The world’s finest artists concern themselves with choosing a medium (or media for the over achievers) and infusing their creations with various amounts of truth. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling (ah the culinary artist unleashed!) the result—when that apparent truth is realized, oftentimes after many samplings—forges a bond between creators and their admirers. Making these connections too easy can conjure up a certain amount of mass appeal; making them too obscure can relegate the artist to the remainders bin.
I must confess to having never heard of Jobriath, much less his music until filmmaker Kieran Turner’s thoughtful documentary caught my attention at this year’s Inside Out Festival. Here was an openly gay rock and roller who wore his effeminacy like a badge of honour, had remarkable piano skills, a penchant for in-your-face lyrics (notably the S&M anthem, “Take Me I’m Yours”: “Any day you could buy me or tie me up”) and less than memorable melodies. After a stint playing in Hair, he found himself in New York City and the promised publicity machine of producer Jerry Brandt: both craving fame and fortune yet neither achieving the level they thought they deserved.
To go along with his early-70’s gay pride (“I’m a true homo fairy”) the intrepid performer wore all manner of getups from form-fitting body suits to clown costumes. In the former, his slight frame and mid-range voice complemented the look and feel of a truly androgynous being; in the latter the troubled soul became a dead ringer for the perpetually sad puppet Petrouchka whose strings were constantly pulled by Brandt whose empty promises (especially a rock musical project that was supposed to shake the Paris Opera from top to bottom as the singer descended a larger than life penis in the finale) were only exceeded by the huckster’s enormous ego that couldn’t stay out of the his client’s limelight. A self-comparison to the relationship between Elvis and the Colonel is just as laughable as the careers that never took off. Instead of trying to catch a snowflake on his boyish tongue, the increasingly reclusive chanteuse/teur became an early carrier of AIDS. None of his personas (marvellously Cole Berlin – cabaret act) were strong enough to fight off the “gay cancer” that many probably thought was his comeuppance for being so honest. Just a few blocks away Leonard Bernstein—also a skilled pianist—had done some trailblazing of his own both on Broadway (West Side Story) and in Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic (the first American to lead the storied ensemble) but successfully managed to keep his sexual predilection under wraps. One can only imagine the camaraderie if the pair ever met and worked through some four-hand piano arrangements.
Turner’s detailed portrait features dozens of recollections from Jobriath’s fellow artists and producers (notably Brandt who even squeezes out some crocodile tears while bemoaning that “God is not talking to me right now.”) and some tellingly honest comments from Willie, the singer-songwriter’s younger brother. Binding the biographical narrative together is a series of animations (courtesy of Benjamin Nielsen, Jennifer D’urso, Matt Saunders, William Mortiz, Eric Power) that fill in the blanks (the absolute failure of the first album) and imagine what could have been (Jobriath riding his oversized symbol of manhood into the hearts and minds of an adoring Parisian throng).
Largely reclusive in his perch atop the Chelsea Hotel (with its bird’s eye view of the Empire State Building perpetually thrusting into the skyline), Jobriath seems most at home when writing new material or performing either in extra-imaginative outfits or the staid tuxedo of a piano bar entertainer. At key junctures of his life, he abandons himself and is reborn, changing look, name and style. But by boldly telling too much truth, his fan base had to wait far after his death to accept his talent for what it was. Back in the day, the world had not yet matured to the point of judging art on its own merits, not the private affairs of its practitioners. By crossing that divide in such vivid fashion, Jobriath sealed his fate as surely as Brandt took advantage of the ground breaker only to summarily dump him when, apparently, the cash cupboard was as bare and empty as the short-lived singer’s self-esteem. JWR