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John Waters is never wrong

In new book, the ‘filth elder’ has an opinion on just about everything

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John Waters, gay news, Washington Blade
John Waters, pictured here at home in Baltimore, is back with a new book ‘Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.’ (Blade photo by Michael Key)

John Waters has had underwhelming meals in overpriced restaurants — so you don’t have to.

He’s been caught in long airport security lines. He’s taken the BoltBus to New York City and been delayed while the driver took a dump in the on-board restroom. He’s had to sit in a doctor’s waiting room with an embarrassing ailment and been barraged with questions from other patients who recognize him and demand to know what he’s got. 

Now the Baltimore-based filmmaker and writer, who just turned 73, has put all of those experiences and more into a book of opinions and advice, presumably so people won’t have to endure what he has. Called “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder,” it’s his ninth book, and it comes out on May 21. He’s described it as “my opinion on everything” and “how to avoid respectability at 70 years old.” 

When it comes out, readers will discover that “Mr. Know-It-All” isn’t just a book about coping with life’s indignities and humiliations, even though there’s plenty of guidance about that. It’s also part memoir, part celebrity tell-all and part movie industry guidebook with separate chapters about each of his last seven films, all filmed in Baltimore (“Polyester,” “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom,” “Pecker,” “Cecil B. Demented” and “A Dirty Shame.”) 

The book is filled with anecdotes about many of the actors he’s worked with, including Kathleen Turner, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman and, of course, Divine. There’s the time Waters turned down Brad Pitt at an audition for “Cry-Baby” because Pitt was too handsome to be cast as Depp’s sidekick, a decision that he thinks makes him perhaps “the only director who ever said no to Brad Pitt.” He remembers that Rikki Lake lost her virginity halfway through “Cry-Baby;” how he called Tab Hunter out of the blue to star in “Polyester” and how he battled with motion picture censors to let him use the word “Pecker” as a movie title.

Other readers may be drawn to his essays about non-cinematic subjects, which range from art collecting and Brutalist architecture to Yippie protests, Andy Warhol and taking LSD at 70. In one chapter, he names the one female he has adored since childhood. In another, he imagines returning to the apartment he lived in during the 1960s, a sign that, in some cases, you can go home again (especially when you still live in the town where you grew up).  

“Mr. Know-It-All is here to tell you exactly how to live your life,” he writes early in the book. “I’m never wrong.”

Though the title says it’s a book of wisdom, this is not a rehashed litany of someone else’s platitudes. All the advice he offers grows out of his own experiences. As a result, readers gain insights into the maker of “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble” by learning what he’s gone through and how he dealt with it.  

One of those insights is that Waters can be quite frugal and down to earth. He not only takes the inexpensive BoltBus to New York but also goes to a Laundromat when he spends the summers in Provincetown. (And of course, he hitchhiked across the country and wrote about it in his bestseller, “Carsick.”)  

In many of his stories, Waters reveals a knack for handling even the most humiliating situations with humor and aplomb. He also says he licks important packages before he puts them in the mail — “to remove any ‘curse’ of show business rejection” — and instructs his staff to do the same. In the LSD chapter, he mentions texting “my boyfriend,” whom he never names.  

Next week, Waters begins a national tour to launch his book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. East Coast stops include Barnes and Noble’s Union Square location in New York City on May 21; Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington (the 5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W. location, with first-come, first-served seating) on May 24 at 7 p.m. and a book signing at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road in Baltimore, on May 25 at 7 p.m. 

West Coast stops include ticketed events at The Green Arcade at the McRoskey Mattress Loft, 1687 Market Street in San Francisco on May 30 at 7 p.m., and Book Soup at The Renberg Theatre (Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village), 1125 N, McCadden Place in Los Angeles on June 1 at 7 p.m. 

Waters recently sat down at his home for an interview with the Washington Blade to talk about his book and his life as a filth elder. The interview has been condensed.

John Waters’s new book shows ‘how to avoid respectability at 70 years old.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON BLADE: A good alternative title for your book would be “The Influencer,” don’t you think? How To Win Friends and Influence People 2?

JOHN WATERS: I’m Norman Vincent Peale, you’re saying?

BLADE: You do give a lot of advice: Come up with a gimmick. Have backup plans. Get at least one other person to believe in you. Sound advice, with a John Waters twist.

WATERS: I agree with that totally.

BLADE: Why an advice book?

WATERS: Well, I always kind of parody things, so I thought an advice book coming from me would be kind of a parody in the first place. I needed that kind of genre to be able to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about.  

In some ways it’s like “Shock Value” because “Shock Value” ended right before we made “Polyester,” so this has the rest of the movies in it. But I also wrote it from a viewpoint of how to tell young filmmakers how to deal with Hollywood and what happens and all that kind of stuff, and how you fail upward. And then the other subjects I had to put in about love, about fashion, about art, about death, about every possible thing. But to talk about them all, you need a theme that runs through the whole thing, so that’s how I came up with [giving] advice.

Do I expect every person to follow my advice? No, but I believe that I gave good advice. It’s not really told ironically. I believe everything I say in it. But I hoped to write a humorous book at the same time.

BLADE: Who are you giving advice to?

WATERS: I’m giving advice, first of all, to the people that like my work, because they’re hopefully the first people that buy the book. Secondly, even if you don’t know anything about me, I’m giving advice to younger people about how to handle what’s coming, failure and success, in your life if you’ve chosen to be in the arts in any way. So I think I’m trying to give advice to anybody probably younger than me, because older than me are dead, you know. And I tell you how to beat that too.

BLADE: You’re not writing just for the hardcore fans?

WATERS: No, not at all. If you’re never seen any of my movies, you can still read the book.

BLADE: A lot of your fans may be the “others” in society, those who don’t fit in or conform, the people in “Desperate Living” and other movies.

WATERS: The people that used to be the “others” in society are often now the leaders. Everybody wants to be the “other” now. They didn’t used to. Even Trump would probably want to be an outsider. Obama thought he was an outsider. Everybody wants to be an outsider, and I want to be an insider. I said that in “Make Trouble,” that it’s more fun to cause trouble from within. Which is what “Hairspray” did.

BLADE: But a lot of the others aren’t the ones who would typically be disposed to take advice.

WATERS: Maybe from me they might.

BLADE: Why should someone follow your advice?

WATERS: You don’t have to. I think you could read the book and not follow one bit of it and still enjoy the book. You don’t have to. I don’t expect anybody to, really.

BLADE: Your advice grows out of your experiences. It’s not warmed-over Norman Vincent Peale. And because it comes from within, your advice in turn provides insights into you.

WATERS: I always thought that is a joke, that book, which I probably never read. But my parents had it and it was such a thing then that it became a joke in a way. That same title could apply to this book.

BLADE: The other thing about your advice is, you chronicle all the ways you’ve suffered indignities. You’ve had bad dinners at good restaurants. You’ve had bad seats on international flights. You’ve been harassed at the doctor’s office.

WATERS: I’m also saying all the wonderful things that happened to me. So basically, there are different kinds of problems. It is a high-class problem to worry about being recognized in a doctor’s office. It’s the one time that it’s really bad to be seen. Although, if you weren’t [famous], you wouldn’t have gotten the appointment. So in the long run, it isn’t bad.

BLADE: Do bad things happen to you more than most, like Joe Btfsplk in “Li’l Abner?”

WATERS: No. I say in the book, not one bad thing has ever happened to me from being famous, in any way. It really hasn’t. I mean, high-class problems, some of the things I talk about. But, generally, I can bitch about flying all the time. Bitch about first class, which is really bold. But I get to fly all the time and I don’t pay for it. But I’m working, you know? So I’m trying to tell people that when bad things happen to them, they can use it and how they can appreciate it and how they can look back on it and it doesn’t mean really anything terrible.

BLADE: You bring up all these universal things that anybody can identify with and you’ve come out on the other side, none the worse for wear from the indignities you’ve suffered.

WATERS: Everybody has indignities.

BLADE: Are you more sensitive to things than others?

WATERS: No, I don’t think so. I think I notice them more and it’s more, like, ludicrous, some of the problems that you get from being known.

BLADE: And then you use it for comic relief.

WATERS: Yeah, comic relief. In my own life, even.

BLADE: Is there one disappointment that tops them all?

WATERS: I only regret one thing, smoking cigarettes. It’s the only thing I regret in life. Because I’ll probably die from it. I mean, I don’t have cancer, but I’m just saying that, both my parents died from some form of cancer. They were 90 though. They had a long, good life. So, yes, I regret smoking cigarettes.

BLADE: You lived through all these indignities, and that’s a sign that others can too.

WATERS: The other day in New York somebody yelled at me, a homeless person, ‘You’re still alive?’ Which really made me laugh. I thought, ‘Well, yes I am, are you?’

BLADE: You and the Queen of England ought to compare notes.

WATERS: She probably has some really good ones.

BLADE: On your book tour, you’re appearing at Politics and Prose in Washington. Is this book political?

WATERS: Sure it is. All humor is political. And this book, definitely. I have a whole chapter, ACT BAD, which is really [suggesting ways] to go further than ACT UP did. I think comedy is political, trying to get you to laugh at things. I think every chapter in this book is political. But the worst way you can be political [is to] rant. If you get people to laugh, they’ll listen. If you lecture, in a strident tone, like Elizabeth Warren, no one will pay attention. Even though I totally agree with her politics, I hate to hear her talk. She’s never said a funny thing in her life. So the thing is, it’s important, if you want to change people’s minds, to make them laugh. It’s the first way to get their attention.

BLADE: What will you be doing at Politics and Prose?

WATERS: Well, probably a conversation with somebody and read a chapter and sign books. Like what I do everywhere. It’s always “a conversation with.” It’s basically a free lecture tour.

BLADE: As opposed to Atomic Books in Baltimore, where it’s primarily a book signing.

WATERS: That is usually the biggest one in the whole country, which is pretty amazing. That tiny bookshop, on the last two books, I think, sold even more than Barnes and Noble in New York.

BLADE: For your “Carsick” book-signing there, it was raining and the line was around the block.

WATERS: That bookstore, I get all my fan mail there. It’s really a great place, so I’m all for it.

BLADE: Does your book have any bombshells in it? Landing Tab Hunter for “Polyester?” Not casting Brad Pitt when he auditioned?

WATERS: That’s not up to me to say. The only thing I could think in there, maybe, is the [taking] LSD thing, in a way. That’s the stunt of the book. That’s something that I did that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think if there’s a sentimental chapter in the book about friendship, then maybe that is that. If I had known how strong the LSD was that I took, I probably would have been uptight. But I didn’t and it was great. I spent eight months getting the right acid from the purest source I could find, practically from Timothy Leary’s asshole. The Blade can print that. But the provenance of it was high and it was great. I don’t have to ever do it again. Just like I don’t have to ever hitchhike across the country again. Why would I? I did it. I don’t know if that’s newsworthy, but that would be, maybe.

BLADE: You had a big build-up about it in the book: We don’t know what this is going to do to us. And then you stopped hallucinating and it was OK and the sun rose…

WATERS: It was more than OK. It was great. I never had a bad experience when I was young, or I probably would have never done it. What I wanted to see is, what is it like to do it now, when I’m 70 years old? I certainly would never imagine that many 70-year-olds try to take acid. Especially if you haven’t done it since you were young.

BLADE: Do people still take LSD?

WATERS: Oh yeah. All the young people now do micro-doses. All the people that work in Google. All the tech kids take teeny doses of it. But not many 70-year-olds take it. People I know don’t take it.

BLADE: You write that you tried to get transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen in a movie. That’s something probably a lot of people don’t know. You’ve sprinkled in all kinds of things that are going to be part of your lore.

WATERS: There are lots of things that people don’t know. But I don’t know that that means it’s Stop the Press. Most everything in the book is probably new information to most people.

BLADE: Who do you wish had been in one of your movies but never was?

WATERS: Always Meryl Streep. But I would have had to stop her from doing a Baltimore accent. And she would have done it brilliantly.

BLADE: Did you have a part for her?

WATERS: You know, at times, any of those movies she could have been in, yeah. We’ve met before, maybe a couple of times, at parties. She’s lovely. But she didn’t say, “Oh, I’ve been dying to work with you.”

BLADE: Roseanne Barr has come up.

WATERS: Well, Roseanne, when I dealt with her, she was a liberal. Completely. Yes, she came up a couple of times. I was friendly with her.

BLADE: For “Serial Mom?”

WATERS: Yeah. “And A Dirty Shame.” She was possible for that at one point. So, I was always friends with a liberal. I did her show and everything. Traci Lords was on her show. Who knows? I don’t know. I guess she’s just on the Internet too much.

BLADE: Who was the greatest delight to work with?

WATERS: They all were a delight, in a way. I mean, making movies is horrible. I say that in the book. Basically, it’s not fun, because there’s so much pressure and you have to do something every day and we’re not going to get this shot and it’s going to be over budget. But they all were team players. That’s what I can say they were.

Somebody said about my mother after she died: She was game. And they were game. They had to be game, to come with us, come to Baltimore, especially joining a group of people that had known each other for 30 years, a lot of them. I didn’t have any trouble with any of them. They were pros. But we were pros to them. I think I was prepared. I knew what to do. It wasn’t like we mistreated them. And they sort of got into the spirit of it.

BLADE: Would you do a word association? Kathleen Turner.

WATERS: A pro. Still see her. Great actress. Stage. Screen. Movies. She could play men, women, anybody with great conviction.

BLADE: Johnny Depp from “Cry-Baby.”

WATERS: I’m on his new album, I hear. I’m not sure how. I remember I talked to him on the phone with Alice Cooper recently and he said, “Say this.” I don’t remember what I said, so I guess they put it in the album like when I did in The Creep [a song with Nicki Minaj]. Johnny Depp was always a pro with me.

BLADE: Tab Hunter.

WATERS: Well, he voted for Reagan, you know. He used to shock me. He was for Trump, too. He used to laugh when he told me, because he knew how crazy it made me. I love Tab. You know, that’s the thing. He was from a different era. Completely from a different era.

BLADE: Was he like Rock Hudson?

WATERS: Rock Hudson, I don’t know if he was a Republican. Tab, I think was always a Republican. Oh yeah, he was in the closet forever. He had to be. It was illegal. You know. He was loved by every woman in America. It would have ruined his career. And he wrote about all that in his book.

BLADE: Did he write about you?

WATERS: Yeah. He was lovely. I stayed friends with him right up until the end. I just talked to his husband recently. Tab was great. He was a team player too. Lovely to Divine. Matter of fact, he liked the experience so much he went and made a movie with Divine afterwards, called “Lust in the Dust.”

BLADE: Andy Warhol?

WATERS: I remember him at the Baltimore Museum of Art meeting Edith [Massey] and saying, where did you find her? And he was very supportive. He took Fellini to see “Pink Flamingos.” He put Divine on the cover of Interview. He was always supportive.

BLADE: Mink Stole. You named her?

WATERS: Her real name is Nancy Stoll. S-t-o-l-l. I knew her forever. I met her in Provincetown. She was early in my films. She was a character actress, always. She usually played Divine’s enemy. We’ve been friends forever and ever. And I think she’s a really good actor. She still works all the time.

BLADE: Any way to sum up Divine, 31 years after his death?

WATERS: He gets more and more famous as the years go by. And he’d still rather be here. He’d be pissed he’s dead. I’m still shocked he’s dead. I still am. That’s still a shock. But, it’s kind of amazing. Well, we’re all being buried in the same graveyard where he is, you know, all my friends. Obviously, he is still with us.

BLADE: You’ve been good to the guys who commissioned the Divine mural in Baltimore, Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams.

WATERS: They were lovely. Why wouldn’t I be?

BLADE: Your book has only one chapter that’s named after a female.

WATERS: Betsy.

BLADE: The finger-painting chimp from the Baltimore zoo. You reveal this life-long love affair that you’ve kept secret until now.

WATERS: Well, I didn’t have sex with Betsy. I want to make sure that people understand that.

BLADE: You wrote a chapter about her appearances on TV and about The Golden Age of Monkey Art, which she inspired.

WATERS: I just remembered her in that dress and getting national attention and being all over the country. She was on Garry Moore, who was from Baltimore, too.

BLADE: In the last chapter, you write about death and dying, specifically about your death. You try to imagine what happens after you die, and you go back and visit your first apartment at 315 E. 25th Street in Baltimore. Why so morbid?

WATERS: Is it morbid? I don’t think it’s morbid. I think, who at 70-some years old doesn’t think about that?

BLADE: Why such a potential downer?

WATERS: You think it’s a downer? I don’t think it’s a downer… I think everybody at 73 [thinks about death], and I think my friends think about it more than I do. I don’t think about it that much. But you can’t help it when you go to funerals and you think, I am 73, you know, something is going to get you. So I tried to just imagine beating it, how I could be such a control freak that I would refuse to die. And I do always dream about that apartment, so it is just a fantasy of what happens after you die.

But it was to me dealing with the one subject that you’re really not supposed to joke about or kind of focus on. To think about it was sort of liberating in a way, to go through the whole thing. Except that I want to be sure that just because I write something here to be funny, it doesn’t mean that I want my heirs to follow every single thing. Like I say in there, I don’t want something funny on my tombstone. So, I don’t know. I thought it was optimistic. I beat death in it in a way, spiritually at least. That’s optimistic.

BLADE: How is your health?

WATERS: My health is fine.

BLADE: You didn’t write the book to fight death?

WATERS: Well, you write all books to fight death. I mean, I’ve never been as busy as I am. I have more projects than I’ve ever had in my entire life.

BLADE: You don’t name in the book any kind of significant other or life partner.

WATERS: And I never would. Because every person I’ve ever been involved with …doesn’t want to be public. I wouldn’t want somebody that would want to do the red carpet with me. I don’t want a groupie. I don’t want a fan. I want somebody that has their own life.

BLADE: Do you have a partner?

WATERS: Yes, I do.

BLADE: Is that in the book?

WATERS: Obliquely.

BLADE: You don’t want to say who it is?

WATERS: If you don’t keep some things private, you don’t have a personal life. It’s the same thing I say, I have some restaurant receipts that are not tax-deductible. That means I have a personal life. When I read celebrities are telling everything, I think, don’t you have any friends?

BLADE: Your book is so wide ranging it makes one wonder what you’re saving for the next one. After “Mr. Know-It-All,” what is there to write about?

WATERS: Do I have any stories left? Well, I’m writing a novel. I’m on page 64. So, yes, there’s stuff to write about.

BLADE: Is that why your next book is fiction, because you’ve exhausted the autobiography?

WATERS: I’ve written 17 movies. They‘re fiction. The first part of “Carsick” was fiction, too, except that I was in it. That makes it a lot easier. I had never written a novel, so I wanted to try it.

BLADE: Are you ever going to slow down?

WATERS: I hope not. I don’t need to slow down. I like what I’m doing. I don’t know. I guess when I drop dead, I’ll have to.

John Waters (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Camp classic ‘Mommie Dearest’ turns 40

Digital re-issue offers fans new insights, John Waters commentary

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Rutanya Alda, left, with Faye DunawayMara Hobel and Jeremy Scott Reinholt in ‘Mommie Dearest.’ (Photo courtesy Alda)

In a 2016 People magazine interview, Oscar-winning actress Faye Dunaway admitted to regretting her over-the-top portrayal of Joan Crawford in the 1981 movie “Mommie Dearest” (Paramount), newly reissued on Blu-ray and digital as part of the Paramount Presents series. Of the movie, based on the equally OTT memoir by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, Dunaway said, “I should have known better, but sometimes you’re vulnerable and you don’t realize what you’re getting into. It’s unfortunate they felt they had to make that kind of movie. But you can’t be ashamed of the work you’ve done.”

“That kind of movie” pretty much tanked Dunaway’s career after that. However, it also titillated and delighted countless fans upon its release and in the 40 years since. A multitude of lines have become iconic in the LGBTQ vernacular and classic scenes have become sources of endless entertainment. So, how good or bad is it?

From the minute the gloved hand of actress Joan Crawford (Dunaway) turns off her alarm at 4 a.m. and saunters into the bathroom to begin her morning routine, we know we’re in for something out of the ordinary. Dressed to kill, she heads to the studio, reading scripts and autographing photos in the back of a limo, Crawford was nothing if not devoted to her craft and fans.

She was also devoted to cleanliness, an obsession that would become one of the contributing factors in her descent. In one iconic scene, she berates a housekeeper, “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”

A first-rate performer in all aspects, Crawford’s annual Christmas gift-giving extravaganza at an orphanage stirs up her desire for motherhood. Unable to conceive, the twice-divorced actress discovers she is not a candidate for adoption, despite believing she can be a mother and a father, providing both a “wonderful and advantaged life.” Her lawyer boyfriend Greg (Steve Forrest) pulls some strings and Crawford becomes mother to baby Christina.

It doesn’t take long (OK, a few years) before the cracks start to show, beginning with a birthday party for Christina (Mara Hobel, in a thankless role), complete with a carousel, an organ grinder and monkey, and a new baby brother named Christopher. Signs of tension are present in Joan’s interactions with Christina, including her bristling at her daughter’s tone of voice. When Joan catches Christina mimicking her while seated at her mother’s vanity, she flips out, butchering her hair.

Christina isn’t the only object of Joan’s aggression. Greg walks out on Joan after a disagreement, and she deals with it by cutting him out of every photo they took together. Studio head Mayer (Howard Da Silva) sends her packing, utilizing the creative differences excuse. This leads to the famous rose garden freak out (of “Tina, bring me the ax” fame). Shortly after winning the Oscar for “Mildred Pierce,” Joan discovers a wire hanger in Christina’s closet leading to the notorious “No wire hangers, ever!” beating scene.

Not even teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid), away at boarding school is safe from Joan’s wrath. After Christina is caught getting intimate with a boy, Joan removes her from the school. Back at home, where a journalist is busy writing a story about Joan, Christina and her mother have a heated argument, resulting in the classic slap sequence and the delivery of the “I’m not one of your fans” lines.

Having almost killed Christina, Joan sends her off to convent school. After graduating, Christina returns home to discover that not only has her mother remarried – to soft drink king Al Steele (Harry Goz) – but she has put her home up for sale with plans to relocate to New York. Needless to say, the mother/daughter relationship never improves, which explains Christina’s barbed-wire memoir.

Perhaps Dunaway, who worked with uneven director Frank Perry (“The Swimmer,” “Diary of Mad Housewife,” and “Play It As It Lays,” and the bombs “Hello Again” and “Monsignor”) in the past, should have known better. Regardless, “Mommie Dearest” went from shocking biopic to camp classic at light speed, and for that, we are forever grateful. Plus, with Halloween just around the corner, “Mommie Dearest” is a fab reminder of what a great (and terrifying) costume Joan Crawford can be.

In a 2015 interview with the Blade, actress Rutanya Alda, who played long-suffering maid Carol Ann in the film, talked about her surprise at first seeing the film.

“When the audience laughed, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I was kind of taken aback because I knew (producer) Frank Yablans and (director) Frank Perry’s intention was to make this really serious drama and of course it turned into this kind of camp happening right from the get go,” Alda said. “Even Paramount was caught off guard and they didn’t know how to promote it because it became such an audience experience right away. … I was actually quite pleased because the audience really got into it. It was just amazing to me.”

Alda added that Dunaway should have embraced the campy results of the final film.

“The audience of ‘Mommie Dearest’ is a great audience and I think they are disappointed that Faye has never embraced the film,” Alda said. “If I were Faye Dunaway, I would have said, ‘Look, I was great in the part, I did great things. OK, maybe I had an over-the-top performance, but it worked, didn’t it?’ … She’s really deprived herself of a great audience of people who love the movie and it’s a detriment to her. Look at all the joy she missed.”

Blu-ray special features include commentary by drag legend Hedda Lettuce and filmmaker John Waters, “Filmmaker Focus” with Frank Perry biographer Justin Bozung, short features including “The Revival of Joan,” “Life With Joan,” and “Joan Lives On,” as well as a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer. Rating: B-

Faye Dunaway, left, as Joan Crawford, and Rutanya Alda as Carol Ann on the set of ‘Mommie Dearest.’ (Photo courtesy Alda)
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Stupid things not to do when you get old

Steven Petrow’s new book on aging is funny yet poignant

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Author Steven Petrow’s new book addresses aging issues. (Photo by Bethany Cubino)

Diane Sawyer, the former ABC News anchor, gave award-winning journalist Steven Petrow some advice on what he could do to look younger. “Anchors don’t get older, they just get blonder,” she told him.

For many years, Petrow, who is gay, took Sawyer’s wisdom to heart. He had his salt and pepper hair colored. This went well, until a new colorist offered to use a new “natural” coloring process that would remove a third of his gray hair. Petrow came away “a honey brash blonde” whose hair “screamed dye job.”

This is one of the many funny, yet poignant, stories that Petrow with Roseann Foley Henry tells in “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong.”

Written by Petrow with Henry, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old” is part memoir and part manifesto.

Few things are more fraught with fear, anxiety and ageism than knowing that, if we live long enough, we’ll get old. Whether hetero or LGBTQ, no matter how much we love our parents, we don’t want to become like our folks when we’re elders.

Shortly after he turned 50, Petrow, who writes about aging, health, manners and civility, began to confront his ageist beliefs and vowed not to let aging limit or diminish his life.

As he reached the half-century mark and his parents “entered their sunset years,” Petrow began to make a list of what he called “the stupid things I won’t do when I get old.”

The list, which kept growing longer and longer, “proved to be a highly judgmental, not-quite-mean-spirited-but-close accounting of everything I thought my parents were doing wrong,” Petrow, now 64, writes in the book’s introduction.

Petrow first wrote about his list in a popular New York Times essay “Things I’ll Do Differently When I Get Old.” “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old” grew out of the essay.

Petrow’s list is, by turns, laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly moving.

He vows not to, as his Mom did, “forgo a walker because it wrecked my outfit.”

In one chapter, he promises that, “I Won’t Become a Miserable Malcontent, a Cranky Curmudgeon, or a Surly Sourpuss.”

Yet, in other more serious chapters, Petrow says that “I Won’t Lie to My Doctor Anymore (Because These Lies Can Kill),” “I Won’t Burden My Family with Taking Care of Me” and “I Won’t Forget to Plan My Own Funeral.”

Petrow, a columnist for the Washington Post and USA Today as well as a regular New York Times contributor, talked with the Blade by phone and email.

Petrow, whose previous books include “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” “The Lost Hamptons” and “When Someone You Know has AIDS” (3rd edition), grew up in New York City.

In 1978, Petrow graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in history. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s in history in 1982.

A former president of NLGJA (the Association of LGBTQ Journalists), Petrow lives in Hillsborough, N.C. His 2019 Ted Talk, “3 Ways to Practice Civility” has been viewed nearly two million times.

Petrow was born with journalism in his DNA. His father, journalist Richard Petrow, taught journalism for decades at New York University.

“My Dad was a great teacher,” Petrow said, “He traveled – got to meet people. I wanted to do what he did.”

In 1984, Petrow was diagnosed with testicular cancer. This experience is one reason why Petrow became a health care journalist. “I wanted to focus on health and medicine to teach people how to negotiate the health care system,” he said.

Negative buzz about aging is everywhere in the culture from magazine ads to birthday cards. “We start to become invisible when we’re in our 50s,” Petrow said, “this may be even more true – ageism may come earlier for gay men, and separately, more true, for women.”

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Petrow added, quoting Bette Davis.

Research shows that the damage inflicted by ageism is real, Petrow said.

When we associate getting older with negative stereotypes about aging, our lives are shortened. “This ageism is as bad as smoking,” he said, “it takes seven years off our lives.”

It can be hard for people to find support and friends when they get old. But finding support is often more difficult for many in the queer community. There is more isolation among queer people as they age, Petrow said. “Many in their 60s lost their circle of friends during the height of the AIDS epidemic.”

Petrow seeks out multigenerational friendships. “I’m open to different perspectives,” he said, “I’ve learned so much from younger people.”

Petrow thinks outside the box of generational labels (boomers, millennials, etc.). He identifies as a “perennial.”

“Perennials are curious, engaged, passionate, and compassionate,” he said, “Millennials can be perennials. Boomers can be perennials. Anyone can choose to be a perennial.”

Petrow, who is often referred to as “Mr. Manners,” became interested in manners on a blind date in the 1990s. He and his date ended up as good friends. Through this connection, a book editor asked Petrow to do a book on gay manners.

“I’ve always been a bit like the weird person who’s fascinated with collecting and reading about arcane rules,” Petrow said. Wisdom can be found in etiquette books from decades ago, Petrow said. One of his favorite finds was in the first edition of a 1922 etiquette book by Emily Post. Just as we should think before we tweet, “It cautions people,” Petrow said, “not to write love letters that could end up on the front page of the newspaper.”

Generally, manners are the same for LGBTQ and hetero people. But there are some etiquette issues that apply specifically to queer people.

For example, what is the etiquette around revealing that someone you know – a family member, friend or co-worker is LGBTQ? “This is for an individual to do for themselves,” Petrow said, “not for any of us to do for another.”

Civility and manners are important to all of us in the COVID era, he reminds us.

“Throughout the pandemic I’ve been talking about, ‘we, not me,’ which is about thinking about others before self,” Petrow said, “And that’s really the only way we will get out of this.”

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Schock treatment: an interview with Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s

Drummer on her new book and upcoming Hall of Fame induction

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Gina Schock’s new book is out this month titled, ‘Made In Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s.’

Too much of the Go-Go’s is never enough. In the 40 years since the all-female punk band burst on the scene with its unforgettable debut album “Beauty and the Beat” to some of the band members’ solo careers that followed its break-up to its ongoing reunion and the eye-opening 2020 documentary about the band, we just can’t get our fill. 

But wait, there’s more! Gina Schock, the Go-Go’s legendary drummer (she’s got the beat!), has just published a sensational coffee-table book, “Made In Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s” (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2021) that features photos from Schock’s own stock, as well as her own personal recollections of her life in music. She made time for an interview before the publication of the book as well as the Go-Go’s long-awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month.

GREGG SHAPIRO/WASHINGTON BLADE: I’d like to begin by congratulating you, as well as the rest of the Go-Go’s, on your upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How do you feel about it?

GINA SCHOCK: It took so long for this to happen, and at first we were sort of like, “Hell’s bells! We don’t even care anymore.” Every year, we’d think “Maybe it’s gonna happen next year,” and it just wasn’t happening. Then it happens! We were all dumbfounded. We couldn’t really believe that we were nominated and then we got inducted! Everybody was pleasantly surprised. This is kind of great, kind of neat. I’m really happy about this now [laugh].

BLADE: At the same time, your memoir “Made in Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s,” is being released. What did the experience of writing such a book mean to you?

SCHOCK: Actually, Gregg, it’s not a memoir. Kathy (Valentine) wrote a memoir. Mine is actually a book of photography.

BLADE: Right, but you also tell your story in the book.

SCHOCK: There’s a lot of writing in it, too. But I basically put this together because I had tons and tons of photographs. I’ve been moving them all over. Putting them in the closet here, under the bed there. I was like, “I have to do something with this. All these years of taking photos of the band.” Of course, everybody in the band was like. “Gina, you really need to put a photo book together!” I finally found the right guy to do it with and he helped me get it together, organize it, and help me work on the book. I couldn’t believe that along with the list of my credits will be photographer and author. It’s kind of mind-blowing. Things that you don’t think you’re capable of, and then when you have an opportunity to do something and maybe make a difference…certainly for The Go-Go’s. This needed to be out there. This is way long overdue; a book of photos with all of us. Photos that I’ve had that people have never seen. Also, you’re getting these photos from a band member’s perspective. With writing from one of the band members about what was going on during that period of time.

BLADE: I’m sure that looking at the pictures brought back lots of memories, but were you also a journal or diary keeper?

SCHOCK: Check this out! I don’t have a journal, but since 1978, Gregg, I have been keeping daily planners every single year. I’ve written down things that were going on during that time period. Not big, long stories, but this happened today, that happened yesterday, next week we’re going to be doing this. I used that as my reference. It was invaluable in the process. I now need to make room for them in the closet. I’ve got them all in drawers in cabinets in my office. It’s like, “OK, there’s no more room here [laughs]!” They were invaluable, like I said, in putting this together. What exact date did this happen? What was going on in November of ’83? It was important to have.

BLADE: Do you see the book as an extension of Alison Ellwood’s 2020 Go-Go’s documentary?

SCHOCK: No, but I’ll tell you that 99% of the photos in Alison’s documentary are mine.

It’s not an extension of that. This book has been in the works for decades. I just needed to find the right person to help me get it together. But when Alison was interviewing, I’d show her a photo and she would say, “Gina, can we come back and get some of these photos for the documentary?” I was like, “Of course, you can!” The majority of what you saw are my photos.

BLADE: The book is full of marvelous personal history details, such as performing with the late Edith Massey, known to many from her performances in some of John Waters’ movies. What do you think Edie would think of the book?

SCHOCK: She would be, [imitating Massey] “Oh, Gina, I’m so happy about your book! Finally, it’s about time!” Bless her heart and soul. I was doing an interview yesterday and I said, “If it wasn’t for Edie, I don’t know if The Go-Go’s would exist. Certainly not in the way that they have for the last more than 40 years. Things happen in a magical way, how it all comes together. No one really knows why somebody meets someone on that particular day at that particular time, and then something comes out of that that you can’t believe. Edie gave me the opportunity to come out to LA and San Francisco and New York and actually play in clubs. We got to play at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s; what a thrill that was. Then to come to LA and do three nights of the Nuart Theater and then play The Warfield up in San Francisco. That was the first time I’d ever been on a plane! After doing that with Edie, the minute I got back to Baltimore I realized it was time to make a move. It gave me the courage to believe that I could go back to any one of these places and I’m going to do something! By the way, Edie was such a lovely person. A sweetheart.

BLADE: Another scoop for the readers that I loved was the part about the Go-Go’s performing with ska in the early 1980s, leading to the collaboration with Terry Hall on the song “Our Lips are Sealed,” which was a much bigger hit for the Go-Go’s than for Terry’s band Fun Boy Three. Do you know how he felt about that?

SCHOCK: I have no idea how he felt, but I’m sure he was happy because all Terry Hall  was hearing was “ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching [laughs].” I think Terry was quite happy about that. I would be. When Jane brought in the song, she was scared to death to play it for us because it was basically like a love letter that she readjusted a little bit lyrically and put some chords and a melody to. She played it for us, and we were like, “Jane, this song’s great!”

BLADE: We are all saddened by the recent passing of Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones. In your book, you wrote about the Go-Go’s opening for The Rolling Stones. Can you please say a few words about what Charlie meant to you as a fellow drummer?

SCHOCK: There were two drummers that were my heroes growing up. That was Charlie Watts and John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin). Those two guys are part of the reason I started and kept playing drums. To think that many years later I actually got to meet my hero and talk to him. I got to sit on his drum kit! I talked to his drum tech!

That was one of the biggest thrills of my life. Then to be able to just open for the Stones, I mean, God! Wow, what a thrill! He was, of course, a gentleman. Very quiet kind of guy; soft-spoken. A lovely guy; very personable, very sweet. I didn’t have a lot of time to talk to him, but when I did my heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe it. Meeting David Bowie was the same sort of thing. You have such adoration for these people. The impact they have on your life in many ways, not just musically.

BLADE: You put some personal thoughts and experiences in the book, including your open-heart surgery to correct an atrial septal defect, yours and the band’s encounters with drugs and recovery, the break-up of the band and issues with songwriting revenue. Was it painful or freeing to revisit these subjects?

SCHOCK: It was a little bit of both. It brought up some really heavy things that went down. But all those things have been ironed out and taken care of. Everything is good now and it has been for many years. The songwriting splits were a big part of why the band broke up. It seemed very unfair to me. I have to tell the truth [laughs]. I have to be honest with the people that I’m working with. They are my family, and nobody can hurt you worse than somebody in your family. I think I explained it all in the book the best that I can.

BLADE: Following the original break-up of the Go-Go’s, you formed the band House of Schock with Vance DeGeneres, brother of Ellen DeGeneres. What are the chances that, aside from the Smothers Brothers, two funny people would come from the same womb?

SCHOCK: Yeah, right [laughs]? It’s crazy, right? Vance was fresh out of New Orleans and I don’t know how I met him; (through) a friend of a friend or something. We hit it off right away. I don’t like to do anything by myself, Gregg. I always want a partner in crime. I like a team! That’s why I always want to be in a band. I never want to be a solo anything. I like being in a band. I like having other people to bounce ideas off of. I’m not the greatest at anything, but I’m pretty good when you put me with somebody else who’s talented as well. Vance and I worked great together. Ellen had just come to town and she was just starting out in the comedy clubs. We’d meet and have dinner. She’d ask me lots of questions about who I thought was a good agent to see. It was very sweet to watch everything happen for her. One of the funniest things, I told this to somebody the other day, I’ll never forget this. Ellen said to me, “Gina, do you think if I make a lot of money one day, would you sell me your house [laughs]?” I don’t remember what I said, but I’ll never forget her asking me that. Because Ellen could buy a city block!

BLADE: In 2018, the Go-Go’s went to Broadway with the musical Head Over Heels, featuring the band’s music. What was that experience like for you?

SCHOCK: That was another unbelievable moment being in the Go-Go’s. To think that this punk band, so many years later, has a musical on Broadway is absurd. But it happened! It’s another crazy thing that just happened! There’s a lot of work involved, don’t get me wrong, and years and years of being in this band and working our butts off to achieve the status that we have in the industry. But it was still an incredible thrill. To meet all the Broadway actors and all, my God, those people can really sing and act! I was never a big fan of Broadway, but I am now. I was knocked out! They’re so fucking talented. It’s such a thrill to watch them interpreting our songs woven into this 17th-century short story.

BLADE: Recently, Belinda’s son (James) Duke (Mason), posted a happy birthday message to you on social media in which he referred to you as his “Auntie.”

SCHOCK: Yes! I love Dukie! I watched that little boy grow up. I just adore him. I will always be in his life. He’s very precious to me.

BLADE: When Duke came out, Belinda became a very outspoken advocate for the community. Would you mind saying a few words about your connection to the LGBTQ+ community?

SCHOCK: I don’t know what my relationship really is. All I know is that I’m who I am. I’m a musician and I will fight for anything or anybody that has had a difficult time in society. Just live your life. Society creates its own do’s and don’ts and rights and wrongs for people, which is just a load of crap to me. Everyone should be allowed to be who they are, and love who they want to love, and marry who they want to marry. Love is love; it has no gender. It’s the most important thing we can give to one another. It’s what this world needs now more than ever. Never think for a second you haven’t got the right to love whomever you fall for because love is always right. It is a human right! 

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