A good friend just randomly sent me this 1996 interview with John Waters and artist Mike Kelley (R.I.P.). It is HILARIOUS! If only my daily conversations were this interesting!
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JOHN WATERS So happy Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Don't you think Catholics always feel a little dirty?
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, I think they do. It's bred into them.
JOHN WATERS Exactly. And I think sex will always be a little better because it is dirty. You can never really escape that, no matter how healthy you get.
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, it's true. It charges everything.
JOHN WATERS So actually I am perversely glad that I was raised Catholic even though I think it screwed me up.
MIKE KELLEY Oh yeah, definitely. That's for sure.
JOHN WATERS Now, have you ever heard of this compulsive disease called pica which makes you want to eat dirt? I've been obsessed with it for a long time.
MIKE KELLEY I've heard about people having the compulsion to eat things like metal.
JOHN WATERS The dirt thing seems to exist mostly in the South and among poor people.
MIKE KELLEY Oh, yeah. I heard about this—that they like to eat that red clay.
JOHN WATERS Exactly. I never knew anyone that did it, did you?
MIKE KELLEY Well, when I was a kid, near me there was an area where I think there were a lot of southern blacks. I used to see people chewing this red clay. I don't know where they got it. I always thought it was sort of like chewing gum.
JOHN WATERS Almost like chewing your cud. I think it is probably bad for you eventually. I have this article from FDA Consumer magazine which says that in some cities, when the clay isn't available, the craving is often transferred to laundry starch.
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, my mom worked at a liquor store that also sold laundry detergent and had a little deli cabinet. People used to buy the laundry starch in these little packets, like baggies, and chew it.
JOHN WATERS I'm going to try it. Maybe it's the drug of the future. Except it says here that the starch interferes with your iron absorption and adds 1,600 calories every time you eat it.
MIKE KELLEY Damn.
JOHN WATERS Maybe it's a form of bulimic behavior to eat starch. The article goes on to say that among adult males with pica, "the bizarre forms . . .and the substances consumed are limited only by the imagination." Now tell me, if you had to eat one of the following, would you prefer: "toilet-bowl fresheners, mothballs, charcoal, inner tubes, cigarette butts, tomato seeds, refrigerator frost, hair, match heads, toilet paper, or ashes"? Did you ever eat any of that as a child?
MIKE KELLEY No.
JOHN WATERS Me neither. I used to eat string from towels.
MIKE KELLEY I liked to chew on the collars of my shirts. I'd chew the ends into these wads. I'd sit in class and nervously do that. Or I'd chew on the end of my tie.
JOHN WATERS I bet those shirts had laundry starch. But you didn't chew on your own hair?
MIKE KELLEY No.
JOHN WATERS Apparently a lot of kids get addicted to chewing on their own hair. This is a major problem. Children develop these large hair balls called trichobezoars. They have to be surgically removed from their stomachs.
MIKE KELLEY It's better to eat it than to put it in other places. I knew a guy who worked in an emergency room, and he was always getting guys who put things up their urethras. They would come in with something stuck up there. I remember two cases he described. One had used a coat hanger with beads on it, and he couldn't get it out. The other guy would feed an earthworm up his dick, and it would crawl up into his bladder. So he would always come in with these bladder infections.
JOHN WATERS I bet he was Catholic. Did you ever go to the Hellfire Club in New York City?
MIKE KELLEY No.
JOHN WATERS It was a straight and gay S&M place—before AIDS. AIDS ruined everything. But I saw a guy in there once who obviously had a sexual attraction to dirt. He had on the filthiest pair of underpants and was lying on the ground, jerking off and licking the floor. But, I mean, for four hours. People just stepped over him and walked around him. I thought, "Thank God, I don't have that deviation. Life's hard enough."
MIKE KELLEY That does sound like an embarrassing condition.
JOHN WATERS I guess Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons has the same problem in a way.
MIKE KELLEY Oh yeah, I never thought of that. Luckily they never show him with his pants off.
JOHN WATERS I know. But maybe Charles Schulz has pica.
MIKE KELLEY One of the reasons Andre Breton threw Salvador Dali out of the Surrealist group was because of that painting, The Great Masturbator. It's got a guy with shitty underpants on. That was so offensive to Breton.
JOHN WATERS Seems like a lot of things were offensive to him. Did you read that one book, Investigating Sex, where all the Surrealists discuss sex? It sounds like my parents sitting around talking.
MIKE KELLEY I know, it's incredible how prudish…
JOHN WATERS If there were a contest between L.A., New York, and Baltimore to see which was the dirtiest city, which one do you think would win? I don't mean dirty as in trash on the streets. When I say dirty, I guess I mean it favorably in some ways. It is interesting to me at least.
MIKE KELLEY Do you mean like funky?
JOHN WATERS Well, I never use that word. I hate it when people say my films are funky. It is about the only adjective that gets on my nerves. But I know both L.A. and Baltimore have bars that are dirty, that are great. They are without irony. I don't think there is one in Manhattan. I think if you move to Manhattan you give up the right to real dirt because you're going for trendy dirt. You go to dirty L.A. bars, don't you, sometimes?
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, I used to, but I hate hipster bars. In my old neighborhood near Santa Monica and Western, there used to be a lot of drunks' bars. But that was before the rise of gangs and all that.
JOHN WATERS So they were still safe to go to.
MIKE KELLEY It was just old drunks. They weren't filled with able-bodied men, you know; there wasn't a lot of street action in front of them or anything. I used to like to sit in those places and have drinks.
JOHN WATERS I still like to go exploring in Baltimore, in places that are not hip bars at all, places that are totally like biker bars or mutant bars, really. We have a bar in Baltimore that's really great and dirty called the Atlantis. It has gay strippers—I mean, male strippers, they aren't necessarily gay. Women go too. It's right next to a penitentiary. So, in the beginning, it used to be the first place you could get a job when you got out of jail. You had nude burglars—it was kind of funny. What is so creepy in there is that you can never sit at the bar, because if you tip them, they "teabag" you. If they're dancing above you, they hit your forehead with their balls.I love that term "teabagging." I'd never heard it until I was there. that's the kind of dirty bar that makes me laugh.
MIKE KELLEY There used to be a bar in L.A. near Melrose that I think was a transvestite pick-up place for ex-cons. It was kind of multicultural. ... If I was really drunk I'd stick my head in there.
JOHN WATERS I think that dirt is basically very anti-American. I have a friend whose mother cut down a tree in her yard. She said, "Why did you do that, Mom?" and her mother said, "Trees are dirty." And they are; they drop things.
The other thing I've noticed recently: when I'm driving to New York on the New Jersey Turnpike and I go to the men's room, I see all these normal men who presumably took a shower when they got up. They run in and take a piss and then stand there and wash their hands for twenty minutes with all this soap—like they just performed open-heart surgery. I've never understood that. I always think, how filthy did their penises get between the time they got in the car and got out here?
Do you wash your hair every day?
MIKE KELLEY No. I came from the kind of family where you are supposed to change your clothes every day, whether they are dirty or not. The whole thing about becoming a hippie was to revel in being dirty.
JOHN WATERS Hippie, grunge—it all means not taking baths and wearing dirty clothes. It's always gotten on parents' nerves. Do you clean your own house?
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, I do. I don't have a maid.
JOHN WATERS I always had one. Even when I was a yippie and had no money, I would pay a friend to do it, because I was just so bad at it.
MIKE KELLEY I'm too cheap. I was a custodian for a public-school system. My dad was in charge of maintenance there.
JOHN WATERS So dirt was a big thing in your family?
MIKE KELLEY Most of those professions were dirty. The guy who lived in back of my parents' house was a truck mechanic, and he was always covered with grease.
JOHN WATERS But your father's job was anti-dirt, almost like Joan Crawford: "It's not you I hate, it's the dirt."
MIKE KELLEY He was there to prevent decay, and was also in charge of the crews to clean up vandalism and so on.
JOHN WATERS Now, dirty language seems to be a really big thing in all of our lives. We've lived through when you couldn't even say "fuck" in the movies or anything. And now, pretty soon you'll be able to say it on national television—as soon as they put those V-chips in. Do you have any favorite dirty words?
MIKE KELLEY Hmmm ... I don't know, there are some that are funny, like "felch."
JOHN WATERS That's the one exactly. I think if our readers don't know the meaning, we shouldn't tell them.
MIKE KELLEY No, it would be too crass.
JOHN WATERS Don't you think the dirtiest word of all in the art world, worse than felching, worse than snowballing, worse than any of them, is "decorative"?
MIKE KELLEY Not anymore. That's coming back.
JOHN WATERS I don't know. I've heard people spit out that word with more contempt than racist epithets. It always makes me laugh when someone says it, because it is the ultimate put-down.
MIKE KELLEY It used to be, but now everyone is changing their tune. People are Jumping on the "pretty" bandwagon. I think "conceptual" is the new dirty word. It's like yuck.
JOHN WATERS Do you understand how you have computer sex? I don't.
MIKE KELLEY I know people who do that. You get into these chat groups.
JOHN WATERS So, it's like phone sex, only you type?
MIKE KELLEY You can do a lot more pretending; like you can pretend to be a kid, or be the opposite sex, and the other person doesn't know.
JOHN WATERS Phone sex I get. But how do you act butch on a computer? Do you misspell? Do you write in bad English?
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, I guess so. "My warge hands, dese hands, they weach out for youse." I don't know.
JOHN WATERS I looked dirt up in a movie book, and there are so many movies not porn, but regular movies—with the word "dirty" in the title. There's The Dirty Dozen, Dirty Girls, Dirty Dancing, Dirty Dishes, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It goes on and on.
Did dirty movies have an influence on you at all?
MIKE KELLEY Well, yeah. I've always loved horror films. They are inherently dirty, just personified dirt. The monster is always an unparticularized wad of goo that's made into a living thing. It's like literalizing our fear of dirt and making it into a monster. I've always liked that. And I've always loved film noir about dirty situations.
JOHN WATERS Were you a fan of sexploitation movies? I mean pre-porno.
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, but I never saw too many of those.
JOHN WATERS In Baltimore we sure did.
MIKE KELLEY When I was a kid, you'd have to go to special theaters. When they started making a kind of crossover, one of the first movies I saw was Phil, Ted, and Alice or whatever it was . . . they were never very erotic. There was one I saw called Three in the Attic, but it wasn't dirty, they were trying to make it cutesy-pie. I saw that with my parents, unfortunately. We went to the drive-in together, it was very embarrassing.
JOHN WATERS I guess I mean lower ones than that.
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, I saw all those biker movies.
JOHN WATERS Even lower ones than that, that were really sexploitation. The Dirty Girls, The Alley Cats—pre-porno sex movies that never really showed any penetration or anything, but some of them were kind of creative, like Fleshpot on 42nd Street. Really low ones.
MIKE KELLEY I never saw those until I was in college.
JOHN WATERS Until you saw them with irony. Why? Because they didn't have that kind of theater around where you lived?
MIKE KELLEY They wouldn't show them in a regular theater in Wayne, Michigan, so you could only see repressed versions. You could see the lowest grade-B horror film or noir film, but they wouldn't ever show sex films.
JOHN WATERS I see, but there was a sexploitation theater?
MIKE KELLEY Oh yeah, there was.
JOHN WATERS But you didn't go?
MIKE KELLEY No, I was too young.
JOHN WATERS We went. We used to take acid and see the most ridiculous bad ones.
MIKE KELLEY We used to go to the drive-in and see them there when I was a teenager. But I can't even remember the titles anymore. I just remember they were like . . .
JOHN WATERS ... so bad that people would honk their horns . . . Now, do you think that porno ruined dirty movies or helped them? Are you a porno fan at all?
MIKE KELLEY No, I've never liked porn because I can't get into it.
JOHN WATERS You're odd, because almost all men seem to like porno.
MIKE KELLEY I prefer pictorial porno.
JOHN WATERS I see, because it's a freeze-frame?
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, you can pick the part you like and you can study it. It upsets me to watch somebody else having sex; it's like I'm envious. So I don't like to see it. Once you jerk off or whatever, you don't want to watch the movie anymore. So it's better just to have a photo. If I do like porn films, it's just because the plots are so funny or ridiculous.
JOHN WATERS The titles are so funny. The rudest one of all I've heard of—Michael Musto had it in his column in the Voice—is Schindler's Fist.
MIKE KELLEY I remember the first pictorial pornography I saw. It was pre-porn industry. There were these little playing cards. Somebody's dad had them. They were all so dirty compared to later pornography. First of all, the people were middle-aged—guys with beer bellies and little dicks—and the pictures were shot in the garage or something…
JOHN WATERS Like Calvin Klein ads?
MIKE KELLEY And they were in really bad surroundings and the soles of the women’s feet were dirty. The guys had hairy backs and in between sex acts the women were doing cute things like putting a whisky bottle in their cunt or something.
JOHN WATERS Did your parents ever find them?
MIKE KELLEY No, we kept them in the clubhouse.
JOHN WATERS I want to hear about your clubhouse. I bet it was dirty in the best sense of the word.
MIKE KELLEY It was kind of a psychedelic shack. We built it in somebody’s back yard.
JOHN WATERS With no parents allowed. Did it have a sign?
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, “No squares allowed.” No, I’m kidding…We found all kinds of bottles and filled them with colored water and lined them up on shelves on the wall. It was supposed to be trippy. We also had a piss collection—a five-gallon mayonnaise jar from the local hamburger place. We’d all piss in it until it was full and then we’d dump it from the top of the garage onto the first car coming down the alley.
JOHN WATERS What’s your dirtiest memory?
MIKE KELLEY My dirtiest memory, hmmm… When we were fourteen or fifteen, we used to try to get into buildings and things. There was this little electrical shop or something with a little cement slab behind it and we thought maybe that covered the entrance to a basement and we could get in. So we pried this slab up and there was just dirt under it. My buddy walked on it, but it wasn't dirt—it was just a layer of crust—and he fell right through it into a septic tank. We were all aghast. He came writhing out of it like the creature out of the black lagoon and there was just this noise coming out of him like Bleeeegggoohhh!
JOHN WATERS Did you guys laugh or did it scare you?
MIKE KELLEY Our mouths were open and then we all started roaring. But he couldn't make a sound, except this moaning, and then we realized how horrible it was and we had to pull him out. He had to walk four or five blocks home, and it was like this brown slime monster going down the street.
JOHN WATERS Now where is he today?
MIKE KELLEY I don't know.
JOHN WATERS Do you think he has a problem from that day in the sewer?
MIKE KELLEY You never know, it wouldn't surprise me.
JOHN WATERS My dirtiest memory happened when I was about fifteen. I was going to Ocean City, which is about three hours away from Baltimore, with a bunch of kids in a convertible. I was sitting in the backseat. We were going down the highway and in front of us you could see a buzzard in the road eating road kill and we were getting closer and closer. They always fly away, and this one did too, but two seconds too late. So it hit the hood of the car, flew back, and landed in the backseat on top of us. You could see its eyes, you could feel its wings flapping with mange and dirt. It was only in the backseat for like three seconds, then it flew out the back, but that is a memory I can never ever forget. It was truly a dirty feeling you could never wash off, a hideous little experience but kind of a great one because no matter how many times I tell the story I can never describe what it felt like for those three seconds. I guess it was like a horror movie.
MIKE KELLEY Actually, I think my dirtiest memory is more like a guilt projection. 1 always used to imagine God as a film editor. He was up in heaven at a console, from which he was projecting all of your sins for a big audience of saints, and all your dead relatives were there weeping. All the good parts of your life were edited out and only the nasty dirty bits had been saved and cut together into one film that lasted forever and made all the dead people from all of time so sad that they spent the rest of eternity weeping. I really want to build that control room.
JOHN WATERS Why don't you make the movie?
MIKE KELLEY Yeah, maybe it would be better as a film.
JOHN WATERS Well, I'll certainly be first in line to see it.