Just because someone spends a fortune on publicity, and just because someone is a child prodigy with a natural talent, doesn’t mean that the world is going to pay attention. The entertainment industry is filled with such debacles, and perhaps one of the sadder stories is that of Jobriath. The recent release of documentary Jobriath AD, directed by Kieran Turner and narrated by Henry Rollins, helps to tell the tale of a modern-day Icarus, a story of an astonishing failure of a man who shouldn’t have failed at all.
Born Bruce Campbell, his parents soon discovered that they had a child prodigy, a natural piano player and composer. Being raised by his mother, she encouraged him in his talents and artistic expressions, which soon was noticed, and his interest in music traveled throughout his childhood, but being drafted stood in the way of his plans.
Well, not really. He soon bored of the military and went AWOL. It was at this time that he changed his name to Jobriath, and soon joined the Los Angeles cast of the hit musical Hair. When he was captured, he was incarcerated in a mental hospital, and it was there that he started to write and form his Jobriath personality.
In 1972, he met Jerry Brant, the ex-manager of Carly Simon, and Brant soon facilitated a record deal with Elektra, reportedly for a half a million dollars. The weird, flamboyant, theatrically-minded Jobriath was being poised as the great glam rock hope—an American Bowie, a colorful visitor from another planet, and one who composed achingly beautiful songs. It was merely a matter of time before he would become a household name.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Although the music was superb, Jobriath was simply too weird for the music-listening audience. The hype machine behind him was painfully obvious, and it’s no surprise that the two albums bombed. The death-knell for Jobriath came with his performance on Midnight Special, where he performed two songs to an astonished, shocked audience. The performance is over-the-top and may seem like nothing particularly shocking, but at the time audiences hadn’t seen something like it…and they didn’t want to. Defeated, Jobriath retreated from sight, moving into the Chelsea Hotel, depressed, saddened that his talents were going to waste.
In spite of his failure, Jobriath would soon soldier on. He would change his look—opting for an extremely classy, conservative, 1920s style—and would change his stage name to Cole Berlin. His moniker was a play on Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and his sound reflected those names. He took to playing piano bars and restaurants around New York City, making no mention of his past incarnation, and developing a reputation as a superb jazz pianist. From the only known video recording featured in this documentary, it’s obvious that Jobriath had found himself in a seemingly happier place. This time, his musical persona was growing in a more natural way, leading to the not-unreasonable conclusion that he would soon find fame again.
This too would not come to pass. Jobriath would soon contract HIV, and it quickly developed into full blown AIDS, which claimed him in August of 1983. Though he died at the very young age of 36, he lived several lifetimes within that relatively short amount of time. Jobriath AD shows the world just what we lost, and what we neglected when we had it, a heartwarming and tear-jerking story of a young man who should have had it all.