Jobriath. To the precious few music nerds who even recognize it, the name often evokes giggles and eye-rolls. Jobriath (a.k.a. Bruce Campbell) is largely known as an over-hyped glam-rock flop and a symbol of the ridiculous excesses of the music industry of the ’70s. But to those in the know, Jobriath was also an immensely talented young musician with a deliciously theatrical flare. He also has the distinction of being the first openly gay rock star signed to a major label.
In contrast to artists like David Bowie or the New York Dolls who teased fans with the suggestion of bisexuality, Jobriath was marketed as “the true fairy of rock ’n’ roll,” a label that arguably led to one of the largest commercial failures the music business has ever seen. After dismal album sales and a sublimely bizarre appearance on Midnight Special, the music industry turned its back on Jobriath, and he ultimately died penniless and alone in 1983 from AIDS-related complications.
And that’s the story that documentarian Kieran Turner set out to tell with his film Jobriath A.D., which closes this year’s Fairy Tales film festival. Turner became fascinated with Jobriath’s music and his story after picking up a compilation of his recordings, issued by Morrissey in 2004. He set out to find and interview Jobriath’s friends, family and collaborators to create a remarkably comprehensive documentary that features key players including Jobriath’s younger brother and his notorious manager, Jerry Brandt, who many blame for Jobriath’s spectacular downfall.
Turner says he went out of his way to present all of his subjects in the most neutral light possible. While it would be easy to pin Jobriath’s lack of sales on Brandt’s over-the-top marketing and bad managerial decisions — or solely on his sexual identity — Turner believes that the real story is much more complex.
“I felt like there wasn’t one particular thing that contributed to the failure of Jobriath as a glam rock star,” Turner says. “There were several things that came together in creating this perfect storm of failure. I think to blame Jerry for everything is somewhat reductive. Did Jerry make mistakes? Yes he did. Did he do it maliciously? I don’t think so.”
Looking back at footage of Jobriath from a 2012 perspective, his act doesn’t seem particularly outlandish compared to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust get-ups or (the closeted) Freddie Mercury’s theatrical performances, but in 1973, an overt proclamation of homosexuality spelled career suicide. As Turner points out, Jobriath’s openness is even more remarkable when you consider that gay artists are still seen as anomalies in mainstream pop music.
“When I talk about mainstream, I’m not talking about people like Rufus Wainwright or the Scissor Sisters, who are marginal in this country,” Turner says. “It took 36 years for another mainstream pop artist to come out of the closet at the beginning of his career, and that was Adam Lambert. You either have people like Rufus or the Scissor Sisters, or you have people like Ricky Martin or Elton John, who had many years of success before they came out.”
Turner hopes that his film will remove some of the stigma from Jobriath’s failure to break through in terms of record sales, and also secure him some respect in both musical and LGBT history. Because underneath the hype, the theatricality, and the rightful title of World’s First Gay Rock Star, Jobriath was a gifted songwriter and musician who was in so many ways cheated of his chance to be heard.
“My goal was to really tell this person’s story, but also to have people hear his music,” Turner says. “There’s a story there, but if the music isn’t good, then why bother telling it?”