Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

The making and breaking of rock’s first openly gay star

Jobriath dreamed of combining Dietrich with Dylan and playing at the Paris Opera. Then reality bit

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Paris Opera was the only stage in the world big enough for the ambitions of Jobriath Boone. The 26-year-old American, whose self-titled debut album was released 50 years ago this week, was the most hyped act of the year, and his planned stage debut – three nights at the city of light’s famous venue, followed by a tour of the major opera houses of Europe – was a measure of the outlandish publicity surrounding him. 

Discovered by bombastic impresario Jerry Brandt and signed to Elektra Records for a reported $500,000, the young man was rendered as a ghostly-white nude classical statue on the scandalous cover of his LP, and this image was pasted across the side of hundreds of New York buses and over a 47-foot billboard in Times Square. Meanwhile, the shock value of Jobriath’s sexuality was milked for all it was worth, as he happily told the press, “I’m a true fairy!”

But the grand debut never happened. Instead, the launch of Jobriath Boone as the next great thing (“Elvis, The Beatles, Jobriath,” Brandt said) came a year later at New York’s Bottom Line club, a long way from the gilded opulence of the Paris Opera. The half-a-million-dollar deal was more like $50,000 and just another part of Brandt’s hype, and by early 1975 Jobriath had announced his retirement from music. A decade after his glory year of 1973, he was dead, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. Forgotten for years afterwards, when he was remembered it was as a joke, a poor man’s Ziggy Stardust who managed to crash and burn before he even got off the launch pad.

But Bruce Wayne Campbell, as he had been born, was far more than mere ephemeral hype. A childhood piano prodigy with a love of Prokofiev, he channelled his rare musical intelligence into an eponymous album that was a unique and intriguing contribution to the seedy New York end of glam rock populated by the likes of Lou Reed and the New York Dolls.

And the plan to debut in Europe’s most palatial venues was not just hubris, but a mark of his channelling of decadent European glamour and the spirit of the inter-war cabarets, with Brandt calling him “a combination of Dietrich, Marceau, Nureyev, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Nijinsky, Bernhardt, the best of Jagger, Bowie, Dylan, with the glamour of Garbo”.

Jobriath’s real significance, however, was also the thing that played a large part in his commercial failure – he was the first out gay rock star in history. While glam’s big hitters embraced androgyny but had the insurance policy of a wife at home, Jobriath sought no such get-out clause, saying, “Asking me if I’m homosexual is like asking James Brown if he’s black.” His song I’maman was an unapologetic statement of gay pride, declaring himself “Light of step and soft of touch/ A gentle man”, making the promise (or, to some, threat) “I would love you the way a man loves a woman”, and pleading, “So let me be what I am/ An elegant man”. Such burning honesty was a gamble that did not pay off.

It all began far from Parisian glamour, in the obscure King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Bruce Campbell was the son of a military man and an adored mother who left to have a second family when he was on the brink of adolescence. With his musical talent undervalued at home, and finding his college music course too elementary, he dropped out and joined the army. He quickly went AWOL and drifted to LA. 

Despite being pursued by the military police, Campbell appeared in Hair and joined Decca-signed folk-rock band Pidgeon. Eventually arrested and confined to a military psychiatric hospital, he was “floating down in the gutter”, as he put it, by the time Brandt tracked him down, having heard a promising early demo tape. Brandt quickly got the young man into the studio while busily recasting his image as an ethereal, effeminate alien.

Jobriath recorded his debut at Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York under Beatles engineer Eddie Kramer, with much of the chorus line of Hair on backing vocals and Peter Frampton on guitar. The result was startling. While there was plenty that fitted the prevailing musical zeitgeist – World Without End had the gothic drama of Alice Cooper, Morning Star Ship was an accomplished Southern Rock-tinged ballad, Rock of Ages was in the balls-out rock ‘n’ roll style of Aladdin Sane, which was released just two months before Jobriath – there was much more that suggested a truly unique talent. 

Take Me I’m Yours, a deceptively cheerful ode to sadomasochism (“Any day you could buy me or tie me up/ A slave to your perversity”) opened the album, but it was testament to Jobriath’s creative breadth that it was followed by Be Still, an incredibly tender piano ballad. The sparse and compelling Inside deserves a place in the distinguished list of songs about the streets of New York, its “little yellow raincoats running in the rain” full of pathos. 

These songs suggested that, with less meaningless noise around him, Jobriath might have emerged as a ‘piano man’ singer-songwriter in the mould of Elton John or Billy Joel, just far more interesting. And then there was I’maman which, with its mix of baroque harpsichord and screaming rock guitars and its lyrical inventiveness (“Clara Bows and open toes are what I am”), had quality far beyond simply being a ‘message’ song.

Unleashed upon the public in June 1973, the album garnered some positive reviews. Rolling Stone said the LP exhibited “honest, personal magnetism and talent to burn”. But for others, the lyrical allusions to space, compounded by his otherworldly image, meant unfavourable comparisons to Bowie, and Jobriath’s personality was sometimes lost among the sheer scale of the album’s ambition. For other sections of the macho music press, the overt gayness was just too much, the NME pejoratively titling their review “The fag-end of glam rock”.

With mixed reviews, and no immediate live shows to promote it, the album did not even chart. Another LP, Creatures of the Street, followed in January 1974 with no more success. But Jobriath was not yet over. In early March 1974, he was introduced as “the act of tomorrow” on The Midnight Special, a show watched by millions. As he launched into the confrontational I’maman, and later appeared wearing a hot pink bodystocking, what set him apart from his glam rock contemporaries was instantly clear. While their ‘gender bending’ had a reassuringly masculine rock ‘n’ roll aggression as its bedrock, Jobriath was camp through and through. At this point of the 1970s, it was all too much too soon, and even some sections of the gay community resented the effeminacy of this self-appointed representative. 

It all fell apart from there. July’s Bottom Line show was panned as overpromising and underdelivering to the nth degree, the putative star emerging, not as Marlene Dietrich, but in jeans and t-shirt. Jobriath began an underwhelming tour of small venues, but the record company dropped him, leaving him abandoned mid-tour. As fast as he had been crowned the next big thing, Jobriath was labelled not even a has-been but a never-been. Chewed up and spat out by the music industry, and embittered against Brandt, who he accused of ripping him off financially, Jobriath went home to live with his mother. 

But another musical incarnation was still to come. Cole Berlin, his lounge singer act based on the Great American Songbook, gained a cult following after he returned to New York. In 1981, a BBC documentary about Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel captured Jobriath, who was then living in the hotel’s pyramid-topped rooftop apartment, in bow tie and tails, playing a white grand piano and performing the title song from Sunday Brunch, a play he had written about New York as a literally cannibalistic society. 

All the talent that the Brandt hype had obscured is clear in those few minutes of film, and as a healthily muscled and tanned Jobriath speaks enthusiastically about the ‘incredible flashes of creativity’ that the pyramid’s ‘energy’ brings him, it is clear that his bruising experience with Brandt had not dimmed his artistic spark. Tragically, his health began to fail over the months that followed, and he was found dead in that apartment two years later. He was 36.

It would be here in Britain that Jobriath’s flame was revived. Morrissey wanted to book him as a support act in the early 1990s, unaware he had died almost a decade before, and spearheaded his first CD re-issue in 2004. When the Anglo-American glam rock film Velvet Goldmine was released in 1998, it turned out that the Bowie-esque central character played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers had a large handful of Jobriath thrown in, with Meyers recreating the nude shot from the debut LP in the film. That same year, the controversial cover art for Pulp’s This is Hardcore showed a glowingly white-skinned model lying in a pose that echoed that same Jobriath cover. Later, his songs would be covered by artists as diverse as Marc Almond, who called him “a sexual hero”, and Def Leppard.

Recent years have seen a full rehabilitation. The documentary Jobriath AD (2012) finally told Bruce Campbell’s story in full, while the compilation As the River Flows (2014) included unreleased demos where, at last, Jobriath’s true voice rang out on witty, sparkling musical vignettes of the tragic lot of the outsider. 

The spirit of Jobriath lives on in artists who have achieved mainstream success, from the charisma of Mika to the flamboyance of Olly Alexander. Like a prophet condemned to be misunderstood in his own time, Jobriath announced the future, but it was a future that he could never share in.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.