Punks in the Age of Trump: John Waters on Oakland, Rebels, and the Burger Boogaloo

PHOTO: Greg Gorman

Every year on a small green called Mosswood Park just off the 580 in Oakland, punks descend upon the Burger Boogaloo music festival. It only lasts two days, but in that time, this municipal playground becomes a symphonic carnival for a wild, beautiful audience of outcasts and misfits.

For two days, they pogo dance to a three-ring circus of legends – this year Iggy Pop is headlining, along with the Buzzcocks and X. And for two days, their ringmaster, who last year called himself the “Bob Hope from hell,” is John Waters.

Yes, that John Waters. The Baltimore-hailing, kitsch-adoring, pencil-mustachioed, cult-flick auteur. He’s returning as master-of-ceremonies for the third year. But this year is different. Days before the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, there was a blaze at Mosswood Park that destroyed a building that housed a preschool (no one was hurt). And, oh yeah, Trump is president.

FODOR’S: Will the political climate creep into the vibe of the Boogaloo?

JOHN WATERS: Resist is now a term that the most liberal namby-pamby kind of earth mothers and granola crunchers say. But, this word Resist has always been a punk word. It’s always been resisting everything. There’s probably even more reason to be angry and crazy and – rebellion – if there was ever an appropriate time for it, it is today.

Do you think things will bubble over?

I don’t think they’re gonna turn on each other. They’re certainly not going to try to screw up the festival. As much as I have nostalgia for riots – I always had a great time with riots. You always got laid. There’s not gonna be a riot there. Because a riot is against something. At Burger Boogaloo it’s a tribe, it’s a cult, it’s a family. They’re all one people. They might go and attack a Renaissance Fair. But they’re not gonna do it there.

Greg Gorman

When you look out from the stage at the audience, who do you see?

It’s punks of all ages. It’s from nouveau punks to punk nostalgia, which is pretty great to watch. I’ve always felt the most comfortable in the punk community, even more so than in the gay community because the punks have always been down-low gay anyway. Some of them I see are older. You never thought punks could be oldies but badies – not oldies but goodies. It’s just exciting to see a grandmother pogo dancing as much as it is to see a 14-year-old kid being a punk for the first time. And you see them sometimes and you think, well a Mohawk isn’t that new anymore. People get Mohawks in malls now. You can get blue hair at Rite-Aid. Things were so radical when that first came out – you got beat up or you beat them up every day on the street for looking like that.

When you’re alone – driving or cooking or something – do you turn on punk music?

I listen to outlaw country. But sometimes I listen to the punk rock station and I play punk rock, but not all the time … I listen to all kinds of music. I have like 4,000 songs and I switch shuffle and it could come up with opera or country or rock ‘n’ roll – everything. There’s no real music I don’t like. But, I try to keep up with the new ones. I have youth spies that I give poppers to and they tell me new groups. So, it’s a fair trade.

Are you familiar with all the bands that you’re introducing at this year’s Burger Boogaloo?

Some of them I’ve never heard of and I don’t know. That’s what I like so much … But, I know John Doe and X. I’ve known Iggy for years. Iggy was in my movies. I’ve become friends with Shannon [Shaw, lead singer of Shannon and the Clams] and that gang. I am a fan really. At the same time I do my research. I try to speak to my audience and use the same kind of humor. I think I do know what punks think is funny. Though, I think probably being the oldest person there – I don’t know – how old is Iggy? I don’t know who’s older. But he looks a lot better nude, I’ll say that.

After everything that’s happened in Oakland, what does this festival mean for the city?

Oakland’s had so many bad things happen this year … so, I think it’s even more important to have something [like Burger Boogaloo] that works so well in Oakland … But, I don’t live in Oakland, so I don’t want to feel like I know a lot about [the city]. I know they hate it when people say it’s the Brooklyn of the Bay Area. No, it isn’t. It’s the Baltimore of the Bay Area. And I mean that as a compliment.