Rock's First Gay Icon
by Marianne Moro
Rock history is filled with tragedies, stories so sad or bizarre a fiction editor would dismiss them as unbelievable. Few of the stories are as tragic and well-hidden as that of Bruce Wayne Campbell, better known during his brief and tumultuous career in the music business as Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star.
Born in a trailer town in rural Pennsylvania, Bruce Wayne Campbell and his brothers lived with their father Jim after mom Marion left. After a stint in the army, Bruce fled to California. He began referring to himself as Jobriath, a contraction of "Job" and "Goliath." His piano playing and vocal ability impressed the producers of Hair, and he joined the famed Aquarius Theatre cast, playing the part of Woof until he was fired for "upstaging" other cast members. Soon after, he joined hippie rock band Pidgeon. The artwork for Pidgeon was nominated for a Grammy, but its unisex harmonies failed to wow record buyers. Decca Records dropped them.
Impresario Jerry Brandt, most famous for discovering Carly Simon and running the Electric Circus nightclub, heard a Jobriath demo tape in Clive Davis' New York office, and was so impressed he tracked the singer down in California. Davis had dismissed the demo as "mad and unstructured and destructive to melody." Listening to Jobriath's first album today, it doesn't sound that different from Ziggy Stardust, or the Scissors Sisters' artier sibling. And I don't agree with Clive's assessment that it totally lacks melody. While not commercial, it does catch the ear. "Imaman" fits in with the rest of early 70ís glam-rock, and "Movie Queen" is a campy piano and vocal show tune worthy of a Broadway musical.
Jerry Brandt instituted a whirlwind publicity campaign, and appointed himself Jobriath's svengali, adding his own comments when Jobriath was interviewed by the press. To hype the release, Brandt and Elektra Records erected a replica of the Jobriath album cover on a billboard in Times Square. The photo, of a crawling nude, plaster-white Jobriath, was pretty racy fare for 1973. Full-page ads also appeared in Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Penthouse, as well as a sidebar article in Newsweek's issue on Art in America. This PR barrage was extraordinary for a rock musician in the early 1970s, when socially unpalatable performers were relegated to the pages of Creem or Rock Scene.
The coy, sexual ambiguity of glam had hit the media full throttle: Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and David Bowie wore nail polish and flirted with bisexuality. Jobriath, however, was the real deal. He didnít camp it up for photographers and publicity, he lived the life, referring to himself in an article in Interview as a "true fairy." Reviews of the album and the tour that followed ranged from dismissive to downright abrasive; a glowing album review in Rolling Stone was the only positive beacon.
Jobriath's pronouncement of his homosexuality struck critics as yet another publicity stunt. Most of the writers clearly disliked the costumes, the flashiness, and the eclectic blend of a rock and a "show tunes" sound. Was it down to Jobriath being ahead of his time as an artist, was it because he was gay, or because he was perceived as riding on the coattails of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust? It was probably a combination of all three.
Despite the controversy and bad reviews, Jobriath appeared on the American TV show The Midnight Special in 1974. One can only imagine the scene backstage during rehearsal, when Jobriath and his band broke into "Take Me, I'm Yours," a song about sadomasochism. A compromise was reached, and the band performed the less offensive "Imaman" and "Rock of Ages" for the actual taping. Jobriath, introduced by host Gladys Knight, wore a circular spacesuit costume and received polite applause from the studio audience.
A second album, Creatures of the Street, was released in 1974 with no discernible fanfare from label or audience. The record flopped, and Brandt quit as manager, leaving Jobriath and his band to finish a brief tour without professional guidance. Their last show at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa generated four encores and provided a glimpse into what might have been. Without a record contract, Jobriath returned to New York to live in the pyramid apartment atop the Chelsea Hotel. He developed another alter-ego, cabaret singer Cole Berlin, and played piano in supper clubs until his death, of AIDS, in 1983.
Jobriath remained an enigma for years, rarely cited in the rock press and not even mentioned in Jerry Brandt's autobiography. With the recent acceptance of gay-related themes in mainstream culture, a spate of Jobriath fan-sites have sprung up. Long-lost video footage was recently featured on the VH-1 special From Below the Waist: Men, Women and Music. His life provided partial inspiration for the film Velvet Goldmine, and Morrissey, a longtime fan, has recently released Lonely Planet Boy, a 15-song compilation of Jobriath's two LPs, on his own Attack imprint (a division of Sanctuary Records). Morrissey himself wrote a brief introduction to the record, for which Robert Cochrane penned the mini-bio. Itís been alleged that Morrissey wanted Jobriath to open his 1992 tour, only to discover he had passed away ten years earlier. Appropriately, a record release party for Lonely Planet Boy was held in the Chelsea Hotel's basement bar.
ED NOTE: Collector's Choice records has reissued Creatures of the Streets and Jobriath.
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