Jobriath: Oh! You pretty thing

He was the world's first openly gay pop artist, a man groomed for glam-rock superstardom. But 10 years on, he died alone and unloved on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel. Johann Hari unravels the remarkable life - and afterlife - of Jobriath
Click to follow

In July 1983, the New York Police Department sent three officers to smash open the pyramid that sits on top of the Chelsea Hotel in downtown Manhattan. The stench was so foul that they all vomited. The man inside - a man with several names - had been dead and forgotten for over a week. In his 37 year-long life, he had been many things: a tramp, a millionaire, a madman, a genius, a hustler called Bruce Campbell, and a rock star called Jobriath. Now he was gone, and nobody seemed to care.

Only a decade before, he had dominated Times Square from a 40ft billboard on the corner of Broadway. Jobriath was booked that Christmas to perform at the Paris Opera House, where he was to perform one of the most audacious rock stunts of a decade addicted to rock stunts. Dressed as King Kong, he would climb a replica of the Empire State Building, only for the skyscraper to turn into a gigantic spurting penis that would ejaculate Jobriath on to a piano. He would land gracefully, slough off his King Kong costume and emerge as Marlene Dietrich.

Jobriath is impossible to summarise in one glib paragraph. He was a shape-shifting creature who took many forms; but he is best known for being the first openly gay rock star, the man who took the latent homosexuality of glam rock and made it blatant. Jobriath didn't come out of the closet; he set fire to the closet and roasted pink marshmallows on the flames. For a flickering, shimmering moment, he was, according to Rolling Stone, "the most promising thing in pop".

Yet today, few people remember him, except as a bad joke, an extinguished butt from what the NME called - with homophobic undertones - the fag end of glam rock. His music has never been released on CD. His records are chimerical (it took me weeks to track one down for this article). The only press mentions he ever receives are passing references to music- industry psychosis - a case study of over-hyping the under-talented.

In 2004, he may be on the brink of resurrection. Pop god Morrissey has recently declared that he is "obsessed" with Jobriath. Morrissey's office is cagey about reports that he plans both a tribute concert and a best-of CD. But Mark Simpson, Morrissey's biographer, explains: "He likes lost causes. Jobriath is somebody that Morrissey can possess completely. There aren't many Jobriath fans around, so he can appoint himself as the secretary of his metaphorical fan club. Morrissey has always been interested in people who have fallen off the edge of the world - and Jobriath certainly has."

Only the skeleton of Jobriath's biography is known. He was born in a dirt-track Pennsylvania town called King of Prussia in 1946. His father was in the army, so Bruce Campbell (as he was then called) spent his childhood as an "army brat", flitting from base to base with few friends and no stability. By his early twenties, he had so disgusted his parents with his open homosexuality that he fled to New York City and a new identity: Jobriath Salisbury.

He went along to an audition for the notorious hippie musical Hair, just to help a friend read through his lines. He was snapped up and the friend discarded. Within a month, he was playing "Woof" (it was the Sixties; perhaps the name didn't sound so absurd on acid) to crammed theatres, and reviews so glowing that they seemed radioactive. It turns out they were: the success led to the first of Jobriath's implosions. He started wildly upstaging his co-stars - partly because he was ingesting more drugs every day than most cancer patients - and he was sacked.

Years later, he described his first breakdown. "I was floating down in the gutter. I didn't eat. I just drank beer all the time. With no money, I hustled for booze and drugs." His parents sent him to a sanatorium in Pennsylvania, but he fled - straight into the pudgy arms of Jerry Brandt.

Brandt was the impresario who had discovered Carly Simon and unleashed the Rolling Stones on America. By 1972, he was looking for a new project, and when he heard a demo tape of Jobriath's music, he was convinced that he had found the American David Bowie. US producers were desperate to cultivate their own American glam-rock star, a home-grown variant of the strange new sounds blaring from London.

Barney Hoskyns, in his definitive history of this odd pocket of rock history, Glam!, explains: "Glam rock was nothing short of a camp attack on rock'n'roll and the Sixties' earnest search for 'authenticity' and 'a return to nature'. It was all about being false and loving the artificial. It represented a new and radically fluid model for sexual identity. The very opposite of punk, it thrust femininity into everybody's faces: men wearing glitter and looking like women, screwing what nature had given them. Glam was, basically, a group of sexual misfits who became able to accept themselves by transforming popular culture."

Into this, like a Tennessee Williams heroine, stumbled Jobriath, a gay fantasist with a drug problem and a wild talent. Both his homosexuality and his endless reinventions seemed perfect for glam. Brian Eno, one of the era's stars, explains: "Glam was all about the idea of changing identity or thinking up your own identity - whether it's your gender identity or whatever." Some of this was pretty trite: they would express their alienation by literally dressing as aliens (most famously, with Bowie's fictional persona, Ziggy Stardust). But Jobriath - with his fragile mental health - seemed to believe his own fiction, and often told bemused acquaintances that he was from another planet.

Brandt - in the style of Svengalis throughout the ages - took a vulnerable young man and promised to make him a star. Michael Butler, a friend of Jobriath's from the cast of Hair, remembers Brandt as "reptilian. Not a very warm man - I got such bad vibes from [him]." Brandt seemed to invite comparisons to a pimp, explaining, "I'm selling sex. I'm selling Jobriath".

But nobody can fault him for not lavishing enough hyperbole on his creation. After taking out a massive advertising campaign that put Jobriath's face all over New York and London, he described his protégé as "a combination of Dietrich, Marceau, Nureyev, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Nijinsky, Bernhardt, the best of Jagger, Bowie, Dylan, with the glamour of Garbo." (What, no Gandhi?)

But there was a polished elephant-trap waiting for Jobriath. Glam had made bisexuality trendy: its leading figures, such as Lou Reed and David Bowie, declared that they were attracted to both sexes. This seemed to give them an added sheen of sexiness and an added truckload of sales. Jobriath took the logical next step, declaring that he was not bisexual but "a true fairy".

He had unwittingly called glam's bluff. Its fair-weather bisexuals, happy to play gay and lap up the headlines, began to back away. (Bowie now describes himself as "100 per cent heterosexual", and Lou Reed refuses to discuss the subject.) Glam rock's pro-gay philosophy proved to be only glitter-deep, and Jobriath was left exposed. He was barracked at even New York venues by crowds yelling "faggot", and worse. One gay music critic, looking back on Jobriath's career in 1999, described him as "way too gay, way too soon".

Unable to live up to the preposterous hype, shunned for his sexuality, Jobriath became more dependent on drugs than ever. His glitter began to mingle with tears. In January 1974, he was booked on The Midnight Special, one of America's most popular TV shows. In rehearsal, a producer gaped in shock as Jobriath sang "Take Me I'm Yours", a hymn to the pleasures of sado-masochism. "You can't do that on live television!" he howled, and the appearance was cancelled.

Jobriath began to turn on Brandt, whose last comment on the singer was to describe him as "a fucking alcoholic asshole". His first tour of America was cancelled halfway through - and it was at that moment that he dropped out of recorded history. The evidence of Jobriath's life simply ceased, until the day that he was discovered as the Chelsea Hotel's first Aids victim.

Except, that is, for one interview. The US magazine Omega One tracked Jobriath down in 1979, living in the pyramid that was to become his tomb. His personality appeared to have fractured into several conflicting shards. He described himself as schizophrenic, and would only discuss Jobriath as a former personality who had now died. "Jobriath committed suicide in a drug, alcohol and publicity overdose," he said. "The whole hype just drove him crazy. His lifestyle was hotel suites and limousines, and enough drugs to get him from one to another. He struck back by disappearing into thin air. Jobriath is dead, and he had a reason for being. He was a vaccination for the rest of us."

He was living primarily as "Cole Berlin", a cheesy lounge singer. He refused to engage with the world or his past, explaining: "If sex, sugar and plutonium are too accessible; if rape, terrorism and hypoglycaemia are all too rampant; if imperialistic pigs are destroying the world, and if people are drinking too many pina coladas, then Cole Berlin doesn't want to hear about it."

Cole made a living singing in a cabaret bar ("he supports the rest of us"), although he claimed that, very occasionally, Jobriath would make a guest appearance from the grave and insist on going hustling. "He's the only one who doesn't know that sexual fulfilment is the banana life dangles in front of us just to keep us running," he said.

Thirty years on, that sliver of a person, that alien persona, is lauded by Jaan Uhelszki, founding editor of Creem magazine, as "the first out rock star. Jobriath's songs are really overt gay anthems, and no one was doing that. I mean, these were innocent times. He started in 1973! I think we missed how important he was to the gay movement. He didn't get his due. He became a joke. Only now is he becoming an icon." For Bruce Campbell, Jobriath Salisbury and Cole Berlin - who all died insane and abandoned on a hot Manhattan afternoon - this comes too late.