When I First Met Phoebe Snow
In April of 2011, singer/songwriter Phoebe Snow died. When I heard the news I walked into my hallway and stared at the gold record hanging on my wall with the cover and label of her second album, “Second Childhood.” My thoughts drifted back to when I first met Phoebe.
In 1973 I had just become an assistant recording engineer at A and R Studios in New York. I was apprenticed to a master named Phil Ramone. My first project would be to work with an unknown artist named Phoebe Snow.
What an evocative name! As an 18-year-old boy, I fantasized about what a woman named Phoebe Snow would look, and be, like. I visualized an evanescent sprite, an elf, like Tinkerbell, with translucent skin and white hair. She and I would connect in some cosmic-love way. I was an 18-year-old boy – what do you expect?
My fantasy sank back to Earth when the real Phoebe Snow walked into the studio. She shuffled into the room clutching her black acoustic-guitar case. Her chin jutted out over an ill-defined body. She had a dour look on her face. Her first words in a nasal Teaneck, New Jersey accent, were, “Where’s the food?” Her real name was Phoebe Laub.
In contrast to my fantasy, Phoebe was my particular adolescent nightmare. Five years older than me, she was the annoying older sister I never wanted. Nothing was right for Phoebe, and as the assistant, it was my job to try and fix it.
At 22, Phoebe came to our studio in the middle of making her first record. The project was collapsing in chaos. Her producer was a pleasant, bearish guy named Dino Airali. He was clearly in over his head with this difficult young woman. He had followed her around the country for more than a year, blowing the recording budget on Phoebe’s whims which never panned out. He came into the studio with just a few bare recordings of Phoebe’s guitar and vocals. Not much to show for the six-figure budget he had spent.
In desperation, Dino had hooked up with my mentor, Phil. It was a timely fit. Phil agreed to engineer the project if he could get a co-producing credit. Dino needed help bad. His record company, Shelter Records, was on the verge of bankruptcy. If he couldn’t come up with a finished product in a few weeks cheap, there would be no record, and no company.
Producing Poetry Man
Phil’s production style was to ask Phoebe, if she could have anyone in the world play on her songs, who would she have? Phoebe had a fertile imagination, and she came up with creative answers for a pop record in the mid-70’s.
The smart and cool saxophone-player, Zoot Sims, blew his ax and wrapped the songs in ever-changing wisps of gray smoke. Margaret Ross, a session harp player, turned out to be a jazz cat at heart. She added on a layer of shiny gold filigree to the tracks. Teddy Wilson, on piano, added his sophisticated blue voicings, bringing a touch of class to the proceedings.
Then came the silver ribbon on the box. Ramone booked Ralph MacDonald to overdub percussion.
Ralph was a cosmic musician. He heralded from the West Indies. He had been taught the conga by his father. He once told me that his father taught him not to hit the drum, but to caress it like a lover. Ralph’s hands were soft. His touch was incomparable. The sound of his skin against the skin of the drum was deep and sensual.
Ralph had a shiny skull and big, brown laughing eyes. He was the ultimate in cool. And like most studio cats, he was humble and generous of spirit. Though I was a kid barely out of high school, he treated me as both friend and worthy student.
I went out into the studio as he set up his instruments for the overdub, where he would add his parts to the music already recorded. As we set up, he listened to the songs.
He put together a small wooden table, about two feet across, with a wooden bar hanging across the top. He laid a few small percussion instruments on the table: two woodblocks, a string of bells and a film can with beads in it. On the bar he hung some chimes and a finger cymbal. That was all. He told me to place two microphones, one aiming at each end, to get a stereo effect.
While listening, Ralph rolled a fat joint. Now let’s be honest. There were a lot of drugs in the studio at that time. The studio was a play pen for grown-ups, and in the ‘70’s drugs were part of the fun. I usually didn’t get high during sessions, especially in the early days with Ramone. I didn’t want to screw up. He generally didn’t approve of my doing so, and I certainly wouldn’t do anything to piss him off if I could help it, even though I inevitably did.
Ralph brought the doobie into the control room and offered a hit to Ramone. Ramone, not a big pot smoker, inhaled. He was in a good mood that day– he was getting to do his thing, his way. He was producing. He was excited about what Ralph was about to bring to the tracks.
He turned and offered me the j. I looked at him as if to say, really? He nodded and said it was ok, but instructed me to only take one hit. Ralph said that would be all I’d need anyway. I drew deep from the fat joint, mixing in air with the smoke to cut the harshness. It was sweet. Before I finished toking my head started to expand and clear. It was premium weed. I wouldn’t expect less from Ralph. My ears started to crackle.
I sat behind Phil by the tape machine. We watched Ralph through the studio glass. He put out the joint, put on his headphones, and signaled me to roll tape. We started with a song called “Poetry Man.”
Phoebe’s guitar picked the intro. Ralph hit the chimes. Sparkle. Then the wood blocks: tick, tock. Then the finger cymbal. Ting. Then he tapped the bells. Chik, chik. Then the finger cymbal. Ting. His playing was spare, tasteful, brilliant.
Ralph finished his first take and asked to put on another layer. This time he shook the film can with beads. Shak. Shak. Then, on the chorus: shaka, shaka, shaka, shaka. He added the final filigree of the windchimes. I knew I had witnessed a simple moment of sublime creation.
In the contrast and coming together of the green, blue, and gold silk of the guitar, harp, sax, and percussion, with the red and caramel hopsack of Phoebe’s voice, an album of deep emotion was born.
Each musical element of the album was created in this way. One part at a time was thought through and played by masters. This gave each musical shade significance, meaning, depth. The choices were guided by the vision of Phoebe, and manifested through the sure hand of Ramone.
We worked long into the night and finished the album on time and budget. It was a modest album for that time of overproduced 70’s decadence. Most records required lots of payola to make it on hit radio in those days. After blowing her budget and with Shelter Records going under, there wasn’t much cash for that. I was convinced this turkey was headed right for the $1.99 bin. That’s music biz talk for being a total flop.
But then, the magic hit. The cream really did rise to the top. Spontaneously, with little promotion, Phoebe had a smash hit record with a song called, “Poetry Man.”
Phoebe Snow Sacrifices Stardom
We all changed a great deal after that. Phil went on to become a world-class producer, I was promoted to senior mixer, and Phoebe got on the cover of Rolling Stone. We made another record: the gold one hanging on my wall.
Sometime during 1975 Phoebe came in to visit us at the studio. I was shocked to find out she was pregnant. She had none of the glow that pregnant women usually have. I had a bad feeling.
It turned out that Phoebe’s daughter was born with profound developmental disabilities.
Phoebe couldn’t give a hoot about fame and fortune. After living through the flim-flam of the music biz, she knew what was real, and that was what was going on with her child. The awkward, self-involved girl from Teaneck matured. She sacrificed her path to superstardom to care for her helpless daughter, Valerie Rose. Phoebe was at heart, not only a true artist, but more importantly, a caring human being.
I remembered, years later, seeing Phoebe for the last time. It was a dark period of my life. One night at about 2 in the morning I was walking alone through the streets of my beloved West Village in New York City not far from The Bitter End where I saw Phoebe all those years ago with only a few people in the audience. I noticed a Volkswagen double parked with the lights on inside. Something seemed odd about the car. I walked over to look inside. Phoebe was sitting alone in the driver’s seat. We started to talk as if we were in the middle of a conversation that had started decades before. She didn’t seem surprised to see me at all. There was warmth and familiarity between us. We had been kids together in something big.
Phoebe had some odd beliefs. When we hung out together in those early days, she would bring in cassette tapes that she had recorded in silent rooms, convinced if you listened carefully enough you could hear voices from the spirit world.
I didn’t go for such mumbo-jumbo, but there was something strange about us stumbling onto each other here, the only two people alive on this street, she alone in a car, me wandering in the middle of the night.
After chatting, I walked away into the lonely dark. She sat in the car. We never asked each other what we were doing there. I never saw her again.
Phoebe Snow Was an Angel
As I walked away, her music played in my head. I heard the cool electric guitar riffs of her friend, Steve Burgh, who played on those early albums. A talented guy, he, too, died young, and unexpectedly.
I began to wonder. What was it in Phoebe that engendered such fierce loyalty among her adoring fans? Of course she was a natural singer. She had a voice like no other, and when she opened her mouth, a sound came out that was joy burnished with pain. She was all contradiction: a jazzy, folky, bluesy, rockin’, funky Jewish chick from Jersey. But it was more than that. Phoebe was an oddball.
I understand this misfit thing. I’ve always been drawn to these types. I guess I’m one myself. That’s why I was into music, and that’s why now I am now a psychotherapist.
There’s something about the ugly ones, the wierdos, the freaks, the queers, the geeks, the musicians, the addicts, the losers, the left-handers, the nuts, the lonely, and unlucky ones.
I think those among us who are different have a little less of a psychic immune system. They are a little closer to the source. They don’t quite make it in this world, and they feel the pain a little more acutely than the rest. But they bring us a gift we all need to know and feel.
I can imagine chubby Phoebe Laub sitting in her bedroom in Teaneck, playing her guitar and singing to the ceiling while the cute girls were flirting with the jocks. She was sitting alone in that car the last time I saw her because I bet she was alone much of the time.
There are plenty of misfits in the world. Maybe there is a misfit in each one of our secret hearts. Phoebe touched this sensitive, lonely, longing, part of us. I can also see all the lonely freaks out there sitting alone in their bedrooms in 1974, listening to “Poetry Man” and feeling some solace because they knew that she knew.
When we listen to Phoebe sing, we hear through and beyond that obnoxious girl I met the first time she came into the studio. We hear the contours of the essence. We hear that cry in the darkness of the West Village, that late night sound of vinyl, the echo of Zoot and Teddy Wilson, that distant sound, receding into the night, that voice, strong, loving, seeing, and speaking, for us.
That’s what the artist does – they see for us – they suffer for us, because we’d rather not.
I call the Phoebes of the world angels. This have wings – an incredible voice, or some other talent — in exchange for some deep vulnerability. This is why so many artists die young. Phoebe was so powerful in her unique voice, and profound love. But this was in contrast to the rest of her body, which never worked so well for her.
As an 18-year-old, I couldn’t see past her appearance. Today, with nothing left of Phoebe but her music, I realize she is that evanescent creature I imagined before I met her. However she looked or acted on the outside, inside she was the rarest alloy. She was the essence of beauty.
In honor of the dearly departed, Phoebe Snow, I invite you to look for the strange ones out there, or the oddball in you, and be a little kinder and a little more understanding, because you never know, you might be in the presence of an angel. And maybe when you are in a quiet room, turn on that digital recorder in your smartphone. If you play it back, and listen real close, you might hear Phoebe.
“I strut and fret my hour upon the stage
The hour is up
I have to run and hide my rage
I’m lost again, I think I’m really scared
I won’t be back at all this time
And have my deepest secrets shared
I’d like to be a willow a lover
A mountain or a soft refrain
But I’d hate to be a grown-up
And have to try and bear my life in pain” — Harpo’s Blues
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