Unsung Figures No.4: Jobriath

“The hairy beasts who wrote for the music press laughed Jobriath off the face of the planet. He was, at best, merely considered to be ‘insane’. It was clear that Jobriath was willing to go the gay distance, something that even the intelligentsia didn’t much care for. Elton John knew this in 1973; Jobriath didn’t. Surrounded on all sides by Journey, Styx, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Jobriath was at society’s mercy. Yet it could have worked so well.” – Morrissey.

“There’s no success like failure” sang Bob Dylan some 8 years before Jobriath’s debut lp was released, “and failure’s no success at all” the line continues, words that actually quite neatly sum up Jobriath’s career. The most successful thing he ever did was fail, his fall from grace being so exquisitely set up as to almost be deliberate, the kind of thing you might write about if you were looking to create a rock star character for a film or a play. However, there’s nothing romantic about Jobriath’s short career. It is instead an example of just how brutal and ruthless the music industry can be if despite all the hype your face is the wrong one for that time and place.

Bruce Wayne Campbell was born in Pennsylvania on December 14th 1946, and later raised in Houston, Texas. Showing musical talent from an early age learning piano and apparently being thought of as a bit of a prodigy. In his late teens he was conscripted to the army going AWOL after a few months and turning up in Los Angeles having renamed himself Jobriath Salisbury. Not long after he secured a role in the enormously successful counter-culture musical play Hair in the role of Woof, having initially only turned up at the audition to play piano for a friend. He left hair in 1969 to form the rock band Pidgeon who were briefly signed to Decca releasing just the one album in 1969 before a lack of sales condemned the band to obscurity.

It was around about this time that the military police caught up with him. Desertion was a grave offense carrying a custodial sentence. The arrest though sent Jobriath in to a mental breakdown and he was instead placed inside a psychiatric hospital for 6 months. It was here that he apparently started writing some of the songs that would end up on his first album.

It was in December 1972 that Jerry Brandt, manager, impresario and the man who discovered Carly Simon and managed her to fame heard a demo in the Columbia records offices and decided to track him down. By this time Jobriath was down and out in California, living in a sparse apartment and working as a prostitute. A short while later he would be signed to Elektra records for a then record sum of $500,000 and whilst the first album was being readied for release the record company embarked on a lavish promotional campaign which culminated in a giant billboard poster in Times Square, as well as posters on buses and double-page adverts in numerous magazines.

When, after weeks of hype, the album was finally released it garnered mostly positive reviews, with Rolling Stone praising him highly. With it’s air of louche theatricality and Jobriath’s drawling Jagger-esque delivery it’s an engaging and genuinely interesting record which displays an impressive musical depth and range. Despite everything though, including the TV appearance the clips here are taken from, the album simply failed to sell in anything like the anticipated quantities. Within six months a second lp Creatures Of The Street was released to a stunted reception. Journalists were now beginning to turn on him as he flopped in the most public manner. For all the hype the records simply wouldn’t sell, the public who probably figured he could never live up to the billing he’d been given simply weren’t interested enough to go and buy them.

Jobriath promotional poster

Why was this? There are multiple factors. Firstly, the frequent Bowie comparisons had a damaging effect reducing Jobriath to an echo of someone else, a copyist cashing in on a current trend. The trend was glam and androgynous and outrageous singers such as Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Elton John were already huge stars and unlike Jobriath they weren’t also openly gay. Bowie and Bolan were both straight and Elton John, as Morrissey points out above, was clever enough to play the game in a music business run by and dominated by the ideals of heterosexual men and a wider cultural climate where attitudes towards homosexuality were derogatory and often outright hostile.

But maybe more than anything else it was the hype that hampered his career. At this time Brandt was prone to making outrageous remarks about Jobriath to anyone and everyone but this for an artist who had yet to tour, his only live public appearance so far being on TV show The Midnight Special. His live debut would follow shortly after but still the albums wouldn’t sell. He simply wasn’t catching the public imagination. A proper tour finally followed, something which in hindsight should have happened much sooner, but to no avail. Halfway through the tour both Elektra and Brandt finally lost patience and dropped him before the tour could finish. At the last show they played the crowd were so impressed they demanded five encores. He was finally finding an audience. It was way too little, way too late.

From the mid-70’s onwards Jobriath lived in a rooftop apartment at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. He eventually ended up singing cabaret in various places whilst still occasionally working as a prostitute. At some point in the early 80’s he was diagnosed with AIDS, still then a relatively new disease. On August 3rd 1983 he finally succumbed to it.

In the years since the music of Jobriath has slowly begun to receive fair appraisal, stripped as it is now of it’s original cultural context and as such able to be viewed on its own terms. Listening to them today one can’t help but think that maybe Jerry Brandt was right to have championed him so lavishly. Rolling Stone had written that Jobriath had “talent to burn” and the music he left behind certainly points to someone with a powerful creative force inside him. In a parallel universe somewhere he undoubtedly became the biggest rock star in history. Here in this universe though it seems people just weren’t ready for him.

 

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