JOBRIATH A.D.: HOW’S THAT FOR AN OPENING?
If the masses, the media, and a certain manager had done things the right way back in the early 70s, this would be the greatest and most watched video on all the internet: Jobriath, the self-declared “true fairy of rock ‘n’ roll,” onstage at the Paris Opera, dressed as King Kong, straddling an enormous penis and then transforming—as only a true fairy can—into Marlene Dietrich. It was absurd, extravagant musical theater, the height of pre-everybody weirdo showtune glam and, naturally, it never got to happen. An artist has to have a hit before he has an audience to marvel at his marvelousness, and from the beginning Jobriath’s handlers marketed their pet martian all wrong.
To a public that neither enjoyed cynical hype nor earnest queerness, manager Jerry Brandt peddled the classically trained pianist and songwriter with saturation advertising and wild pronouncements that America’s gayer, greater Bowie had arrived. The comparisons did Jobriath no good; his music was just glam enough to damn him while being just idiosyncratic enough to turn off fans of more straightforward sounds. A second record went nowhere, and after years of playing lounge piano and writing musicals that never materialized, Jobriath died of AIDS in 1983.
Kieran Turner’s documentary about the first out rock star, Jobriath A.D., is now available online and on demand, complete with long-lost footage and animation of Jobraith gigging in his gorilla suit—and a new Jobriath reissue album is out today on Eschatone. Here, Turner talks art and money, hucksterism and hubris, and kicking down history’s doors. This interview by Rin Kelly.
What is parallel universe Jobriath up to right now? The Jobriath who lives in a world without any societal hurdles between the artist and his audience? Is David Johansen doing his laundry? Is he a star still?
Kieran Turner (director): No, I don’t think he is. I think he’s somewhere composing and writing musicals and getting his songs out there. But I don’t think that stardom was anything that he really craved. I think it was something that he was either thrust into or thought was a good idea at the time. So yeah—parallel universe Jobriath is just playing piano and singing and writing and coming up with new stories and films.
He actually was writing about musical theater the last couple of years of his life—or he was trying to?
He was. The first one that he did was called Pop Star and he developed it with Joe Papp. It was basically a thinly veiled roman à clef about this huge rock star who finds out that his manager has absconded with all of his money. So in a fit of rage he confronts him and murders him and then flees to this tropical island where he reinvents himself as the nightclub singer.
Which leads me to my question about Jobriath’s manager, Jerry Brandt. Jobriath thought that Brandt stole his money? What was your own take on Jerry Brandt? It seems like you had quite an interesting relationship with him.
Jerry Brandt was … I guess a self-styled impresario. He started out as a junior agent at William Morris and then developed the music department at William Morris. Before he came along, they were only representing film and television and he said, ‘I can get these acts for you and we really ought to be representing music acts as well.’ He started bringing British bands to the U.S., one of which of course was the Rolling Stones, and he signed a lot of other acts and then got a little bored with the agenting thing. So he went out and started opening clubs. He opened this amazing club in New York City in the East Village in the late 60s called the Electric Circus. And his largest success right before Jobriath was Carly Simon—he discovered Carly Simon and he got her a deal at Elektra. They parted ways and he basically gave Carly back her music and was very fair, and I think that he kind of felt burned from that. He went on to do a lot of bizarre and interesting things after Jobriath. He jumped on the designer jeans craze and brought those to New York City and he produced a few Broadway musicals. But at the point where he met Jobriath, he was feeling invincible. He felt like there wasn’t anything he couldn’t make into a star. It’s almost like the cliché movie plot where somebody dares somebody else to take the ugly duckling and turn her into a beautiful swan. Almost everybody else who knew Jobriath pretty much blamed Jerry point blank and thought Jerry was the undoing of Jobriath, and I thought that that was a little harsh. Jobriath was an adult—he could make his own decisions. Jerry very much has his own version of what happened—how close it is to the truth, I don’t know. There were things that he remembered, things that he pretended not to remember, things that I genuinely don’t think that he remembered and I also think that he was testing me to see how much that I knew—to see how much he could get away with. I don’t think that he is out-and-out lying to me—I think it’s that this is how he decided the story was going to be and that’s what he’s convinced himself of. I mean … you watch the story and here is this guy in this little, tiny apartment in Miami Beach still thinking he’s going make a comeback. It’s very Norma Desmond.
And he’s obsessed with being the Colonel to Jobriath’s Elvis. His idea was to seize the gay rights movement and actually create a pop star for the post-Stonewall era—it just seems like such a massive and strange concept for 1973.
It absolutely is. A lot of people have asked me if I thought that Jerry really was closeted and had been in love with Jobriath. Like in Interview Jerry said, ‘I met him in Malibu and he was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen and we went back to my place and we made it and we fell in love and …’ I knew Jerry wasn’t gay, so one of the first things I asked was, ‘Why would you say this?’ I had to find the articles online and print them out and bring them and he was just like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember saying that.’ I think if Jerry really had been gay or closeted gay or openly gay, he would have realized what a complete disaster this would be. You have to have the hubris of somebody who has absolutely no idea what the community is doing to crash in like a bull in a china shop and say, ‘Hey, I know what’s good for you.’ Because I was surprised. I wasn’t alive back then but I’m really interested in gay history and one of the things that I really wanted to find out is why—as you mentioned with Stonewall—four years post-Stonewall the gay community wasn’t running towards this guy and being like, ‘Holy shit, there is somebody out there and he’s not afraid to be who he is and we should be supporting him.’ Of course—as explained in the film—that’s not how it was back then. Everybody had sort of turned towards being very muscular and hyper-macho, and Jobriath scared the shit out of them and really turned them off. And I understand that. When I was first coming out, I didn’t want to think of myself as someone like that. I remember seeing the images of Jobriath much later and I’d think, ‘God, what a freak.’ It was such a turn-off to me because I was very new in terms of coming out and understanding what being gay meant and all the ramifications and all the history. I looked at that and I didn’t identify with it so I was afraid of it.
You’ve also said that when you were first listening to his music you knew immediately why it had failed—you’ve described it as somewhat inaccessible and complicated. So how would you sell it to someone who’s never heard it?
I think it’s very theatrical but in a warm way. Bowie’s music is wonderful but it’s very cold. I feel like an outsider when I’m listening to Bowie but when I listen to Jobriath, I feel it. Some of those lyrics are a little out there but it’s not the lyrics that draw you in necessarily. You just hear everything that he’s going through and you want to come closer. When he sang and when he played, it stripped all of the artifice away—all the Jerry Brandt bullshit and all the costumes and all of the different personas—and that’s just who Jobriath was. And I really felt that in the music.
Even after I’ve seen the film, Jobriath remains incredibly mysterious and distant. I don’t know if I really know anything more about him as a person—except when I watch him performing. Is he more of an enigma to you or less after doing all of this research?
There have been comments made like, ‘I don’t really feel like I got to know who Jobriath was after watching the film.’ I didn’t do that deliberately. I set out to find out as much as I possibly could. But of course there is a barrier there when the person is no longer with us. People can give you their impressions of them but who says that they are correct? And the biggest challenge about Jobriath was all the different personas and the different names and personalities. Every time he went through a different—for lack of a better word—phase, he would drop the people surrounding him and take up with a whole bunch of new ones. It’s one of the reasons why I interviewed as many people as I did. I couldn’t get somebody to speak about all the different facets of his life. Even his younger brother Willy, there was so much he really didn’t know. If you ask me do I feel like I got to know the real Jobriath, I don’t think anybody got to know the real Jobriath—so why would I have the pleasure?
I don’t feel like it’s a failure of the film—it seems like that’s part of his character.
So Jobriath absolutely without a doubt was the first out gay musician of any prominence in America and in the U.K.—how did you research something like that?
Every time I’ve made that claim, people have brought up everybody from Little Richard to Freddie Mercury to Sylvester and so on. And there may have been someone very small that didn’t have any kind of press who was out there and performing. The closest one that I can think of is Steven Grossman, who—if you want to split hairs—Jobriath beat by a matter of months. Grossman was a singer/songwriter in the Cat Stevens vein—an openly gay singer/songwriter, and the things that he sang about were definitely the relationships that he’d had with other men. But he got no press whatsoever. Jobriath had this big blitz that was pretty much over with before it really began. And there was Long John Baldry, who was more of a blues musician who was out … but also I’m talking about somebody publicly proclaiming their homosexuality. I’m not talking about somebody who is like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m out but I don’t talk about it.’ Then I don’t consider you a publicly out public figure. If somebody wants to come up and tell me about somebody that I may not have heard of, I am absolutely willing to listen—who knows, I might even do a documentary about them. But no, I researched that and could not come up with anybody else.
Jobriath seems to come sort of pre-tarnished by Bowie imitator allegations as far as press goes and some of their presentations are a bit similar. Did Bowie’s gay pose sort of pre-empt Jobriath?
Bowie was so safe because he could appeal to one particular demographic and he could also appeal to another one who wanted nothing to do with that. It was very easy to be a straight person and say, ‘I’m a fan of David Bowie,’ because if you were at all blasted for it you could turn around and say, ‘But he’s married, he’s only bisexual, he’s only pretending.’ Bowie. to me, even back then never felt threatening enough—I’m sure that’s the wrong word—not threatening to a mainstream society in terms of sexuality, in terms of being an absolute like alien freak. Bowie never flounced around; he never portrayed—or displayed rather—the stereotypes that upset and freak out mainstream society. Whereas Jobriath … I’m not saying at all that Jobriath was putting on a show. That is who Jobriath was and I don’t think that he was making a statement. It’s just, ‘This is who I am.’ I think that that probably scared people too because it’s always easy to be something else when it looks like you’re trying to be something else. If it looks like you’re putting on a show. But if that’s who you are and it doesn’t look like any effort is being made … that was a big difference between Bowie and Jobriath.
There were rumors that they had a rivalry.
There were a bunch of people who said absolutely not. I talked to Angie Bowie, I talked to Tony Defries, who was the ex-president of MainMan—Bowie’s management company—and they all swore there was no rivalry. And then there were people like Jayne County, who is in the movie and she had been signed by MainMan and she got very burned by Bowie a couple of different ways. The whole rap around Bowie was that if he was threatened by you, he would sign you or he would produce your next album. And Jayne got signed by MainMan and they did an album and then they shelved it. So she was very upset and bitter and swears up and down that Bowie had a thing against Jobriath and if you even mentioned Jobriath’s name he would go wild. Then there was another photographer who’d worked for MainMan who told me off the record that anybody who ever mentioned Jobriath’s name around Bowie would immediately be fired. I had enough from one camp and enough from the other that I just thought, ‘I’m not getting anything conclusive here—I’m not even going to bring it up because what’s the point?’ Nobody was saying anything other than ridiculous, third-party 40-year-old gossip.
I’m going to go back to the Paris Opera House. The film has one of the greatest sentences in the history of rock documentaries and it is: ‘As I descend the penis I’ll turn into a Marlene Dietrich look-alike.’ Can you describe this show that never was?
He designed all the costumes himself, and I’m not going to say he necessarily designed the sets, but he was the person who came up with the ideas. He was very creative and I didn’t get that just from Jerry. You’ve heard Jerry say it in the film: ‘No, no—all of this idea to be the true fairy of rock ‘n’ roll, that was all Jobriath’s.’ I was surprised to hear Jerry say that because he likes to take credit for everything. Then there were people who swore, ‘No, no—Jobriath never wanted to do that.’ I think the truth lies in the middle somewhere. But in terms of the Paris Opera House, that absolutely was all Jobriath’s idea and he really pushed Jerry to make this show happen. And Jerry wanted to give him what he wanted. Therein lies the thing that I don’t know that I necessarily got the answer to: ‘Why?’ Why are you being this indulgent to somebody? It just seemed like a folly and I wonder if there was something else going on. I don’t think they had a sexual relationship; I don’t think they had a romantic relationship. It’s possible that Jerry was obsessed with him but what form that obsession took I couldn’t answer. Jerry just said, ‘I loved him, I loved him, and I believed in him and I thought he was going to be this huge star.’ Is it possible that that was all it was? Sure, I guess so. Sorry—I’m getting a little tongue-tied so just let me slow down. Jobriath wanted to have all of these orchestral pieces done for the show. How he wanted to use them I don’t know, but they did fly to London and they did get the London Symphony Orchestra to record all of these orchestral pieces. Some of them were completely new and some of them were based on some of the songs. Jobriath had never orchestrated anything in his entire life and he bought himself a book and he taught himself how to orchestrate. And within two weeks he’d written brand new arrangements and they went to London and they recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. They were definitely spending a huge chunk of change here. I’ve heard those recordings—although really bad copies—and they are really beautiful. If I would have had better versions, I would have happily used them in the film.
He came from a classical background—he had been writing as a teenager.
He had been writing a symphony. He had written the first couple of movements of the symphony in the last couple years of high school.
But he wasn’t interested in pursuing it because he just didn’t feel adequate? It seemed like someone in your movie suggested that there was some sort of insecurity that kept him from pursuing his symphony.
The thing with Jobriath is that he was so mercurial. I don’t think it was as much insecurity as it was he knew he didn’t have the discipline to be in that form of music.
What came next in the Paris Opera show?
So the curtain opened on an enormous Chinese box and this Chinese box opened up and someone dressed as an enormous gorilla came out of the box, and the box turned into a replica of the Empire State Building. The gorilla then climbed the Empire State Building—it was probably about 20 feet tall, maybe. When he got to the top, he took his mask off and revealed himself to be Jobriath. They had panels that turned the Empire State Building into … these panels would sort of turn the building so it was shaped like a penis. And the penis would come down over the audience with Jobriath riding it, and he would straddle it and be right in front of the audience and then it would whip him back up and behind the curtains—the curtains would have come back down—and he was gone. Then the lights went out and the curtains opened back up and he was pretty much instantaneously dressed as Marlene Dietrich, and he sauntered out to perform the first number. How’s that for an opening? I can just imagine what the rest of the show must have looked like.
You said that after doing the mountains of research and sleuthing to make the movie, you could become a private detective.
I don’t know how people made documentaries before the internet. I started with the people from Hair cuz I was able to track them down. There is a whole big network out there with tribe members and Michael Butler is still active and still out there and working and he’s got somebody who pretty much keeps a whole archive for him. So it started that way and people would tell me stories. But it’s difficult because first of all it was like 35 years going back, maybe even further if you go into Hair, and there was a lot of drugs being done back then and people’s memories are just—trust me when I tell you those interviews were heavily edited just to sort of cut out the rumbling. And I never wanted to tell anybody what to say, you know what I mean? I would never try to put words in somebody’s mouth.
And you’ve often said that there were people who wouldn’t tell you stories until the cameras were off.
That was very frustrating. There was a gentleman that I went to see that I actually flew out to see him because he was too ill to travel, who had basically promised to tell me all of these stories. I wasn’t looking for salacious gossip but it’s very difficult to really know what was going on with Jobriath at that particular time—where his head was, was he having a breakdown, was he able to handle this pressure, was he drinking too much, was he doing too many drugs? What was his situation? I wanted to know what was driving him, what was scaring him? What was freaking him out with having this thing that was built seemingly overnight for him, crumbling overnight in front of him? How was he handling that? So I got there and we set the camera up and right before the interview he said, ‘I’m not going to say anything bad about the dead.’ I thought, ‘Well, what the fuck am I doing here? Not that I want you to say anything bad, but what am I doing here if you’re not going to tell me anything?’ And then the minute the camera was turned off he like came over to me with this little gleam in his eye like, ‘I’ve got to tell you about this, blah, blah, blah.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to hear about it. I’m not interested in gossip. You telling me on camera is documenting it; you telling me off camera, you are just gossiping.’
How did you find actual Jobriath footage?
That was just damn luck, it really was. Someone who is briefly in the film told me early on that supposedly they had filmed the opening night—the local NBC station—and they had broadcast it. I’m thinking, ‘Why the hell would NBC broadcast a concert by Jobriath in primetime?’ It made absolutely no sense to me. We go to NBC Universal and they said, ‘We have a half an hour of stuff marked JOBRIATH—we don’t know what it is. It’s still on 16 millimeter and you’re going to have to pay to get it transferred. Do you want to do that?’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah.’ I thought to myself, ‘This has to be the concert,’ and it was ten minutes of rehearsal footage and then a twenty-minute interview with Jobriath and Jerry, some of which you see in the film. I was just beside myself with glee because it was what the movie really needed. Even in the brief pieces we used you can see the dynamic of their relationship.
That’s the interview where Jobraith says, ‘I want to be someday the person who looks more gay than anyone so that someone can point to me and say, “That’s what someone who is gay looks like.’’’
How can you not absolutely love that? It may have been flippant but to me it felt genuine—nothing that came out of his mouth in that interview felt calculated to me. Mostly because Brandt was manipulating the entire interview and every time Jobriath would open his mouth it was almost like he was afraid to say anything, so what was coming out of his mouth felt beautifully real to me.
Why didn’t his career ever take off?
It was this perfect storm of several things. I really do feel like the music was inaccessible back then. Even I don’t know that there was ever a time that that music would have been a hit.
Who would you say are his direct descendants? People didn’t really have a hard time figuring out what Meatloaf was up to.
When I first listened to it knowing beforehand that everybody compared him to Bowie, the first thing I thought of when I listened to it was Bat Out of Hell. I tried in vain to get in touch with Jim Steinman, who had produced that album, to find out if he had been influenced at all by Jobriath. I would be super shocked if Steinman had no idea who Jobriath was.
It’s interesting to me that nobody was like confused as to what Meatloaf was doing. They knew he was being theatrical and it was theatrical rock, whereas with Jobriath people were like, ‘What is it?’
Absolutely. I know that the Pet Shop Boys are fans of his, and Siouxsie Sioux and Joe Elliott, Gary Numan. I don’t necessarily hear him in them though. You can be a fan of somebody’s and not necessarily want to imitate them. But I definitely see that in terms of people like Jake Shears and Adam Lambert—who I absolutely wanted to interview for this film. I guess in hindsight it’s probably best that it didn’t wind up happening because there was so much of Jobriath’s story to tell. I was so worried when I started that because he’d only been around for a little while and there wasn’t much that survived of interviews, I was going to have to figure out how to make it not be just a talking heads documentary—which is where the impetus for the animation first came. I wanted it to be an animation so that I could have other things to cut to, but I also was absolutely committed to giving Jobriath the Paris Opera House show—as ridiculous as that might sound. I mean, he’s dead—he’s not going to know. But I just wanted to do that for him because I do know that was the biggest heartbreak of his life—or of his career at least—and I know he and Jerry both felt if they could have pulled that off things would have changed. I don’t know that I believe that would have happened … but I know that they believed it. So I wanted to give that to him even in that tiny little form that I did. But anyway—I had tried to get in touch with Adam [Lambert] and was basically told—and we have a mutual friend, so I know that this came from him—that he didn’t want to participate in it because he didn’t want to be associated with Jobriath. Adam at that point was going through this whole—which I’ve seen other artists go through—post-gay phase where they don’t want to talk about it anymore. ‘I don’t want to be seen as being gay. It’s not all I am.’ My response to that is you can’t have it both ways. You can’t use coming out and being gay and kissing another guy on national television in order to make your name, and then turn your back on it when you’re bored with it. It’s just part of who you are and you just can’t do that. But I find it interesting that that was becoming like the predominant attitude among a lot of creative out people.
Why else didn’t Jobriath’s career take off?
I don’t think that music was ever going to be a hit anywhere, but that that in and of itself wasn’t necessarily going to doom him. There were a lot of artists in the 70s that got to record two, three or four albums as long as they may have gotten some critical acclaim. But then you had the fact that he was being splashed around New York City on buses and billboards and in magazines as if he were this instant star—as though you were going to love him and you needed to love him and we are telling you that this is the next greatest thing as opposed to you discovering it. People really don’t like to be told what to like—they like to discover. They like to feel like they are the ones that have found this person or this singer or this song and they are in on the ground floor. With Jobriath there was no ground floor—he was on the top of the tallest building from the very beginning. And nobody wants to jump on something that already feels like it’s about to be over. I also think that that caused a lot of resentment with critics. Critics also want to be tastemakers, want to be the person who hears this album before anybody else and says, ‘Holy shit, I just heard this and you’ve got to hear it and it’s the most amazing thing in the world and I’m the one who says so.’ But they aren’t the ones who said so—Jerry Brandt was the one who said so and who the fuck wanted to listen to him? And the third part of this triumvirate was the open homosexuality. I think he was completely turning people off because there was no mystery about him or who he was or what he was, and people were just not ready to accept that in 1973—either gay or straight. I think it was Sarah Kernochan who said in the film that if you’re telling somebody that you’re exclusively sleeping with men, then you’re losing—at least back in that particular period of time—a large portion of the audience. Because why are they going to be excited about you and why are they going to be obsessed with you if they think you’re cute and they can’t sleep with you? Or they can’t pretend that they are going to sleep with you or marry you? It’s why I think a lot of actors haven’t come out of the closet—they’ve been convinced their fan base is going to be cut in half. I was going to say it’s the same with men and famous women, but I think a lot of straight men think, ‘Lesbians are hot and I’ll just come in and I’ll break it up.’ If you’re telling somebody already that this person is never going to desire you, then you’re already shooting yourself in the foot. Any one of those things I think he could have overcome it, but to put all three of those things together—forget it.
To me, this movie is really a story about art and about artists that are denied their chance at expression by the system they are trying to navigate.
Yes, I think so. You don’t have to be gay, you don’t have to have an interesting gay history, you don’t even have to like the music. One of the things that I was really worried about when I made this film was I understand completely that this music is not for everybody. A large portion of people are going to listen to this and be like, ‘I don’t like that.’ I know that as a documentary viewer I have been on that end where I have watched something and I haven’t liked the person’s work or I haven’t related to it and maybe I wasn’t terribly interested in watching the story because I don’t get it. But the thing about Jobriath is there’s a little bit of that in everybody even if you’re not creative. It’s about putting yourself out there and risking rejection and wanting something—whether it’s a career or to make music or to make art or make film or just like ask that person out that you’ve been thinking of. It’s for anybody who’s ever been denied or rejected or told they are not good enough or they don’t have permission to do this or do that for no legitimate reason—for something that’s completely beyond their control. Not because you’re not good enough, but because I say so or because I look at you and I see something horrifying and that’s my problem. But guess what? I’m the one in power and so I’ll shit on you. We’ve all been there, and I think that that’s all you need to be able to relate to in order to relate to Jobriath’s story. That’s why I feel it’s so universal—it’s not a gay story, it’s not a music story, it’s really a human story. I know this is a niche artist and it’s going to be a niche thing, but I feel like that was the thing that really touched me most when I started reading about him. I started doing the research and I was just coming off of losing money, losing investors. I was so upset because we had worked on this for over a year and it was a script that I was really passionate about and I just thought, ‘Why can’t I get this made? I’m a good filmmaker and this is a good script and it really bothers me that I’ve got to rely on the permission of somebody else to be able to tell my story.’ And so I really kind of identified with Jobriath. And it was important to me as somebody who really takes pride in gay and lesbian history that this is somebody who is a part of it and who has just virtually been forgotten. No one knows this person was out there doing this before everybody else and kicked the doors open. They may have slammed right back in his face but he kicked the doors open for everybody else, and it seemed so wrong to me that he was going to be forgotten and his story was not going to be told. And then the third thing is the music. I don’t know that I would have made this film if the music hadn’t been good. If it was somebody where I didn’t find any particular value or merit in the music, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But again it was just like the perfect storm of three that came together to be Jobriath’s undoing. This is sort of a perfect storm of three things that made me really want to tell the story.