John Waters has hosted the Burger Boogaloo music festival in Oakland every year since 2015. ((Tiger Lily/Courtesy Burger Boogaloo))
The filmmaker and writer John Waters has since 2008 kept a home in San Francisco, but he reserves comparisons to his beloved Baltimore for the city that calls itself the town—Oakland.
Every year since 2015, Waters has hosted Burger Boogaloo, an Oakland punk and garage rock festival serving a scene that regards him, the sultan of sleaze, as a sort of patron saint. His cult filmography with “Dreamlanders” Divine, Mink Stole and Edith Massey brought the delectable camp of the Cockettes into settings and storylines worthy of the most sordid paperback pulp, modeling a style of queer provocation with abiding underground and pop culture resonance.
Waters, with his impish smile and pencil moustache, is as much a draw of the Boogaloo as this year’s headliners Jesus & Mary Chain, Scientists and the Dead Boys. Rounding out the festival, running Saturday, July 6 and Sunday, July 7 in Mosswood Park, are budget-rock legends Phantom Surfers and contemporary acts including Shannon & the Clams and Sheer Mag.
In the interview below, edited for clarity and concision, Waters discusses dropping acid as a senior citizen—an experience described in his most recent book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder—as well as his impressions of homelessness in the Bay Area and controversy surrounding cops in San Francisco Pride.
[Ed. Note: This is John Waters, y'all—you know what you're getting. Obscenity, drugs, and references to sex acts follow.]
Acid is big in Silicon Valley among the tech set. Are they doing it right?
Oh, but you're talking about pussy little microdoses. I think that’s cowardly. If you're going to trip, let's trip. I wanted a full blown trip like I remember from 50 years ago, and I got one. But I'm not telling young people what to do. I'm telling old people that had good experiences with it to do it with some old friends you did it with back then as like a sort of high school reunion.
So you're not recommending anyone dose at Burger Boogaloo?
No, I'm not telling anyone to take it at Burger Boogaloo, but God knows, I don't have to tell anybody what to do at Burger Boogaloo. I'm their host, not their moral guardian. I was a drug enthusiast, I never had a drug problem. Each person has a different experience with drugs—some people instantly become junkies. But I haven’t had a bad trip in my life!
Would you say punk or garage rock lends itself to the psychedelic experience?
Not especially. When I tripped, I listed to Dionne Warwick and the soundtrack to Born Free, and Fellini albums, so not exactly new wave.
In your previous book you hitchhiked across the country, and in this book you dropped acid. What’s next, joining a cult? Hare Krishna?
God no, I had enough experiences with a friend in a cult to make me never, ever want to join one. Hare Krishna, I did that material in Female Trouble: Divine’s daughter goes Hare Krishna, so she kills her. Are there still Hare Krishnas? I don’t see them bothering people in airports.
It’s 2019 and you're hosting a festival with the Dead Boys.
I know, it's very strange—the only Dead Boy I really knew is dead. Stiv [Bators] was a friend, and he was great in Polyester, which is being re-released again, by Criterion. I just saw the cover. I haven't seen Cheetah [Chrome] since CBGB in the '70s. I'm looking forward to it. I love meeting all of the bands. One I'm really interested in seeing is Amyl and the Sniffers.
We have Pride right now in San Francisco, and there's some controversy about whether or not cops should have floats and march in the parade. What do you think?
Yes, of course they should. First of all, I haven’t been to the gay parade in San Francisco for a while, but the one in New York feels like it’s mostly straight people. I don’t mind the cops in parades. Why wouldn’t they be? I mean, not all cops are homophobic.
I think it’s because of the legacy of cops repressing queer and transgender people.
I don’t know. I’m sure there are incidents of homophobic cops. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but I’ve also seen police guarding people fist-fucking at the Folsom Street Fair!
Speaking of controversies, last year Burger Boogaloo was criticized after Oakland cops had cleared the park of homeless people. Do you think the festival could have handled that better?
Well, I think [festival organizer] Marc [Ribak] has been very sensitive to people’s opinions. This year I know we have one stage, because we're actually sharing the park with the homeless.
You've had a place in San Francisco for years, so you've noticed the uptick in people living on the streets. What does it say about the Bay Area?
Every city now is just rich people and very poor people. There's no middle left, except Baltimore. What's different about San Francisco is it's so visible. In L.A., it's worse, but most people never see. I was shocked the first time I saw Skid Row. Here you see someone nude in the street, shooting up in the middle of the day and think, wow, it’s so liberal here. They allow that?
What do you say to people who want these folks swept up and shipped off or in jail?
Does anybody in San Francisco want to put the homeless in jail? I never heard anybody be that right-wing.
I'm thinking about the controversy around navigation centers—a lot of people don’t want the homeless shelters and services in their neighborhoods.
Well I'm not going to be a hypocrite, if they opened one next to my house, I wouldn't be happy about it either. It's becoming like Mortville. That's what I think it's going to be like at Mosswood Park this year, kind of like Mortville in my movie Desperate Living.
Burger Boogaloo takes place June 6–7, 2019, at Mosswood Park in Oakland. Details here.
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