by DJ El Toro
As a child, I was barely permitted to watch television. Some Sesame Street, a little Electric Company, and on Sunday evenings, The Wonderful World of Disney. If we took an afternoon nap. Consequently, when I grew older, and the restrictions loosened up, images and ideas received via the magic picture box were that much potent. I count seeing Patti Smith and David Bowie perform on Saturday Night Live (the former, admittedly, during a rerun) among the most formative experiences of my life.
But I never got to see Jobriath on the tube. How much more twisted my adolescent might have been if I did.
According to history, for a brief moment in the early ’70s, Jobriath was everywhere. Under the auspices of Jerry Brandt, who had previously steered Carly Simon to stardom, he was touted as the Next Big Thing -- and the first openly gay pop star. To promote his eponymous 1973 debut, his arty image was plastered on hundreds of New York City buses, and erected on a giant Times Square billboard. He certainly looked cool: Part extraterrestrial, part elf. Both artist and manager talked a good game, and the latter -- who had previously starred in the Broadway and Los Angeles productions of Hair -- was a genuine polymath: A versatile pianist, affected but memorable singer, and clearly comfortable on stage.
The problem was, the music wasn’t much good. Interesting, yes. Catchy? Not by a long shot. If the goal was to show up David Bowie as a one-trick pony, poor Jobriath -- pretty but sickly little unicorn that he was -- barely made it out of the stables. For all the big talk (his proposed debut at the Paris Opera House was to have featured a full-size reenactment of the climatic scene from King Kong; he had to settle for two sparsely attended gigs at the Bottom Line, sans Empire State Building mock-up), Jobriath’s records met with some good critical notices and a resounding yawn from the public. He “retired” in 1975, and died in obscurity in 1983.
The brief, flaming arc of Jobriath’s career is a fascinating one, well detailed in this excellent 1998 MOJO article by Robert Cochrane (who also wrote liner notes for the Morrissey-approved 2004 compilation Lonely Planet Boy). I’ve had both is albums for ages now, and am delighted to see them reissued on Collector’s Choice this month. But I was even more excited when a friend forwarded me the links to these two clips, from Jobriath’s only major TV appearance, a January 1974 spot on The Midnight Special.
Rock of Ages
I’m not sure which of these I love more: The one where host Gladys Knight is clearly baffled by what she is about to thrust upon the viewing public, or the “action component” of Jobriath’s costume in the other. Either way, I wish I had been lucky enough to witness them on TV back in the day. But perhaps it’s just as well; I got hassled enough at school without showing up dressed up like the Michelin Man’s effeminate cousin. My parents will never know what they saved me from.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.