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 so