How are you, Mr. Waters?
I’m well. I remember your magazine. You’re lasting much longer than a lot of magazines in America (chortles).
When you write about moustaches, hats and cravats and little else, you’ve got more chance of longevity than if you follow the latest fads.
I wish I liked hats on me, but no man wears a hat worse than I.
In the book I noticed that you wore a hat for the Comme des Garcons show.
Well I had to, they made me. But I hate hats … even a skull cap looks stupid on me. I wish I did, and you have a whole magazine to them. I remember when I was young in the fifties, the blue-collar kids’ parents would dress them as their fathers, and they’d wear little suits and little men’s hats.
So let’s talk about the book. The phrase “journalistic integrity” crops up several times. Does that mean you think of yourself as quite a serious journalist when you’re doing these assignments, as opposed to a filmmaker?
Well, I’m serious about my career, but I hope I’m not too serious. There’s a big list of source material at the back. I really wanted to make sure, especially when I’m writing about such outlandish things, that people realise that it is all true! I’m not making it up, I’m not exaggerating it for humour – these people already are already exaggerations, of something good or bad.
I went to thrift shops when I was young, like every fashionable young person does. But I can’t find anything in them any more. So now I pay too much money for clothes that others would have rejected in a thrift shop!
It’s quite amusing, the idea of having journalistic integrity when you’re interviewing a retired porn director in a house full of rats.
Being with Bobby was like being in Iraq. It took me a while to figure out that maybe his place was a squat, because I thought, how much rent could this be? There was a lot of space in there, although I didn’t go in too deep, as it got dark and it was scary. There were critters under the roof and in the kitchen…and then when he told me the rats came at night, I started talking faster.
Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons designer), gets a whole chapter in the book. I’m fascinated by your passion for her clothes. Did you come to them quite late in life?
No, I discovered them when they first opened their shop in New York, in the eighties or early nineties, when I couldn’t afford it but I knew I wanted one of those handkerchiefs with holes in them.
Have you shopped in other expensive couture shops?
Comme des Garcons isn’t the only place I buy clothes. I like all the Japanese designers, Issey Miyake, Yushi Yamamoto, but I certainly don’t think 20-year-olds should wear them. I went to thrift shops when I was young, like every fashionable young person does. But I can’t find anything in them any more. So now I pay too much money for clothes that others would have rejected in a thrift shop!
I’m reminded of the Robert Crumb look, which is very “thrift store”.
He always looks good, I’ve met him a few times. It’s always such a shock to realise that he looks exactly like he does in his comic books. That’s always disarming!
He wears hats quite well, doesn’t he?
He does, yes, he does that William Burroughs look. A kind of subversive preppy, or a scary businessman.
Didn’t Burroughs used to describe his clothes as a disguise, to hide the depraved nature of his life from the authorities?
He was also from a wealthy family who invented the adding machines, so maybe he was just dressing for his dad. My father used to hate coming round. “You bought that? They saw you coming.” Some of them I just purposely didn’t wear when I saw my parents, because I knew it was just asking for a fight.
But isn’t it our job to outrage our parents, even into old age?
No, I disagree. I think when you’re young, when you get your taste, then yes. Then later I think you reach a truce, where you know you can push each other’s buttons and you choose your words with care. There’s no need to descend into parent abuse.
There’s a little thing we referred to in our last interview with you, which was David Lochary’s character in Female Trouble, his flamboyant dress sense coupled with terrible cruelty and cutting wit. Is that something that appeals to you?
We always used to describe David Lochary as David Niven on a bad trip with criminal tendencies. When we finally won a Tony award, we all got to wear ascots [cravats]. That was something I’d worn in 7th grade and almost got beaten up for. I understand there’s always a risk, when you’re getting ready and you think, maybe I’ll wear an ascot: you’re asking for trouble.
When you say ascot, do you mean what we call a cravat, worn tucked into an open-necked shirt?
Yeah, like David Niven wore them. Only he could get away with it. And you can wear one in Gstaad if you’re really rich, if it’s your family’s money, not yours.
You mentioned in Role Models that attending the Manson murder trials almost inspired you to make Pink Flamingoes, and I wondered whether anything equally significant inspired Female Trouble?
Female Trouble was dedicated to Tex Watson (infamous Manson family member and murderer), which is something that, looking back, I might not do today, not that I wish him ill. I think the trials still had an influence on Female Trouble, because it’s about someone being brainwashed to believe that “crime is beauty”. So it was inspired by Mason and Genet together.
That’s a lovely combination, isn’t it?
Yeah, I still haven’t got the Manson case out of my system, that’s why I finally wrote about Leslie [Van Houten] in the book, even though I hadn’t for 27 years, because she didn’t want me to. Then I told her that I wasn’t going to write about the crimes so much as about her getting better, but even for her to read [the case report] was very difficult. Because it’s 40,000 words about one night, one terrible night in her life.
You seem to be fascinated by all the big American murder cases. What’s wrong with our mass murderers?
For me to answer that question the way you’re asking it would be flippant, making fun of it exactly the way I used to and don’t any more. I certainly agree that you have good true crimes books, everybody from the Krays to Killing for Company, to Myra Hindley, and Mary Bell, who is the only person in London I’d really like to meet, but can’t. Or put it this way, you have really good writers about it, and cases that are bizarre and hideous enough. But I don’t want to say that I’m for that ever happening – I’d rather none of them ever happened, but since they did, I like to read a good book about them.
And of course Jack the Ripper – surely the most famous mass murderer of them all?
Well yes, but it’s hardly original to kill prostitutes. And it shows a great hatred of women and I’m a feminist, so I don’t believe that any of those murderers can get better. The only ones that have fascinated me are the very few that show a possibility of getting better, despite doing something so terrible just once. How you deal not only with the moral dilemma but the legal dilemma and society’s dilemma.
You’re obviously fascinated by lowbrow culture and highbrow culture in equal measure. I wondered how low you would go?
I’ve gone to demolition derbys. I’ve never gone to a blow roast. I drew the line at that. Once again, I’m a feminist, and I don’t want to see bikers leading girls from table to table, giving blow jobs to men who’ve won a raffle while they’re eating oysters and sandwiches.
I must admit I had never heard of a blow roast. But you are the man we turn to for information about such things.
Well I’m glad to provide it, I know that’s my job. But I just have to know it’s out there, I don’t have to actually go.
What about the other end of the cultural spectrum. Do you go as high as Heidegger?
I think the art world is about as high culture as you can get. I’m very much against the idea of “art for the people”. I like the elitism of the art world; I want more of that, actually. But I marvel at it just because it’s an extreme. There’s nothing in my book that I’m making fun of; I really like all of it. But at the same time, I can respect things for just being extreme. As long as people really believe in something, I can respect their lunacy.
For example, Baron Corvo, who gets a mention in your last book, Crackpot.
He’s a great writer. His real name was Frederick Rolfe and he was an angry Catholic who wanted to be pope and was pissed off that he wasn’t. I love him. He was a homeless vagabond who wrote hate letters to everyone that ever wronged him in the church. He was unfortunate in that he was deeply unhappy. You can’t be an angry older man – and he was always angry. I wish he had been pope – think how horrible it would have been!
There is something in the book about ties, and about Rei Kawakubo not designing very many of them. I wondered whether, like William Burroughs, you enjoy the juxtaposition of quite a formal accessory with rather outlandish garments?
Well, the ties will be outlandish as well. It’s not as though I wear normal ties with Comme des Garcons clothes. The ties I have are usually weird ugly colours, or have purposefully something wrong. I have one that has little rips in it that Rei made.
But nothing with a soup stain on it?
No, but I want one with a soup stain, as I say in the book. I hate spilling something on ties, because they’re really hard to clean, it never really works and it costs a fortune. I think if she did one that already had soup stains, that would be great.
Role Models is published by Beautiful Books