Jobriath: the man who fell to earth

Billed as the 'new Bowie', Jobriath exploded onto the glam rock scene in the 1970s – and then disappeared. Marc Almond salutes a personal hero

Britain in the early 1970s was going through a depression: the naive dreams and optimism of the 1960s had soured and evaporated; life was filled with drudgery, strikes, power cuts and unemptied bins. Against this colourless backdrop, glam rock emerged, sprinkling glitter over the grime. And its gods – Marc Bolan with his cosmic love songs, Bryan Ferry with his glamorous cinematic sleaze – reigned supreme. David Bowie was busy transforming the musical landscape.

The British music press of the time was a lads' domain, deeply homophobic; the rule was you had to be a serious musician who had paid some dues. Bowie, who had been reluctantly accepted, was becoming a phenomenon. Ferry's sci-fi, 1950s-inspired torch songs were considered fresh and alluring, played on a strange new electronic instrument called a synthesiser. (And Ferry was most definitely straight: scantily clad women featured on his record covers. The edges were not blurred.)

In Bolan, Bowie and Ferry, we had three straight men. The press needed a whipping boy, someone to laugh at. The US was having its own brief, glam-rock moment. Enter Jobriath, who introduced himself to the world with the career-killing words: "I am the true fairy of rock." To the British music press, he seemed a charlatan and, worse, an American who had supposedly plagiarised our beloved Bowie. He was kicked, bullied and beaten by the critics – and I adored him instantly for that.

Jobriath (born Bruce Wayne Campbell) was a readymade entity with no big backstory, yet to those in the know he was thrilling and seductive, a guilty secret. I remember, before hearing a note, taking a journey to the big city to buy his first album, the eponymous Jobriath, on import. Its striking cover showed him with porcelain skin and film-star ruby lips, a fallen, broken, beautiful statue. On a first listening, the music is a baffling mix of glam, musical theatre and 1970s rock. At a time when we craved simple guitar chords and a Starman chorus, Jobriath seemed just too musical, too clever – not pop enough. His voice had a touch of Mick Jagger at his most sluttish (like that other wonderful US glam import, David Johansen of the New York Dolls). He was a mix of wide-eyed innocent and world-weary punk. And though there was a nod to Ziggy in the vowels, Bowie he was not.

For me, above all else, he was a sexual hero: truly the first gay pop star. How extreme that was to the US at the time. His outrageous appearances on the hallowed US rock show The Midnight Special prompted shock, bewilderment and disgust. Everyone hated Jobriath – even, and especially, gay people. He was embarrassingly effeminate in an era of leather and handlebar moustaches.

Film-maker Kieran Turner's fascinating new documentary Jobriath AD, a project he wrote, produced and directed, is a work of love and a tribute to this almost forgotten star. Painstakingly pieced together from stills, rare clips and wonderful studio footage, the film shows Jobriath as an accomplished pianist; through interviews with those who knew him, we are given a fascinating portrait of a confused manchild with a kind of magic about him. Knowing yet naive, he seemed a lost soul; behind his bravado and preening there was a sadness in that gap-toothed, mischievous smile.

His was a career built on dreams and illusions (nothing new there), promises and might-have-beens. From his beginnings as a tousle-haired Wolf, singing the song Sodomy in an early, late-1960s production of Hair, to his hugely overhyped launch as the new Bowie, to the plans for a Paris stage spectacular (Jobriath was to burst out of a model of the Empire State building dressed as King Kong), it could only ever go horribly wrong. He had no hits, therefore no live show, and his crash came suddenly. There was a reinvention as a cabaret singer: Cole Berlin, who performed Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs cocktail-bar style. Then there were his years as a male hustler, and his premature death from Aids (in 1983, aged 36), while living in a pyramid on top of the Chelsea Hotel in New York. It was the rise and fall of Ziggy made real, a glam-rock parable. Turner clearly adores his subject and gives us an illuminating insight, but Jobriath remains an enigma. (Underneath it all, there was another story: the strange and ambiguous relationship between Jobriath and his charismatic manager, Jerry Brandt.)

For all the derision and marginalisation he faced, Jobriath did touch lives. He certainly touched mine. My songs The Exhibitionist and Lavender have Jobriath in mind, and I sing his Be Still in my live shows. The pretty blond boy with hopes and dreams, carefree and gay, got lost in the dressing-up box. He was born too early – and lost too soon.

• Jobriath AD screens at the BFI London Lesbian and Gay film festival on 29 March.

Marc Almond

The GuardianTramp

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