Interview: John Waters. Marie Claire Magazine November 29, 2010, 10:55 am Anna Tsekouras
In a year which would have seen John Lennon's 70th birthday, as well as the 30th anniversary of his death, John Waters brings back his theatrical masterpiece Looking Through A Glass Onion, showcasing a mix of Lennon's introspective philosophy, humour and observations with his songs. Waters, along with musical director and co-creator, Stewart "Stewy" D'Arrietta tell Anna Tsekouras why they wouldn't necessarily meet John Lennon if they had the chance.
You first performed the show at Sydney's Tilbury Hotel in 1992. What's it like bringing the show back in a year Lennon would have turned 70?
John: It makes me feel like it's a good time for me to be doing his songs because I am still younger than he would have been. It's always quite a special time when we bring the show back, and I guess this is, well, the second time we have brought it back. This will be the third life that the show has had. We first brought it out in 1992–1994, and then we brought it back in 2001–2004 and now, so it's six years since we last did it. My life has changed a bit in the past 10 years and I feel like I will be feeling fresh with this show. I'm not entirely sure I felt that the last time we did it, but I do now.
What has helped you feel fresher this time around?
John: I think a bit of rejuvenation in my life - a change of circumstances. I have young children that have brought colour into my life and I'm looking forward to doing a show that is really personal to me. Initially Stewy and I put it together with a mixture of love and desperation back in 1991 for an opening in 1992.
What made Lennon the most interesting Beatle do you think?
John: He didn't set out to make himself be loved or liked he set out to say what he really thought. A result of that is that a lot of people really liked him for it and a lot of people really loved him for it. Other people found him rude and abrasive, but that's what he was. I think he was troubled and I think being troubled can sow some creative seeds in you, you know. There is a song we use as a theme for the show called "Isolation".
Lennon was born during the WWII to a mother was a bit of a good-time girl, and his father just joined the Merchant Navy and sailed off, so he never really knew him as a child. His mother wasn't able to bring him up, so he was raised by a rather strict aunt. So here is a little boy who hasn't had parental love, really. Today, we would say that this person needs loads and loads of therapy to get over this and that, but that was just his lot in life you know, when you think about it, it's a very severe situation to grow up in. You can sense it in his songs. He has a song called "Mother" where he just screams and cries for his mother. You know that makes him a standout performance artist to me.
Stewy: Yeah that's true that's a powerful tune that "Mother".
John: So yes, he wasn't just a peddler of sweet ditties, he wrote some beautiful tunes and some lyrical lovely tunes, but he wrote some hard-hitting, gut wrenching tunes as well.
You've faced your own personal challenges. Does going through something that is life-changing feed into your professional creativity and make you a better performer?
John: I think it does, if you can get through a tragedy in your life you can...
Stewy: It's good to be born Catholic or Jewish (laughs).
John: Give yourself some hurdles to overcome (laughs).
Stewy: It's more than that. You can get a bit fucked up and it gives you a chance to de-fuck yourself. In those days they didn’t have the ability to de-fuck themselves as well as we have today. It makes therapy not such a terrible thing if you go and see a psychologist about your woes. Which is a fabulous thing to do once a week I think.
Lennon threw his whole life on a map and put it in front of his audience. That was extraordinarily singular of an artist of that time. Everyone's singing, you know, love songs, but this guy's writing songs that are incredibly different to a normal love song in that period, and that's what sad about his life being taken from him at that age - at the ripe age of 40. He was doing some great work.
John: I particularly like his period of song writing after The Beatles split up. I mean I like the songs he wrote with The Beatles, too, but his solo albums never sold to the extent that The Beatles albums sold. They sold well, but they never had that general sort of mainstream acceptance, and I mean he was happy with that, because he never really wanted to be mainstream. As he said, it's a hard thing to balance because you love the money. Mainstream gives you lots of money and you would be lying if you said you hated the money, but then again there's something about your soul, and he stuck to what he wanted to do when The Beatles split up.
Don't they say about musicians that you don't need a huge amount of talent - you just have to have something to say. What do you think?
John: I think today's music is indicative of what you said.
Stewy: (Laughs) Yeah, you don’t need much talent!
You know he was a fashion person, too. Whatever he wore had a look about it. He was cutting edge on all fronts at all times. Like if you remember '68 - it was pretty wild stuff. He'd be wearing a white suit and really long Jesus-like hair and thongs, going out with a Japanese woman, and touring the world [with her], which everyone in the world hated because he’d left his British wife, Cynthia, behind. You know, lying in a bed in Amsterdam for three days with the press coming into your bedroom! Imagine you and your missus there in the cot, talking about world peace (laughs).
John: He said, "This was the only way we could get you to listen because you thought we were all going to have sex in front of you", but they are sitting up in bed neck to knee dressed having a cup of tea, [Lennon said], "I'm here to talk about peace, that's boring for you isn't it?" He got them in there by doing that stuff.
Stewy: She [Yoko Ono] was pretty whacky...
John: Yeah, Yoko is pretty amazing...
What's it like being part of a performance that is timeless, is that the beauty of doing this?
John: It's a gift and a pleasure to be able to do these songs because as a band you don't really put Beatles songs into your stage act. It's just something that people think, "Ooh don't go there," unless you're doing a really big re-working of a Beatles song, you just leave them alone. You leave it to The Beatles tributes bands, which will dress up in Sergeant Pepper clothes and do Beatles songs. Some of them do it quite well, but you know that's just another thing. We have the legitimacy to do these songs because we have concocted a work that requires these songs to be played and sang. So it's great to be able to do them.
When you took it to London's West End you had to deal with backlash and harsh reviews. Did those reviews shape how you will perform it this time around?
John: Not really, the truth is we got a couple of negative reviews in London, but most of our reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The only one that we got that was bad about the show was the very first one that came out in the Evening Standard.
Stewy: Remember that geezer's name? I do!
Waters: Yes I do, too!
Stewy: His name was Nick Curtis. "A bitter slice of Lennon."
John: Was that his heading? Oh yes, right...the "Anglo-Australian" - they accused me of being a deserter and moving to Australia.
Stewy: They accused you of looking like Steven Bourke!
John: The Evening Standard is the only afternoon paper in London, so it hits the stands first. And it has rather a big impact - a nasty impact in our case. The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph a lot of them had a lot of nice things to say about us, but this show has never actually responded to reviews. Overall, we know that we've got something that doesn't require too much messing with. If it ain't broke done fix it.
John, you once said that when you were in London, it would've been great if Paul McCartney had snuck in to one of your shows and had a look. Are you still hopeful of that happening?
John: I'll send him an invitation this time around. "Macca, get your ass over here!" (laughs).
The show runs according to answering unheard questions. What would be your question to John Lennon if you could have one?
John: Look if I ever met John Lennon...
Stewy: Oh I would love to go out with him for a drink...
John: Yeah, but I mean I don't drink anymore.
Stewy: Then we'd have a conversation. You know it's always terrible when you meet your hero and you feel let down. You're better not to meet them, if you've got this feeling about a guy whose got a great talent, whatever the case may be...don't meet him!
Destroys the fantasy?
John: You know the guys who you think are idiots are actually sometimes good company. But I never had a particular desire to meet him, I'd have loved to have met him, but I mean its not like, as Stewy said, it's not something you should have as an ambition - that's a thing for fans do and people who stalk people (laughs).
Stewy: Of course, that's not across the board, but you know what I mean.
Waters: Sadly, there are only two remaining members of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and I wouldn't expect them to see our show. They would think, "Oh that was interesting, but that was my life I don't want to actually go and see it." I would understand them feeling that way, I wouldn't be disappointed, I'd expect it.
John Lennon has said he didn't believe in magic, but if you had to pick one song you thought was magical, what would it be?
John: A song called "How", it's from the Imagine album. That album is remembered mainly for the song "Imagine", but it has other great songs on it too.
Stewy: But "Imagine", itself too - we hear it so many times, but it's such an extraordinary song.
John: It's amazing in its simplicity, "Imagine" has been criticised for being naïve, but Lennon knew it was naïve, its not like he didn't know. It was naïve when he wrote it. But does that make it not worth imagining and dreaming? It's always worth imaging and dreaming, if we don't pursue the ultimate in beauty and excellence then what is we here for? That's why I love that song.
The performance is entitled Looking Through A Glass Onion. Are there any parts of yourself that you had to strip back?
Stewy: That period of life in your 30s–40s is an interesting part of life. If there's nothing happening to you, then you're a sick dude. Basically I think there is a time in a man and women's life at this stage, where a transition is happening, definitely defining your values, with Lennon before this time he was in LA and California getting seriously wasted.
John: Well prior to having Sean he had this wild year he called his "lost weekend".
Stewy: They had a floor on the Dakota Building it's a massive, massive building and to have one floor!
John: It's beautifully gothic...
Stewy: Gorgeous, gorgeous.
Is there anything else that you've learnt personally about yourselves?
John: Stewy and I have learnt a lot about ourselves.
Stewy: We've been through two marriages.
John: I was looking at some press coverage a few weeks ago, I saw a nasty article about us doing the show again, saying "Waters drags out his cash cow". I would love that journalist to see how much money we lost on our first show. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems, there have been high and lows-its all a big learning experience.
Stewy: Believing in yourself stuff like that.
What's both of yours relationship like?
Stewy: We don't see each other much but when we meet its like yesterday. We have had tough times together but we have a never-give-up philosophy!
John: Stewy has been a very influential person in my life. He was a big part of bringing back the significance of music into my life at a time when I was doing a lot of movies.
Were you destined to play Lennon?
John: Yes, I used to impersonate him at school for a bit of a laugh. I suppose it was sort of pre-destined in some sort of way. As a singer I don't sound exactly like him but I have a similar rock'n'roll voice. I suppose if there is anyone ideally suited to it - it's me!
This performance gives you the opportunities to both act and sing, but what is your first love, acting or music?
John: My first love was doing the British rock scene as an adolescent. Acting came after that, I was fortunate to be in Australia during a renaissance of the film industry in the 1970s. As a performer I like everything that is work, if someone was to say they are going to take one of those things away from me, performing live is not something I want to give up - it's my life blood!
Best song my iPod:
Stewy: If you'd asked me last night it would have been "An Affair To Remember".
John: Johnny Nash. Right now I'm listening to his best of album. He's an African-American from Texas who sings reggae, my favourite song is "Birds Of A Feather". It's about friendship.
Best lesson learnt the hard way:
John: Don't let other people make decisions for you.
John: A recent review from The Canberra Times it was the most glowing review! I want it in on my tombstone! I'm not that egotistical that I've memorised it but it said things like, "You haven't lived until you've seen this performance."
Best piece of advice I've been given:
John: My English teacher said to never dismiss something I've never properly investigated. I've spent my life investigating everything I've ever done. My generation in the 1960s thought no-one over 30 was worth listening to. We found out later that we just weren't in the right generation to have a voice.
Stewy: Let go of your ego, it's good in your 20s but you have to let go of it in your 40s. That's the thing about Lennon, he was starting to let go of his.
John: I had the privilege of working with Harry Neilson, who was friends with Lennon during the "lost weekend" phase of his life. Lennon could handle drugs but not alcohol, he embarrassed himself when he drank - he was a cheap drunk! It's good to find out these things early!
Best childhood memory:
John: Living on Alderney, a rocky outcrop among the Channel Islands. I lived there with my grandparents and it was joyous. My parents separated for two years, which they hid from us, and I lived there with my brother and sister. There was a town crier who used to yell out the news. It wasn't a tourist attraction, it was genuine.
Stewy: Sitting on the lawn with my father when my mother was at church. I didn't have the closest relationship with my father, so I remember that moment strangely - even though I probably wasn't enjoying myself at the time.
Best item in my wardrobe:
Stewy: A Yamaha jacket. I've had it for 20 years.
John: These Mexican boots I’m wearing. I bought them from a Polish man in Chapel Street in Melbourne. I've always worn cowboy boots.
Looking Through A Glass Onion plays at the Sydney Opera Playhouse, from Tuesday 30 November. Visit: www.sydneyoperahouse.com.
Visit www.johnwaters.com.au for national tour dates.