In terms of popularity, America never produced an equivalent to David Bowie. But there was Jobriath, an unfortunate victim of record label hype and consumer indifference who produced what’s easily the USA’s purest expression of glam sensibilities.
Jobriath Boone, né Bruce Wayne Campbell is one of the more fascinating casualties in rock’s colorful history. Starting out in the ultra-obscure pop-folk-psyche group Pigeon (who recorded an LP and a single for Decca in ’69) after defecting from a Los Angeles production of Hair, his demo tape was stumbled upon by ‘70s mover-and-shaker Jerry Brandt, who managed to get him signed to Elektra Records for the reported sum of $500,000.
A barrage of publicity followed, including a billboard in Times Square and an appearance on the late night TV variety program The Midnight Special. Problem was, his ’73 debut tanked commercially, setting off a media backlash that left his follow-up Creatures of the Street to wither without promotion. His relationship with Brandt severed, Jobriath was held in the clutches of a ten year contract that kept him from recording any further material. Instead, he worked as a cabaret singer under the name Cole Berlin and lived in the Chelsea Hotel, where he died of AIDS in 1983.
Jobriath’s status as an openly gay musician sets him apart from his glam contemporaries. Where Bowie and others flirted with the perception of bi-sexuality, Jobriath made no bones about his sexual orientation. He described himself to the press as a “true fairy,” displaying frankness and flamboyance that surely damaged his chances with many observers hiding a closed mind in the closet, and in fact this defiant boldness situates Jobriath as an exponent of the camp theatricality that’s long been an aspect of gay culture.
For decades in the United States that blend of performance, tribute and irony was largely an underground phenomenon, and when it did appear in the open it was generally misapprehended by the “straight” public. The total package that is Jobriath (the hype, the image, the subject matter, the music) was a deliberate attempt to bring this theatrical tradition screaming from the margins and onto turntables from coast to coast in a supposedly more permissive era. Sadly, the times weren’t as progressive as Jobriath, Brandt, and Elektra thought.
Jobriath finds its auteur coming off like a smart kid of the urban streets seduced by museum culture, subversive literature and the endless display of glamour hosted in big city second-run movie palaces, along the way making the discovery that he, in the wise words of Ray Davies, was simply not like everybody else. From there he chose not to live in the shadows of a subculture, instead letting his freak flag fly. And if Jobriath’s numerous allusions to outer space inevitably draw comparisons to Bowie, the Tin Pan Alley derived “Movie Queen” (shades of Cole Berlin to come), with its references to Ginger Rogers and Busby Berkeley, allow the artist’s deepest motivations to surface.
Make no bones about it, the emergence of Jobriath wasn’t a punk maneuver intended to piss off the squares. Brandt comprehended his charge not as a fly in the ointment but as a legitimate superstar in the making (quoth Brandt: “it’s Crosby, Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles and Jobriath … no doubt about that”). The music, while suitably outlandish as befits the tenants of glam, was also situated firmly in the pop tradition, and the production by big-shot knob-twiddler Eddie Kramer eschews grit in favor of slickness. This clearly shows that the intention wasn’t to mold Jobriath as a controversial rock iconoclast with a niche following like Alice Cooper. No, they expected nothing less than domination of the pop charts.
If the public didn’t buy it, it wasn’t for lack of appropriate examples. Opener “Take Me I’m Yours” bursts forth in a manner similar to Bowie but with a large helping of Jagger-like strut and R&B backing singers blended in. Furthermore, both “Space Clown” and “Morning Star Ship” revel in the extraterrestrial themes glam-hounds were eating for breakfast at the time, and “World Without End” and “Rock of Ages” provide ample opportunity for stomping around in knee-high silver-glitter platform boots. It’s in tunes like the aforementioned “Movie Queen,” the undiluted study in gender attitudes that is “I’m a Man” and the imagery packed piano-based introspection of “Inside” that Jobriath is revealed to be much more than just a commercial failure in outré chic.
It’s fitting that Jobriath’s contemporary status, unlike other big expectation flops ranging from Moby Grape to Brinsley Schwarz to Big Star, continues to inspire a real diversity of opinion. Some folks (like Morrissey, who issued a Jobriath compilation titled Lonely Planet Boy on his Attack label in 2004) swear by him as one of pop music’s great lost icons, while others continue to view his marketplace flameout as a particularly flagrant example of record label excess and perceive the dude as a self-conscious artiste peddling image over talent. Obviously there are all sorts of views landing somewhere between those two poles.
My consideration is that Jobriath is a very important record with some serious problems. To begin, there are moments when the LP evokes not only the sound of Elton John (to be polite, far from my favorite artist) but also simply reeks of Meat Loaf (whose music I flat-out dislike). “Be Still” is the main offender, forecasting the sort of Loaf-ian power-balladry that ran rampant over a latter and much lesser incarnation of glam, specifically the ‘80s pop-metal scene (It’s no surprise Jobriath was covered by Def freakin’ Leppard).
In this Jobriath is surely historically relevant, but what saves him from the mire is how he’s far from stuck in this one zone of dubious quality; the rockers in his arsenal, unlike Meat Loaf’s appropriations of the form, unveil a sincere love and understanding of the rock impulse. It would have been nice if Eddie Kramer had at least attempted to deny his natural tendencies and allowed these songs to soar with guitar distortion and tougher bottom end. There is certainly guitar here, but it’s provided by none other than Peter Frampton (who’d left Humble Pie but had yet to really come alive), and while he does an okay job, suffice it to say he’s no Mick Ronson. This is ultimately the biggest difference between Bowie and Jobriath. The former, while continually adapting his persona to insure his audience never got bored, was a musician ultimately in control of his own thing; in contrast the latter was a young upstart being led by handlers that didn’t know The Stooges from The Standells.
But the record does hold its share of uncompromised and unexpected moments. “Earthling” is a left-field essay in Southern funk-rock, sounding a bit like Little Feat circa Dixie Chicken with the Dr. John of “Right Place, Wrong Time” sitting in on piano. Ol’ Mac even brought his backing vocalists to the party. How thoughtful of him. And Jobriath’s second side simply flows better than the first; lacking the reach out and goose ya’ bombast of “Be Still,”it better integrates the show-tune indulgences with his predilection for the rock and the glam. By the point of album closer “Blow Away” he actually succeeds at being more than just a stateside reaction to Bowie situated at the intersection of Hollywood and Broadway. Indeed, he sounds like the prickly pear that is Jobriath.
To my knowledge this record has never been reissued on LP. It is available on CD and digital (as is the also worthwhile Creatures of the Street), which makes it easy to check out before plunking down the big bucks for second hand vinyl. And anybody really wanting a true perspective on the sheer tumultuousness of ‘70s pop and rock needs to at least hear this gaudy behemoth. The tragic and ironically cinematic rise and fall of Jobriath deserves nothing less.
Graded on a Curve: C+