"The other night I met a person on the business side of this business who I decided it would be a real neat idea to get to know. So I went up to him with my Pepsodent smile and my hand outstretched, you know, and said, 'How ya
Phoebe Snow was chewing bubble gum and sipping Diet Pepsi in an office at Atlantic Records. This was a little over a year ago, after her album
Rock Away came out.
"He put his arm on my shoulder and said, 'May I be blunt with you?' I said, 'Sure.' He said, 'Why don't you level with me? You know and I know that you had it all. You could have been the biggest thing since I don't know what. But you blew it. You killed it! What did you do that for?'
"He said, 'Now I've heard about you, we've all heard about you, we know you're very sick. So why don't you face facts --
you're very mentally disturbed, am I right? You're, like, really nuts?' He was facing me, and I went, 'Look, what's
over there?' He turned, and I grabbed his head and said right into his ear, 'My daughter is severely brain-injured, and I don't want you to start nothin' with me, okay?'
"He jumped back and said, 'Hey! Eighty-six! Forget it!' And I said, 'And tell your friends who are saying I'm nuts that I say hi and the same to them. If they wanna start with me...'"
It was the summer of 1974, and everywhere you turned there was this voice wafting out of car radios, record stores, open windows on the street. The song was a classy, catchy pop ditty called "Poetry Man," but the voice! It was a voice bigger than any song. Fluid, delicate, moody -- instantly that voice had authority.
If one was curious enough -- and most were -- one looked for the song and discovered a whole album by this woman, this singer with the breathy, girlish vibrato and the knowing, bluesy growl. The session musicians on her record were the cream of the crop -- jazz legends like Teddy Wilson and Zoot Sims, along with the Persuasions and such pop notables as David Bromberg and Dave Mason -- and the woman, Phoebe Snow, did them all proud.
With a single stroke she proved herself to be one of the most exciting, versatile performers of her time. In 1975, the album went gold. She was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy. Paul Simon invited her to sing with him on "Gone at Last," and the resulting hit single revealed both her terrific gospel chops and a sky-scraping upper range. She turned twenty-five. She married her boyfriend, Phil Kearns. They had a baby girl, Valerie Rose. All in one year.
What happened then? Did she go nuts? Did she blow it? Well...not exactly. She continued to make records; some of them were very good, but none quite matched the crystalline perfection of her first album. In the process, she experimented with different kinds of material -- jazz, Motown, rock -- not all of which projected well on a record. That's not surprising; after
all, the essence of Ella Fitzgerald comes across not on a polite album like
Cole Porter Songbook but during those moments in concert when she lifts her hankie to her face and starts scatting like some swing-injected Pentecostal priestess. Phoebe Snow has the same kind of once-in-a-generation voice. She needs an audience to urge her on to those shameless displays of sheer lung power. For years, what kept her career aloft in lieu of hits was her phenomenal concert appearances -- including her memorable stint on
Saturday Night Live singing "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" with Linda
Touring tends to take its toll, however, and before too long Phoebe, once Queen Midas, had become pop's Pandora with a boxful of problems. Did she crack up? Maybe. She will tell you: "I shouldn't have been in the studio during that time. I was not in control of my mental faculties. I was orbiting Venus." In 1979, she asked to be released from her contract, and the following April she declared bankruptcy. In the summer of '81, things began to turn around as her duet with Jackson Browne on the old song "Have Mercy" started climbing the charts. But then, shortly into the promotional tour, she broke a blood vessel in her throat onstage. There went the tour, there went the hit, there went the comeback.
It must be unspeakably frustrating to be one of the greatest singers of your generation and find yourself sitting out in suburban New Jersey with a brain-injured baby girl and your career on hold. But when we met last fall, Phoebe Snow was in high spirits. Done with her financial and medical problems, done with her insecurities and agonizing -- at least for now -- she was preparing to go back into the studio and start singing again. Raring to go.
"Notice anything different?" she hints, pirouetting in the doorway of her spacious apartment. She's lost a lot of weight recently, and she's very proud of it. "When I was out in L.A. mixing my last record, I got really close to two hundred pounds. That's not funny for a
five-foot- four-inch person. One night my friend Marci was driving me home and I bought six cookies the size of roofs of outhouses. I don't think I was really going to eat them all; I just wanted to have them around. So we pull up in front of the house and I start to unwrap the paper on one of the cookies, and Marci, who'd just lost a bunch of weight, said to me, 'You don't want that cookie,' and I said, 'Yes. I do. I want it.' She said, 'No, you wanna
throw it like a discus. Let me see you throw it like a discus.' I went like that" -- she mimes tossing a Frisbee -- "and it went smash against the building. I said, 'Hey, that was good. Lemme try another one.'"
The first thing you notice when you meet Phoebe Snow is not how she looks but what she says. Both as a performer and as a person, the most astonishing thing about her is what comes out of her mouth. While she'll say there are certain subjects she'd rather not get into, she'll talk about them anyway because they're on her mind. And the first thing you know, she's telling you why she broke up with her husband, what David Bowie whispered to her at a party, what shocking things she used to say to tease CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff. These are things you can't print, things in fact that you shouldn't be hearing, maybe you don't even want to be hearing, but they're very funny. If you laugh at her stories, she'll tell you more; if your attention starts to drift, she'll reach for stories that seem a little hard to believe. Whatever it takes to make you laugh.
The most famous picture of Phoebe Snow is the painting on the cover of her first album. With a cloud of kinky hair topping a bespectacled face distinguished by full lips and seven prominent moles, you can't tell whether she's young or old, black or white. The "natural beauty" of that image appealed to many of her early fans in the antifashion '70s, the I'm-okay-you're-okay years. Her audiences were full of Phoebe Snow lookalikes -- chubby women with curly hair, glasses, and moles, who, she says, sort of gave her the creeps. Back then, she didn't help matters much; once, when the theater was cold, she went onstage in a ski parka, looking like the neighborhood babysitter. Today contact lenses have replaced the eyeglasses. And when she puts on a little makeup and changes into an embroidered black pullover for dinner, she even shows a touch of real glamour. But it's still a little awkward talking about her appearance. We both know that if she sang like Phoebe Snow but looked like Deborah Harry, she'd be a superstar by now.
"I'm not a natural gorgeous person," she shrugs. "I mean, if I'm gonna look presentable, I have to work at it. I didn't even used to try. I've discussed that with my parents since my career died down a lot." She says "my career" as though it had satirical quotes around it. "They think that I botched everything up purposely, that I did a whole neurotic
anti-success thing." She stops for a sidelong glance at me to see if that's a likely story. Then she adds, "There's probably some truth to that."
She starts talking about having just seen a Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, which reminds her of a
Midnight Special "where I look like a hot-dog salesman. I don't know what that
thing, that shmatte, was that I was wearing, but it was so ugly." She cracks up, we both laugh, but she keeps an eye out to see if I'm making the same distinction between Then and Now that she is. Some people could tell these stories and make you feel uncomfortable because it sounds like they're putting themselves down. But Phoebe does it with the coolness of someone accustomed to digging into herself for her art and entertainment. "I think I tried to flaunt whatever ugliness I could find as a way of saying 'I don't deserve this success.' I guess I learned that early on." She stops. "It wasn't blatant -- my parents didn't say, 'You don't deserve to be nothing.' They'd say, 'Gee, I suspect you're never gonna be nothing.' My dad was full of that."
Phoebe Snow was born to Merrill and Lili Laub in 1950 and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her parents were, in their own way, an arty duo. Her mother, a dance teacher, was in the Martha Graham company and used to double date with Woody Guthrie and his first wife. Her father worked for Viking Press and had a background in theater; his father had been a stand-up comedian in vaudeville. Now Phoebe's dad is an exterminator -- she snickers and apologizes immediately. "I think he's a real frustrated character actor and a comedian. He had aspirations to the stage, and when he saw me doing it, performing, that just totally blew his fuse. He was wiped out."
Unlike her husband, Mother Laub understood the full extent of her daughter's talents. She took Phoebe to dance classes, sent her to summer camps for "gifted children," and bought her six years' worth of piano lessons. "I led a very cloistered, sheltered life, like 'Don't go out and play; practice the piano.' Well, don'tcha know how funny the mind is? I don't remember anything on the piano. And I was good, too, man," says Phoebe. "I was this weird genius kid."
Teaneck High School is Normal City, U.S.A. Every boy is a football hero and every girl a cheerleader. If you're a "weird genius kid," and fat and Jewish to boot, you might as well be from Mars. Phoebe was not popular. She would go to make-out parties and be odd girl out. She took to hanging around with other outcasts and getting drunk. Her crummy grades made college prospects dim; she went to night school in Teaneck, but in between classes she would catch the train to Greenwich Village with her girlfriends. The Village was the center of a thriving folk-music scene, and Phoebe, who had started taking guitar lessons from Eric Schoenberg when she was fifteen, liked to sit in on jams at the Folklore Center. Anything to get out of Jersey, and when she finally did, her ticket was Charlie.
Charlie was a young jug-band musician Phoebe met at an audition and fell in love with. Charlie didn't make fun of her looks. He didn't tell her she was stupid. He encouraged her to sing and turned her on to blues and old jazz. "It was a very personal and private thing of ours to sit and listen to jazz with the lights out. He used to play me Billie Holiday records and Lester Young and Johnny Hodges."
At Charlie's insistence, she made the rounds of talent nights at the folk clubs; to earn a guest spot between the opening act and the headliner, she'd wipe tables and scrub the vomit off carpets. She paid her dues at places like Aunt Rhoda's Daycamp Center, a bikers' hangout on East Twenty-first Street, and Earth Life, an organic health bar in Lodi,
New Jersey. She billed herself as just Phoebe in those days, and sometimes Charlie would sit in on harmonica. She sang old blues greats, but when someone suggested she could make more money if she wrote her own songs, she started writing like crazy. One night an executive from Leon Russell's label, Shelter Records, heard Phoebe sing, flipped, and approached her with a record deal.
It was everything she and Charlie had dreamed of, and then just as the dream was coming true, Charlie checked out.
Phoebe never talks about Charlie's death; she usually just says that he died in "a tragic accident" and not by suicide, as was rumored. But several months after we met, in one of those free-floating late-night phone conversations, she surprised me by bringing up the subject.
Apparently, one night Charlie took an overdose of some pills that had been prescribed for depression. He was rushed to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped; the hospital wanted to keep him overnight, but he insisted that he had to go to work in the morning and he was sent home in a cab still drowsy from the OD. His mother found him the next day in his apartment, dead from a heart attack. "I just wonder what my life would have been like if he hadn't died," Phoebe mused. "He might have managed my career, 'cause he was a real take-charge person. And he never doubted me. He was the only one. It was almost spooky, the way he'd chuckle to himself about it. He always knew."
After the funeral Phoebe poured all her energies into recording her debut album. The scared, shy girl had developed a confident blues guitar style and an exhilarating, out-front vocal delivery that conjured images of singers twice her age. The jazz inflections that crept into such haunting tunes as "Harpo's Blues" and "I Don't Want the Night to End" were Phoebe's way of paying homage to the man who first introduced her to music as a way of life, and those inflections were what attracted the record company and the critics and the record buyers. The album was completed in December 1973 and came out in June 1974; by the end of the year, "Poetry Man" was riding high on the charts and the airwaves. And the love she had once received from the one man who had understood her music now came pouring back from legions of adoring strangers.
Along the way, the legendary voice had gained a legendary name. It went back to childhood, when other kids would tease her for being called Phoebe -- it sounded funny. With pride, she'd point to the freight trains that rolled through Teaneck, and there it was, big as life: PHOEBE SNOW. As a stage name, it stuck.
The name on the doorbell of her apartment is Kearns, even though Phil doesn't live there anymore. The building is one of those tastefully nondescript doorman dwellings; the apartment, cozy and cluttered, is dominated by an imposing parallel-bar rack structure used for Valerie's physical therapy. A babysitter named Debbie helps to take care of six-year-old Valerie, who has been diagnosed as autistic and doesn't really walk or talk yet. Valerie is a wee brunette with shoulder-length hair and big, gorgeous eyes; she's wearing an I LOVE GRANDMA T-shirt, watching TV in the nursery. When Debbie tucks her in for her afternoon nap, Phoebe and I pop out for lunch at the Royal Crown Diner in Englewood Cliffs.
Phoebe places her order -- veal parmigiana and iced tea -- then the conversation veers toward Valerie, touchy territory. The first time we tried this, her eyes started tearing and we stopped. Today Phoebe speaks more matter-of-factly. "Valerie couldn't move, couldn't talk at first," she recalls, "and we were told to forget it. She spent four months in the Rusk Institute when she was eighteen months old, and they told me she'd made no progress and there was a place where kids could go when they make no progress. In other words, these people's answer was to put her away. And I said no."
Phoebe looks out the window, far away for a minute. It's a rainy afternoon, and station wagons race down the shiny streets. "There was a time when it was almost killing me," she continues. "At the end of '77, I toured for five weeks while this young couple looked after Valerie. When I came home, she was literally starving herself, and I was virtually insane. I would say that I had a breakdown. I took her down South for treatments, and the doctor at a clinic there said to me, 'Have you ever thought about a little voluntary rest commitment for yourself?' I said, 'I've been away from my kid for over a month, and I'm not gonna do it again.' He said, 'What are you going to do when you tour again?' He said he knew a woman who would take Valerie while I was on tour, and I agreed to talk to her.
"That night, from my hotel room, I called the woman. She was a sweet, gentle lady. She told me she looked after five other kids, and so when she came to the clinic to meet me, I was gung ho. She asked when I was going on tour again. I said probably not for another six months. She said, 'Well, then, we'll take care of the adoption papers now.'
"I looked at her and said, 'You adopt them?' 'Oh yeah,' she said, 'I don't just babysit. I'm the adopted mother of these children.'
"I thought, 'Oh, God.' And for one hot minute I looked at her -- you know how someone just oozes kindness and beauty? -- and I thought, 'Well, maybe...maybe it'll be best.' And then I looked at my little girl who was lying there so messed up and I just said, 'No, thanks.' I never thought about it after that."
With that simple "No, thanks," Phoebe Snow turned a corner in her life. People she'd trusted had long had their own expectations of her and little faith in her ability to make decisions on her own. That could drive a person crazy, but it drove Phoebe to summon up her common sense, her love, maybe even her craziness, and to make a choice for once based on her own instincts.
"I've given up a lot," she says -- how else? -- bluntly. "You have to understand that when I say giving up a life, that's an understatement. 'Poetry Man' came out in late '74, Valerie was born in late '75, and it's all been downhill from there in my career, which is my means of support for her. It's a cyclical thing, because she cuts into my career and even if she were a normal kid my career would cut into her life. yet I'm virtually the only thing she's got. When she's sick or has a nightmare, if I'm around, she goes like this." Phoebe raises her arms like a child asking to be held. "To have a kid who's never done anything do that...that's heavy. The first time she did it I was -- whoooa. The first time she does anything is like New Year's Eve. Champagne! Confetti! That's the best part. It doesn't happen often, but when it does --
The waiter clears away what's left of the meal, and Phoebe lingers lovingly over the dessert menu. "I could tell you exactly why I got fat. I'm like most people walking around on the planet who want their gratification when they want it. They want their drink now and their TV now and their sex now. As soon as I couldn't be gratified with Valerie, I started overcompensating, gaining humongous amounts of weight. I could explain that to you perfectly, intellectually. But it's no excuse. So what I'm learning from all this is patience." The waiter returns for our order, and Phoebe recommends the house specialty, some divine chocolate-chip cake. For herself, she abstains.
Phoebe's dazzling technique and extraordinary sophistication pegged her as a jazz singer from the outset, and at first she was happy to encourage this impression. "The audiences want to boogie," she complained in a 1975 interview, "and I'm a jazz singer...or a pop singer...anyway, I'm not a rock singer." But eventually she began to chafe under this narrow definition. More to the point, the spell of Charlie's influence began to wear off, and she realized that she was just going through the motions. "I began to feel like a real supermimic. And the deeper I got into jazzy stuff, the more contrived it started to sound." On her next four albums, Phoebe watched her musical direction grow more and more diffused. When she called a halt to her recording career in 1979, it was because she had finally figured out exactly what it was she wanted to do: "Rock." She sighs -- she remembers saying "I'm not a rock singer."
"Before I met Charlie, rock's all I listened to," she says. "Ask my mom. I spent every Saturday night at the Fillmore East. Give me Jeff Beck! Please, get Eric Clapton out here!" In the summer of 1980, Phoebe took Billy Joel's band into the studio to make
"That album had been in my heart for eight or nine years," Phoebe insists. "We all have fantasies of doing what Roger Daltrey does with the microphone, whipping ourselves into a frenzy. It's like wanting to be Superman when I was four. I'd take a pair of my little cotton Fruit of the Looms and put them on over my pants and tie a bath towel around my neck and go, 'Soop-erman,' running down the block looking like a complete schlemiel. And all the neighbors would say, 'There's Phoebe with her underwear on over her pants again. Tell her to go in the house.' That's the first superpower fantasy you have, and the second is being a rock star. You can't deny that's a very viable fantasy. Everybody else was doing it, so I wanted to try."
She tried, and a lot of critics approved, but now she says, "The rock 'n' roll thing worked and it didn't work -- something was still missing." She's changed her mind about dessert and is forking her way through a chunk of watermelon. "What I really wanna do, if the truth be known, is something I blatantly rejected on the last album. I guess I was nervous. On my next album, I'm gonna go back to funk."
It makes sense that her taste for rock would send Phoebe Snow back to its origins in black music. Her best work has always involved a blending of the two, rhythm and blues and pop, singing that's sweet and rough at the same time. It's certainly no coincidence that a healthy number of blacks always frequent her shows. "I feel like an honorary black, and I'm flattered," she jokes. "But when they yell out, 'Get down, sis-tuh,' I tend to feel whiter than ever. 'Thank you,' I say. 'I believe I will get down now.'
"My favorite album, probably up there in the Top Ten of all time, is Sly Stone's
Fresh," Phoebe says. "After that comes George Clinton, and after
that comes the Ohio Players. I don't know where Sly Stone is, but if he called me up tomorrow and said, 'Let's do a couple of tracks,' I'd go in a minute.
"The other guy I've always tuned in to is James Brown, who was probably doing that stuff before anybody was doing it. They didn't even know what to call it, they just called it
Mr.-Please-Please-the- Hardest-Working-Man-in-Show-Biz music. I used to go up to the Cheetah to see him, me and one other white girl. I just fell in love with him."
Phoebe loves to talk about other singers. She listens to everything, for fun and profit. "I'm looking for a sound," she confesses, shoving her watermelon rind aside. "You know in
The Glenn Miller Story where James Stewart goes to New Orleans and listens to Satchmo, then hears a regular dance band, then he goes to a strip club, and he tries to score all this music for his band? Then he crumples up the paper and goes, 'That's not it! That's not the sound!' It's so Hollywood, but every time I see the movie I wait for that identity crisis. I do have a sound in my head," she says, "but I've never gotten it." She brightens up like a model in a TV commercial. "It's the Phoebe Idea."
Anyone who's heard Phoebe Snow can get the general Idea. She has the kind of voice your imagination can apply to every song in the universe, because what you usually remember is not the words she sings but the sounds in between the words -- the moans, the shrieks, the sensuously drawn-out syllables. But it doesn't take a genius to notice that the Phoebe Idea keeps changing. First it was Memphis Minnie, then it was Billie Holiday, then it was Jeff Beck, then it was James Brown...no wonder she's never quite gotten the Phoebe Idea.
On her new album, tentatively called Stand Your Ground and due out whenever a new round of record-company problems can be solved, the Idea remains as elusive as ever. The funk fantasy never materialized. Instead, Phoebe went into the studio with Elliot
Scheiner, who engineered several Steely Dan albums. The result is a little bit of this, a little bit of that, pleasant, even exciting at times, but...it's not the sound. Maybe the Phoebe Idea is destined to be like Robert Browning's idea of heaven. Or Mick Jagger's modern-day adaptation of the same thought: You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.
Back from lunch in time for a quick visit from Phoebe's doctor- boyfriend, we put away the business side of this business and just play. Phoebe digs through stacks of records, puts on the Beatles' Christmas albums, a reggae band called Matumbi, and a little Aretha Franklin, then pulls out a creepy bootleg of Billie Holiday singing during a studio session. Smacked out of her mind, Billie starts a different song every seventeen bars or so. Phoebe takes it off and puts on a tape she herself made while recording her third album,
It Looks Like Snow. Between fart noises and rude remarks about the music industry, a familiar voice howls with mock self-pity: "I hate my mother, I hate myself, and I wanna die." Phoebe grooves along with the song, casting a sideways glance to see what I think. It's hilarious. The tape is labeled KOMPLAINING BLUES.
Out in New Jersey Phoebe may be isolated, but that's not one of her complaints. "I'm accustomed to it," she says. "I don't go to parties. I've never been to the Mudd Club. I went to Studio 54 once and a man who was dressed like a bug followed me around all night and fanned me. Partying is not my scene at all. You know how a puppy is before it's housebroken, all panting and peeing on everybody's leg? I get so stupid at parties.
"I did go to the party for No Nukes, and I was incredibly self-
conscious. There were all these celeboids there hugging each other, and they had their white wine, and I don't...I can't...you know? I mean, I'm really impressed by famous people. And I was so fat, the fattest I've ever, ever been. El
"After a while I left the party and sat out on the curb in front of the club with two girlfriends I'd brought. Limos kept pulling up, and I was going, 'Hey, celebs! Get your celebs here, get your limos, get your Quaaludes, your groupies, your cocaine!' I wasn't high or anything, I was just being obnoxious. The doors of one limo opened up, and I went
over. I said, 'Hey, celebrities! Eat me.' And it was Jackson Browne! He walked over to me with this face like, 'Who the hell is this person?' And he looked at me and said, 'Pheeb? Hi!'"
So this is Phoebe Snow. What did you expect? A normal person? She's got a gold record on the wall. She's got a brain-injured six-year-old in the nursery. She's got the Phoebe Idea kicking around in her head. And she's got something in her closet she just has to show me.
Phoebe rummages through the closet and finally drags out a bunch of cassette tapes with a rubber band wrapped around them. In 1974 and 1975, Phoebe tells me, she and some friends began to do occult experiments. They had heard that if you sat in a room without speaking and turned a tape recorder on, you could play the tape back and receive communications from...spirits, spacemen, whatever. They did this "silent taping" a lot. Finally, Phoebe, who says she is psychic, stopped because she got too freaked out. But she keeps the tapes around to remind herself, and any skeptical party, that there's more to life than meets the eye.
The tapes are unsettling. "'The receiver has been planted in their brains,'" she translates. "You hear that?" It sounds like a scratchy, faraway voice coming over a transatlantic cable, but Phoebe says it came out of thin air onto the tape. From silence there's a blast of static, then two thumps. Then silence. Then a weird scraping sound, then another two thumps.
"Sometimes it's just a lot of tapping," says Phoebe, snapping the tape off and sticking another cassette into the deck. "This is just so you know I'm not making this up." A bizarre, metallic voice speaks, garbled and distant. It speaks again. "'Contact us, contact us,'" Phoebe translates more reasonably. A whirring sound and a slight chiming, very faint. Then the voice again, sounding agitated and otherworldly.
"'Prepare the'" -- something, we can't make it out -- "'has come closer.'" "You hear all those noises?" she asks. I
hear weird slow beeps, then the voice. A burst of unearthly music. And silence again.