Sometimes the first scene sets the mood for how the rest of the production will be. Well, for Jill Sobule’s concert film, F*ck7thGrade, the cars were parked at Hazelwood Green with people anxiously awaiting the opening of the show. There was no one on stage. Then a woman came riding along on a chopper bicycle in front of the stage. The chopper had some motorcycle-like features, such as high handlebars and a banana seat with a vertically arched bar at its rear. It was a very popular boys bike in the late ’60s and ’70s. Not like the pretty, girl bikes. The bike-riding woman was Jill Sobule. She dismounted to the right of the stage and ran up the steps to greet the Pittsburgh auto audience and start the show. A chorus of horn honks and flashing headlights gave her a warm reception.
The opening of the concert was fun, and that’s how Sobule mainly chose to deal with her journey to accepting herself, her sexuality, and the ups and downs of her music career. However, it was at times a very painful journey. In the 7th grade, Sobule veered off from some sense of normalcy and friendships to that of being a weird outsider. Grace is also a part of her story. Grace to herself, and grace to others who played good and bad roles in her life.
City Theatre’s concert film of Sobule’s F*ck7thGrade was rehearsed and shot last August, several weeks before City Theatre’s Drive-in Arts Festival at Hazelwood Green. The film’s world premiere occurred January 25, and it streams through June 30. It was slated to be produced at City Theatre last spring as an in-theatre play, but was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Growing up, Sobule lived in Denver, Colorado. In the opening song of the concert, she spoke and sang about how she had a Raleigh blue chopper that she would ride to the JCC (Jewish Community Center). She sang, “I can ride with no hands and both eyes shut / swervin’ between cars at the Pizza Hut / I’m no teeny bopper in my Raleigh blue chopper.”
She spoke about how at a young age she wanted to be able to play like Jimi Hendrix, and could do some real “Hey Joe” riffs back then. This led her into playing a Hendrix-esque “Star-Spangled Banner” riff on her black Stratocaster. “Mockingly,” Sobule said of an adult from her childhood, “Mr. Hill said, ‘Girls finger pick, it’s the boys who shred.’” The rest of the band joined in with the chant.
Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer
On a family vacation to Beavers Ranch, all the girls there were into horseback riding, which she hated. For the song “I Hate Horses,” all the band members donned horse heads. At the ranch, she said she punched a girl in the nose, who snobbishly said that she listened to only classical music after Sobule told her of her love of rock ‘n’ roll. That, she continued, was her first inkling that maybe she was a weirdo.
On her first acoustic guitar song of the night, she talked about how in the 7th grade her first breakup was actually with her group of girlfriends. She sang the song “Strawberry Gloss” about other topics of that time: “Retainers and braces for all our pretty faces / And starter-bras, shirts made of gauze /… strawberry gloss [lipstick].” Sobule mentioned that she was pigeon-toed and had to wear orthopedic shoes. They were not good looking and made her feel like Frankenstein. “Everything was life or death, everything made me feel so excited or so miserable,” Sobule said.
She found herself gravitating to a new tough girl at school, Mary, who reminded her of Alice in the anti-drug TV movie “Go Ask Alice.” Sobule was now in with the school freaks. She even tried acid at the tender age of 13. She recalled Mary smelling of Jean Nate and Marlboro Reds.
During the concert, band members briefly portrayed different characters in Sobule’s stories. Sarah Siplak, who played bass guitar and viola in the band, did a great job portraying Mary. The band played “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.
Sobule dressed in a form-fitting, red t-shirt with the phrase in white letters, “My Only Friend is Music,” and white overalls with the front and rear flaps hanging down at her waist. She relayed the stories from her life in a soft, charismatic voice, oftentimes with a childlike enthusiasm, and at other times, with hurt and bravado. In addition to Siplak, the band consisted of Kristen Henderson (drums and percussion) and Julie Wolf (keys, guitar, music director). All were superb in both their musical and brief acting roles. Her concert band was named Secrets of the Vatican, which was the name of her pretend band in 7th grade.
Sobule had fun interacting with the in-car audience and spoke about how much she loved Pittsburgh. She has played here numerous times over the years and has a sizable Pittsburgh fan base. Sobule even recorded a DVD called “Live in Pittsburgh” at Club Cafe.
Sobule mentioned finding her brother’s Playboy magazines, seeing one photo shoot with two women dressed as French school girls kissing, and thinking she’d like to go to that school. She started to realize that maybe she was attracted to women. She began to covet her friend Mary in that way, and things headed in that direction. Sobule and her band performed the funny song “What Do I Do with My Tongue.” Music was her savior at a school with mean girls, Sobule said.
She fondly referred to her year abroad, living in Spain, as her “slut years.” Sobule and a friend were busking on the streets and a man offered her a steady job singing in his club. Not knowing many cover songs forced her to develop her talents as a songwriter. Sobule also had her first true affair with a woman while in Spain with someone she said looked like Sophia Loren. Afterward, she said, it was like being in the magical Land of Oz and her first “walk of shame.” The band then played Sobule’s hit song, “When My Ship Comes In,” with her playing some outstanding electric guitar riffs.
Burgeoning Music Career
Next, she sang “Open Mic Night” about how she would play the open mic night at the Holiday Inn on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. And it was a great experience, except for the MC mispronouncing her name. Siplak recreated that moment as the MC.
Open mic night proved to be a huge stepping stone for Sobule, as one night, there was a music producer from Nashville in the audience, and he suggested that she come to Nashville and meet his partner. At the time, Sobule was just about to move to New York City with her girlfriend, Big Jill, and sell shoes at Barneys, but ended up making the move to Nashville. A brilliant observation, she stated to the crowd, was that when you get discovered, your parents realize how great you’ve always been.
She moved to Nashville and got a record deal. Sobule didn’t like the man’s producing partner, but did like his unhappy wife, who was a conservative Christian. The wife suggested they write a song together about an affair that wasn’t headed anywhere. The writing of it didn’t really pan out, but provided the impetus for Sobule’s biggest hit, “I Kissed a Girl.” She kept the song on the down low until someone at the studio heard her performing it and thought it was a fun song and that it should be recorded. Surprising her even more, the studio wanted it to be the lead single for the album. Sobule then teased playing that song and said they weren’t going to play it now.
She continued that the song became a monster hit, and she got all the accolades and niceties of the celebrity fame circuit. She and the band played “Gotta Get Me Some.” Sobule was set to do the video for “I Kissed a Girl” with two girls kissing. It would have been the first girl-girl kiss on MTV. The label decided against it and then cast Fabio as her husband.
Sobule talked about all the fame that that song brought her and about how she finally had to step back from it somewhat. She stopped playing the song at periods during concert tours. Then Katy Perry came out with her own song, also titled “I Kissed a Girl,” and that angered Sobule a little. She said to herself at the time, “I’m the ‘Kissed a Girl’ girl.” Sobule went behind the drum kit and very capably performed “Bitter” on it. The rest of the band joined in a little bit into the song.
During this part of the concert, Sobule mentioned several of the down moments of her career and that a couple albums didn’t sell very well. She appeared to be a little misty-eyed at times, and rightfully so. However, Sobule didn’t stay down for long; her cheery, humorous nature seeking the light. Band members then told stories about uncomfortable moments from their own 7th grade lives. She and the band ended their earlier tease and performed her mega-hit, “I Kissed a Girl.”
Sobule said she thought she remembered that Dr. Sigmund Freud stated the first days, week, and year of life are the most important. She said that she disagreed with him, that the 7th grade was the most important year of her life. And that she wouldn’t be where she is without 7th grade, that maybe we’re all doomed to go through 7th grade over and over. Sobule then exclaimed to the audience, “And don’t we all do great things as underdogs!” She and the band then launched into “Underdog Victorious.”
The encore song was “A Good Life,” replete with members of the band playing rudimentary instruments. Henderson drummed on a small washtub she held while banging on a trash can with a foot pedal percussion mallet; Wolf played an accordion; and Siplak put a metal necktie instrument on and played its ridges with a stick, like a washboard. It was a fun roots-sounding song. And isn’t remembering 7th grade about getting back to one’s roots?
Why should you watch City Theatre’s F*ck7thGrade? For the very interesting story of Jill Sobule’s life so far, for her aurally pleasing pop/rock/folk songs, and maybe even to think back on your own journey and how far you’ve come.
Jill Sobule Interview
After watching F*ck7thGrade, I had the opportunity to speak with Jill Sobule by phone. She was in Los Angeles, California, where she has been staying since the start of the pandemic.
I asked Sobule what always attracts her back to Pittsburgh. She replied, “I love Pittsburgh. It’s a good town. When I’ve traveled, and I’ve traveled a lot, I just found a connection to Pittsburgh. Plus it’s a gorgeous city, and I played there a lot. Something about Pittsburgh, it’s unique, you know, it still got this kind of grit to it. I’ve been in Los Angeles since COVID, and you know, Pittsburgh’s kind of the anti-L.A.”
Has the 7th grade always been a touchstone for you? “It’s so funny, I was thinking about that and then I talked to my friends and I go, ‘7th grade was the worst year of my life,’ and then all the other people were like, yea, it was either 7th or 8th grade. Your parents become less important, maybe, and maybe peers become more important, kids are cruel, hormones are starting to rage, and [it’s] just weird. I think you’re trying to figure out your own identity in that year,” she said.
Sobule said of her collaboration with Liza Birkenmeier, who wrote the book for F*ck7thGrade, “She was so great to work with. How we would work would be, she would come over and bring her iPhone, and she would record me and a lot of the dialogue is taken from those tapes. She would piece them together, and she would come up with some bits of her own, and it just turned out. It seemed flawless working together. It was great. It [F*ck7thGrade] is still a work in progress. We have more work to do to make it more of a theater piece, which during COVID we weren’t able to do.”
“The other thing was that all the people involved in this, including Clare [Drobot] from the [City] Theatre, we had the best time. We had to come to Pittsburgh, we had to quarantine, and then take [COVID-19] tests, and then we got to hang out with each other. We were all ‘podded’ up together. And when we left Pittsburgh and each other, we were all, like, depressed for two weeks. We had such a great time working together.“
She continued, “I’ve been in bands before, but this was a special collaboration. And it’s great for me, a solo artist, as I don’t collaborate that much, so this was really good for me. I’m so lucky to work with these people that Clare put me together with, they’re like an A-Team. It was one of the best experiences, I have to say, especially during COVID.”
When I mentioned to her that I really liked the opening song to F*ck7thGrade, “Raleigh Blue Chopper,” she said, “What I’d love to do, I was talking to my friend who has a studio, is to go in and do a soundtrack [for F*ck7thGrade] and record the songs [like “Raleigh Blue Chopper”] that haven’t been recorded yet. I’d like to do a record, redo some of the songs, or remaster them and then just record the new ones that aren’t in there.”
What new projects are you working on, I asked Sobule. “I’m in the middle of creating a TV show, and I’ll have more about that at a later date.” I asked if she would be appearing in the new TV show and she said, “It’s a TV show, and there are some people who are like middle-aged singer-songwriters from the ’90s and I could play that so well.” When I followed up on that news and asked what channel or platform it was on, she said she couldn’t say right now, but did reveal that she’s collaborating on the show with Joan Osborne. Sobule also mentioned that she has been performing via Zoom for small gatherings during the pandemic. More information about that is on her website.
Sobule was part of “The Simpsons” in November 2019. I asked her what that was like. “It was fantastic! I loved it. That was great. I’ve known him [creator Matt Groening] for a long time, so he always would say to me how he thought I’d have a good voice for ‘The Simpsons.’ And then everytime I would see him, I’d see him once a year, and I’d say, ‘Hey, when am I going to be on “The Simpsons?”’ It became like a running joke. Then finally I got this call because there’s an episode called ‘Lumber Jill,’ and he goes, ‘I know who we should have sing the song.’”
Sobule also mentioned that she can’t wait to return to Pittsburgh to do it [F*ck7thGrade] properly on the stage at City Theatre after things get back closer to normal.
F*ck7thGrade started three years ago when Associate Artistic Director and dramaturg Clare Drobot met singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in New York City. Sobule brought the concept to City Theatre, which then paired her with playwright Liza Birkenmeier. Birkenmeier wrote the book for the show after many conversations with Sobule. F*ck7thGrade was workshopped and presented at City Theatre’s 2018 Momentum Festival of New Plays.
OBIE Award-winning director Lisa Peterson and music director Julie Wolf then joined the creative team. The show was further refined at the Colorado New Play Festival in Steamboat Springs and at Actor’s Express in Atlanta.
The concert film was expertly shot and edited by Mickey and Molly Miller of Human Habits under the direction of Lisa Peterson. The shots were varied, not lingering too long with any camera angle, but also no choppy quick cuts between cameras. A behind-the-stage camera provided occasional views from behind the band looking outward to the auto audience and the flashing headlights and honking horns. The sound was captured with clarity by sound engineer Brad Peterson and sound designer Zachary Beattie-Brown. The creative team included Rachel Hauck (Scenic Design), Madison Hack (Costume Design), Cat Wilson (Lighting Design), Jinah Lee (Stage Manager), and Clare Drobot (Dramaturg). The musical was rehearsed and filmed under strict health safety measures set by Allegheny Health Network (AHN). Marc Masterson is the artistic director of City Theatre and James McNeel the managing director.
For tickets and more information regarding F*ck7thGrade, visit City Theatre’s website or call the box office at (412) 431-2489.
Concert photos by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy of City Theatre.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.