God Bless John Waters
Not too long ago my wife got us tickets to see a John Waters Christmas here in my home town of Atlanta. I did not necessarily know what to expect. Would this be a live version of his Christmas compilation of kitschy Yueltide non-staples? Would he be doing stand-up? Showing humorous slides like Terry Zwigoff did when I hosted a few screenings of Bad Santa with him to promote some godawful chocolate cherry hard cider abomination a few years back? Telling stories?
On another level, I knew exactly what to expect because John Waters is one of the most distinctive and consistent figures in all of pop culture. I would add “delightful” and “important” and “essential” to that list because in these dark, dark times of hatred and bigotry and scapegoating, John Waters shines like a funky beacon of light and hope to weirdoes and outsiders everywhere.
It turns out Waters didn’t have to play songs or show slides to entertain a packed and adoring crowd: all he had to do was be John Waters. That was enough. It’s always enough. Technically speaking, I suppose Waters performance qualified as a monologue, with the caveat that monologuist to me is a very fancy, high falutin’ (in other words non-John Waters) phrase for an already famous person who is paid money to say funny things to a paying, probably drunk audience without having to endure the awful gauntlet of open mic nights and opening gigs for Carlos Mencia and forgotten, bleary nights in comedy condos that constitutes a stand-up comedian's life.
For a solid hour and a half, the seventy-one year old American icon stood onstage and was funny and filthy in a Yuletide vein. He quipped. He riffed. He joked. He told stories. For ninety minutes the world radiated a cozy Christmas glow. For a brief, beautiful idyll, the world made sense and seemed kind and weird and wonderful, and not an unending, brutal gauntlet of misery, failure and despair.
The role Waters plays in our society has changed over time, even if Waters seems to have remained remarkably and miraculously the same, even as he’s made an unlikely but triumphant transformation from transgressive outsider riling up the squares from the very fringes of impolite society to a wealthy, beloved, obviously very comfortable national treasure who doesn’t have to make movies anymore because he clearly is able to enjoy a very, very nice life on the royalties from the Hairspray musical and his popular speaking engagements.
Once upon a time Waters was an upsetter, a prankster, a cinematic punk proudly and perpetually shocking the squares with filth and perversion. But even then there was an air of sweetness, of acceptance and openness that betrayed the big heart that accompanied Waters’ proudly filthy brain.
Like Atlanta's own RuPaul, who Waters lovingly mentioned, Waters has gone mainstream in a big way while remaining defiantly himself. These days Waters is a soothing and comforting figure, rather than an aggressive and threatening one. Like David Bowie and David Byrne, he’s one of those blessed weirdoes who single-handedly make the world a more interesting and funny and crazy and accepting place.
Waters was funny, of course, and filthy, of course, but he was also tender, particularly when describing his perfect Christmas, a celebration that would transcend space and time and bring back all of his beloved collaborators and friends, everyone who has been lost.
I’d like to imagine that Waters himself will never die, that he’s a magical being who will love forever, like Tim Allen in that movie The Santa Clause. But as the past few years have proven, the world is strange, uncertain and impossible to predict so savor John Waters while he’s around, because all of our heroes die someday, even someone as seemingly indestructible and ageless as him.
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