Page Two: The Suburbs
Growing up with Phoebe Snow, whose presence and music transcended the ordinary
The story is about memory and loss, about aging and the heart, about friendship and death.
On Tuesday, April 26, Phoebe Laub, one of my oldest and dearest friends, died. We'd met in the seventh grade at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck, N.J. During that year, I connected with two of my most important, lifelong friends: Steve Levitan and Phoebe. Except now Phoebe is dead.
Long after we'd left school, Phoebe's main memory of it – one always shared, and shared loudly, at that – was that I used to chase Marci Hiltzik around the reading room. Not out of hostility, as Phoebe told the story, but romantically.
There were two brothers, Ira and Mel Cebulash, who both taught English. One of them had started a reading club and been assigned a room for it. This was where we hung out. I have no memory at all of chasing Marci Hiltzik around the room, and certainly – because I don't think I did – it would be impossible to discern my motivation.
The news of Phoebe's death was not unexpected. In January 2010, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and slipped into a coma.
I usually talked to her once or twice a year and saw her every other year or so. Phoebe was both predictable and unpredictable, but until April 26, she had always been there for me (and I for her) through almost half a century.
In the past week, listening to people talk about Phoebe, I have noticed there has been a kind of consistency in their thoughts. Typical of comments is that "Phoebe's life makes me think about the fact that Aunt Mary always used to say that what she wished for us all was mazel – good luck in our lives.Phoebe did not have a lucky life."
I know it seems that way, and that in many ways her life was very hard and things were often tough, but still ....
The outline of her story as shared by everyone is as much folktale as biography. She played guitar, sang, and wrote songs. She had never played out much, but she did do some open-mic nights. She received consistent and strong encouragement for her music from her friend Charlie Parker, who, with his ever-present companion Michael Baser, plays a huge part in this story, though probably not in this column.
At one open-mic night at the Bitter End, an executive with Shelter Records saw her and signed her. She began working on her first albums. She still had played at best only a limited number of live gigs.
There was something in Phoebe's personality and sense of self that was intrinsically toxic to the music business and music business people; the reaction was like that of a body violently rejecting a transfusion of the wrong type of blood. Phoebe just couldn't stand or understand the ways and wherefores of the music industry. The business often shrank back from her – not consciously, but as though experiencing an uncontrollable biological reaction.
Even before Shelter released her first album, Phoebe was feuding with the record company. During this time I was visiting her, and I asked how she thought the album was going to do. She took me in the bathroom and flushed the toilet, saying: "That's what is going to happen to my album. It's going to disappear down the drain."
The eponymous album, Phoebe Snow (her stage name – taken from an advertising character used by the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad), seemed destined to sink without much label support, but it didn't happen that way. Instead, deejays all across the country, of their own volition, began playing the single "Poetry Man" and then continued to play it. The single charted at No. 5, and the album reached No. 4.
Nothing really changed. When we passed through Teaneck, we'd still hook up with Phoebe at 2 or 3 in the morning to go to Chinatown to eat.
Living in Boston and having just visited Teaneck in October 1975, I tuned in to this brand-new late-night show titled Saturday Night Live. It was the second episode ever. Paul Simon was the musical guest. Phoebe sang on Simon's song "Gone at Last," which was at that time a Top 40 hit. She had urged the whole gang to tune in to watch her.
During the show, she announced she was pregnant. Having just seen her, I was puzzled, as she had not mentioned that at all.
In December 1975, Phoebe gave birth to Valerie, a severely brain-damaged and physically impaired baby. Some doctors said Valerie wouldn't live for a year; others thought that was being too optimistic. Phoebe didn't even slow down to listen. She knew they were wrong.
Her husband, Valerie's dad, was soon gone, leaving Phoebe a single mom raising a child with disabilities while also engaged in litigation with her record company. Phoebe, who had never been overly fond of touring anyway, was now more reluctant to go out on the road than ever because she hated being away from Valerie. She also had ongoing difficulties with record companies and her management.
Reading the many obits and emails, I noticed that a lot of them treated her post-"Poetry Man" career as a disappointment – treating her lack of success as a metaphor for her life, one assumed to be filled with failure, pain, and misery.
A quick step backward here:
During our first half-decade or so as friends, no one was yet old enough to get a driver's license. This meant endless walking, taking public transportation, or bugging a parent to drive you. The big event was hanging out at a friend's house.
Phoebe's home was a hangout. Sue Cohen lived right across the street; Henri lived down the block and around the corner. Phoebe was friends with the most fascinating collection of people.
There was the young woman who worked in the zoo who would sometimes bring a monkey along with her. If memory serves, the monkey was not on official leave but had been smuggled off the zoo grounds. One time, one of them got loose during a visit and did some major interior redesign work on Phoebe's house.
She also knew any number of groupies. One of her friends was sleeping her way through the entire Yankees roster of that year. Periodically, Phoebe would get a phone call, after which she would announce the name of another well-known Yankees player.
One of her friends was involved with one of the Stooges. Phoebe never quite got over watching Iggy Pop's early performances.
There were, of course, Charlie Parker and Michael Baser. Baser was tall, with an exploding head of hair; Charlie was shorter. They looked like a mutant version of Rocky and Bullwinkle. They were almost always on and radiated energy. They played jug band music and seemed to know everyone.
Now, the major suburban ritual was that when at least one friend gets a driver's license, usually in 11th or 12th grade, you could graduate from hanging out at one another's homes and switch to endlessly, pointlessly driving around. As Jonathan Richman noted, driving beat the hell out of hanging at someone's home because you would have the "radio on!" We'd drive listening to all the great New York City radio stations. We were looking for adventure, though what an adventure would be under such circumstances probably wouldn't really qualify.
In some ways, time is frozen for suburban kids, a rich tableau but one for which the borders are clearly defined. Driving, you always circled back to home. Being a child of the burbs, when you first left your town for college, you would return every holiday. The home turf was the constant. Now, decades later, when I think back to those times, memories of junior high school, high school, and college years all run together, lacking any clear chronological designations.
Phoebe was by far the funniest person we knew. Most of us knew nothing about her guitar lessons. Frequently, while we were aimlessly driving, Phoebe would suggest that we go to her house to hear her play guitar. Mostly we'd just tell her to be funny because she was so funny (and we certainly didn't want to hear her play guitar). That was until the day we had run out of any other viable options, so we all went to hear her play. She blew us away.
Then she began singing more and writing songs. When I came over, she'd always play me her newest songs in the basement of her house, with clothes hanging everywhere to dry. But she was still so funny.
My former next-door neighbor was a Madison Avenue advertising guy. After a few years, he divorced his wife, the mother of their four children, and moved to a nearby town. Soon he remarried. His new wife, Naomi Brossart, did voice work. In October 1962, the comedy album The First Family, which spoofed the Kennedys, was released. It soon became the bestselling comedy album of all time. The cast playing the Kennedys was led by comic and impersonator Vaughan Meader. Naomi played Jackie Kennedy.
Often we'd go visit them. Sometimes during these visits, Phoebe would go off on such a tear that I thought Naomi was going to pass out from laughing. It was always like that around Phoebe.
When I would visit with her over the years, there were bad times. There were money problems and business issues. But Phoebe was a force of nature, driven by her unique energy. Most of the time when you were with Phoebe, you were in her world. She would sing a cappella in the car all the time. She always took voice lessons and later added opera training. One time in New York City, I was staying in a fancy midtown hotel. Phoebe came over to hang out for a few hours. Telling me about her opera lessons, she decided to demonstrate.
The sounds that came out of her were always extraordinary, but this was otherworldly. It was among the loudest, most present sound I'd ever heard. I expected the hotel's security folks to come bursting through my door. They didn't.
She loved Valerie so much. Valerie never talked, never walked, but she lived until she was 31. The bond between Phoebe and her, the ongoing communication, was powerful and unique.
Phoebe put out a number of albums, all with magical moments, though none ever sold like the first one. Many people loved her, and more often than not, other musicians were dying to work with her. She would tell wild stories of double-dating with Linda Ronstadt and meeting George Harrison because he wanted to meet her. Over the years, she recorded or appeared live with such talents as Lou Rawls, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Garland Jeffreys, Jewel, Billy Joel, Janis Ian, Queen, Jackson Browne, Dave Mason, Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Cyndi Lauper, Tracy Nelson, Roger Daltrey, and Chaka Khan. Phoebe sang with Donald Fagen's New York Rock & Soul Revue and was a member of the Sisters of Glory (Thelma Houston, CeCe Peniston, Lois Walden, and Albertina Walker).
She often had troubles and was sometimes quite down, but there was so much joy and so much life to her that I had never thought of her life as anything but wonderfully, uniquely Phoebe. She was the most loving of mothers, a brilliant singer, an extraordinary performer, and a good and trusted friend.
The last image here comes from an email my sister sent me when she heard about Phoebe. She wrote, "I flashed back to her ringing the bell and asking for you, ringing the bell and asking for you and playing guitar on our front steps." The setting was the suburbs but the music was transcendent, and the person was extraordinary.