When I First Met Phoebe Snow

On April 26th, 2011 I read on Facebook that singer/songwriter Phoebe Snow had died. 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,” on it. When someone dies we tend to memorialize the good only, but when I thought about my relationship with Phoebe my memories were more complicated than the typical hagiography.

In1973 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 straight 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. 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. She was polar to all I concocted. She was thick, with heavy, unpleasant features and suffered from an unfortunate number of black moles that covered her face.

In contrast to my fantasy, Phoebe was my particular adolescent nightmare. I was a geeky, obnoxious, striving, Jewish guy from Brooklyn. She was an awkward, obnoxious, Jewish chick from Teaneck, New Jersey. Five years older than me, she was the annoying older sister I never wanted.

“Where’s the food?” may have been the first words I heard her utter in her nasal east-coast accent. Nothing was right for Phoebe, and as the assistant, it was my job to try and fix it. I tried not to roll my eyes.

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 and handed me one or two multi-track master tapes. These held 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. Ramone had been a world-class recording engineer for more than a decade at that point, and he had visions of breaking into producing. Engineering was technical. Producing was an art, and you got to make royalties, the chance for big bucks with a hit record.

Phil agreed to engineer the project if he could get a co-producing credit. Dino needed help bad. His record company, Shelter Records, was going under. 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 has monster ears, must have heard something in Phoebe that he thought he could shape into success.

Phil was just the daddy that Phoebe needed. He imposed a strict discipline that scared Phoebe into stopping the screwing around. He combined this with the complete freedom to realize her artistic vision. And he was able to turn her dreams into tracks.

Before we started recording we went down to a gig of hers 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 had been happening for a hundred years, was the center of my universe.

There were 3 people in the house that night, including me.

Phoebe had a strange, amazing voice. Her vibrato was its most unique feature. It was a wide staccato warble, almost like cubism in singing. Instead of gliding seamlessly between syllables and notes, each would be demarcated with a sharp edge.

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 ambisexual place, neither namby-pamby nor gross. She was insightful and there was a depth of feeling and pain in her music that went beyond her years.

Recording Phoebe Snow’s First Album

But at first, I didn’t get it. 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.” Here was an unknown chubby artist on a failing label. No chance there.

It wouldn’t be the last time I’d guess wrong about what could make it as a hit record. What made Pheobe’s first record so successful?

In any life activity, we can operate unconsciously and half-assed or we can do things with awareness, intention, and integrity. The production and arrangements of recordings could be done in a thoughtless way, imitating the way other people had done things, or artists could be deliberate about every choice. Art, to be real, is all about that clarity of vision.

Many of the great artists that I worked with in the seventies made albums that were more than a mere collection of songs. The recordings were works of art themselves. The path for this was laid out by the Beatles. Before the Beatles, records were more or less representations of live performances. Acts went into the studio and took a day to cut an album, playing the songs as they would play them live. But with the advent of multi-track recording, where different musical parts could be created one at a time and painted onto the canvas of the song, the studio itself became an instrument. For the Beatles and many artists who followed, every sound, every instrument selection, every note, 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. Think about the difference between “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Now any artist will also tell you that it is also limitation that creates great art. And we were certainly limited on Phoebe’s album. We started with a few spare, basic tracks, a tight budget, and a couple of weeks to make an entire album.

This budgetary limitation forced us to choose each part with that care and precision that makes for the greatest art.

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. 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 predictable 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 rang this universal bell. 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. It was this combination that made this album singular and astonishing in the end.

Producing Phoebe Snow’s Hit Single, Poetry Man

Phil would ask Phoebe, if she could have anyone in the world to play on her songs, who would she have? Phoebe did have vision. Her fertile imagination, freed by Ramone’s support, came up with unlikely answers for a pop record in the mid-70’s. She wanted the jazz greats, Zoot Sims, on saxophone, and Teddy Wilson on piano. She wanted a jazz harp.

If it was Phoebe’s dream, Phil would make it happen. The songs started to deepen and come to life. Zoot blew his ax and wrapped the songs in ever-changing wisps of smoke. Margaret Ross, a session harp player, who was usually relegated to glissando harp clichés, was allowed to play free, to create, to improvise. It turned out she was a jazz cat at heart, and played deep and hard. She added on a layer of shiny gold to the tracks. Teddy Wilson added his sophisticated voicings bringing a touch of class to the proceedings. We couldn’t afford real strings, so we snuck in an instrument that was illegal at the time called a Mellotron. It sounded almost like a real orchestra. This scared the crap out of the musician’s union and rightly so. In another couple of decades most musicians would be put out of business because anyone with a laptop could make the sound of any instrument. The Mellotron made a nickel look like a dollar.

Then came the ultimate thrill. Ramone booked Ralph MacDonald to overdub percussion. Ralph was a cosmic musician. Ralph 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. Phil 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.

Ralph brought the doobie into the control room and offered a hit to Ramone. Ramone, not a big pot smoker, inhaled. 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.

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, blue, and gold silk of the guitar, harp, sax, and percussion, with the red and caramel hopsack of Phoebe’s voice, a hit single 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 the sure hand of Ramone.

We finished the album by recording Phoebe’s cover of the song, “Let the Good Times Roll.” She requested that the backup be sung by the Persuasions, a well-reputed acapella group. Their gritty, happy sound added just the right touch of natural funk to this subtle, swinging version of this Rhythm and Blues chestnut.

We worked long hours and finished the album on time and budget. It was a modest album for that time of overproduced 70’s decadence. On the last night of mixing, I stayed up all night putting together the final sequence. I finished at dawn. I called in Phil, Dino, and Phoebe to listen to the final product. This was the first album for both Phoebe and myself. Phoebe asked for bagels and cream cheese, and we ate.

I was still convinced the album didn’t have a chance. 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 didn’t seem to be much cash for that.

The album was released. The unfortunate illustration of Phoebe on this eponymously titled first record, featuring her many moles, also showed Phoebe with a massive jewfro. This picture, along with her funky belting, convinced people she was black. Somehow, weirdly, Phoebe was picked up on black radio stations with “Let the Good Times Roll.” She made enough noise with that first release that the album didn’t die from anonymity.

Then, the magic hit. The cream really did rise to the top. Spontaneously, with little promotion, “Poetry Man” became a smash record.

The Last Time I Saw Phoebe Snow

We all changed a great deal in the period between Phoebe’s first album and the making of her second, “Second Childhood.” Phoebe was nominated for a best new artist Grammy. She sang on Paul Simon’s single, “Gone at Last.” She was signed to a record contract on the most prestigious label around at that time, Columbia Records.

Phil went from engineer to star producer. He produced Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which featured the hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

I went from being his know-nothing assistant to, at 19 years old, becoming a senior recording engineer. As “Phoebe Snow” was my first record as assistant, her second, “Second Childhood,” was my first as engineer. It was my journeyman project, recorded in the style of Ramone, my master.

The record didn’t do what the first had. Now flush with a Columbia budget, Phoebe had the pick of the top studio cats to play on her album. It had more conventional arrangements, dominated by the jizzy Fender Rhodes electric piano. It still sold over 500,000 copies and that’s the gold record hanging on my wall today.

Sometime during 1975 when I was working on another record I thought was going to be a flop, the Starland Vocal Band’s, “Afternoon Delight,” 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 usually accompanies pregnancy. I had a bad feeling.

It turned out that Phoebe’s kid had profound developmental disabilities.

Phoebe could care less about fame and fortune. In a way, Phoebe didn’t recognize what she had with her stardom, money, and big record company contract. It had all come so easily that she took it for granted. I didn’t know what I had either, with my front-row seat to the making of the greatest albums of the era. We didn’t like the way we were being treated in the rough and tumble record world that was New York circa mid-seventies.

After experiencing the flim-flam 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.

Phoebe’s core love and strength found its way into the world in a way that was bigger than her music. The awkward, self-involved girl from Teaneck turned her attention to caring for her helpless Valerie Rose. She devoted her life to this cause, when she could have ignored her disabled child and taken the path to superstardom instead.

But the world doesn’t care for such considerations. Before too long, Phoebe was dropped by Columbia. I, also disillusioned with the scene, left A and R and New York and went to live in the country.

I didn’t see Phoebe again for many years. We both paid the price for turning up our noses at the glory. By the time we met again, we were both working for the man, needing the money. I had traveled the world and in the late ‘80’s ended up back in New York. I was writing and producing jingles, and she was singing them. I hired her to sing a commercial for Playskool. She came in, ordered sushi, and we cut the damn thing in a few minutes. She made 30 grand.

It wasn’t long after that I saw 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. Those old, narrow streets were empty and silent. I was a few blocks from the Bitter End, where I had seen Phoebe for the first time all those many years ago.

I saw 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.

Phoebe had some odd beliefs. She was into all kinds of wacky occult stuff. 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 stuff, but wasn’t there 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? There was warmth and familiarity between us. We had been kids together in something big.

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. 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 walked away, her music played in my head. I heard the cool electric guitar riffs of her friend, Steve Burgh, who played on that first album. A talented guy, he, too, died young, and unexpectedly.

Phoebe Snow Was an Angel

What was it in Phoebe that touched so many 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 became a shrink.

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.

Phoebe was one of those. I can imagine chubby, freaky Phoebe Laub sitting in her bedroom in Teaneck, playing her guitar and singing alone 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.

But how could someone so strange touch so many?

A friend of mine who died of AIDS had a theory that our immune system keeps us from being one with the universe. 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.

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. All the freaks out there in 1974 sitting alone in their bedrooms heard Phoebe and felt 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. The trance we live in lifts, the web of the crap we get caught up in, the dance of our crazy world, where the bums and crooks who make all the money and have all the power somehow seem like the ones to be. When a freak like Phoebe cuts through all that we know we are hearing something important and we pay attention. We hear that cry in the darkness of the West Village, that late night sound of vinyl, the echo of Zoot Sims and Teddy Wilson, that distant sound, receding into the darkness, 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. Without the filters most of us live with we would be more connected to everything, but we could easily be destroyed. I once heard Ricki Lee Jones say that if she didn’t have her music she’d be crazy, because she experiences the pain of the world too exquisitely.

I call the Phoebes of the world angels. They are a little closer to the ephemeral realms than the rest of us, but they pay a price in pain and suffering. This angelic quality gives them 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, strong guitar playing, deep songwriting, and profound love that manifested in caring for her daughter. 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. I got my first glimpse, high on pot, listening to Poetry Man. The world heard it, too. 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 Ms. 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 there an angel passes. 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

Author's Bio: 

Glenn S Berger