A Divine Gift

Not sure what to get your lover for Valentine's Day? How about a date with John Waters?

Johm Waters A Date With John Waters
John Waters has your soundtrack for love.
John Waters has your soundtrack for love.
"I hope you weren't jacking off to it," says director John Waters, after I divulge how I came to watch his 1974 classic Female Trouble. A high school friend and I -- both of us straight and horny, and digging through his brother's stash of video tapes -- thought for sure it was going to be a porn flick. It wasn't. But we watched it -- bewildered but fascinated by Divine, that manatee-sized transvestite who in one freaky scene manages to rape herself, sorta. It was so bad, so trashy, so wrong . . .

"You could've jacked off to it, if you really wanted to," he replies, laughing from his office in Baltimore.

After warping generations with his trashy films, Waters is now asking us out on A Date With John Waters, a disc full of sweet-to-deranged love songs collected by America's Walt Disney of camp cinema.

Now, if you (or I) were to contemplate going on a date with the 60-year-old Waters, we'd have to note that he's charming, funny, and has a great collection of vintage 45s -- but like all collectors, he's also a bit obsessive. As he says, "Life is nothing if you're not obsessed."

Case in point: Date is the Valentine's Day follow-up to last year's A John Waters Christmas, both of which were released on New Line Records. Holidays make good excuses for these albums. In fact, he's planning a whole series: "Columbus Day, Groundhog Day, Martin Luther King Day, like every single holiday," says Waters.

Next up is probably a Mother's Day collection -- but not this year. Maybe next. Or, maybe, the logical follow-up to "Date," Waters speculates, is a "Breaking Up With . . . " collection. Or a collection of songs with false endings -- "Wouldn't that be great?" Waters ponders, losing himself in all the possibilities. (Told you he was obsessive.)

But it really just sounds like Waters is fishing for excuses to compile and release collections of obscure oldies, trashies, and campies -- although he's still making movies. His next, believe it or not, is a "children's movie," and that's just about all he's saying.

Rated G?

"No, not G. But I'll tell you one thing, it's not going to be NC-17." Waters then rants in a low-key, blasé surliness about how 2004's A Dirty Shame was rated as if it were "pornography," but it was just his tribute to the old sexploitation films of the late '60s, "which certainly weren't porn."

Indeed, it's just a type of old-fashioned naughtiness taken to extremes; that's what Waters advocates. It's like when you found Dad's special magazines -- the ones where girls spank each other. Except that, if they were films by Waters, one girl would be a transvestite, the other would be covered in raw eggs, and Little Richard would be screaming "The Girl Can't Help It." And music -- especially old R&B, lush '50s pop, trashy country, novelties, and oddities -- have always enhanced this old-fashioned naughtiness in his films.

"Music has always been important to me. Like I'm a cheerleader, basically, with these songs," he says.

Waters loves all the songs he uses, honestly and without irony. But he also enjoys taking the sweet and innocent songs your grandparents dug and dropping them into a radically different context, making them naughty and nasty: the infamous dog-poo scene in Pink Flamingos, where Patti Page croons the 1952 novelty "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window," while Divine flashes that shit-eating grin -- literally.

Waters does the same type of messin' around on Date. The CD breaks the ice with the sweet 1956 version of "Tonight You Belong to Me," performed by child singers Patience and Prudence (the single of which Waters shoplifted when he was around 10). It's a song that shyly asks to hold your hand, sounding innocent as it makes its statement of ownership. Then, on track two, Elton Motello, backed by hyper-thrusting saxophones and guitars, threatens to "penetrate you . . . make you be a girl" in "Jet Boy Jet Girl," an aggressively homoerotic Britpunk anthem from 1978. It's only the second song on the date, and already we got the proclamation, "He gives me head!" What are you getting at, Mr. Waters?

The mix continues spitting out the radical juxtapositions. The formidable lungs of Tina Turner bellow "All I Can Do Is Cry," followed by Edith Massey (the "egg lady" in Flamingos) croaking and cackling "Big Girls Don't Cry." Ray Charles' masterpiece of soul sophistication "Night Time Is the Right Time" takes it at both ends in a disturbing aural three-way between Josie Cotton's "Johnny, Are You Queer?" and Dean Martin's "Hit the Road to Dreamland." The romantic dreaminess of Earl Grant's "Imitation of Life" is threatened by Mink Stole (another great Waters actress) crooning a psychotic lounge tune called "Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun."

"I don't think that any of these are so bad they're good," explains Waters with sincere enthusiasm. "I like every one of them. I think they're kind of great songs. Even Edith singing 'Big Girls Don't Cry' -- that's her best song, not her worst."

In case you don't get the disc's theme, in the liner notes Waters salaciously writes about how each song will set the mood of his date with you -- but don't expect him to fall in love.

"It's scary," he says about love, adding that the last song on Date is exactly how he feels about it. That's "Bewildered," a slow '50s R&B stroll by Shirley and Lee. Shirley's nasally voice fascinates Waters -- the way it sounds stunned and dazed as she sings, "I never can understand how you can love me and leave me bewildered."

Later on in the liner notes -- the morning after, in fact -- Waters asks you, "Isn't hearing Shirley's nasal voice even better than love? If I hold my nose and sing to you the next time I call, will you still love me tomorrow?"

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