February 20, 2003
The Beatles on "Ed Sullivan." Michael Jackson's Moonwalk on the "Motown 25th Anniversary Special." Ricky Martin at the Grammys. Each of these TV appearances launched a musical career into the stratosphere. On Wednesday Feb. 12, 2003, Jill Sobule appeared on "The West Wing." Will lightning strike again?
If you watched the episode, you may have seen Sobule, the singer-songwriter best known for her hit "I Kissed a Girl," playing two songs in a bar as Toby and C.J. argued a moral point. For "The West Wing" it's another episode. For Sobule, it was an opportunity waiting to explode into a possibility.
Sobule has been performing for more than two decades, since she was a teenager. She has opened for Don Henley (playing in front of crowds of 20,000) and Warren Zevon and performed at Neil Young's "Bridge" concert. She's played backup for Lloyd Cole. She's had a band and performed solo, and toured the country with her traveling guitar. Over the years, she has released five CDs, on several labels. She plays more than 100 concerts a year.
She has a career. She has a devoted following. But she wants a life. She has been able to support herself, but as she sings in one of her new songs, she "still lives like a freshman." Sobule currently has no record deal. She is working on a one-woman show. It's not so much that Sobule wants to reinvent herself, as she wants to find the audience that will allow her to live as an adult.
Part of the problem is that record companies or radio stations are no longer set up to find or reach Sobule's audience. Over the last few years, adult album-oriented radio has failed repeatedly in Los Angeles (Does anyone remember 101.9? KSCA?). Many prominent singer-songwriters, such as Randy Newman and Sam Phillips, have migrated to smaller boutique labels, such as Nonesuch records, in hope that their music will not be lost in the shuffle. There was a hope that the Internet would become a means of distribution so that smaller artists could make a better living. So far, that dream has not come true. Instead, file-sharing has weakened the major music labels without empowering or remunerating smaller labels and artists.
Sobule's songs are funny, sweet, ironic, wistful and, at times, cruel and vengeful. But she is always optimistic. She is the SpongeBob SquarePants of singer-songwriters. But where is her audience? Not buying CDs, not listening to radio. MTV hardly plays music videos anymore and they hardly play videos by artists over 30. What's a performer to do? One thought is that Sobule's audience may be the same people who enjoy "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "The West Wing," for that matter. That's why Sobule's appearance holds such promise.
Sobule is a friend, and I'm a fan. I first saw her perform about eight years ago at Genghis Cohen. I usually see her when she's in town. And yes, we have collaborated: The summer before last we pitched a sitcom together with playwright-screenwriter Seth Greenland. The show's premise was "how do you stay true to your art when everyone around you is telling you to be an adult about your chosen career?"
I'm shocked, shocked, shocked that it didn't sell -- actually, I am.
More recently, in December, Sobule performed at an ACLU benefit honoring Samuel Paz, Barry Levinson, Fred Goldring and Ken Hertz (her attorney).
Goldring and Hertz's award was presented by "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin. Before the evening was over, Sorkin had decided to write Sobule into an episode.
Which is why, late on a Wednesday night in early February, I found myself at the Pig and Whistle bar in Hollywood. For most of the day the bar had been taken over by "The West Wing." Leslie Linka Glatter was directing and the bar was full of actors and legions of production people; equipment cluttered the room. Sorkin had been by earlier; Lewellyn Wells was there now. It'd been a long day and there were still more takes to be done.
Sobule was enjoying herself, playing cover songs between takes, with the cast and crew singing along -- you've not lived until you've heard Brad Whitford's "Sunrise, Sunset."
"I could get used to this," she said.
If you ask Sobule if she's ever acted before, she answers: "I was Queen Esther in the Purim play." Her family has great intellectual and performance art creed: her great uncle worked on the Manhattan project; one of her cousins is Sarah Boxer, the New York Times contributor; another is the professional wrestler Goldberg.
Sobule grew up in Denver, Colo., and attended St. Mary's academy -- don't ask. One of the first original songs she performed at school, "Jesus Played the Dreidel," got her into trouble. At 19, she was discovered performing on the streets in Spain. The rest, as they say, is one gig after another.
There are moments in our life when our fate seems decided. At an early age, parents ask us what we want to be when we grow up. At some point we start coming up with answers. We are typecast or cast ourselves in such roles as doctor, lawyer, teacher, artist, businessman, among many others, or we drift until we find ourselves doing what it is we do. What happens if that notion of ourselves or that notion of how the world works is more appropriate to a teenager than an adult? What if we get to do what we love, but we want to buy a home, raise kids, settle down? All these thoughts swirled though my head as I watched Sobule doing take after take through the long night.
Sobule will always write and perform. But there are so many artists who, mid-career, still struggle. Los Angeles is filled with people waiting for their close-up. Every success, they say, was a failure until the night before. You're standing at the roulette table and you don't want to leave.
On Feb. 12, NBC aired "The West Wing" episode, "Inauguration Day: Over There." I am hoping that after more than two decades of performing, Sobule is going to be an overnight sensation.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column on art and culture will appear every two weeks in The Jewish Journal.