John Waters performing at City Winery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

While skimming through my Facebook news feed last week, I noticed that Murray Hill had posted a picture of himself with Patti Lupone in her dressing room, following a performance of her show Far Away Places, which ran for a couple of nights at the new lounge/cabaret space 54 Below, near Times Square. Just below the picture Murray had a note about the resurgence of nightclub acts he’s noticed of late.

In case you’ve never heard of him, Murray Hill is a drag king who was emceeing burlesque shows and queer events right around the time burlesque and circus and variety acts were being revived, largely by third-wave feminists and the queer community, in the 1990s. He’s since toured the country and the world with the likes of rock band Le Tigre and burlesque superstar Dita Von Teese, among others. So if Murray Hill is noticing that there’s a resurgence of nightclub acts, it’s probably worth taking note, considering he’s kind of been on the front line of that for a while now.

Certainly there are all sorts of discussions to be had about the mainstreaming of alternative communities and about queer and feminist politics and art being co-opted as marketing strategies, but that’s not where I’m going today. Honestly, if a bunch of queers and feminists are making some cash because more and more people (particularly the wealthy ones) are becoming more interested in paying them to do the things they want to do, more power to them. The great thing about good live performance forms that embrace spectacle is that the audience is just as likely to be made the fool as the people clowning onstage. There’s a lot at play in a live performance that simply isn’t present in a gallery full of easily commodifiable work, where a buyer can snap something up without ever having to face the artist herself or risk being put on the spot.

But the reason I bring all of this up is because it’s what immediately came to mind when I found myself sitting in the audience at John Waters’s show at City Winery this past Saturday.

Waters's book "Role Models"

Waters’s book “Role Models”

I’m assuming I don’t need to offer a lengthy introduction to John Waters, save to confirm that I’m speaking about the filmmaker who started sending out cinematic fuck-yous to mainstream culture in the 1960s, and who has grown to become not only an author and a visual artist but also an avid collector of contemporary art. Recent projects of his include hitchhiking across the US in order to gain material for a new book project, following the bang-up success of his collection of essays, Role Models, and curating a show at the Walker Art Center titled Absentee Landlord, which is on view through July 29.

So there I was, sitting at a table with two friends, surrounded by a couple hundred people, many of whom were clearly decades-long fans of Waters, along with some more recent fans and a fair number of people who were probably just excited to hear whatever this famed purveyor of filth might have to say before a live audience.

Seeing the now grey-haired Waters appear onstage with his Rei Kawakubo spray-painted suit jacket and toss little red eyebrow pencils out to his fans, while the audience sat back and drank their wine and ate their little pizzas and angus sliders, was somehow perfect. What else would John Waters do in the later stages of his career but take up a lounge act, perhaps one of the most debaucherous art forms?

The venue was also kind of ideal. With the curtains drawn, the City Winery appears to be your standard contemporary restaurant — lots of wood and stone finishes, open plan, mood lighting, all of that. But the stage itself has a surprisingly tacky look that smacks more of a Midwestern, wine-themed music hall than a large venue in New York City’s most expensive neighborhood. There were large bouquets of flowers sitting on barrels on either side of the stage and, at the back, a faux-finished stack of wine barrels beneath a City Winery sign with vintage typography, painted on patina.

The performance itself combined stand-up comedy with one man show–type memoir, and a lot of plain old reminiscing for his fans. Waters used his film chronology as the organizing structure, allowing the titles to launch him into anecdotes about the actors in them, the inspiration for them, as well as related projects and tangential or even unrelated stories. At the end he did a generous Q&A, which included a young man in a button-up shirt who began with the statement, “I’ve only ever kissed girls on the lips,” before then asking Waters if he would be his first man kiss. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Waters obliged — only to pay for it a couple of minutes later when a very loud and drunk fellow puffing on an electronic cigarette insisted on getting his own bit of spittle from the filmmaker.

At one point someone asked if Waters would do another musical adaptation of one his films (following the runs of Hairspray and Cry Baby on Broadway). He said no, his experience with Cry Baby indicated to him that it wasn’t worth it anymore. But I couldn’t help thinking that if he really went all out on the whole lounge-act thing, he could end up with a pretty successful show—bringing back past cast members or essay subjects for a variety act including songs, vomit, dramatic readings of negative press for his work and ample doses of Waters’s own reminiscences.

All of which is to say, John Waters may be onto something. Nightclub acts are no longer camp, really, because the truly camp aspects — along with pretty much all of the subversion — have been subsumed by the increased professionalization and management of the field. But there’s something to seeing someone like John Waters do the very thing that past stars were so derided for as they hauled off to Vegas to play small clubs and casinos well past sunset.

Of course it’s more than a little bit nostalgic to believe that an old touring circuit of variety performers and oddball celebrities could bring back a serious lounge culture — the revivals of speakeasies and burlesque shows were themselves born from a kind of nostalgic rejection of contemporary mainstream culture.

It was odd to see Waters up there, but it was also funny and fitting and quite casual. And if you can get people to pay you to be who you are, especially when you worked your ass off for so many years to be someone very different from what pretty much everyone wanted you to be, then go with it. He seems like he’s enjoying himself — at least, I hope he is.

John Waters performed at City Winery (155 Varick Street, Soho, Manhattan) on June 22 and June 23.

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are...

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