For John Waters, punk never dies, especially on Halloween

Filmmaker John Waters is back in the Bay Area to celebrate all things punk and lead the annual Halloween Meltdown at Oakland’s Mosswood Park Festival this Saturday and Sunday.

“I always felt immediately at home in the punk world,” says Waters from his Baltimore home. “What always drew me to punk rock (is) I always feel safe in it. I always feel these are my people, even though I’m the oldest punk probably in the entire festival. It’s like going to some crazy occult meeting in the best kind of way. I think punk is a good cult. They hate everybody in the world but themselves.”

It’s no coincidence the artist — who has hosted the music festival since 2015 — fits in so well with punk culture.

“We were making punk movies before anybody even knew that word, including me,” argues Waters, known for films such as “Hairspray” and “Polyester.”

Waters presents bands — both local and national — including Amyl and the Sniffers, Demolition Doll Rods, Kid Congo Powers, Warm Drag, Body Double, Fake Fruit, The Bugs, Shannon & the Clams, Sheer Mag, Josie Cotton, Spoon Benders, NIIS, Whateverglades, The Ogres and The Spits and Lydia Lunch. There’s also a haunted house and a costume contest.

Waters’s advice on dressing up: “Everyone’s in a costume. There are punks in drag. Everyone’s dressed in punk. Fashion is costume. The only people that don’t participate and have no look, they’re the ones that should wear Halloween costumes.”

The festival proudly addresses Waters as the “Pope of Trash” on its posters, a nickname given to the host by William S. Burroughs. “He’s the one that called me that,” Waters gloats. “That was really wonderful. That came when he gave me a quote for the book Crackpot.”

Thanks to his films, Waters has more than earned the moniker. “I’m always making fun of the rules and the outsider world that I live in,” Waters says. “That’s funnier to me than the other rules of regular society.”

The punk scene formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a haven for various outcasts and weirdos to reject society’s rigid rules. This year, Halloween Meltdown embraces this philosophy again with bands like The Spits, who often perform in nun outfits and Ronald Reagan masks, and Lydia Lunch, who formed her own record label called Widowspeak in the ’80s and maintains an anti-commercial work ethic. One of her tracks, “Death Valley ’69,” featuring Sonic Youth was named one of “The 50 Most Evil Songs Ever” by Kerrang.

“I toured with (Lydia) back in the ‘80s,” Waters says. “She showed up in great movies. ‘Fingered’ by Richard Kern and all those kinds of movies, which I love.”

If it’s a natural transition for a punk director to ease into punk rock hosting, then musicians might have a similar knack for taking the leap into the film world. After all, they put on a persona every time they perform.

“I’ve always known that they were good actors,” Waters explains. “That’s why I always use musicians because I knew that they could act. All the people who were musicians that were in my movies didn’t audition, but I always knew they could do it. Even Chris Isaac, Debbie (Harry) and Ruth Brown had been in other movies at the time.“

As Waters knows well, punk encompasses film, music, personality and culture. Waters standing in the center, as a kind of godfather of the movement at age 76. Another name for the festival could be “Six Degrees With John Waters.” He’s friends with the founders, Marc Ribak and Amy Carver, fans of the bands and has crossed paths with many of the artists on the setlist throughout his career.

Waters brings to the festival a warm energy that reverberates throughout the crowd. The artists, in turn, feel the same way. Halloween Meltdown is a celebration of music and film with multi-hyphenate musicians and audience members in costume, some they wear everyday — as Waters mentioned — and some showing up for the costume contest, each playing their own character.

“There’s lots of crossover,’ says Waters. “They put on amazing shows. And I think that’s what people love to see — is a great show, right?”

If You Go

Halloween Meltdown

Where: Mosswood Park, 3612 Webster St., Oakland

When: 12-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $59 for single day pass, $99 single day VIP pass, $99 weekend pass, $179 VIP weekend pass


Related Stories