Graded on a Curve: Jobriath,
As the River Flows

For roughly thirty years there was no cult following for Bruce Wayne Campbell, the pioneering if doomed singer-songwriter/glam rocker known to small pockets of the planet’s inhabitants as simply Jobriath (invented surname Boone). Times have changed, however; Eschatone Records’ As the River Flows collects Jobriath’s ’71 demos, and while consistency still escapes him, the ten selections do combine into a modestly enlightening achievement.

Like many fizzled next-big-things Jobriath was nearly unknown in retrospect. About a year after getting clued in to the man’s existence I stumbled onto a pristine and unpriced copy of his eponymous ’73 Elektra debut. Carefully inquiring with the proprietor over the cost, I took it home for a mere buck, since the owner had never heard of him. In place of fervent worship for an undeniable (if only fitfully artistically successful) groundbreaker was an aura of failure inspired by an unfortunate combination of too much hype, obstacles of prejudice, and raw but unsharpened talent.

Jobriath wasn’t just a flop it was a highly expensive one; try $500,000 on for size. The discount glitz of the next year’s Creatures of the Night was released sans promotion and continued the nosedive. Having been discovered and shrilly over-promoted by the multitasking and massively self-aggrandizing bigwig Jerry Brandt (by comparison Clive Davis seems fairly down to earth), he was rapidly dropped by Elektra for lack of sales. He later lived on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel and worked as a cabaret singer under the apt pseudonym Cole Berlin. In 1983 Jobriath died, stricken by AIDS and basically forgotten.

Individuals did gradually begin rediscovering his music, and once they found it an added cruel twist developed, for Jobriath was rather obviously of the wrong era. This clearly pertains to his status as openly gay and defiantly flamboyant, but it also applies to his emergence and demise prior to music video’s true ascendency, that innovation theoretically well-matched for the layered complexity of Jobriath’s complete enchilada.

In a nutshell, he offered up pop with rock flourishes distinctively impacted by the undying allure of classic Hollywood and the theatrical zeal of Broadway. Most certainly glam and with an order of camp on the side, he was intrinsically linked to a subculture then only beginning to seep into the mainstream. The Stonewall Riots had occurred four years prior to Jobriath’s release, and while the populace at large wasn’t completely ignorant to non-normative sexual mores, there was still a dearth of knowledge and understanding combined with a lack of acceptance and hostility. And of course, high levels of denial.

The first LP and Creatures of the Night are interesting, occasionally fascinating and ultimately flawed, but they remain the crucial Jobriath documents, though to obtain full comprehension of his growth one should understand his artistic origins in the cast of Hair. After exiting that horrid spectacle he was (as Jobriath Salisbury) a member of the Los Angeles-based hippie band Pigeon. A group so diverse as to become faceless, they managed an album and a single for Decca.

More than just traces of those beginnings surface on As the River Flows, which rounds-up a pair of ’71 demo sessions, one with backup and the other solo at the piano; they serve as an illuminating if predictably patchy first chapter to the saga of the American glam superstar that never was. Opening track “Amazing Dope Tales,” plainly about drugs, blends social relevance with a streak of sensationalism and contains slight residue from Hair as it gives off mild Bowie vibes, though Jobriath infuses his piano-driven boogie pop with touches of distinct (if somewhat kooky) character.

Unique as a total entity, Jobriath’s sound was also informed by and perhaps sometimes just coincidentally analogous to certain contemporaries. Happily, As the River Flows lacks the first Elektra slab’s sporadic likenesses to fellow Hair alumnus Meat Loaf. But along with hints of diversity in the succinct “Wildfire in Memphis,” including a nifty flash of Lou Reed (check the way he drawls out the name of Selma Avenue), the song reintroduces the strains of Elton John, a tendency only mildly less problematic.

The setting where Jobriath’s personality really shines through is “I’maman,” interestingly one of just two songs to eventually feature on the debut. Initially skeletal as it oozes the unapologetic attitude of the brassy-throated auteur (he twice turns an “s” sound into a hiss that threatens to overwhelm the microphone), this version, in essence Jobriath’s anthem, also brandishes prime evidence of his classical training (“Fur Elise” is briefly discernible in the track’s later portion) and legit skill at crafting a tune. Had he not been so set on stardom, Jobriath could’ve made a decent living as a songwriter.

Nevertheless, he was far from consistent at this point (or ever, really). Please see the overripe post-post-post-Dylan lyrical imagery of “Ducky Lullaby”; lubricated with faux-country-tinged corn, it gets additionally tangled up in then-contempo modes (more Elton with faux-vaudeville strokes recalling Nilsson and even Randy Newman) as the band flaunts adeptness bordering on the garish, effectively foreshadowing the decade’s studio slickness to come. It then morphs into full-tilt boogie as Jobriath extendedly riffs on The Wizard of Oz, providing an intriguing reference to a ‘70s gay cultural touchstone.

“Little Dreamer” features restrained backing, mixing lite folk (all that’s missing is a lilting flute) and the encroaching sound of soft pop, though once the keys kick in the Bowie-esque fumes mingle with what resonates to these lobes like Carole King. If this seems surprising, it shouldn’t; Jobriath might’ve been transgressive in lifestyle, but in purely musical terms he was rarely glam-punk (a la New York Dolls or Alice Cooper), his intent often unabashedly pop.

A few of the tunes here meander a bit but “So Long, Miss Jagger” feels a tad undernourished, essentially radiating like ol’ Reg Dwight at the keyboard with a severe case of the boogie-woogie flu. As such it’s alright, but much better is “City Freak,” the oddity of the disc and also its finest sustained moment. It fuses twee motions (the vocals are suddenly head-cold nasally, Jobriath’s adenoidal tone a strange compliment to the lyrical doozy “My old lady is a city freak”) with further flare-ups of country-rock twang (notably, Tumbleweed Connection had just hit big).

Increasingly downtrodden atmosphere crescendos and climaxes, and following a digression into a solid rock groove, a return to the opening fragility completes “City Freak.” Not far from aspects of Pigeon’s LP (though bluntly of higher quality) it leads directly to “Inside,” the second of the songs that made it onto Jobriath and a revisit to solo mode.

Revealing the depth of the artist’s pop ambitions via ambiance of substantial melancholy, the intensity of this less glossy version, piano struck hard (indeed, at spots hammered), is maybe the closest Jobriath came to a recognizably proto-punk gesture. And the title track is the most Bowie-esque spot on the entire disc, though it’s also waist deep in the left-field Southern Rock angle that turned up on the first album; it tosses in some chick backup throats as icing on a most curious cake.

Well, not quite. “Ducky Lullaby (reprise)” is truth in advertising, this time the singer going it alone with his 88s, and as one of the least appealing songs in Jobriath’s book, it’s not exactly an auspicious way to end the record. The band’s overly precise ardor is gone, but it’s unfortunately replaced by (heads up to fans of Rick Dees) vocal sounds approximating a talking duck, an element reinforcing his thankfully largely latent tendency toward the zany.

But, the plus side; while the incrementally rising number of Jobriath diehards will surely scoff, the deeply inconsistent As the River Flows twists my ear as the artist’s strongest statement, and it’s not just those absent Loaf-ist inclinations. Eddie Kramer’s burdensomely polished production, inextricably part of the first LP’s makeup, is also absent, as is the Jaggerish strutting and the lyrical gestures to outer space (truthfully, I kind of miss these last two items).

These demos do expose a few unexpected wrinkles and reinforce what could’ve transpired had Jobriath conquered the pitiless hands of fate and rode a silver- lamé rocket to the top of the charts. He possibly would’ve sidestepped Bowie and even Elton, to say nothing of the Loafer, and instead aimed for a target with a bulls-eye suspiciously resembling the uncomely mug of Billy Joel. It’s just conjecture, of course; that the possibility is raised illuminates As the River Flows’ value.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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