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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cole Berlin: An Elegy

Cole Berlin, towards the end
Who remembers Jobriath? Who listens to his music now? And yet, for a brief summer afternoon in popular culture, he was an occurrence in fame’s sky, as present and as cosmically superfluous as a solar eclipse. The eclipse appeared in the year of my birth, 1973 and was officially over by 1975. Jobriath is now only a very small footnote in the history of glam rock. He was overhyped, he was cursed with stupendously bad management, and just as importantly, he was very openly gay. He was not half-assed about his homosexuality. He was never bisexual, as the other glam rockers of the time played at being. No, Jobriath took pride in his self-description as the “Fairy Godmother of Rock”. He was musically talented, though his music — much like the man himself — was complicated. He was a showman, and he had an aesthetic sense that makes Lady Gaga seem rather jejune. But the world simply was not ready for Jobriath. Would it be ready now? It's hard to say. But alas, Jobriath is no more.

Jobriath’s real name was Bruce Wayne Campbell. For reasons I can only partly explain, I am less interested in Mr. Campbell’s glam career than I am in the persona he adopted later, the New York City piano player and cabaret singer named Cole Berlin (the name is a portmanteau of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin). Cole Berlin plied his trade in the lounges of New York City, with a regular gig at a restaurant called The Covent Gardens. He lived in a pyramid-shaped apartment on the rooftop of the Chelsea Hotel. He supplemented his relatively small income by occasional prostitution. He also wrote plays, without success, and he tried to start an acting career, to much the same effect. At some point in 1981 Cole began to feel ill. The disease from which he suffered was new at the time, and as yet it had no settled name. By the time it killed him in August of 1983, it was being called AIDS.

To my knowledge, there are only two songs of Cole Berlin’s available in recorded form. One of them consists of his performance in a 1981 BBC program about the Chelsea Hotel and its inhabitants. He is interviewed in his pyramid apartment, and he plays a ditty called “Sunday Brunch” on his white piano. He looks a bit puffy, maybe from the booze and pills, and it’s possible that he was already feeling ill (I’m not sure precisely when it was shot, although it was possibly as early as 1979). But still, you can’t help noticing that he was a natural performer.

Why does the story of Cole Berlin fascinate me? I’m not sure. I suppose it’s because all such stories of abject failure fascinate me. You see, despite all the lies that theologians and self-help gurus profit from peddling, failure — not success — is nature’s default position. No matter how fortunate and successful one may be, each and every one of us eventually ends up a failure, even if only in that one thing we generally try hardest to succeed at: remaining alive. The sad ending of Cole Berlin merely administers this valuable lesson to us in distilled form.

Sad as Cole Berlin’s ending sounds, it gets even sadder. Consider this story, told by Hayden Wayne, a musician who had been in Jobriath’s band. After Jobriath’s career ended, Wayne lost touch with him.  A certain actress had landed a big role in a popular soap opera. Her career was flourishing. She recently moved into a new apartment in New York City, which happened to be in the Chelsea, and she was proudly showing it off to some friends, one of whom was Wayne. This was sometime in December 1983. She pointed out all the furniture and the white-lacquered piano and mentioned that she had managed to buy the contents of the flat for a mere $4000. Her lawyer advised her that she could get it even cheaper. However, she didn’t wish to haggle with the seller, a man who was plainly distraught at the recent death of his son.

The Chelsea Hotel… the white piano… the rattan furniture… the pyramid-shaped apartment. It suddenly dawned on Wayne whose apartment this had been.

The actress went on to relate how the man’s son had been dead for four days before they found him. The neighbours had apparently been complaining about the smell. And thus ended the life of Cole Berlin, a.k.a. Jobriath, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne Campbell.

What does one do with a story so sad? Well, I wrote song lyrics. I woke up at 3:15am one day with these lyrics in my head. I had to write them down. I know many people claim to write lyrics or poems in such flashes of inspiration, and often they are not telling the strict truth. In my case, I do not exaggerate. Well, except for the “West 23rd” line — I had to look up the address. Although I write a lot, I have little inclination towards the sort of writing that rhymes or has a meter (my Christmas haiku are a rare exception).

I have no music for these lyrics, nor am like to. So if you can set them to something, be my guest. I only ask that you credit me and that, if recorded, you send me a copy.

*    *    *    *    *

I rang the bell, she let me in
To her pyramid in the New York dusk.
She dragged me through from room to room,
I trailed in her complacent musk.

“I just love this place,” she said.
“Isn’t it divine?
The furniture’s all rattan,” she said.
“And all of it is mine.”

Cole Berlin, the Pharaoh’s boy,
Two-twenty-two, West 23rd,
Was NYC’s new Sunday brunch,
The Covent Gardens’ native son,
The Hotel Chelsea’s naked lunch.

“Don’t you love this place?” she asked.
“Isn’t it superb?
The white piano’s a baby grand.
It was headed for the curb.”

Living in a pyramid
Kept Cole’s razors very sharp.
His coughing bounced around those walls,
But no one heard him in the end.
No one was listening in the end.
His hand was unheld in the end.

“I think I’ll put a bar right there —
I must apologize for the smell.
My cleaner has been everywhere,
But that smell, my God! It’s always there!”

Cole Berlin, the Pharaoh’s boy,
Two-twenty-two, West 23rd,
Was NYC’s new Sunday brunch,
The Covent Gardens’ native son,
The Hotel Chelsea’s naked lunch.

© James Pratt, 2012.

6 comments:

  1. Here's the link to the second of the two Cole Berlin recordings mentioned above, "Movie Queen":

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcfIwfpzAWo

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    1. "Movie Queen" was on the 1973 "Jobriath" album (track # 6)

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  2. You should keep an eye out for the recent film documentary about Jobriath, which covered his whole life, including the end years. I think it's getting some manner of release this fall; I saw it earlier this year at Inside Out (and reviewed it here).

    You may also be interested in this song.

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    1. Yeah, "Jobriath AD" -- saw the trailer for it. Looks interesting.

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    2. I've heard that Okkervil River song before, but under an abbreviated title. That solves the mystery of when teh interview was done. To be honest, I hate the song/band... ;-)

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  3. What is the form of the poem? I learned all the French forms at one time, villanelle and so forth, but I forgot them long ago. I still agree with the American poet Richard Wilbur, who said (at least I'm told he said it), "The strength of the genie comes from being in the bottle." Or words that effect. It was apparently an answer to the question why he still used rhyme and meter rather than free verse.

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