I wasn’t prepared to hear John Waters speak in tongues. I’m not sure why. What is there left to do after over fifty years of spreading the sordid slime of good bad taste around the globe than falling to your knees where your role model’s testicles were crushed before he was mowed over repeatedly with his own car and his lifeless body set on fire?
As metal clangs (the sweet sounds of trespassing?) with the faint rustle of wind, aurally fixating on the location outside Rome where filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered by a hustler known as Pino the Frog Pelosi (unknown if any relation to Nancy), John shouts unintelligible phrases to the sky with the crazed passion of a sweat-soaked tent revival preacher. Shouldn’t we all speak in tongues at our role models’ graves or better yet, death sites? I have more than a little shame that I didn’t feel the pull to mutter from the beyond at Graceland or James Dean’s grave in Fairmount, Indiana. What did I do wrong, John?! Thank Pasolini’s ghost that we have John to guide us in role model-induced lunacy.
John’s speaking in tongues to the heavens–or wherever it is Pasolini landed–is just one track on his album Prayer to Pasolini, released last Thursday, April 22 on the occasion of John’s 75th birthday. Around 17-minutes long, Prayer to Pasolini features both an absolutely berserk prayer to the great Salò–masochist filmmaker (“O Mary, Gay Mary!”) as well as an assortment of John’s musings about Pasolini’s life as a Catholic, a homosexual, and a Communist. Not only is Prayer to Pasolini a nice assurance that our preeminent filth elder has still got it, but it’s also a lesson in proper idol worship.
I’ll admit I’ve been critical of John’s recent leaps into nearly universal adoration, becoming more like our collective eccentric uncle than the Prince of Puke who inspired us all to be demented forever with chicken-fucking, dog shit-eating, and electric chair acceptance speeches. He knows it too. As he writes in Mr. Know-It-All, “Suddenly, the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me. I am accepted.”
Most of my disgust, though, is reserved for Camp John Waters. I know, I know–some of you, dearest readers, probably attend. However, I just can’t bring myself to be interested unless they move it to Spahn Ranch rather than…gasp…Connecticut. The horror! I know John is sensitive about Manson Family references now that he’s advocated numerous times for the parole and release of Family member Leslie Van Houten. But does that mean Camp John Waters attendees can’t at least ride around in dune buggies, looking for the bottomless pit while singing “I’ll Never Say Never To Always”? It’s not like you have to go on murder sprees, scrawling your favorite quotes from John Waters’ flicks on the walls in blood (personally, I’d go with “I wanted cha-cha heels!” Talk about a motive!) Unless, of course, you want to!
Beyond my personal distaste for group activities, perhaps what has confused me the most out of John’s recent branding opportunities is his transformation into a Funko Pop!, those dead-eyed collector’s items found at Hot Topic and the stale sheets-smelling bedrooms of dweebs from all over cyberspace. Look. I know John is the People’s Pervert, but surely there’s a line!
Closer associated with Marvel and DC characters than filmmakers who recreated the Kennedy assassination with a drag queen and encouraged intravenous eyeliner use, John’s placement within this nerd canon seems a little odd. More so if you take into consideration the Icon series in which his figure belongs that also includes Farrah Fawcett, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Richard Simmons (who was the only person who made Divine feel homophobic. Everyone has limits!). Admittedly, John isn’t the strangest Funko Pop!. That title should be awarded to this can of Pringles:
Frankly, as someone fascinated by merch, I still can’t decide if John’s Funko Pop! is the worst or most subversive thing John has done. There is undeniably something deliciously depraved about the possibility of a child begging their mother for a John Waters Funko Pop! As John himself says, “Whoever thought I’d be a toy?”
Part of the problem is that it barely looks like the man. Putting aside his full head of hair, where is John’s fashionably hideous Comme des Garçons suit? Even though the tie may be puke green, it just doesn’t nail John’s quintessential “disaster at the dry cleaners” aesthetic. Of course, his Little Richard-inspired mustache and pink flamingo aid in identifying the director, but I just don’t feel as if I’m going to run into this version of John at some dingy Baltimore dive bar featuring a stripper with the face of Johnny Cash.
Surely, this could have been remedied with some additions. Maybe trade the flamingo, which is frankly too wholesomely kitsch, for the rat dish from Desperate Living‘s title credits? What about a tiny Edith Massey in a crib demanding some eggs? Or perhaps Funko could have complimented plastic with plastic surgery and taken inspiration from John’s alarmingly nipped, tucked, pulled, and face-lifted self-portrait Beverly Hills John?
Now, this doesn’t mean John’s newest projects have been all bad. Beyond his book Mr. Know-It-All and his exhibition Indecent Exposure, he appeared as a guest star twice on my favorite trash crime show Law and Order: SVU as the owner of the beautifully named PornMonger and SugarFap. He also promised to donate his art collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art dependent on the museum agreeing to name two bathrooms after him (as well as a rotunda in the European art galleries). As he said on his lavatory dedication, “Maybe people will come from all over the world to eliminate there.” There better be glory holes!
Speaking of illicit activities and potential public sex, that fantasized pit-stop mecca in some ways foreshadows John’s own pilgrimage to Pasolini’s murder site for Prayer to Pasolini. The album builds on John’s notion of the utmost importance of filth elders that he introduced in his book Role Models to create one of my favorite of his works of the past several years. Prayer to Pasolini isn’t the first time John has referenced the, as the press release hilariously and succinctly put, “controversial Italian director.” Nor is it even the first time he’s suggested we genuflect in Pasolini’s honor.
In the final chapter of Role Models, John designs his dream cult of the obsessed, desiring one day to write “cult leader” on his taxes. Naturally, cult fashion is an absolute necessary consideration. You don’t want to be caught in a death cult without a perfect look. To become “saints of sordidness,” John suggests to “try sketching on the stigmata of show-business celebrities who died for your sins.” In particular, he offers, “Paint in terrible deep lacerations at the nape of your neck to properly honor the wounds the hustler Pino the Frog inflicted on the holy man-film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.” Count me in!
Though John’s cult never quite came to fruition (yet), his Prayer to Pasolini album is the logical next step in a highly sacred and just a pinch of sacrilegious role model supplication. Visiting Rome for the Rome Film Festival in 2020, John decided to finally seek out the monument to Pasolini hidden in wetlands and protected by a fence with a fake lock. Shouldn’t trespassing be a prerequisite for all hero worship? A little Catholic guilt never hurt anybody. Just ask Pasolini!
Recording the album, which will also be released as a 7” vinyl as a part of Sub Pop Singles Club, at the monument itself with the help of friend, colleague, and producer Ian Brennan, who also thoughtfully brought wire cutters to the scene, Prayer to Pasolini opens with a description of the monument, placing listeners at the location with him. That is, if you get past the album cover on which John kneels on part of the monument to Pasolini–his hands folded in prayer as he gazes directly at the camera behind oversized sunglasses. As you can see from the cover, “This one-time crime scene,” as John details on the album, “is actually now a beautiful peaceful spot” with several monuments on the grounds emblazoned with quotes from Pasolini’s films and writings. Though seemingly abandoned, John observes, “There’s a sign warning of video surveillance that shows security guards spying from somewhere, but what are they looking for? ‘Action,’ as they used to call public sex in the days of Pasolini’s murder? Wouldn’t that actually be appropriate here?”
It surely would as this wetlands area used to be a popular spot for public sex back in Pasolini’s day, though a dangerous one (clearly). Of course, since “crime is beauty,” John couldn’t hold back from musing about the murder itself. Though he doesn’t believe in any of the anti-communist conspiracy theories swirling around Pasolini’s murder (instead, chalking it up to a bad night), John does still have questions: “Did The Frog put out that night before he crushed Pasolini’s testicles, ran over him, and set fire to the great director’s dead body? I bet he did. That sneaky little queer bait!”
It should go without saying that Prayer to Pasolini has a deep sense of humor, as does everything John touches. I mean, just take the prayer alone, which is inspired by the monuments’ resemblance to, as John notes, “the stations of the cross.” “O Pasolini, you are our father who refuses heaven,” John prays, “Condemned be thy name.” Later in the prayer, he calls upon “the filmmaker almighty” and his “descent into cinema heaven” where “from thence he should come to judge the censors, the fascists, and the fag bashers.”
And yet despite its irony, John’s admiration for Pasolini is palpable. In his recent interview on WTF with Marc Maron, between musing about how he wanted to attend Altamont rather than Woodstock and how the Dreamlanders “ate shit for anarchy,” John explains of Prayer to Pasolini: “It was like a spiritual thing for me to go there, with some humor obviously.” In the interview, John not only provides the best synopsis of Pasolini’s Teorema imaginable (“A man moves in and has sex with everyone–the mother, the father, the child, the maid…and then, they all go insane. What a great story!”), but he places Pasolini among his Holy Trinity, alongside other filth elders Warhol and Jean Genet.
And his admiration and adoration of Pasolini is undeniably apparent on Prayer to Pasolini. Beyond the Catholic camp theatrics of prayers and speaking in tongues, John spends the rest of the album considering Pasolini’s life and work. This includes the shit-eating connection between Pink Flamingos and Salò, which were frequently on the same banned lists in the 1970s, even though Salò actors ate chocolate rather than real shit like Divine (“I don’t hold it against them”). He quickly hits on other topics such as the description “openly gay” (“Did anyone ever say Fellini was openly heterosexual?”), Pasolini and Tennessee Williams’ favorite actress Anna Magnani (“She was earthy. God knows she was earthy!”), and Pasolini’s place within the Italian Neorealists (“Nobody took LSD and went to see Pigsty”). Perhaps the most amusing clip is Waters’ reminiscence about his decision to show Salò at a drive-in for the New York Film Festival, encouraging cars to honk every time they saw art, which turned Salò into a Rocky Horror Picture Show-type participatory event. God, where was I?
Beyond its hilarity, there is also a seriousness to John’s calling on Pasolini’s memory as a type of survival strategy, even for someone as known and accomplished as John. As he tells Marc Maron, “Even if you do not believe in all the religions that we know, a higher power can be a lot of things. So maybe the memory of Pasolini is a higher power and that’s what I’m praying to.” And he’s right. Shouldn’t our idols be our higher powers?
Overall, Prayer to Pasolini is an essential lesson in going to pious extremes for our heroes, our role models, our filth elders. In the beginning of his book, Mr. Know-it-All, John offers to be our “garbage guru,” saying “I’ll teach you how to succeed in sanity and take control of your low self-esteem. Personality disorders are a terrible thing to waste.” And on Prayer to Pasolini, he reminds us of just how far we should take it.
So why not try it yourself? As John says, “Life is nothing if you’re not obsessed.” Go walk on your knees to your fav’s grave and, if you feel compelled, self-flagellate? Or if you’re hanging on to the last days of acceptable COVID-induced agoraphobia, use your home shrine to your filth elders as your sacred space! What do you mean you don’t have an alter to the objects of your obsessions?! What are you waiting for? Make one! Light some devotional candles and see what spirit strikes you. I’m sure your neighbors will understand the cacophony of speaking in tongues. And if they don’t, explain to them freedom of religion. That includes celebrities! Or take a tip from John and simply pray to Pasolini. As John promises, “Pasolini will answer our prayers, every single one of them.”