By Dave Thompson
It’s been a very long and rocky road, but at last it seems that Jobriath is finally getting the respect he deserves.
The first openly gay American rock star, if we accept that “stardom” was conferred more by column inches than popularity, Pennsylvania-born Jobriath Boone cut two albums for Elektra at the height of the glam boom, was hyped to the heavens by record label and management and was probably the source of more gallant legends and rumors than any other act of the age.
Gallant, as in saying he’d played the Paris Opera House when he’d barely even walked past it. Gallant as in claiming Elektra paid a million bucks for the privilege of releasing his records, when the true total was around $80,000. And, best of all, gallant as in manager Jerry Brandt’s insistence that Jobriath was as different from David Bowie as “a Lamborghini is from a Model A Ford. They’re both cars, it’s just a question of taste, style, elegance and beauty.”
Sadly, in the motor showroom of life, it was Bowie who had the wheels. Jobriath was the guy at the side of the road, with his thumb stuck hopefully out for a lift. Two albums made it out before Elektra pulled the plug — a self-titled debut in late 1973, and “Creatures of the Street” the following year, and while both have since appeared on CD, they remain hot ticket vinyl items simply because …
Well, because they look so good, and sound even better. Reviews at the time tended towards scathing, but that was critics reacting to the hype. If they’d actually bothered to play the records — which those of us who bought them did constantly — they’d have discovered a vein of singer-songwritery élan that would have slipped almost effortlessly into FM rotation, regardless of how the U.S. felt about glam rock. Which, of course, was not especially benevolently.
Even today, those albums pulsate with vivid life, and — even better — you can still pick them up for comparative pennies on the collectors circuit.
The first is probably the best: grand, grandiose, obsessive, precocious, pretentious, a smorgasbord of over-bearing rock hooks (“World Without End” and “Earthling” are even funky), fronted by a singer who dreams of divas, and overrun with aliens, Pierrot and forgotten celluloid heroes. A few years later, Meat Loaf would take a similar grasp on the vastness of excess and make a million. Jobriath made a millstone, but the parallels are apparent all the same. Heartfelt ballad as medieval battering ram.
But “Creatures…” is dynamic, too; a glorious mash of ambition and insanity, a rock opera layered with real operatics, and a soundtrack for every great movie that needed music to match, seen through a prism of loneliness and tears.
Peopled by fallen stars and forgotten heroines, icicle icons and tragic auteurs, there is surely a touch of autobiography here, as Jobriath came to terms with the knowledge that the media generally considered him a joke, and his own record company only put up with him in the hope he’d recoup their investment. But whereas other period slabs of personal angst tended toward lachrymose self indulgence, “Creatures of the Street” retched defiance and decadence, failure as an art form in its own right. It is probably pure coincidence that the average iPhone autocorrect transforms Jobriath’s name into “job rusty.” But there’s a ravaged aptness to that description, too, and when Jobriath disappeared in the album’s aftermath, not many people shed a tear.
Only the fans.
Goldmine first investigated the phenomenon that was Jobriath in the old Footnote Archives column back in the early 1990s, and it was the man’s first appearance in any but the most mocking print since the mid-1970s. Much of the story was still rumor at the time; it had not even been confirmed that Jobriath was dead (an early victim of AIDS, in 1983), and that sad fact remained so obscure that, at one point, Morrissey was actively hoping to coax him out of retirement to open on his next U.S. tour. And it was Morrissey’s interest that began opening other eyes as the decades progressed.
Jobriath was at least a partial inspiration behind the movie “Velvet Goldmine,” and both original albums were reissued by Collectors’ Choice. VH-1 included him in a turn-of-the-century glam rock documentary, although the impact was sadly diminished by the insistence of one of the so-called experts on mispronouncing his name Jobraith. A typo on the cue cards, perhaps?
Still, more info was uncovered, more past colleagues were unearthed. Jobriath’s appearance on Midnight Special was rediscovered and, most excitingly of all, more music was exhumed. In 2004, Morrissey himself curated a compilation, “Lonely Planet Boy,” which featured the previously unreleased “I Love a Good Fight.” A decade later, Eschatone Records released a full album of new Jobriath material, “As The River Flows,” digging deeper into the archive than we’d ever gone before.
And still there’s more. Newly released by Factory 25, “A Rock’n’Roll Fairy Tale — Popstar: The Lost Musical” is a lavishly packaged slab of vinyl that serves up what could have been the third Jobriath album and demos for a rock musical that he conceived in 1977, which he titled “The Beauty Saloon.” (“Popstar” was arrived at later, once the demos were complete.)
He never completed work on it, although the 36 minutes of music here represent two separate versions of the piece, the first recorded with piano alone; the second, a fuller set of demos. Neither, then, offers more than a taste of what their creator envisioned — which would surely have been as vivaciously over-the-top as either of the Elektra albums. But both capture completely the sheer energy and imagination that Jobriath called his own, and a vision that we can only regret was never given the full rein it deserved.
And if that was the end of the story, we’d be happy enough. But there’s more. Wrapped up within the gatefold sleeve, a DVD brings us “Jobriath A.D.,” director Kieran Turner’s documentary of the Jobriath story, and at last the fulfillment of all the research that has gone into recalling the singer’s true story.
As is always the case with such projects, there are probably more talking heads than we really need, and anybody versed in pop’s most glittery history will cringe a little at the sight of Joe Elliott, that most ubiquitous of glam rock rent-a-mouths. One day, someone will resurrect a career that he doesn’t have something to say about.
But at least they’re all enthusiastic (and they don’t misspeak Jobriath’s name), and there’s sufficient archive footage, too, to show us why the man deserves such attention. Because rock history is not always written by the winners, as the likes of the Velvets and the Stooges remind us, and the story that Turner tells on the disc is as glorious as either of those bands can muster.
Indeed, in the world of recent rockumentaries, “Jobriath A.D.” leaves most of its competitors for dead, and Jobriath himself is reborn as something more than the star who forgot to shine, which is how most of his fans tend to remember him. Today, he shines, regardless.