Open Waters. Author: JAMES JOYCE. 17th March 2001. Newcastle Herald
'It's only an autograph. But sometimes you wish they'd just be content with the music, you know? That's all we want to give them. That's all we can give them. But sometimes they don't want to stop there. They want more. It's crazy. I mean, I've only got the same number of pairs of underpants as anybody else.'
- Fame according to John Lennon, as expressed by John Waters in Looking Through A Glass Onion
John Waters reckons we should not expect to read the headline 'JOHN WATERS: MY PRIVATE HEARTACHE' any time soon.
'We all have our ups and downs in life and I don't want to display my wounds to people,' the actor says. 'I don't think people want to see them either. I've had a marriage that's finished and I've started up with somebody new. I exist as a person outside of the work I do. I don't mind people seeing a bit of that. That's fine. I just probably won't ever go with any grand expose.'
Waters was speaking on the telephone earlier this month from his new home in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt. The revival of his John Lennon show, Looking Through A Glass Onion, had just opened at the Theatre Royal. (It comes to Newcastle in May.)
And he had just appeared on Australian television's most-watched celebrity segment, as 'star gardener' on Burke's Backyard.
'You know you're it when you get an audience with Don Burke,' Waters laughs.
As well as giving viewers the chance to have a stickybeak around Waters' house and 'potential garden', Burke introduced them to the actor's new love, Zoe Burton. Waters, now 52, and actress wife Sally Conabere split last year after more than 20 years of marriage. It was the second marriage break-up for Waters, who divorced the mother of his two children, actress Jennie Cullen, in 1977. 'It's been quite a change-over time for me the last couple of years,' the former Play School pin-up says.
The Mosman house he and Conabere shared for a decade sold late last year and, as Burke's Backyard viewers saw, he's still unpacking at the new place he shares with Burton.
Allowing TV cameras into your home for 10 minutes may not compare to posing nude on an album cover, as his stage alter-ego once did. But it's as revealing as the usually reserved Waters is ever likely to be. 'I haven't had TV cameras in my house very often,' he says. 'In fact, hardly ever. 'So, I put up certain barriers. We talked about the garden briefly because that's what the show's based on and then we talked about my career and the show I'm doing. Zoe was there and I didn't want to go skulking around hiding anything so she said hello. Other than that, we didn't go any deeper into John Waters because there's hardly any need and it's enough of a concession I think. I have a line that I draw.'
Of course, after three decades in Australian showbusiness firmament, the dreamboat paddlesteamer captain of All The Rivers Run knows how to play the fame game. 'I'm obviously publicising my show, so that plays a part in my decision to accept the invitation to appear on Burke's Backyard, which has huge ratings,' he says. 'I also feel that I owe it to people to explain some things - if it makes them happier, if it makes them more interested in seeing my work. 'A little bit of what makes me tick is OK. But not the full-on "My private agony". You won't see a headline like that. You won't see "My private heartbreak".'
Being trapped in the fishbowl of fame is a key theme in Looking Through A Glass Onion, Waters' passionate 'evocation' of John Lennon. 'Anybody who achieves Lennon's degree of fame would find it very hard to cope with and most seem to,' he explains.
'Fame in Australia is one thing. I experienced a certain amount of being recognised et cetera but nothing remotely on the scale of what happened to him at his height.'
But Waters can identify with performing artists who put themselves on show for public consumption. 'There's a certain amount of yourself that you have to give over,' he says. 'I mean, a lot of the times you think "Well, the public doesn't own me, they only own the work that I do because that's what I do for them and that's how I make my living and the private me is not their concern".
'But there's always that little blurred boundary. People are always going to want to know a little bit. You can be really, really exclusive and not reveal anything of yourself. You can be like Bob Dylan. Or you can be like Lennon. Lennon almost couldn't help himself when revealing himself. To the point that it's really metaphoric that he posed nude for an album cover with Yoko. He must have been a journalist's dream because when they interviewed him he volunteered stuff about himself - deeply personal stuff.'
The way Lennon 'injected himself personally' into public life in his later years had probably contributed to his death, Waters says.
'A lunatic out there had decided in his own warped mind that John Lennon was not the person he used to be; that he'd changed too much; that he'd deserted causes; that he wasn't making music anymore; and that he deserved to be shot. 'That's just the mind of a lunatic. But you do lay yourself open if you hang yourself out to dry in front of the public as much as Lennon did.'
'Someone once said that rock'n'roll is all about sex and automobiles. You know, teenage hedonism. And it is. But I knew there was also more you could do. I had to branch out. I had to start experimenting. But in the end I found out I wasn't doing it to impress any so-called intellectuals. I was doin' it for me.'
- Glass Onion
If John Waters could have his life over, he would not be an actor. He'd be a rock star. 'It could have gone that way,' he admits.
'I think I've been lucky to have had a foot in both camps. And now it's come to a stage where music is my main thing. And I like being just a guy out the front of a band. I've done the mini-series. I've done the feature films. I can always revisit those things if people want me to. I'd be more than happy. But, if it's up to me to plan what I do, I'd always have music involved. It's my first and enduring love.'
Waters first faced the music on stage in the 1960s, playing bass guitar in a teenage rock band called The Riots in south-west London, where he grew up. 'The others were all older than me but one of the guys in the band went to the same school as I did and he said, "There's this kid a couple of years below me and he plays and sings really well and I think we should have him".
'So, I was making music at the same time as I was listening to every new release by all my '60s era rhythm and blues heroes, bands like The Animals and Manfred Mann.'
The music seed was sewn early in childhood. 'There was always a piano in our house,' Waters recalls of life in suburban Teddington. My brother played the piano. And my older sister. Both my parents sang a lot at home. Being a Scottish family on my father's side they had a lot of ceilidhs, a Celtic kind of party. Everybody at the party - the friends, neighbours, family - gets up and
does a little thing, whether it's reciting a poem or singing a song or playing an instrument. It was a traditional thing with my dad. So, I had that performance vibe around me at home. And the guitar was the instrument of my heroes, the guys in Elvis Presley's band. I started playing when I was about 10 or so.'
Where did the rock music of his adolescence fit into the family's musical sensibility? 'Well, it didn't,' he laughs. 'Actually, my dad was pretty broadminded musically. He loved black American gospel but that was as close as he came to liking rock'n'roll and rhythm and blues."
By the time he turned 19, he was ready for the ultimate solo act. With a duffel bag in one hand and his guitar in another, Waters came to Australia - one of the thousands of British expatriates who became known as Ten Pound Poms. 'Ten pounds for 10,000 miles seemed like a pretty good deal,' he recalls with a laugh. 'And I was barracking for Australia in the cricket long before I emigrated.'
Within 12 months of arriving in Australia - and after a brief stint as a jackaroo in outback Queensland - Waters had won a role in Harry M. Miller's 1969 production of the stage musical Hair.
In 1972 he recorded the first of 104 episodes of venerable pre-school show Play School.
Two years later, he landed the swashbuckling lead role in the hit ABC costume drama, Rush. Playing gun-slinging goldfields lawman Sergeant McKellar established Waters' credentials as a brooding leading man. 'Here I come on horseback, galloping flat-chat and shooting at baddies,' Waters laughs. 'What more fun could you have?'
The series also left him ideally placed to take advantage of Australia's movie boom in the '70s and love affair with TV mini-series in the '80s. 'Rush was the highest-rating drama the ABC ever had and it probably still was until SeaChange came along,' he says.
'Being an ABC drama I wouldn't have suddenly been known by everybody if it hadn't been such a high-rating success!'
He also harbours fond memories of romancing Sigrid Thornton, as Murray River steamboat captain Brenton Edwards in All The Rivers Run, the chocolate-box blockbuster TV romance of 1983. 'I was very lucky to be involved in all those full-on commercial TV mini-series,' he says. 'Great fun to do. I look back on those experiences with a great deal of fondness.'
But his time on Play School remains the touchstone for most people who recognise him in the street.
'I've been through quite a few different chapters of being a performer but Play School seems to dominate a lot of people's interest because every child watches it and they repeated it again and again,' he says. 'It was one of the better things that I ever did. And very therapeutic TV it was too. It still is. It's very nice when a beautiful woman in her 20s says, "I used to watch you in Play School". It's not every old dude like me who gets adoring looks from young girls.'
Waters doesn't necessarily miss being on TV. 'If I were to discover a TV series that was as beautifully written and beautifully done as SeaChange then it would be something that would attract me,' he says. 'But I'd rather do another job than do something crappy on TV just for the sake of it. I've been true to my word on that.'
Which brings him to a topic of deep personal concern: the ABC. 'TV is the one thing that binds us all together,' he says.
'It's enormously powerful. We should be involved in keeping its standards up. That's why I'm greatly distressed by government undermining of the ABC. We've got good commercial television stations here. But we need an independent broadcaster. I don't know why they don't fund the ABC the way they do the BBC, with licence fees. That would ensure news was presented as it is, not filtered through the tastes of Kerry Packer or Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Stokes.'
Waters has spent the best part of the past 10 years putting words in the mouth of the late John Lennon. He calls Looking Through A Glass Onion his 'baby'. He's brought the show, which distills the essence of Lennon in seamless songs and monologues, to Newcastle twice before - in 1994 and again in 1996, when he directed Jeremy Stanford in the lead role.
The new 'refined' Glass Onion, complete with strings section, opens at the Civic Theatre on May 17.
'I'm reclaiming it really,' Waters says. 'Having invented it and devised it from the floor up I really feel like, hey, this is my boat and I'm going to skipper it again.' He acknowledges it is no coincidence he has revived the show so soon after December's 20th anniversary of Lennon's murder and as the Beatles enjoy phenomenal chart success with the greatest hits album, One.
'You want to catch the public interest when it's at its peak,' he says.
Why have the Beatles enjoyed such longevity? 'I haven't got an easier explanation for that than the next person,' he says.
'But, for what it's worth, I think the Beatles, as a band, are simply a unique mixture. It's the sweet and sour flavours of (Paul) McCartney and Lennon. For me, it's the total ends of the spectrum of McCartney and Lennon that made the Beatles reach everyone. Whereas Lennon, on his own, post-Beatles, is not for everybody. Well, maybe his Double Fantasy album.'
Glass Onion, co-written with Stewart D'Arietta, began as a five-week pub show in Sydney and ended up with a three-month run in London's West End. There, it lost a reported $200,000 after British critics apparently objected to an 'Australian' playing Liverpool's favourite son.
The story goes that when Waters returned to Sydney and discovered the oath of allegiance to the Queen had been removed from the naturalisation ceremony, he immediately took out Australian citizenship.
'I was shy of going back to it (Glass Onion),' he says. 'It was a case of saying "That was then, now I will move on". But I'm back into the excitement of doing it again now, so I'm glad I changed my mind.'
He obviously finds it more rewarding than last year's all-star revival of The Sound of Music. Waters played Captain Von Trapp opposite Lisa McCune's singing nun but pulled out only days before the opening night of the touring show's Brisbane season.
'I enjoy my attempts to be versatile,' he says. 'I always try to swim in a different pond every now and then. I'd done the classic Broadway-style musicals before. I've done Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. It's another world. And I think it's one I'm fairly comfortable with. 'But I was only contracted for a year and I'd done the Sydney and Melbourne seasons. Two years is just too much doing the one thing like that. Touring forever in a Broadway-style musical becomes stultifying.'
Not so Glass Onion, even when you've been channelling a dead Beatle, complete with scouse accent, for almost a decade.
'I want to use music that really moves me and use what I've learned about being an actor and somehow make a blend of the two,' Waters says. '[Glass Onion] brings together all the different elements of my performing life so far.'
Man of many parts
STAGE: Hair (Claude), Godspell, My Fair Lady (Professor Henry Higgins), A Little Night Music, Looking Through A Glass Onion, Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert (Pilate), Reunion, An Ideal Husband, Cafe Brel, The Sound of Music (Captain Von Trapp)
FILM: The Getting of Wisdom, Summerfield, Attack Force Z, Breaker Morant, Boulevarde of Broken Dreams (1988 AFI Award for Best Actor), Heaven Tonight (with Guy Pearce), The Real Macaw (with Jason Robards), The Sugar Factory.
TELEVISION: Boney, Homicide, Matlock, Division 4, The Box, The Sullivans, Good Guys Bad Guys (guest star), Rush (lead role), Passion Flower (telemovie with Barbara Hershey), Which Way Home (telemovie with Cybil Shepherd), All The Rivers Run, Alice to Nowhere, Nancy Wake, All the Rivers Run II (mini-series), Singapore Sling (four telemovies).