With David Bowie’s artistic brilliance seemingly compelling him to habitually shed certain personas and their accompanying musical affectations for another incarnation throughout his long career, there are times I am left wanting more; sometimes saying to myself, “Man, I’d really just like a bit more of that Diamond Dogs sound.” Now, as rude and trivializing as it may seem to use this concept to introduce another artist, it was through this very want that I discovered little remembered but quite talented songwriter/performer Jobriath. However, over the years I have grown to truly respect and take pleasure in this man’s brief artistic output on its own merits and without the context of being primarily filler for my desire for another’s sound.
—What follows is a tragic, yet classically American tale of talent, reinvention, hype, and neglect—
Being born Bruce Wayne Campbell (quite a name, no?) on December 14, 1946 in Philadelphia, Jobriath was classically trained on the piano as a child and was considered somewhat of a prodigy. However, he began his pop musical career at the tail end of the 1960s in Los Angeles’ original Aquarius Theatre production of the “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” Hair.
At the age of 22 in mid-1968, Jobriath left this production to form the obscure group Pidgeon, for which he was credited under the name of Jobriath Salisbury as one of the principal singers (along with Cheri Gage), co-songwriter (along with poet Richard T. Marshall), as well as contributing keyboards and guitars. Signed to the record label Decca, under the auspices of session-singer Stan Farber who agreed to produce them, Pidgeon were soon set up in a house for six months to rehearse the material that would comprise their sole LP.
Recorded in December of ’68 and released in 1969, their debut album was intended to bear the title First Flight From the Forest, but for whatever reason was released only with the group’s name on the cover. A bit plodding at times and certainly not the most impressive thing to come out that year, however, their debut did exhibit an interestingly frantic approach to the Californian sunshine soaked and harmonic psychedelia pioneered by the The Mamas & the Papas and the perturbed baroque folk-rock pioneered by Arthur Lee‘s Love. Perhaps two of the most stand-out tracks from this album are the harpsichord driven harmonic ramble of “The Mainline” and the lithe rocker, “The Dancer,” which you can check out below:
“The Mainline” ——————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
“The Dancer” ——————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
This album had little impact, as unfortunately did their follow-up single “Rubber Bricks,” recorded April of 1969. The group soon dissolved and by this time Jobriath had fully embraced the decadence of drugs and alcohol, occasional funding this lifestyle through prostitution. At this time as well, he began to demonstrate psychiatric disturbances, which would plague him later in life. But more importantly, he began developing the songs and style that would burgeon into his next musical incarnation: Jobriath Boone.
Soon after, in 1972 a demo tape of Jobriath’s music would be heard by impresario Jerry Brandt, who had made his fame by discovering Carly Simon, booking The Rolling Stones’ first tour of America, and who had up until recently been running the Electric Circus nightclub on St. Marks Place in the East Village section of Manhattan. Searching for a new project, Brandt sat in the office of Columbia Records President Clive Davis as the two listened to demo audition tapes. Where as Davis only heard in Jobriath’s demo something that was “mad, unstructured and destructive to melody” (Cochrane, 1998), Brandt heard the promise of something with marketability on par with Elvis and The Beatles; more so, Brandt believed he had discovered an American answer to the glam-rock explosion that was David Bowie.
Locating Jobriath in an unfurnished apartment in California, where, as the singer later said of himself, he was “floating down in the gutter” (Cochrane, 1998), with the entrance of Brandt into his life, from this moment on Jobriath’s career would be more concerned with hype than music. In January of 1974, Brandt would tell the music journal Melody Maker, “If hype means projecting your artist, I’m going to produce the biggest hype ever” (Barton, 2010). Through this hype, Brandt secured Jobriath a $500,000 contract with the head of Elektra Records, Jac Holzman. Looking back at his time running Elektra, Holzman later wrote, “I made two errors of judgment, and signing Jobriath was one of them” (Sullivan, 2008).
Although Jobriath’s self-titled solo debut of ’73 can in fact be considered a financial failure, it remains as an interesting, idiosyncratic work that melds quirky Weimar cabaret* with erotic funk** and loose, somber piano ballads*** (ballads that, to my ears, are very akin to those found on Bruce Springsteen’s first two albums, released that same year).
*“Movie Queen”——————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
**“Take Me I’m Yours”——————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
***“Inside”——————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
Jobriath’s self-titled debut was dropped on the marketplace accompanied by an aggressive advertising campaign, in which thousands were spent. His image was plastered on the front of nearly every bus in London and New York City, and a 50-foot billboard was erected in Times Square bearing the album’s cover image, which featured Jobriath’s nude torso, crawling while dragging shattered legs.
Beyond the hype generated by Brandt concerning Jobriath’s apparent musical ability, much of this hype pertained to the fact that Jobriath was, in fact, the world’s first openly gay pop star. “I’m a true fairy!” Jobriath Boone boldly told the press (Metzger, 2009).
Now, I’m sure Jobriath’s ostentatious use of his sexual preference (whereas others typically flirted with androgyny) did create much of the scorn aimed his way upon the release of his album; however, I believe that most simply have a natural aversion to an onslaught of hype. It robs the inquisitive of any sense of discovery. It is that very same reaction that has caused me to know very little about the endless succession of British bands touted by the likes of NME as the greatest musical act ever to happen in the six months since the last greatest musical act ever to happen. Besides this, it is easy to picture your average meat-and-potatoes American dismissing Jobriath as just “another space-age faggot.” With song titles such as “Space Clown,” and “Earthling,” Jobriath certainly utilized the same queer-human-as-artistic-extraterrestrial-motif employed by Bowie through his Ziggy Stardust persona.
Regardless, I find Jobriath’s music to be quite remarkable. Although, recently playing his albums for a friend who knew nothing of what he was listening to, not the artist’s story, nor his sexuality, not even his name—his response was a critique that was incredibly similar to the previously mentioned statements made by Clive Davis. So, it could certainly be not as universally “good” as I believe it to be. Jobriath’s first album was primarily recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and co-produced by Eddie Kramer, who made his fame through his production work for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Kramer later recalled of the songs’ orchestration (recorded in Olympic Studios in London): “[Jobriath was] a romantic soul, really. He wanted orchestrations like old film music, though he knew nothing about scoring. So he bought a book on orchestration and within a week he’d come up with scores of a haunting quality. These were recorded in Olympic Studios in London with a nine-foot grand piano and a 55-piece orchestra” (Cochrane, 1998). This haunting quality is best expressed by the album’s closing track, “Blow Away.”
————————————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
Despite some positive reviews (Rolling Stone: “talent to burn;” Record World: “brilliantly incisive.”) the album failed to hit the charts and Elektra began to recoil from the artist. Jobriath’s first tour was intended to be held within all the major opera houses in Europe, and according to him would feature, “King Kong being projected upwards on a mini Empire State Building. This will turn into a giant spurting penis and I will have transformed into Marlene Dietrich” (Cochrane, 1998). Whether this was merely an alcohol and cocaine fueled fantasy or actually in the works, Elektra cancelled the entire tour, citing financial reasons. Jobriath’s debut public performance would come by the way of television, appearing on “The Midnight Special.” On stage in costumes of his own design, the performances of his songs “I’MAMAN” and “Rock of Ages” only hint at the stage show that might’ve been.
Within six months of his flop, a second LP titled “Creatures Of The Street” was released. Darker in tone, this album would be released with no promotion whatsoever and its dismal sales effectively ended the would-be superstar. Despite its rushed release and its total neglect by his label, the album was an ambitious project that explored the urban grandeur of pop songwriting.
“Heart Beat”——————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
“Street Corner Love”——————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
“Gone Tomorrow/Ooh La La (Reprise and Exit Music)”———(CLICK TO LISTEN)
A relatively modest tour followed—a blur of debauchery and derision. Brandt abandoned the group halfway through the tour and went on to make his money by convincing America to purchase over-priced and imported designer jeans and later opened the music venues The Ritz and Palladium. Abandoned by his manager, by his label, and fully embodying his stated belief that, “schizophrenia isn’t all that bad. It may be the lifestyle of the ’70s” (Cochrane, 1998), Jobriath soon announced his retirement from the music business, and hardly anyone noticed. After a failed audition for the part of Al Pacino’s boyfriend in Sidney Lumet’s gripping true-crime film of 1975, Dog Day Afternoon, the man who was everywhere for a moment, Jobriath, was gone.
Living within the pyramid room atop New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Jobriath dissipated, replaced by yet another incarnation, Manhattan nightclub cabaret act, Cole Berlin.
Still creating, still an artist, in a 1981 BBC program about the Chelsea Hotel and its eccentric inhabitants, Cole Berlin was filmed within his odd apartment, performing on his white piano a composition of his own, “Sunday Brunch.”
By August 3, 1983, aged 36 years, Cole Berlin, Jobriath Boone, Jobriath Salisbury, and Bruce Wayne Campbell would all be dead from a new disease called AIDS. After four days, complaints by his neighbors concerning a smell would lead to the discovery of his body.
This year, Jobriath A.D., a documentary by Kieran Turner is set to be released and concerns this intriguing life. I for one intend to catch it.
Cochrane, R. (1998, November). Jobriath: The Mojo Article. Mojo Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.crapfromthepast.com/jobriath/mojo.htm
Metzger, R. (2009, March 30). Jobriath Boone: Rock’s Fairy Godmother. BoingBoing. Retrieved from http://boingboing.net/2009/03/30/jobriath-boone-rocks.html
Nelson, C. (1996, Nov. 8). Former MC5 guitarist to score punk film? Addicted To Noise Washington. Retrieved from http://kauhajokinyt.fi/~jplaitio/pleasekil.html
Sullivan, J. (2008, Feb. 29). Twisted Tales: Glam Rocker Jobriath – The Man Who Would Have Been Queen. Spinner. Retrieved from http://www.spinner.com/2008/02/29/twisted-tales-glam-rocker-jobriath-the-man-who-would-have-bee/
I assume you’re in NYC? The doc is playing Saturday night, July 28th at Lincoln Center.
Oh great! Thanks! I assume you’re the director? Regardless, I tend to plan the sequence of these posts months in advance, so, I find it more than a little odd that my schedule coincides with the documentary’s NYC debut. Anyway, thanks for reading, and if you are in fact behind the film I compliment you on your bold and interesting choice of subject matter.
I am, yes. Hope to see you there on Saturday. Loved your post.