Cult Heroes No. 4: Jobriath
He was launched amid a mountain of publicity as the world’s first openly gay rock star – but the world wasn’t ready. Check out all of Classic Rock‘s Cult Heroes here.
Words: Geoff Barton
In rock-related terms, who’s the most important artist of the last 100 years? According to some monthly music magazines (but not Classic Rock, it should be said) that honour should be bestowed upon Jeff Buckley.
Looking at a Buckley profile on the web, we are able to glean the following information: ‘He was a timeless singer-songwriter with the features of a Roman god. His otherworldly voice ranged over four octaves, and his lyrics sang of beauty and love.’
Like his father, Tim, Jeff met an untimely end. He died at age 30 by accidentally drowning in the Mississippi river, but not before he helped popularise the Sufi music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the United States. So that’s alright then.
Other music magazines (but, again, not Classic Rock) might argue that Nick Drake was of equal importance to Buckley. Drake – a plaintive, fragile but ultimately inconsequential English troubadour – released several slow-selling albums for the Island label before he died in 1974 at age 26. He ostensibly committed suicide, but to this day his family claims his demise was accidental.
Nevertheless, by far the most interesting thing about Drake is that one of those family members (his sister Gabrielle) used to be an actress in Crossroads and Gerry Anderson’s UFO.
Bah. I dunno about you, but I’m fed up with the careers of the likes of Buckley and Drake being continually reappraised via acres of simpering copy. It’s about time we introduced a cult hero of our very own: Jobriath.
Born Bruce Wayne Campbell on December 14, 1946 in the strangely named town of King Of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Jobriath was the world’s first ever openly gay rock star.
Jobriath’s star burned ever so briefly – and some would argue that his effete flame hardly ignited at all. (It probably didn’t help that he first came to prominence in a progressive rock band called Pidgeon.)
But the story of Jobriath’s oh-so-short solo career is as bizarre as it is gripping. He had his demos rejected by Columbia Records for being, as then label president Clive Davis said, “mad and unstructured and destructive to melody”. (But that didn’t stop Davis finding those selfsame qualities highly attractive when he signed Velvet Revolver to RCA decades later!)
However, Jobriath did manage to pique the interest of one Jerry Brandt, the manager of Carly Simon and the guy who booked The Rolling Stones’ first tour of America. Brandt took Jobriath under his wing and somehow sealed a deal with Elektra: “If hype means projecting your artist, I’m going to produce the biggest hype ever,” Brandt boasted to Melody Maker in January 1974.
And so it proved. Brandt talked up his fey discovery to such an extent that Elektra put unbridled early faith in Jobriath. The label signed the artist for $500,000 and spent $80,000 on his debut album alone – a vast amount of money for the time. But that sum didn’t only cover recording costs: amazingly, half of it went on promotion.
Jobriath’s self-titled first album – which featured Peter Frampton on session guitar and, allegedly, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on keyboards – arrived at the height of the 70s glam rock explosion. Jobriath immediately proclaimed: “Today sexuality exudes from every pore in the body, instead of just the groin as it was in the 60s.”
He was wrong. No one was ready for his skin-tight, gossamer costumery and in-your-face homosexuality: “He was far too outrageous for the times,” Jobriath’s producer, the renowned Eddie Kramer (of Jimi Hendrix/Led Zeppelin fame), would later claim.
It was true: Jobriath’s flat-out declaration of gayness was considered way over the top considering the era, when people were only just about coming to terms with David Bowie and Marc Bolan’s so-called androgyny.
Elektra’s excessive hype also proved to be a major turn-off. This was the early 70s, remember, when even Bruce Springsteen being touted as ‘the future of rock’n’roll’ had sceptical British audiences running for cover.
Undaunted, Elektra placed full-page advertisements for Jobriath in Vogue, Penthouse and The New York Times. They erected a 50-foot-square billboard in Times Square and put Jobriath posters on the front of every bus in London.
Manager Brandt said Jobriath would make his live debut at the Paris Opera House, and his plans were suitably insane. Dressed as King Kong, Brandt claimed, Jobriath would scale a model of the Empire State Building, which would then be transformed into a giant penis. Jobriath would straddle said penis and ride to a piano platform elevated above the stage. Then he would somehow transform himself into as Marlene Dietrich.
Needless to say, the Paris show never happened.
The public recoiled in horror at Jobriath’s antics (or lack of them) and his 1973 debut was a dismal failure. For ’74 follow-up, Creatures Of The Street, Elektra realised the error of its ways and withdrew support. As a consequence, Jobriath’s second record received little promotion, terrible reviews and negligible sales.
After a drug-fuelled and debauched US tour in spring 1975, manager Brandt washed his hands of Jobriath and the singer announced his premature retirement. Jobriath retreated to a glass pyramid (yes, a glass pyramid) on top of New York’s Chelsea Hotel and spent his last days singing in cocktail lounges under various names: Bryce Campbell, Cole Berlin and Royal Sloan (after the American toilet manufacturers).
Years later, hoping to secure Jobriath as an opening act, long-time fan Morrissey (of The Smiths fame) went in search of his glam-rock hero. But Morrissey was shocked to discover that Jobriath had died, unheralded, in July 1983 of an Aids-related illness at age 37.
We’d be lying if we said Jobriath’s music – a sleazy fusion of hyper-eclectic schlock’n'roll and Broadway showmanship – is typical Classic Rock fodder. Nevertheless, we should point out that a compilation of Jobriath’s first two records was released a few years back via Morrissey’s own Attack! label. The album is called Lonely Planet Boy, which seems rather apt: Morrissey remembers that when Jobriath first came on to the scene, he was “surrounded on all sides by Journey, Styx and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and he was at society’s mercy. Yet it could have worked so well.”
Indeed. Jobriath is an artist who’s every bit as important as Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake, and who’s a damn sight more vital and intriguing.
As the hyperbole went back in the day: ‘Jobriath is going to be the biggest artist in the world. He is a singer, dancer, woman, man. He has the glamour of Garbo. He is beautiful.’
Y’know, it’s about time Classic Rock got on its hobby-horse and promoted the forgotten cause of Jobriath. Especially as, in this case, the hobby-horse resembles a giant penis.
Check out a couple of Jobriath TV performances on YouTube – and prepare to be amazed.
Listen to some of Jobriath’s incredible songs:
Here’s a real goodie: