The first openly gay rock star, Jobriath–who died from AIDS in 1983–was for decades a lost cult figure beloved by the underground cognoscenti, a whispered name, his songs listened to and played by those in the know. With Jobriath A.D., director Kieran Turner, our guest tonight, delves into Jobriath’s story to explore his life and the prevailing forces of both society and the music industry.
In 1968, a young man arrived at the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles. Jobriath Salisbury was there to play the piano at a friend’s audition for “Hair;” he walked away with the role of Woof, the (implied) gay character. When “Hair” went to New York, Jobriath went too, and landed a recording deal, releasing one album as the band “Pidgeon.” Jobriath was AWOL from the military and ended up arrested and sentenced to six months in a psychiatric hospital.
A reaction to the dying flower child movement, glam and glitter rock were building–Marc Bolan, David Bowie, the New York Dolls. Jobriath was discovered by a sleazy hotshot of William Morris, Jerry Brandt, who had discovered Carly Simon and brought the Rolling Stones to the U.S.
I am the true fairy of rock and roll.
Brandt–who admits in the film he wanted to be famous, and wanted to be Colonel Parker to Jobriath’s Elvis—signed Jobriath to a ten-year management contract, and secured a deal with Elektra Records. He began hyping Jobriath way out in front of the record’s release. Part of that hype was that Jobriath was the first truly gay rock star.
Yes there were bisexual rock stars–Bowie, Elton John were the most visible–and yes, Gay Pride was on the rise four years after Stonewall and six years after the Black Cat riot in Los Angeles. But Brandt put the entire focus of his marketing push on Jobriath’s sexuality, virtually ignoring the music:
The true fairy of rock and roll
became the Jobriath mantra, and Jobriath, who was overshadowed by Brandt in the majority of interviews, shyly admits that he wants people to recognize him as gay and that while other men
may wear eyeshadow because it’s chic, I’m no pretender.
And as pointed out by Jim Fouratt, an activist and music industry insider, that may not have been the best move. By 1973, gay men where embracing more traditionally masculine stereotypes, sporting mustaches and macho dress, while mainstream America itself just wasn’t ready for an openly gay rock star.
By the time the record came out, critics were tired by the hype, and more importantly, so was the public. While some of the reviews were good, the record suffered dismal sales and the band was heckled, with an audience in Long Island screaming
A self-admitted huckster who wanted to be P.T. Barnum, Brandt claimed a tour of Europe was in the works, kicking off at the Paris Opera House. The tour never materialized, though costumes and sets were designed and rehearsals went full force. Instead, Jobriath and his band The Creatures played a series of small venues, appearing in jeans and T-shirts. Their appearance on “The Midnight Special”, was a disaster, their second record wasn’t selling. A rousingly successful five-encore gig at the University of Alabama ended the tour, and marked the end of Jobriath. Elektra dropped him; Brandt, claiming to be broke and that he had done all this for love, walked away.
Afraid he would be hampered by Brandt’s contract, and with no one else willing to take him on because of Brandt, Jobriath moved back home with his mother for a contentious period before returning to New York. He hustled under the name of Joby and lived at the infamous Chelsea hotel in a small two story apartment at the top. Playing piano non-stop, he uncovered another persona: Cole Berlin/Bryce Campbell, and reinvented himself as a cabaret performer whose popularity began to rise just as AIDS hit New York in full force. Jobriath was one the casualties.
The interviews with Jobriath’s friends, musicians–including Marc Almond, Jayne County, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters, the very creepy Jerry Brandt, and Jobriath’s youngest brother Will, who reveals much of the artist’s early life, paint a portrait of sensitive genius who was destroyed by a Svengali and a society, neither of which understood the full depths of his talent nor the tenderness of his soul.