For a man of my age, there’s something faintly surreal about meeting John Waters. He might now be better known as Asher Keddie’s philandering father on Offspring (Channel Ten, 8.30pm), but for a generation (or two), he’ll always be John from Play School. When I meet Waters in a St Kilda hotel for a coffee, I manage to keep up the professional front for half an hour before confessing that, as a five-year-old, I used to get him confused with my dad.
Waters is kind enough to laugh.
“You know what, I never realised this until recently. A young man came up to me and said when he was little his parents had this horrendous break-up. He said I somehow represented an adult figure he could relate to and he felt better after he watched me. I thought ‘Christ, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time, because that’s a hell of a responsibility’.”
Acting — and presenting Play School — started off as a sideline for Waters, whose first love was rock’n’roll. Today he looks more like a rock star than ever, permanently clad in black and looking all too comfortable lounging at the hotel bar. He might have traded youthful prettiness for a rugged handsomeness, but he’s looking pretty good for a man about to turn to 64.
Given his love of the Beatles, I wonder if the age has any special significance for him.
“I’ve not thought about it actually, it’s funny. I don’t feel any different inside my head. In Offspring, I’m playing an older man who still gets the chicks, so I’m happy with that.”
Is that a case of life imitating art?
“It’s a case of art imitating ambition.”
Filming on the latest series of Offspring has wrapped, but Waters is back in Melbourne this month to revive his acclaimed show Looking Through a Glass Onion. The one-man show, telling the life of John Lennon through monologue and song, was devised by Waters as a stopgap in 1992. Since then, the show has become a career-defining performance for Waters. It’s also been a rare constant in a life that’s been anything but predictable.
Waters had his first child at the tender age of 21. Four decades on, he’s once more the father of young children. Becoming a dad again encouraged him to ring in some much-needed changes.
“I stopped drinking and smoking pot,” he says. “The greatest thing about giving up and not being legless and a pain in the arse is a freedom. You’re just limited by all that stuff.”
Freedom is a word that comes up a lot throughout our chat, particularly when talk turns to the crucial role the Beatles played in his adolescence. Waters was born in England in 1948, which made him exactly the right age to have his world rocked by the moptops’ music.
“I didn’t realise that English people could do this. I was astonished. There were a lot of people in that British youth movement, but it was embodied by the Beatles.”
Of the four Liverpudlians, the teenage Waters connected most strongly with Lennon, seeing him as a de facto older brother. Where does he see himself without Lennon’s influence?
“I think, maybe taking longer to find my own freedom of expression. I was already a little bit rebellious, I ran away to the Continent when I was 14. My parents were looking everywhere for me and I was in Belgium, drinking beer.”
Lennon remains a key touchstone for Waters. In Glass Onion, his take on the man is deeply sympathetic, drawing on the artist’s warm humanity as much as his acerbic fury.
“I was unashamedly looking for the bits that would move people about why we miss him, without eulogising or making a myth out of him. The lyrics speak for themselves. He spent all this time talking about love and non-aggression, while admitting that he was basically a little ‘bovver boy’. It was just as he was coming to terms with it that he had a random encounter with a lunatic.”
Given how hard to please fans can be, I wonder if Waters has had his own encounters with lunatics?
“None brandishing .38s, thank Christ. I meet a lot of the Lennon freaks and Beatles freaks, a lot of dedicated, slightly need-to-get-a-real-life people, but I think people accept the fact that I’m not standing up there pretending to be him.”
In short, there’s as much John Waters in the show as there is John Lennon. When I cheekily ask if Glass Onion is Waters living out his rock-star dream, he doesn’t disagree. The best part, he says, is getting to sing songs that, by rights, nobody but Lennon has any business singing.
“It’s great to be able to get up on stage and sing something like Strawberry Fields Forever. As a band or solo artist, you’d just leave it alone. But I’ve legitimatised the singing of such songs.”
Looking Through a Glass Onion plays at Chapel Off Chapel May 2-6. www.chapeloffchapel.com.au