My parents and I were having a mid-afternoon breakfast after staying up all night to watch game three of the 2013 World Series. After a summary debate on the interference call against Will Middlebrooks that gave the Cardinals the win, the conversation naturally shifted to music. My dad brought up my recent review of Roy Orbison, waxing lyrical over his golden voice.
What a marvelous phrase: “wax lyrical.” I know it well because my father constantly waxes lyrical. The last album he heard is nearly always the greatest album ever made. Due to his penchant for lyrical waxing, he would be the worst music critic in history, but I do love his enthusiasm.
Anyway, he was talking about The Beatles’ experience on tour with Orbison and how one of them mentioned that they hated following Roy because he would go out there and just “slay” the audience (it was Ringo, I reminded him). Language-sensitive bitch that I am, I was struck by the use of the word “slay” in the context of enjoying someone’s music. After quietly pondering whether the classic sex-death metaphor could be extended to a music-death metaphor, having already established the music-sex link several times in my reviews, I cleared my head and rejoined the conversation with the first question that came to mind.
“Did you ever see a singer who slayed you?” I asked my parents, expecting a pause, a long list or a debate.
“Phoebe Snow!” they immediately cried in unison.
I sat there with my mouth agape, having fortunately swallowed the last bite of omelet before agaping. Though their tastes are generally similar, it’s rare to hear my parents in total agreement about anything having to do with music. My father’s lyrical waxing always butts heads with my mother’s pristine precision. Dad will listen to something like Eldorado and say to maman, “Eldorado was the best thing ELO ever did.” My mother will respond, “Perhaps,” and then remind him how “Boy Blue” repeats the verse pattern over and over to the point of irritation. She might then suggest that On the Third Day could be the better album, and my dad would look at her like she was crazy, largely because he hadn’t listened to On the Third Day that morning, so it couldn’t possibly be ELO’s best album.
Not this time. Total, instantaneous agreement. I let them both wax lyrical about Phoebe for a while, describing the almost orgasmic responses from the crowd when she allowed her voice to rise in a glorious crescendo, and claiming that no popular singer’s vibrato was as strong and consistent. At the end of the wax job, they both insisted that I write a review of her début album.
I didn’t put up an argument. I hadn’t heard the album in a while but I’d always thought it was one of the great debuts of all time. I think the reason I’d avoided it is because Phoebe Snow’s back story makes me feel sad and frustrated. A month before the release of her follow-up album, the superb Second Childhood, she gave birth to a daughter with brain damage. Phoebe refused to place her in an institution, and eventually her sense of parental responsibility forced her to first limit and then temporarily suspend an extraordinarily promising music career. The frustration piece comes from the fact that she had the talent and imagination to cross and combine several genres in her music, yet record companies and critics kept trying to shoehorn her into one or another (The Rolling Stone Record Guide acknowledged her talent but complained, “The question that’s still unanswered is how best to channel such talent.”)
They should have just let Phoebe be Phoebe. She was fucking marvelous.
There are few more inviting album openers than Phoebe’s take on Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Featuring a more swaying and on-beat punctuated rhythm than the original, it feels like you’ve walked into someone’s living room where the musicians are kicking back, sucking beers and having a grand old time. Phoebe’s glissandi are amazing, dashing up and down multiple octaves, balancing exuberance with grace. The backing vocals from The Persuasions are simply outstanding, moving ahead and behind the melody with rich and sometimes surprising harmonies.
Phoebe wrote most of the songs on the album, and “Harpo’s Blues” proves she had much more talent than you hear in her voice. A wistful tune with jazz sensibilities in the chords and supporting instrumentation (Zoot Sims on sax and the great Teddy Wilson on the ivories), Phoebe stays within a fairly narrow range, focusing the listener on her exceptional gift for phrasing and her unique command of vibrato. The lyrics display a gift for thematic unity: when we listen to the first two verses describing a series of wishes, we’re not exactly sure what is motivating the wishing. We get a hint in the bridge, where the music shifts appropriately to the minor key and the lyrics describe feelings of inner rage and fear. The first couplet in the last verse ties all the wishes together, leading to the sad and stark dénouement:
I wish I was willow
And I could sway to the music in the wind
I wish I was a lover
I wouldn’t need my costumes and pretend
I wish I was a mountain
I’d pass boldly through the clouds and never end
I wish I was a soft refrain
When the lights were out I’d play and be your friend
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 to bear my life in pain
“Poetry Man” was Phoebe’s signature song and big hit, and deservedly so. The musical environment created by acoustic guitar, shimmering bells, bass and piano splashes is as warm and enveloping as a shared sauna on a frigid night. Phoebe’s vocal is as smooth as 100-year old tawny port, even as she rises and falls between octaves. Once again, her songwriting craftsmanship is on full display as she describes what seems to be a romantic and playful relationship where the woman feels herself flipping from giggling teenager to “sultry vamp” in the presence of this intensely alluring man. As in “Harpo’s Blues,” Phoebe saves the twist in the plot for the finish:
So, once again
It’s time to say so long
And so recall the lull of life
You’re going home now
Home’s that place somewhere you go each day
To see your wife, to see your wife
Now we see the giddy and bubbly feelings expressed in the early verses (“You make me laugh/’Cause your eyes they light the night” and “You bashful boy/You’re hiding something sweet/Please give it to me”) through a different lens. As long as the woman gets her fix of “something sweet,” she can survive “the lull of life” when she goes to bed alone. A brilliant piece of songwriting on every level, “Poetry Man” is even better than its billing.
Equally brilliant in a different sense, “Either or Both” describes the love-hate relationship every woman I know has with herself. Sometimes I’ll look at myself in the mirror and say, “Damn, you are one hot fucking bitch!” while at other times I’ll want to smash the mirror in frustration. Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll be really “on” and words will leap off my fingers; other times I’ll stare at a screen in the same way John Cleese did at the parked car in that Monty Python sketch where he plays the dumb boxer. Phoebe captures this bipolar state of mind perfectly, with wonderfully vivid contrasts:
Sometimes these hands get so clumsy
That I drop things and people laugh
Sometimes these hands seem so graceful
I can see them signin’ autographs . . .
Sometimes this face looks so funny
That I hide it behind a book
But sometimes this face has so much class
That I have to sneak a second look
Her vibrato on this piece is the best on the album, for the oscillation reflects the wavering in the soul. The slide guitar is nice playful addition to the mix, and the sound of Phoebe harmonizing with Phoebe is one of the most precious human sounds you’ll ever hear.
Next Phoebe covers one-man band Jesse Fuller’s most famous contribution, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” proving she was one hell of a blues singer on top of all her other gifts. Her vertical movement is far beyond the reach of average and above-average singers, and any attempt to emulate her might result in permanent damage to a normal human’s vocal cords. For Phoebe, it’s “natch.” “I Don’t Want the Night to End” follows, a “life in New York” piece from a solitary woman’s perspective. It’s an interesting piece, but there’s a small segment in the middle where the engineers added echo to Phoebe’s voice on the “baby, baby, baby” refrain. Hello? That’s natural vibrato, dickheads. Why did you have to mess with it? Grrrrrrr . . . .
There’s no such interference with the naturally flowing melody of “Take Your Children Home,” a song with a fascinating chord progression that maintains the tension through the verses until we come to resolution in the chorus. The congas give the piece a pleasant Latin feel and Phoebe rides that groove like she’s floating down a gentle river on a warm summer day. This is one of the few songs I’ve heard where I don’t freak out at the sound of a harp, an instrument that causes me to have bad dreams of floating on the clouds with thousands of cleanly-scrubbed white people wearing perpetual smiles. The person responsible for my change of heart is the late Margaret Ross, the greatest harp session woman of all time, who appears on several albums by jazz luminaries such as Gil Evans and Wes Montgomery.
“It Must Be Sunday” is a bluesy-folk-jazz mix with fabulous splashes of saxophone by Zoot Sims. Phoebe Snow was brilliant at capturing mood, and in this song she captures the empty feeling that comes from living in a self-absorbed society, adding a dash of cynicism that such emptiness generates. The musical tenor of the song is dark-of-the-morning before last call; the lyrics are like an animated Dali painting:
There’s a man who loved so hard
He was like a billboard grin
He toasted life and beauty
‘Til his head began to spin
He pressed his cheek
On rainwashed streets
And he wept into his gin
And he came back as himself again
This magnificent début album ends with the up-tempo “No Show Tonight,” introducing a funk variation to this marvelous mix and giving Phoebe one last chance to fly. How she can go from her natural contralto to the unvoiced soprano so fluidly is still a mystery to me, but the secret may be in the effortlessness itself. Phoebe Snow sang as if there were no interference between what was in her spirit and where she wanted her voice to go, a state that very few vocalists manage to achieve.
Like Lou Gehrig, Phoebe Snow got a bad break. Unlike Lou Gehrig, her bad break happened at the start of her career, meaning we can only imagine what she might have achieved in music had fortune gone her way. Although her personal tragedy represented a great loss to music, we shouldn’t downplay her greater achievement: to put her career and her dreams aside to care for the daughter who could not care for herself. Phoebe Snow was a unique, one-of-a-kind musical talent, and also a loving and responsible mother who chose to sacrifice her wishes for someone who needed her. As beautiful as her music is, that choice was even more beautiful.