John Waters Pays Tribute to Little Richard: ‘He Was the First Punk’
John Waters will always remember how an interview he conducted with Little Richard crashed and burned. The Polyester and Hairspray filmmaker had met the Architect of Rock & Roll — Waters’ idol to the point that he modeled his mustache after the singer — in a shockingly normal hotel room where he was living in 1987 for a piece that would run in Playboy. As Waters recounted in The Guardian and his book Role Models, the whole thing went south when Richard, worried about some of the more lascivious things he’d said, demanded Waters sign a document granting the singer full control of the story. If he didn’t sign it, he wanted Waters to give him the tapes. “Don’t you leave this room, or my bodyguard will be over,” Waters snarls today, imitating Richard, who was ready to sic his bodyguard on the director.
Despite the fracas, Waters continued being a fan of Little Richard’s. Although he has mixed feelings about Richard’s late-in-life homophobia, despite Richard having come out as gay, Waters says he still felt sad and shocked this morning when he heard that one of rock’s founding fathers had died. “I was hoping that Jerry Lee Lewis would not be the last man standing, and Little Richard would be, but Jerry Lee Lewis won,” Waters tells Rolling Stone at the start of an interview, which, incidentally does not end with Waters wanting approval of the final article.
“He was the first punk,” Waters marvels. “He was the first everything.”
Why did you like Little Richard so much?
When I first heard him, screaming, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom,” he scared my grandmother. I thought, “What the hell is that?” It was a sound unlike anything I had ever heard in my life, even outside of music. So he had me from the very first moment I ever heard him. And then when I saw him, I thought, “Oh, my God.” And I still have the mustache that really was a tribute to him.
Did you tell him that when you met him?
He could see it. It was right in front of him. I remember his was thicker than mine and looked like it was put on with Magic Marker at that time, where I was more of a Maybelline pencil kind of guy. But he definitely had it still.
What are your favorite Little Richard records?
Definitely “The Girl Can’t Help It.” “Lucille,” was, I think my favorite. But they’re all great. I even have his later records. My favorite one is definitely “The Girl Can’t Help It,” and I loved that movie, too. The color in that movie is perfect, Technicolor. And what he looks like playing the piano there with the pompadour and everything. So I think “The Girl Can’t Help It” would be my number one favorite of his.
What stood out to you about his live performances?
When he came out, I was 12. My parents were certainly not taking me to see Little Richard. I saw him in concert films and on TV, but I never saw [him live]. I’m sorry I didn’t. Especially in the beginning. Imagine what they were like. They must have been so great.
What stands out to you now about meeting him?
Maybe you should never meet your idols. When he said he had a bodyguard that even I could have beaten up, I thought, “Well, I’m leaving with this tape.” The other ludicrous thing is, I was interviewing him for Playboy. He knew that. What did he think I was going to talk about? I wasn’t from Jet, even though I had a subscription to Jet to the final copy. He was worried about his Jet readers always, because they were religious. So he was just torn. I think the thing that shocked me the most is he just lived in this normal hotel room in this hotel.
Was it, like, a Holiday Inn?
No, but it was just a normal hotel. It wasn’t fancy. It was just a single room. It wasn’t a big suite or anything. I thought, “Really, this is where he actually lived?” But it was great to meet him. I mean, there was drama with it that I didn’t expect, so from a journalistic viewpoint to do an interview and then have him try to seize the tape at the end was exciting, I guess. It made for a good story.
The tale lives up to his legend.
Yeah. Did he have a sense of humor about himself? Kind of. But you couldn’t quite tell, because he would start saying things like, “I am the most beautiful. I am the king,” all that kind of stuff. It’s like [Flamboyant 1940s and Fifties wrestler] Gorgeous George. A lot of boxers and wrestlers do that. Trump does that [laughs]. But that was like stuff he said on stage. Maybe he got confused, as many of us do, about whether you’re on the stage or in real life.
Was there any advice or philosophical things that have stood out?
No, not really. But what stood out is I still thought he was an amazing character. Look at the first album and you see that picture of him on the cover. And then there’s “The Girl Can’t Help It,” which is not his greatest hit or anything, but to me when Jayne Mansfield is walking down the street and he’s singing that … I used it in Pink Flamingos when Divine is walking down the street. Divine was my Jayne Mansfield, and I wore his mustache, so to me, he was always a great figure of rebellion and sexual confusion.
When he was the biggest singer in the country and his songs were huge hits, people didn’t talk about him being gay or anything. I don’t know if he was beyond that because he was so scary. They didn’t even know what he was. He was a Martian more than being gay. It was like he was from another planet.
What did you make of his attitude about homosexuality late in life?
I’m torn, because he died completely homophobic and saying horrible things about gay people and transgender people. I would always say in my [spoken word] show that we should kidnap him and deprogram him, like what that guy Ted Patrick used to do with Moonies. Remember when parents would hire him to get their kids, and he would take you to a hotel room for a week and get you unprogrammed? That’s what he needed, really.
But then, I can never be mad at him if I hear “The Girl Can’t Help It.” It makes me so crazy. The music’s so great but I don’t know. It sucks because he was my hero, even though he didn’t even have the mustache anymore.
It seemed like he was torn.
He was always torn. He was not bisexual, he was … I don’t know. When you go from God to gay. He was bi-God-gay [laughs].
Obviously, he was struggling with that when you did the interview with him in the Eighties.
Is “struggling” the right word? Or was it more about which side had more money? Struggle? When I interviewed him it was so bizarre because his autobiography had just come out. It was ghostwritten, but still, he told all the stories. And it was great. It had so many shocking, funny stories in it. But then he denied them all. So it was confusing. It just depended which side he was on.
Why do you think he denounced gay people and trans people a few years ago?
I have no idea. I guess he flipped over to radical Christianity. He could have been a Christian and not a hate-Christian. He could have just quietly gone to church. A lot of people do, but they don’t say terrible things about gay people. Especially when you look like that [laughs]. Especially when you were Princess Lavonne in the carnival; he was a drag queen in the carnival and wrote about it in his book. And he always said he was a watcher; he just liked to watch. But he was so crazy always, so who knows. The last few years of his life? I don’t know. I certainly was never in touch with him from that day. Even when my book came out, I never saw him again.
He had come out as gay, though.
He came out. He said, “I was gay.” In his book, he said plenty. But then the next day, he would take it back when he would get hassled by the religious people. He was obviously torn about it. But I don’t think Little Richard had a sad life, though. Even if he was a homophobe. I think right up to the end if he had just won … I wish he and Jerry Lee Lewis had died the same day – not that I wish Jerry Lee Lewis dead. I’m happy he’s alive. I love Jerry Lee Lewis, too – even his country stuff. But still, it would have been great if they had died the same day. Because I think they maybe didn’t get along too well.
But I still always play Little Richard’s music. And I love his music. I was rooting for him. I wanted him to be last. All the other ones are dead: Chuck Berry, Elvis. It was down to those two. And damn.