There is a certain type of musician who is mostly famous for being unknown. You’re probably familiar: an independent documentary filmmaker pulls a beloved musician from the ash pile of rock and roll history and—with the help of some talking heads and archival concert flyers—brings them in to the spotlight for their encore. It is a genre pioneered by The Nomi Song and Anvil! The Story of Anvil and rounded out recently by A Band Called Death and the Oscar winning Searching For Sugarman and it’s always a captivating story, a kind of final balancing of the Scales of Rock Justice.
We talk about movies like Band Called Death and Searching For Sugarman in a slightly different way than we do other types of documentaries. While at their core they outline the hard-won lessons of creating art and remaining true to oneself, part of the appeal of these documentaries is that they let us in early. Knowledge of the unknown is the most valuable form of social currency, and the hook behind the rediscovery of Sixto Rodriguez and Death is that you can get in on the ground floor and play tastemaker. These movies work, like all popular documentaries, not because they are compelling (although they are) but because their stories are personally valuable. They’re conversational turnkeys, perfect little sound bites to carry us through the Have You Heard and Have You Seen dance of party small talk with a bit of cachet. It’s all temporary of course, as the stories in A Band Called Death and Searching For Sugarman gyre out into wider circles of recognition, we—the audience—are forced to search for a new passion-project director resurrecting some new, best, unknown thing (or, you know, just keep our mouths shut at parties, but whatever).
If director Kieran Turner and Eschatone Records have their way, that next “unknown” thing will be Jobriath, so, if you’re not, you might as well get acquainted.
Jobriath was born Bruce Wayne Campbell on a military base in King Of Prussia, Pennsylvania in 1946, seventeen years before anyone thought the town would play home to the Country’s Largest Shopping Mall. Before he would die of HIV in 1983, relatively unknown and uneulogized, he would be a child prodigy pianist, a California prostitute, a member of Hair‘s Los Angeles ensemble, the first big-league openly gay rock musician, a tragic lounge singer, and briefly, with rock Svengali Jerry Brandt at the controls, a kind of spectacular firecracker flash in the pan of rock and roll history.
After a prodigious childhood playing piano and church organ, a tour of several nom de plumes, and a stint in the Army, little Bruce went AWOL and turned up in Los Angeles, where he landed a role as Woof—a Rolling Stones-obsessed, gay hippie struggling to reconcile his religion—in the Earl Carroll Theatre production of Hair. It was a role Bruce, now going by Jobriath Salisbury, was seemingly born to play. In 1969, Jobriath left Hair with cast mates Cheri Kohler Gage and Richard Marshall to form Pidgeon, a one-record baroque folk band with unisex harmonies to spare that didn’t coast very far. I imagine that they consumed a lot of drugs.
With Pidgeon grounded, Jobriath started sending out demo tapes, which caught the attention of Jerry Brandt, the owner of the East Village’s Electric Circus and former manager to Carly Simon. Brandt flew out to Los Angeles, pulled a street-hustling Jobriath from his life of destitute schizophrenic alcoholism, and flew him back to New York for a new life of glamorous, schizophrenic alcoholism. In 1973, Jobriath, now calling himself Jobriath Boone, signed a $500,000 deal with Elektra Records, with Brandt at the helm. As a benchmark, I would just like to note that that same year, the New York Dolls, a band that—unlike Jobriath’s—already had songs, a following, and a series of dates opening for Rod Stewart under their studded belts, signed a two-record contract with Mercury for $25,000. Comparative cigarette ash.
Brandt immediately began his PR assault and for a time Jobriath was everywhere. Brandt crowed to any journalist that would listen about his porcelain star and filled the pages of rock magazines with advertisements proclaiming “Jerry Brandt Presents… Jobriath.” Elektra ponied up $80,000 more and full-page ads ran in Vogue, Penthouse, Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Jobriath hadn’t played a single live note and Brandt was out strafing Music Week with quotes running him alongside the Beatles-Elvis-Stones Mt. Rushmore of Rock. A 47-foot billboard of a marble-Jobriath, naked and crawling on smashed legs, hung in Times Square. The hype was titanic, and at the center of it all was this fucking guy, Jobriath Boone, in a gallon of liquid eyeliner and a painted-on unitard.
Jobriath did not pussy-foot around. While Elton John and Freddie Mercury were snugly in the closet and Klaus Nomi was nothing above 14th Street, Jobriath was unabashedly declaring himself the “the true fairy of rock ‘n’ roll.” Elsewhere, the crazed androgyny of glam was all transgression-grubbing sizzle and no steak. David Bowie was pretty deliberately fooling no one with his prep-school overtures of bisexuality and Mick Jagger and his nail polish could ride that sneer of masculine sexual aggression past any name-calling, but Jobriath? Jobriath made no attempt to pass. “Asking me if I’m a homosexual is like asking James Brown if he’s black,” Jobriath told the press.
The album was great, not that it mattered. Songs like “Take Me I’m Yours” and “I’maman” boil with plunking show tune piano laid over ballad guitars and stadium rock hammered dulcimer. No one cared. Failure was the show the public wanted and Jobriath was a ready-made butt of the joke. A glittering, overinflated, gay balloon in a room full of tacks, Jobriath had been conscripted as a fey, overhyped failure the moment he’d hit the public spotlight. Everyone likes to watch Icarus melt his $500,000-wax-wing-publicity-campaign, but Jobriath’s unabashed homosexuality sweetened the deal for rock’s—for America’s—audience of de rigueur homophobes.
Album sales were limp, and by the time Elektra downgraded Jobriath’s live debut from the Paris Opera House to New York’s The Bottom Line, everyone had pretty much checked out. Jobriath and his backing band, The Creatures, did somehow manage to land themselves on an episode of “Midnight Special” alongside Gordon Lightfoot and Richie Havens. Watching the footage today, it’s hard to imagine a backlash-primed audience watching Jobriath walk on stage dressed in space-exploration chic without licking their lips in preparation for a laugh. There was a second album, “Creatures of the Street,” just six months later, but no one cared.
With his albums in the dollar bins, and his career remembered only as a cautionary tale of metastatic hype, Jobriath slunk off to the Chelsea Hotel to reinvent himself yet again. He spent his remaining days living in the Chelsea’s rooftop pyramid apartment, performing regularly under several names, most consistently as Cole Berlin, a winking Weimar-styled piano singer with a regular gig at the Covent Garden restaurant. He died alone in his bed from an AIDS-related illness on August 3, 1983—one week after the end of his original ten-year contract with Jerry Brandt expired.
But, like all good obscurity stories, Jobriath’s doesn’t end there. The cool kids dug through the bins and found his albums. He’s been name checked by Okkervil River and The Pet Shop Boys. Morrissey emerged as a particularly powerful advocate. (In 1992, Mozz, apparently unawares, even attempted to book a nine-years-in-the-grave-Jobriath as an opener on the “Your Arsenal” tour.) 1998 saw the release of “Lonely Planet Boy,” a compilation of previously unheard Jobriath recordings, on Morrissey’s own Attack! Records. In 2006, Def Leppard covered “Heartbeat” for a Wal-mart exclusive edition of “Yeah!.” Last year, Ann Magnuson, who was in the know all along, Kickstarted an album of Jobriath songs.
Jobriath A.D., a not-exactly-new but newly available 2012 documentary directed by Kieran Turner, chronicling Jobriath’s career, is more-than-compelling-enough to snag a mention in the New Yorker. Most exciting, though, are the projects coming out of Eschatone Records, the second of which is out in May. The Unreleased, Exclusive, Never Before Heard bounty of an eBay auction, paired with remastered recordings of rare bootlegs, “As The River Flows” is primed to be the kind of limited edition LP that both Jobriath obsessives and the broader community of Record Collecting People can curl their toes over.
At last, everything is coming up Jobriath. And yet, it’s still kind of sad. There is a chance, a big chance, that all this, the documentary, this new material, will just be as much a vehicle for telling the story as it is the actual end of the story. Jobriath, like Rodriguez and Death before him, isn’t primed for a comeback, not in the traditional sense anyway. Jobriath is primed to become a story, a curio—maybe only secondarily a delight to be listened to alone in one’s bedroom. Jobriath was wonderful but no one gets a second chance, and the hook for new fans will always be his meteoric rise and plummet. The only way to rescue someone from under-appreciation is to commodify it. That’s the sad part.
Kevin Sweeting is a person on the internet and other places also.