Who is Jobriath?
That question seems to come with every mention of his name, ever since it (along with a photo of his nude torso in the manner of an ancient statue) first appeared on a giant billboard in Times Square in 1973 right up through its slot on the OUTFEST calendar for a Friday event at REDCAT. Though today the question needs to be phrased, “Who was Jobriath?”
“He was an immensely talented artist who was too far out there — and too far out — for his time,” says singer-actress-artist Ann Magnuson, whose “Jobriath Medley: A Glam Rock Fairy Tale” tribute, along with her “Bowie Cabaret” tribute to another far out artist associated with those glam years, will precede a screening of the documentary “Jobriath A.D.” Friday. (See the movie trailer below.)
Jobriath, briefly, was a singer-composer-pianist, somewhere between Bowie, Elton John and, uh, Maria Callas maybe, whose signing to Elektra Records became a textbook in how to hype an artist to death. Literally, it turned out. The hype was so over the top and such a turnoff that few people bothered to listen to the music on his brash debut, or the 1974 followup Creatures of the Street. Maybe it was bad timing. Maybe there was a feeling we already had a David Bowie and an Elton John and there was no room for him. Maybe Elektra, never really sure how to market him, simply turned its spotlight and promotional resources to Queen’s Freddie Mercury, it’s other operatically-glambitious, if not formally out, figure.
And yes, he’s held up often as rock’s first openly gay figure. Jobriath died, of AIDS, in 1983 at just age 36, having been relegated to a singing waiter job in his later years.
The real story of the man, born with the rather plain name Bruce Wayne Campbell, is the tragic arc.
“His spirit was crushed because he didn’t fit in,” she says.
Her “Jobriath Medley,” under the musical direction of of long-time collaborator Kristian Hoffman, originated in 1996, a time when the legend of Jobriath was just starting to creep in to even a teeny corner of pop consciousness. Morrissey occasionally dropped the name as an influence (as a teen he was president, and perhaps only member, of the U.K Jobriath fan club and in 2004 released the Lonely Planet Boy compilation on his own label. And the fallen, crumbling, naked statue image from the controversial billboards (and album cover) was more-or-less recreated in the 1998 glam-fantasy film Velvet Goldmine (and again now by Magnuson, who struck the pose for the image accompanying her project).
The show Friday marks the release of the Jobriath Medley CD, the first full realization of the piece, thanks to the backing of a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Some of the guests from the album — a roster that includes America’s Got Talent sensation Prince Poppycock (another Hoffman collaborator) and Kazakhstan-born opera singer Timur Bekbosunov — will join Magnuson and Hoffman for the lushly arranged concert performance.
Trying to place Jobriath in the spectrum of ‘70s pop, Magnuson says, is futile.
“He was another color on the palette,” she says. “A bright, fuchsia color.”
And the message of her tribute is encouragement to those who seek to be their own colors too.
“First it was the music that attracted me, then it was the compassion I felt for him, almost a maternal instinct to give him a hug,” she says. “So this is our hug.”