fat Daddy was the host. He hosted Negro Day every day. So I sort of based the character Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray on a female version of what Fat Daddy was. And he put this song out in Baltimore and it was a giant hit.
EJL: And it’s a Christmas song too. How does that play into your appreciation of that track?
JW: Well, I love Christmas music, the more obscure the better. I’m just mad that punk rock ones don’t have Christmas songs. I wish the Sex Pistols had sung “A Little Town in Bethlehem,” I want to push it.
EJL: Are there other aspects of Christmas that draw your attention as well?
JW: Oh, I like the lunacy of it. I mean you can’t really avoid Christmas. It’s coming at you like a locomotive. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore it, so I embrace it for all the wrong reasons. It makes people crazy, it makes people nervous, it brings people happiness, but it always brings extremes. So any extremes I’ve always been attracted to. So I do a show called “A John Water’s Christmas” where I talk to everybody. If you hate it, love it, how you can get through it. How you can survive Christmas.
*Song: Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson - Fat Daddy*
EJL: That was “Fat Daddy”, as selected by John Waters, something you can hear as a part of his various Christmas shows touring the country. John, I want to thank you for joining us here at KCRW.com.
JW: Sure, thank you. Maybe I should be a DJ, right? A little late…
EJL: (Laughs) For a complete tracklisting, and to find these tracks online, go to KCRW.com/guestdjproject or subscribe to the podcast through iTunes