John Waters

John Waters, Hammersmith Apollo, London, 18-09-08

As nights out go it was hard to argue with its perfection. A lovely meal at one of the best vegetarian restaurants in London (The Gate), handily placed a moment's walk from the Hammersmith Apollo, followed by a flawless couple of hours spent in the company of John Waters. The man christened, if you'll pardon the pun, the Pope of Trash by none other than William Burroughs.

Before we, my flat mate and I, went to eat I had been sitting outside the venue reading the NME (I don't buy it usually, but Oasis were on the cover and I cracked) and, as I peered over my reading material, I surveyed the greatest collection of wonderful freaks in one place I'd seen since the Rubber Ball. This lot had it all: dykes of all shapes and sizes, tattooed burlesque chicks, Muscle Marys, effete skinny jean wearing indie kids, quiffs... the list goes on. And just when I thought I wouldn't see anything more surprising than this a fairly handsome young slim guy all in denim, looking like he'd walked out of the Suedehead video appeared in front of my eyes. Alex Kapranos, it was. I tried not to be distracted as, when we arrived at the Gate, we were seated next to what appeared to be the whole of Franz Ferdinand, no doubt they were Waters worshippers too.

Now, I must say at this point that the show was not completely new to me. A fair portion of it was taken from his recent DVD, This Filthy World. Waters tours America with this show, relating tall tales of his influences, inspirations and passions. But knowing some of the material in no way interrupted my enjoyment of the evening. We sat dead centre a few rows back surveying the simple but charming stage set: two large screens, black curtain, two gorgeous flower arrangements on pedestals and a carved wooden lectern stage centre. On he came, looking, self confessedly, like a paedophile hired by central casting. Tall and skinny, well dressed and with his trademark pencil moustache, the crowd welcomed him as a 'Filth Elder', if you will. Now in his 60s, Waters has had a new recent, and no doubt financial, lease of life with the extraordinary success of the stage play of the family film he made by mistake, Hairspray.

His delivery was flawless, smooth and well judged. There is no subject unbroached and no matter that will not be explored with an eye on the unusual and, of course, trashy. But what is purposeful trash? We know what accidental trash is - an Ed Wood film, a house furnished with bad taste by people with more money than sense, a reality TV show which trades in the humiliation of its participants. What Waters does is a world away from that. He seeks out the weird and wonderful and never once talks down to or exploits the undoubted strangeness of America and, most commonly, his hometown Baltimore, where all of his films are written, shot and set. He has love for the freaks of America, he has fascination for their lives and embraces them. Whether he's teaching in prison, done for several years in the 80s, inviting homeless crack addicts to star in his films or employing local eccentrics like Edith Massey he revels in outsider culture. He tells tall tales of his most famed performer, Divine, crawling through pig shit, wearing a gold bolero dress, in a farmer's front yard. They filmed for eight hours with no interruption: he surmises the owners were too afraid of the hippies under acid's influence to come out of their front door. Then there's Eat Your Make-Up, a tale of models kidnapped and forced to eat their make up and model themselves to death. "It's not as good as it sounds!" Its redeeming scene featured Divine dressed as Jacqueline Kennedy, recreating the assassination, covered in fake blood and wearing a designer dress, crawling backwards over the white car as they filmed outside his parents house. The neighbours were fairly offended, probably because the filming took place less than two years after it really happened.

His film life springs from his influences, the early horror directors and their gimmicks. William Castle, director of House on Haunted Hill, would put buzzers under the seats in the theatre, delivering electric shocks to the patrons at tense moments during his film. He would often arrive to his own premieres in a hearse and post an ambulance outside the cinema. On quiet nights he might put poisonous gas in the air vents so patrons would throw up and have to leave. That's where the ambulance came in. These strange but true stories are told with tremendous charm and humour. I didn't take my eyes off him all night.

Reality TV is the flipside version of all this - seeking out the strange and unusual in order to rip them to shreds. People watch the freaks on TV to feel better about themselves, to laugh at them and take advantage of their lack of intelligence and acumen. Waters joins them and takes you along with him, embracing their oddities, and you always feel like the right kind of voyeur watching these kindred spirits. He picks out, and is drawn in by, events most people would miss, like the fantastic New York Post headline last year reporting on the death of Ike Turner. He related the headline, to howls of laughter: Ike Beats Tina to Death.

Like much of the night, truth is stranger than fiction.