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Gay Glam Comes To HBO

Is Vinyl's new character, Xavier, a Jobriath clone?

By Ann Powers | NPR
Monday, April 4, 2016

HBO's Vinyl offers plenty of incentive for pleasurable hate watching, from its macho take on gender relations to its sub-Sopranos murder subplot. For music mavens, the glee and groans are prompted by the show's haphazard treatment of the history of rock and roll — and hip hop and disco and Donny Osmond. The fake cameos from the likes of Alice Cooper and Gram Parsons are one source of fun; then there are the show's amalgamated "original" characters, whose trajectories can be granted more license (they never happened, after all) but can still get remotes thrown at TV sets. The show's house band, the Nasty Bits, recalls New York punk originator Richard Hell fronting Cleveland's The Dead Boys, which is plausible, but anachronistically feature a British singer and, even weirder, an African-American manager – a nod to Hell's former bandmate Ivan Julian? Or, even more obscurely, the Detroit proto-punk band Death? Probably just a plot point. The funkmeister Hannibal had a disco name but his style was pure Rick James, his stardom predating the Superfreak's by five years. And don't get the haters started on all those white music bizzers almost discovering hip hop. When is that Sylvia Robinson biopic coming to set the record straight?

This week's episode honed in on another of the most colorful 1970s rock stories while promising, again, to pull it slightly astray. At a diner, the doghouse'd and disillusioned Ameican Century Records promotions man Zak Yankovich sits across from the dewy Gary Giombetta, his plate of breakfast meats looking dated next to Gary's cantaloupe with cottage cheese. Zak found Gary in his daughter's bar mitzvah band, singing a David Bowie song while the waiters broke down the chairs at Leonard's of Great Neck. (Tell me that wasn't Leonard's; as for that version of "Life on Mars?," it was actually sung by R&B class act Trey Songz.) Zak wants to make Gary the new Bowie, partly because the Starman recently spurned a small offer from the label after Zak bungled their first meeting. After listening raptly as the kid waxes on about cosmic love, then launches into a newly-written melody in a falsetto that puts him closer to Tim Buckley than Bowie, Zak hastily signs Gary to a probably terrible contract. Later, he nurses a nightcap while doodling on Gary's theater-nerd headshot. He draws a Ziggy lightning streak over one eye, crosses out the Italian name and writes "XAVIER." Cut to Scott Levitt, the company's attorney, gazing bisexually at Gary's photo while a female companion sleeps naked nearby.

There's just no way around it: Gary, morphed by Zak into Xavier, is going to become Jobriath. At least he'll be the slightly-off Vinyl version of that great, lost boundary-smashing hope of 1970s rock, who for a shining moment in 1974 became the most visible gay man in popular music. Actor Douglas Smith looks a lot like the real musician and, as he proved for a moment in this episode, can match the keening tenor that almost ruled the world. If he's given enough screen time, he could embody one of the most remarkable mostly-forgotten figures in pop.

Born Bruce Wayne Campbell in 1946 and signed to Elektra Records for the then-exorbitant sum of $500,000, Jobriath was Svengali'd by promoter and manager Jerry Brandt, who'd founded New York's Electric Circus nightclub and guided Carly Simon's early career. (Brandt found Jobriath's demo in Clive Davis's slush pile at Columbia Records, though he told the press he and the vocalist/actor/mime had cruised each other in a bar.) Not a wedding singer but a seasoned actor who'd starred in several major productions of Hair, Jobriath immediately took to Brandt's vision. He became a self-described 'true fairy' and 'space clown' who, unlike Bowie, was actually part of the post-Stonewall liberation world, and unlike Queen's Freddie Mercury, had no qualms about clearly detailing his queer dreams while playing a glam mix of show tune melodies, singer-songwriterly intimacy and vintage rock and roll beats.

Jobriath should have been a superstar. He would have been, if money alone could have made it so. Elektra really went overboard on him: Jobriath recorded his debut album at Electric Ladyland studios with Hendrix's producer Eddie Kramer at the boards, guitarist Peter Frampton and Zeppelin's John Paul Jones in the band, with the label mounting a huge media campaign, which called for Jobriath's nude body to be rendered as a roman statue and reproduced on Time Square billboards. Brandt and Jobriath gave joint interviews and earned major coverage in Andy Warhol's Interview, the New York Times and Rolling Stone. A tour was planned – a $200,000 extravaganza featuring a "Kama Sutra altar" and Jobriath's re-enactment of the death scene from the 1961 Biblical epic King of Kings. "Don't you feel the pressure of this publicity?" a reporter asked Jobriath in December 1973. "I love every minute of it," he replied. "If I had any doubts I'm going to be dynamite, I'd forget it." Brandt, sounding very much like an American Century executive, told another reporter that they were simply doing what the buying public demanded: "The only thing that's keeping us alive is sex. I'm selling sex. Sex and professionalism."

Brandt and Jobriath could sell openly gay sex, or at least partially unclothed gay eroticism, because of the distinctively experimental mood of America in 1973. Vinyl shows the era's caveman side – men leering at women and grabbing their breasts at a moment's notice, backing them against furniture in offices, camera darkrooms, or club bathrooms. Frustratingly, the show merely hints at the women's liberation movement that led those female conquests to both explore their own desires and fend off the more cretinous advances of those old-school guys. We did see Vinyl antihero Richie Finestra reading a book by Esalen associate Abraham Maslow, but not much else has been done with the self-actualization movement that led to best-sellers like 1972's Open Marriage and the polymorphous adventures that took place in erotic retreats like California's Sandstone or New York's swingers clubs the St. Mark's Baths (gay) and Plato's Retreat (nominally straight). And the show hasn't yet ventured into the moment's other huge shift, toward gay liberation, that led to a wave of Pride parades, Central park dance-ins, and artistic ventures like San Francisco's Cockettes troupe, which included a young Sylvester. The ever-canny Bowie channeled all of this into brilliant music that furthered liberation in the mainstream. But it was Jobriath who might have become its more radical conductor.

Instead, he crashed and burned, spectacularly. His music proved simultaneously behind and ahead of its time: too show tunes-y for rock radio, too far out even for most progressive rock fans. Many gay music lovers were already turning their ears toward disco, embracing funky tracks like Barrabas's "Wild Safari," heard in a (seemingly totally straight) Bronx club in this Vinyl episode's final scene. Perhaps sensing that Jobriath's great story wasn't going to connect on a mass level, Elektra pulled the plug on his tour, and he and Brandt fell out. An abbreviated jaunt ended fabulously but smokily on September 20, 1974 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, of all places. Jobriath French-kissed his guitarist onstage in front of a crowd full of students and drag queens, and received four encores, even after a malfunctioning motor in the hall's cooling system caused the fire alarms to go off.

Jobriath returned to his original identity and became a cabaret singer, calling himself Cole Berlin and living at New York's Chelsea Hotel, another favorite Vinyl location. Punitive contracts kept his career under wraps; he became ill with a disease affecting gay men in the city, newly known as AIDS, and died of it in 1983. Today, Jobriath is only fitfully remembered. He was the subject a poignant 2012 documentary, Jobriath A.D. His albums are available on streaming services, and a new collection of unreleased material was issued in 2014. Yet even today, his music hasn't captured ears the way other major figure in queer pop history have.

Perhaps that's because Jobriath was truly outré, in ways that still make some people uncomfortable. His piano-based songs are confrontational and cosmic, terrible as background music and hard to blend into a mix. Jobriath was never spectral, never a chameleon. For all of his flamboyance and Brandt's schtick, he didn't fit in with anybody else's trends, the way Bowie or even the more resolutely odd Mercury could. Jobriath, though in many ways a record label creation, showed the world what it was like to be out in many different senses. Will Vinyl allow its proxy to do the same? More likely he'll simply be a conduit for another narrative about label overspending within the music industry crapshoot. But the promise is there, in the scrawl of the name Zak concocts. Maybe "Xavier" will be a savior for Vinyl, even if Jobriath couldn't ultimately fulfill the full dream of freedom in the 1970s.

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