[17 October 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Ill-fated glam rocker Jobriath is probably best remembered, if he’s remembered at all, as rock’s first proudly and openly gay star. Except that he was never a star. Burning out before he ever rose, Jobriath became a footnote in the constantly contracting and expanding universe of rock and roll, more famous for being a spectacular flop than for his contributions to the music scene in 1973. Sometimes he is mentioned in conversations about over-hyped, barely-talented artists because of the grandiose publicity claims that preceded his first album, as well as the backlash that followed. It’s a shame, really, because some of his work is actually quite good.
Positioned as an American counterpoint to David Bowie, Jobriath was born Bruce Wayne Campbell (Jobriath was supposedly a combination of “Job” and “Goliath”—how’s that for mixed metaphors?) and could have been the next big thing. Indeed, he was billed as such. But instead of blazing a triumphant arc across the night sky, his ascension was arrested. Whether it was his unabashedly camp and unapologetically theatrical style, or simply that the world wasn’t ready to accept the overt declaration of his sexuality, Jobriath and his career became victims of his own over the-top personality.
Relegated to obscurity since the original release dates of his two studio albums for Elektra Records, and obviously never the star he was supposed to become, Jobriath has been briefly resurrected (or at least referenced) in public pop-culture consciousness occasionally over the last 30-odd years. There’s the spectacular 1998 Todd Haynes ode to glam, Velvet Goldmine, and most recently the song “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” by Okkervil River. Now, those almost forgotten albums, Jobriath and Creatures of the Street, are simultaneously receiving the re-release treatment from Collectors’ Choice.
Turned down by no less than Clive Davis, who apparently thought he was “mad and unstructured, and musically destructive to melody,” Jobriath was picked up by Jerry Brandt, who was then manager to Carly Simon. Brandt hyped him to anyone that would listen, and many who wouldn’t, and connected him with co-producer and engineer Eddie Kramer (who worked with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, among others) and a post-Herd and Humble Pie Peter Frampton to make his self-titled debut.
Jobriath is a surprisingly solid collection of songs. The first track, “Take Me I’m Yours”, is a brash and cocky raver, with an irresistible chorus in the grand glam tradition. Other high points are the show-stoppingly dynamic “Be Still” and “Morning Star Ship”, while its “Inside” is a beautiful, haunting, and wholly appropriately melodramatic ballad that doesn’t strain to strike heartstrings. However, many of the elements that elevate this album are the same details that dragged it—and Jobriath—down. David Bowie’s feyness was feigned, but nothing about Jobriath’s gayness was glam affectation (he is quoted as saying, “I’m a true fairy”). Bowie, Bolan, and even Lou Reed’s not-so-veiled references to their “Are-they-or-aren’t-they?” sexual status and their winking, tongue-in-cheek lyrics were harmlessly coy when compared with the chorus to “Blow Away”. “Blow, blow, blow away / It’s very gay to blow away” is sung with all the subtly of a billboard in Times Square. Sometimes it is possible to have too much of a good thing, even if that thing is excess itself.
Though regularly and somewhat unfairly compared to Bowie, it’s clear that Jobriath’s influences were more silent film and Great White Way-cum-cabaret than Bowie’s British dancehall camp (“Movie Queen” is the perfect example of this, given its tinkling piano, Busby Berkeley reference, and leading man vocal delivery.). And although imagery of space aliens and starships is associated with Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane-era Bowie, it should be noted that many other artists, from T-Rex and Roxy Music to King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, were exploring science fiction or similar themes in song at the time.
Creatures of the Street hardly received any media attention at all when it was released two years after the first album. It suffered the harsh repercussions of all the hype that accompanied its predecessor. This was unfortunate, because this album also contains some diamonds in the rough, though they are fewer—and rougher—than those on Jobriath.
If Jobriath was merely an appropriation of glam rock, then Creatures of the Street was Jobriath’s requisite rock opera. It’s more Jesus Christ Superstar than Tommy, but it’s not an illogical next step for a performer who cut his teeth in productions of Hair. The star of his own show, Jobriath plays the character created on his first album, while simultaneously adding autobiographical asides. Long before Bowie hit Hollywood, Jobriath was playing the man who fell to earth. He may not have created the role, by this point he may even have despised it, but he nevertheless reprised it.
Also resuming their roles from the first album were Frampton, Kramer, and vocalist Peggy Nestor. Other noteworthy contributors included Pretty Purdy, Cornell Dupree, and John Paul Jones. Creatures of the Street plays like a soundtrack for an unfinished film. We meet all the tragic icons: fallen stars and fickle lovers, faded heroines and false idols. Archetypes are portrayed as fools of fortune, each more desperate than the next. Sonically, these songs are amazing, the arrangements impressive in their blend of gospel and soul flourishes over rock and classical structures, and Jobriath’s voice is brilliant as he inhabits his characters.
Sadly, this picture is without a plot. Something crucial is missing, and it’s the elusive ingredient that would make these tracks more cohesive. That’s not to say they are bad, but it’s as if they are the disconnected threads of incidental music, filling space within the score. As a whole, there are moments worthy of applause and ovations, but few of these songs would stand up outside this seedy theatre. However, even the most flawed films have their riveting scenes, and Creatures of the Street has “Heartbeat”, a backlit, black and white, soft-focus shot of unrequited longing; “Street Corner Love” with its scenery-chewing, bragging, Jagger-esque swagger; the big-budget, chorus-girl production number of “Dietrich/Fondyke”; and “Ooh La La”, a sexual sing-along serving as comic relief that resurfaces in an end-of-album reprise. As the credits roll, it lends the illusion of a happy ending.
Jobriath didn’t have a happy ending, of course. Bruce Wayne Campbell died in his rooms at the Chelsea Hotel in 1983 as a result of AIDS complications. He died in the same way he had lived the last years of his life, wasting away in the darkness of obscurity while performing lounge standards under yet another alias, “Cole Berlin”. He never achieved the heights of stardom to which he had aspired. But perhaps it’s possible, more than three decades on, that this world might be ready, finally, to embrace Jobriath and Creatures of the Street, and to appreciate the unique artistry of a man who was not so alien after all.
Jobriath was a star that never shone. Perhaps these reissues will finally allow this once earthbound space clown to take his place in the heavens.