Happy birthday to the late, great and unjustifiably overlooked queer rock star Jobriath, who was born on Dec. 14, 1946 and transformed rock ‘n roll forever.
Though you may not know his name, Jobriath was queering music long before most of us were born. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Texas, he was a musical prodigy who studied classical and folk music. The military drafted him as a young man, but he simply walked away after a few months, moving to Los Angeles and changing his name from Bruce Wayne Campbell to Jobriath Salisbury.
A daring and audacious performer, he landed a role in a West Coast production of the musical Hair, playing a gay teenager — but that didn’t last long, as he was fired for “upstaging” everyone else. That was followed by a series of musical experiments; he joined a folk band called Pidgeon that lasted a couple of months before the military tracked him down and arrested him. The stress of the experience sent him into a meltdown, and Jobriath spent half a year in a military hospital.
A chance discovery led to Jobriath’s next flirtation with fame in the early ’70s. Manager Jerry Brandt happened to stumble across a tape of strange songs being played by a colleague, and he began a search for the source. The music was unpredictable, weird and arhythmic, and Brandt — who had previously discovered the far more mellow Barry Manilow — was intrigued.
Jobriath was picking up clients as a sex worker at the time, and then abruptly found himself in a half-million-dollar record deal. A lavish promotion ensued, with Jobriath styled to look like a classical nude statue. He promised the press that in an upcoming Paris live show he would appear as King Kong climbing a giant penis before turning into Marlene Dietrich.
But what about his music? Critics loved it, with near-unanimous praise for his lewd voice and glam-rock excess. It was his style that intrigued the world most, however. Adopting the title of “rock’s truest fairy,” Jobriath was overtly sexual, far beyond any provocation David Bowie could manage at the time. He was always photographed as an object of beauty — quite a departure from the intense masculinity that most singers pursued in the ’70s.
That made him a polarizing figure at times. Gay men who sought to conform were horrified by his overt pleasure at breaking the gender binary. He derived pleasure from his femme expression, and was eager to be received as a sexual adventurer — in contrast to performers like Freddie Mercury and later Boy George, who would coyly plead with the public not to label them.
Perhaps because he was so outspoken, mainstream fame eluded him through the mid-’70s, and he eventually stepped back from performing concerts to pursue more intimate cabaret shows. He also returned to sex work, and lived in a pyramid atop the Chelsea Hotel in New York City.
It was there he was found, three days after his death, at his piano in 1983. An early loss to the HIV epidemic, he was only 36 years old.
It’s impossible to imagine what further music Jobriath would have created — and how he would have gone on to transform our ideas about rock and gender — had he lived. As it stands, his influence can still be felt in artists who were his fans, like Morrissey and Def Leppard. And his great music and flair lives on in diligently assembled tributes online.
It’s never too late to discover the work of this great gay pioneer, who’s just a YouTube search away.