Jobriath, Rock's First Openly Gay Artist, Finally Gets His Due Recognition
In the history of rock and roll, stars have often challenged gender roles and flirted with androgyny through their stage personas—among them David Bowie, Madonna, and Eurythmics' Annie Lennox. Particularly during the 1970s, Bowie and Queen's Freddie Mercury displayed a flamboyance in their appearances and live performances that hinted at homosexuality, but they never publicly admitted their true sexual orientation. Obviously such an admission of being gay back then would have been career suicide.
That's what happened to the late musician, Bruce Wayne Campbell, who is better known by his stage name Jobriath and is generally acknowledged as the first openly gay rock star. In a Rolling Stone interview from 1973, Jobriath told writer Stuart Werbin, “I'm a true fairy.”
A product of the 1970s' rock glitter/glam rock period, Jobriath, who has been called the “American Bowie," was heavily touted as the next big thing in pop music through the machinations of his manager (most would say Svengali) Jerry Brandt. Jobriath was so overly hyped there was even a gigantic billboard of him in Times Square. But his two albums for Elektra Records tanked and he became the punching bag for the media. With the loss of his recording contract and the dissolution of his partnership with Brandt, Jobriath later became Cole Berlin, a cabaret singer who performed at New York City piano bars. He contracted AIDS and died in obscurity in 1983.
For years after his death, Jobriath was treated as a footnote in rock history. Now, thankfully, a documentary titled Jobriath A.D., directed by Kieran Turner, has finally given the late artist the proper acknowledgement he never got in his lifetime. Recently released on DVD, Jobriath A.D. features narration by Henry Rollins and interviews with Jobriath's brother and friends, members of the singer's backing band the Creatures, ex-manager Jerry Brandt, and testimonials from actress Ann Magnuson, Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, and Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears.
The most commonly mentioned word Jobriath's acquaintances use to describe him in the documentary is "talented." The film begins with Jobriath's stint as a member of the L.A. production of Hair in the late '60s; meanwhile, this gifted artist was working on his own music. After his band Pidgeon didn't get off the ground, Jobriath connected with manager Jerry Brandt, who believed Jobriath was a star. Through Brandt's music biz connections (he discovered Carly Simon), Jobriath landed a major label deal with Elektra Records and recorded his debut album at Electric Lady Studios with producer/engineer Eddie Kramer, best known for his work with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Based on Jobriath's first album, one could hear elements of glam rock, Broadway and cabaret, which in retrospect was ambitious and groundbreaking.
Elektra signed and reportedly invested $80,000 in the newcomer's first album (Brandt claimed in the same Rolling Stone story that Jobriath's Elektra deal was for half a million). In addition to the infamous Times Square billboard and extensive media coverage, Jobriath also appeared on the popular Midnight Special TV program (he was introduced by Gladys Knight).
Some reviews of Jobriath's self-titled debut were positive; Rolling Stone's Stephen Holden wrote: “Jobriath...has turned out a flashy and provocative debut album..[it] exhibit[s] honest personal magnetism and talent to burn.” But the media and the public didn't know what to make of him—or perhaps were not ready to accept him—and his album didn't even chart. A plan to stage an extravagant live show at the Paris Opera House was aborted, and Jobriath and his band ended up playing smaller venues. (Ironically, he was well received during a gig at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.)
Ex-manager Brandt is featured prominently in Jobriath A.D. and comes across as a polarizing figure, depending on your point of view. One could argue that he did so much (maybe to an extreme) to promote his client's career in the media; you could also see him as a master manipulator. Whatever side you fall on, Brandt's actions greatly affected Jobriath's career. In addition to the press hostility, the documentary reveals the lack of support from the gay media during a time when effeminate aspects of homosexuality fell out of favor, while more hyper-masculine gay images (aka the Castro clones) were preferred.
While Jobriath never hid his flamboyance, he was an enigma to his friends. Interviewees have said he never really talked about his personal or family relationships. His brother, Willie Fogle, fills in the pieces by describing the loving if complex relationship between Jobriath and his mother. The exploration of the singer's early life is one of the film's poignant moments.
Following the commercial and critical disappointment of Jobriath's second album, 1974's Creatures of the Street, Jobriath later reinvented himself as cabaret singer/pianist Cole Berlin. By this time, he was living in the famed Chelsea Hotel. His talent was still there—he even wrote new music for a Joseph Papp theater production at a moment's notice. But he didn't live long enough to extend his career, succumbing to AIDS during the early years of the epidemic.
This accomplished and compelling documentary leaves some indelible marks. It is the story of a talented artist whose star burned out too early; a cautionary tale about the dangers of media hype and its casualties. The mainstream public in 1973 may not have accepted Jobriath as a star when he was alive, but he paved the way for acceptance of today's LGBT musicians—for new generations of artists like Morrissey, the Pet Shop Boys, Okkervil River, and Def Leppard. As depicted in this film, Jobriath's story is tragic, yet also inspiring.