I knew I'd found Passaic's Capitol Theater when I caught sight of a couple of teenagers trying to strangle each other against a grimy, peeling wall while an unconcerned vendor hawked hot pretzels to the gathering crowd nearby. I slipped around the mélee, through the stage door and into a green-carpeted, plywood-paneled room full of tobacco smoke and jittery conversation. Headliner Jackson Browne had retreated into an inner sanctum somewhere but Phoebe Snow, who is short and soft looking, like a baby or a pillow, was sitting in a corner with her band. She was almost swallowed in a green couch and she kept bounding up out of it as she talked.
"Sugar," she was saying to Phil Kearns, her boyfriend and backup singer, whose striking, angular face had once graced a Jesus Christ, Superstar road company. "Too much sugar. Rowdies. Drunk, stoned, am I right?" A passing theater staffer winced. "I have this fantasy of going out there and saying, 'Okay, how many people are high on so-and-sos?' And hundreds of 'em go, 'Yaaay!!' 'How many on red wine?' 'Yaaaay!!!' 'How many people out there are high because they're hypoglycemic?' 'Hypo-what?' 'Fuck you!'"
What Phoebe actually asked the audience was, "Anybody from Teaneck?" There were a few isolated cheers. "Well, I wrote this song about a guy in a band who ... became Harpo Marx for extended periods of time; he wouldn't talk and his eyes would roll around in his head and. ..." She stopped, wondering whether to go on, and the crowd, sensing an unguarded moment, came close to falling silent. "Anyway, it's called 'Harpo's Blues.' " "Yaaay!!!"
I'd like to be a willow, a lover,
Or a soft refrain
But I'd hate to be a grownup
And have to try to bear
My life in pain
Phoebe, 24, New York City born and Teaneck bred, was quieting the rowdies with a jazzy torch song about a washboard-playing Charlie Harpo who'd died several years earlier by swallowing more antidepressant pills than he should have. "He was the first boyfriend I ever had," she would explain later, "and he was responsible, totally responsible, for making me keep on with my music. He would make me play on the radio, do guest sets at the Gaslight and the Bitter End, audition for people, and I was really insecure. I would stop in the middle of a song and say, 'That's not right,' and sometimes people would throw things. But he kept me doing it."
Charlie and the sugar disease were the twin poles to which conversations with Phoebe circuitously but continually returned. The former had launched her career and then, quite unexpectedly, left the material plane. "Although," she would add, "I know there's a consciousness energy that operates completely independent of the physical body you inhabit, that maintains ... awareness after the body's gone. I'm not so sure Charlie's missing all of this." To the latter she attributed the lack of self-confidence and the crushing, endless depressions which she'd fought throughout her adolescence. "A friend hipped me to hypoglycemia, which an article I read calls 'a disease for a nation of sugar junkies.' Who knows how many people in this country have it? You get it from eating too much carbohydrate food, which is sugar food, which is what most pantries in the suburbs are full of. Potato chips, hamburger helper, cookies, canned vegetables, sugar sugar sugar, right? The symptoms are dizziness, cravings to eat, mental depressions, and I had those symptoms for years. And then I went on this pure protein diet and, I know it sounds jive, but my whole life changed."
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