In April of 2011, at the age of 60, singer/songwriter Phoebe Snow died. When I heard the news, I walked into my hallway, and stared at the gold record of her album, Second Childhood, which hung on my wall. I floated back to when I first met Phoebe.
In 1973, I had just become an assistant recording engineer at A & R Studios in New York. I was apprenticed to the master engineer, Phil Ramone. My first project would be to work on an album with an unknown artist named Phoebe Snow.
What an evocative name! As an 18-year-old, 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 a teenage boy — what would 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 trying to make her first record. The project had, up until then, been a disaster. 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.
Dino came into the studio and handed me two multi-track tapes with just a few, bare recordings of Phoebe’s guitar and vocals. This was not much to show for the six-figure budget he had spent.
In a wise move born of desperation, Dino had hooked up with my mentor, Phil. It was a timely fit. By that time, Ramone had been a world-class recording engineer for more than a decade, and he had visions of breaking into producing. Engineering was technical. The job was to get someone else’s ideas down on tape. With producing, you got to participate in the creation of those ideas. And, you got to make royalties. If you had a hit record, you could make big bucks.
Phil agreed to engineer the project if he could co-produce. 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. Dino saw Ramone as his last, big chance. Ramone, who had uncanny ears for a hit, must have heard something in Phoebe that he thought he could shape into success.
Before we started recording, Phil and I went down to a gig of Phoebe’s at The Bitter End, the most venerable of the old folk clubs in the heart of Greenwich Village, in New York City. The Village, where everything cool happened, was the center of my universe.
There were 3 people in the house that night. It was Phil, Phoebe, and I. This was not an auspicious sign.
Phoebe had a one-of-a-kind voice. Her vibrato was its most unique feature. Instead of gliding seamlessly between syllables and notes, each staccato warble was demarcated with a sharp edge. It was geometric, almost like cubist singing.
She had major chops; that is, she had great technical ability. She may have been out of control as a person, but her vocal precision was tight. She had an infinite range, from a chthonic growl to dog-whistle high notes.
Her songs were as quirky as her singing style. Personal, with a flowing, off-kilter structure, she brought you into a world that was some post-sexual place. As a female pop vocalist, she was neither namby-pamby nor gross. She was insightful about human nature, and there was a depth of feeling and pain in her music that went beyond her years.
At first, I didn’t get Phoebe’s music. I’d come home from her sessions and make fun of her songs. “I wish I was a willow –ow –ow –ow –ow,” I’d mock, imitating her vibrato, and my roommate would crack up. I thought that this was a turkey headed right for the $1.99 bin, the place where flop records went in that obsolete thing called a “record store.” This guess did not require any particular prescience. She was an unknown, chubby artist on a failing label.
It wouldn’t be the last time that my musical prediction would be totally misguided. The record was a smash. How did that happen?
In any life activity, we can operate unconsciously and do things half-assed, or we can act with awareness, intention, and integrity. The production and arrangements of recordings could be done in a thoughtless, derivative way, or artists could be mindful of every choice. The result, in art, like in all things, depends on which of these approaches are used. Art, to succeed, is all about such clarity of vision.
Many of the great artists that I worked with in the 70s made albums that were more than a mere collection of songs. The recordings were works of art in themselves. The path for this was laid out by The Beatles. Before Lennon and McCartney, records were more or less representations of live performances. Acts went into the studio and took a day to cut an album. Bands, or orchestras, would play, and singers sing, all at once, and the producer was there to render as faithful reproduction of the performance as possible.
Then came the silver ribbon on the box. Ramone booked Ralph MacDonald to add percussion.
But with the advent of multi-track recording, where different musical parts could be painted one at a time onto the canvas of tape, the studio itself became an instrument. For The Beatles, and many artists who followed their inspiration, every instrument selection, every note, every electronic effect, every sound, every piece of an interweaving production and arrangement, were vital and intrinsic parts of the artwork which lifted a song beyond its harmony and melody to its ultimate manifestation. To grasp this revolution, listen to the difference between “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” one of The Beatles’ earliest singles, recorded in the live style, and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” from their middle, psychedelic period.
Now, any artist will also tell you that limitation contributes to great art. We certainly had enough of those on Phoebe’s album. We started with a few basic tracks, a tight budget, and a couple of weeks to make an entire album. With the style of recording popular at that time, an artist could easily take months, if not a year, to finish a project.
This time-and-money stricture, along with the 70s pop art sensibility, forced Phoebe and Phil to choose each part with that care and precision that makes for the most vivid art.
Now all that theory is well and good, but art is, in the end, one of the great mysteries, which is why I love it. I’m a big fan of the ultimate unanswerables. That’s why I’m a psychotherapist now. Music, like human nature, can never be fully comprehended. I’ve studied songs all my life, and with increasing age I get a little closer to understanding what makes a great song. There is melodic variety, a great hook, a moment of surprise, the contrast between symmetry and imbalance, a beat you can move to, an individual sound, and, most important, undeniable emotion in the performance. I get it, but I can’t write one. There is something that can’t be named when all of these elements come together in a unique way. Though a song that works has all its predictably simple elements, it emerges from the background noise with blinding clarity. It can bust through the tiniest speaker, reach out, and grab you by the belly. It can shake you to your soul, make your eyes pop with tears, wake you out of a life-long slumber, put the hope back in pop. And Phoebe wrote at least one song in her life that entered the heart of the world. That’s a lot for anyone’s lifetime.
Phil’s production approach was to put Phoebe’s magical songs and exquisite vocals at the center of the record, and surround it with just the right, and only the right, musical colors. He did this by asking Phoebe: if you could have anyone in the world play on this song, who would it be? Phoebe had a fertile imagination, and she came up with tasty answers.
If Phoebe could dream it, Phil made it happen. 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 who was usually relegated to playing cliché glissandos, turned out to be a jazz cat at heart, and played deep and hard. 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 add percussion.
Ralph was a cosmic musician. He had a shiny skull, and big, brown, laughing eyes. He was the ultimate in cool. He heralded from the West Indies. He had been taught the conga by his father. He once told me that his dad 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. He learned his father’s lesson well.
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 to plug in, and place, the microphones. As he prepared his instruments for the overdub, which meant that he would add his parts to the music already recorded, he listened to the songs for inspiration.
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 two film cans with beads in them. 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.
Phoebe got on the cover of Rolling Stone and was signed to the world’s most prestigious record label, Columbia Records.
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 70s, drugs were part of the fun. I usually didn’t get high during sessions, especially in those early days with Ramone. I didn’t want to screw up. Ramone wasn’t a big pot head. He might not approve of my smoking, and I certainly wouldn’t do anything to piss him off if I could help it, even though I inevitably did.
But Phil was in a good mood that day. As producer, he was getting to do his thing, his way. He was excited about what Ralph was about to bring to the tracks. Ralph brought the doobie into the control room and offered a hit to Ramone. Ramone took the joint and inhaled. He turned, and offered me the jay. 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 finger cymbal: ting. Then, he tapped the bells: chik, chik. In the second verse, he added the woodblocks: tick, tock.
Ralph finished his first take and asked to put on another layer. This time he shook the film can with beads. He interleaved this rhythmically with his first track. Shak. Shak. Then, on the chorus, he added a third layer: shaka, shaka, shaka, shaka. By the second chorus, all of these accents played off one another, in a shimmering play of colorful sound. His playing was spare, tasteful, brilliant. I knew I had witnessed a simple moment of sublime creation.
Ralph’s sparkling rhythms created a juxtaposition that intensified the emotional depth of Phoebe’s vocal. In the contrast and coming together of the green, gold, and silver silk of the guitar, harp, sax, and percussion, with the crimson and caramel hopsack of Phoebe’s voice, a hit single was born.
Each 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. This approach was what made this album singular and astonishing in the end.
On the last night of mixing, we worked late, and finished the album on time and budget. I stayed up all night, putting together the final sequence. I threaded the master onto the tape machine at dawn. I called in Phil, Dino, and Phoebe for a playback of the completed album. This was the first record for both Phoebe, and me. Phoebe asked for bagels and cream cheese, and we ate.
Despite its quality, I was still convinced the record didn’t have a chance. It was a modest album for that time of overproduced decadence. No matter what was in the grooves, 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.
But then, the magic hit. The cream really did rise to the top. Spontaneously, with little promotion, Phoebe had a number-five hit record with that song called “Poetry Man.”
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 and was signed to the world’s most prestigious record label, Columbia Records. We made another album: the gold one hanging on my wall.
Sometime during 1975, Phoebe came in to visit us at the studio. I was shocked when she told me she was pregnant. She had none of the glow that pregnant women usually have. I had a bad feeling. This time, it turned out that my intuition was right. Phoebe’s daughter was born with profound developmental disabilities.
After the birth, Phoebe walked away from fame and fortune. Maybe she didn’t recognize what she had with her stardom, money, and big record contract. It had all come so easily, that it was possible she took it for granted. Or, it could have been that she didn’t like the way she was treated in the rough and tumble recording world that was New York, circa mid-seventies. More likely, she sacrificed her path to superstardom for a higher calling. Phoebe turned her full attention to caring for her helpless daughter, Valerie Rose.
The awkward, self-involved girl from Teaneck matured. After living through the flimflam of the music biz, she knew what was real, and that was what was going on with her child. Phoebe was, at heart, not only a true artist, but more importantly, a caring human being.
Before too long, Phoebe was dropped by Columbia. She was never abandoned by her band of faithful followers, but to many, she was just another one hit wonder.
I didn’t recognize what I had either, with my front-row seat to the making of the greatest albums of the era. Also disillusioned with the scene, a few years later, I left A & R, and New York, and went to live in the country.
Years passed, and eventually I moved back to the city. That was when I saw Phoebe for the last time. It was a dark period of my life. One night, at about two in the morning, I was walking alone through the streets of my beloved West Village, not far from The Bitter End where I saw Phoebe all those years ago. Those old streets were narrow and silent.
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 a warmth and familiarity between us. We had been kids together in something big, all too long ago.
Phoebe was wearing a motorcycle jacket. That night, on impulse, I had bought a key chain with a miniature motorcycle jacket on the end, from a guy on the street. As we finished up our talk, I handed her the keychain as a gift. She took it, as if she understood exactly what it meant.
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. She was convinced that if you listened carefully enough, you could hear voices from the spirit world.
I didn’t go in for such mumbo jumbo, but there was something strange about us stumbling into 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.
As I stood in front of Phoebe’s gold record on my wall, 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 I am now a psychotherapist.
There’s something about the ugly ones, the weirdos, 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, with her kinky hair and moles, 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, longing, part of us. I can also picture 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 now, we can 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 reverberation 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. They have wings – an incredible voice, or some other talent — in exchange for some deep vulnerability. That’s 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 was that radiant 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.
Phoebe cared for her daughter every day of her life, until the girl died at 31, in 2007.
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 the next time you are in a quiet room, turn on that digital recorder in your smartphone, and wait. When you play it back, and listen real close, you might hear Phoebe, singing in her supernatural voice.
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