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Arts + CultureMusic'I've always been a big fan of punk rock':...

‘I’ve always been a big fan of punk rock’: John Waters is ready for the Meltdown

Beloved 'Pope of Trash' is back to host the two-day Mosswood Meltdown mini-fest and Thee Stork Club's reopening

Emceeing annual punk fest Mosswood Meltdown (formerly Burger Boogaloo) has been a dream for legendary filmmaker John Waters.

“I’ve always been a big fan of punk rock, so it seemed like the perfect kind of marriage,” says the director.

It was also a fantasy collaboration for festival founders and East Oakland couple Marc Ribak and Amy Carver, who bonded over a shared affinity for the moviemaker’s iconic films like Multiple Maniacs (1970), Desperate Living (1977), and Hairspray (1988). But it soon turned into a reality.

The night before 2014’s Burger Boogaloo, headlined by Hall of Famer Ronnie Spector, Ribak performed his annual ritual to get his creative juices flowing before booking the following year’s lineup. He watched The Wizard of Oz (the lavish inspiration for DIY punk-rock Desperate Living, according to the promoter) on mute while playing Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album.

Later that night, he had a “really weird dream” inspired by the classic Judy Garland film where he was caught in a tornado in the middle of a Kansas cornfield filled with panicking people—until Waters arrived on a flatbed rail car to make announcements to the crowd.

Ribak pitched the idea of Waters emceeing, and the director (a fan of the early rock, garage rock revival, and punk groups that Ribak regularly books, like Iggy Pop, Devo, The Mummies, The Spits, X, Buzzcocks, and The Jesus & Mary Chain) quickly agreed. In 2015, Waters made his debut as emcee and has been part of the show ever since.

The scene in 2018. Photo by Erika Reinsel

This year’s Mosswood Meltdown (taking place on Sat/2 and Sun/3) will be headlined by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and riot group Bikini Kill and feature local notables like Shanon Shaw, Brontez Purnell, and Pansy Division.

The night before, Ribak and Carver will welcome music fans to the grand reopening of The Stork Club (renamed Thee Stork Club).

Co-owned by Ribak, Carver, Billy Agan and Matt Patane of Eli’s Mile High Club, and Tony Bedard of East Bay promotion group Talent Moat, the historic dive bar and rock venue has been rebooted with a retro-‘70s decor and an updated bar, cocktail menu, outdoor space, and sound system. What it’s kept is its Oakland predecessor’s blue-collar DIY-trash ethos. 

Waters will appear at the party alongside Shannon Shaw and DJ Chris Owen (Budget Rock).

Thee Stork Club, reopening. Photo by Grant Kerber

I spoke to the “Pope of Trash” filmmaker, who lives part-time in San Francisco, about Mosswood Meltdown, maintaining a punk-rock spirit, and whether another movie is on the horizon.

48 HILLS How did you first get involved with Mosswood Meltdown?

JOHN WATERS Well, I think my same agent that handles A John Waters Christmas got me the gig. Then when I met Marc and Amy, we really bonded and became great friends. I was at their wedding and everything, so now I’ve done it so many years in a row that it feels like going home to an insane high school reunion. 

48 HILLS What are you like as an emcee?

JOHN WATERS Well, hopefully, I’m satirizing the punk world and at the same time embracing it. Just like every other thing I do, I make fun of everything I love. The punk rockers are the perfect audience because they’re angry and have a good sense of humor about themselves and they love each other. So that’s my kind of game.

48 HILLS What do you think about this year’s lineup including Bikini Kill and Kim Gordon?

JOHN WATERS They’re great. But we also have Shannon every year, a great figurehead for the Oakland scene, and Seth from Hunx and His Punx is an old friend of mine. I remember Pansy Division, but I haven’t seen them in years. So it’s exciting every year. I’ve met The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Damned. I knew Iggy Pop because he was in my movie, Cry-Baby. So it’s just my kind of world and my kind of people.

48 HILLS Are you excited about Thee Stork Club’s opening party?

JOHN WATERS I’m just excited to go to a good party, and what a perfect time to open it right then–the night before Mosswood. It is going to be the crème de la crème of Bay Area punk society.

48 HILLS In other news, you just released Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance: A Novel.

JOHN WATERS Yes. It’s only been out a month, and I’ve been touring all over the world with it. So it’s been going great. It is very much a punk book. Certainly, you could say punk rockers would like Marsha Sprinkle and the crowd that she hangs with.

48 HILLS What was it like writing your first novel?

JOHN WATERS Even though all the movies are fiction in a way, I’ve thought of them as stories. But this is my first novel, the first one where you really write every character’s thoughts. So it was new, but it was like writing anything. You just have to go in and do it every day. There’s no shortcut to writing a movie or a book or anything. You can think it up, but then you have to keep writing draft after draft after draft, which is maybe the opposite of punk rock because a lot of the best punk rock bands were just primal. So it’s a different world, but it’s the same end result.

48 HILLS How is this novel the next step in your artistic evolution?

JOHN WATERS I tried to do something that I hadn’t done before. The same way I hitchhiked across America for a book. The same way I took LSD with Mink Stole again at 70 years old. And we just did the Calvin Klein campaign. See, it paid off. 

At the same time, I think it’s the next step in trying something I’ve never done, but it’s just as insane as Pink Flamingos. So I think I’m just like I was in the beginning, though much older now, but at the same time, having just as much fun.

Hunx in 2018. Photo by Erika Reinsel

48 HILLS You’ve done so many different things throughout your career: directing, acting, writing, photography, emceeing, and even three modeling campaigns. Is there anything you still want to try?

JOHN WATERS Well, I don’t think I’ve been a poet or a playwright—and those would be it. If I could sing, I already would have exploited that, I promise you.

48 HILLS Speaking of plays, I know you spent some time with San Francisco’s proto punk rock collective, the Cockettes, when you visited in the early ‘70s. What was it about them that impressed you?

JOHN WATERS Well, they actually believed the revolution was coming. I would see drag queens reading Lenin without irony, and it did make me laugh because we made fun of hippies. We clashed a little bit with them, but they immediately befriended Divine right in the beginning because the Cockettes always had a little punk in them, even though punk hadn’t come out yet.

48 HILLS How do you maintain a punk rock spirit in 2022—especially when we no longer see as many punks in mohawks and spiked jackets?

JOHN WATERS Mohawks are not new anymore and aren’t going to shock anybody today. Mohawk people—their mothers have them, you know. So I think that the youth, the new punks, have come up with a style that’s even crazier and scarier.

I look forward every year to coming to watch the fashions at Mosswood Meltdown because there are some great ones. There are punks that are 80 years old there and there are punks that are 10 years old. I like to see how that same spirit and politics basically boil down to fashion—and it’s everchanging.

Shannon in 2018. Photo by Erika Reinsel

48 HILLS What’s coming up next for you?

JOHN WATERS Well, some of the things I can’t talk about—and it’s always bad luck to talk about something that’s pending. Of course, Mosswood Meltdown, Camp John Waters, and the Fall 20-city Christmas tour. I’m also going to write another novel.

I already had the germ of the idea, but I never tell the germs of an idea, because then it’s like abortion. Even though I’m for abortion, I’m not for abortion of ideas in books.

And maybe I’m going to make another movie, so I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my whole life.

48 HILLS Your first movie since 2004’s A Dirty Shame is very exciting news.

JOHN WATERS Well, we’ll say it’s not news yet. It’s not news. It’s closet news. That’s a maybe.

Thee Stork Club Grand Re-Opening Party Fri/1, 9 pm, Thee Stork Club, Oakland. $18. Tickets and more info here.

Mosswood Meltdown Sat/2-Sun/3, 12 pm, Mosswood Park, Oakland. $21–$249. Tickets and more info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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