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Phoebe Snow Finds the Suburbs of the Soul: Rolling Stone's 1975 Cover Story

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Phoebe looked dreamily out the window, her finger tapping a snare drum pattern on the counter top. Phil was involved in his lentil soup and the conversation level in the brightly lit deli had subsided to a low hum. A couple walked by the window arm in arm, singles no more. "That jazz music had a strange and wonderful effect on me," Phoebe said, "when I was real small. I remember I first noticed it when I'd be watching Shirley Temple movies and when she'd do her little tap dances, there'd be a hot Swing band playing. And that rhythm, I mean I was ten years old – when you're supposed to be out playing with your friends – and I was having real orgasms to that rhythm. The other thing that got me was this album we had, The Best of Boogie Woogie, with Cow Cow Davenport, Meade Lux Lewis's 'Honky Tonk Train,' Big Maceo's 'Chicago Breakdown.' Yeah, the more I'd listen, the more worked up I'd get."

The family was living in Teaneck by this time, Phoebe was going to school, and there were problems. "I'd always felt like I didn't fit in with the other kids very well and I didn't. I was bigger than they were and gawkier and fatter and clumsier. I knew I was the only kid in the neighborhood with kinky hair, but it took me awhile to find out I was the only Jewish kid. And then I became very ashamed of being Jewish. In fact, I became anti-Semitic. I began to read things about Hitler in Look magazine and wonder if he was right. On top of all that, I was supposed to be gifted. I remember later on I was sent to a camp for gifted children. There was a camp truck that said 'for gifted children' on the side and we all scratched it off and smeared over it with paint because we were so humiliated. Anyway, the only prestige I had among the other kids was that my name was on the trains. We lived right across the street from the railroad tracks and we used to play down there. We'd get under the bridge and it would be very orgasmic when the trains would go by. Especially for me, 'cause all the Erie Lackawanna coal cars said 'Phoebe' on 'em. The kids would say, 'Your name is on a train? Wow!' Only they didn't say Phoebe Laub, which was my real name. They said 'Phoebe Snow.'"

There was no name on the side of the station wagon. Phoebe, wrapped in a multicolored knitted shawl and looking only marginally rested from the gig in Passaic the night before, and Phil, who had tied a red scarf around his neck cowboy style, were making small talk in the back seat while guitarist Steve Burgh exchanged musical gossip with multiinstrumentalist and relief driver Warren Nichols. "Then I'm gonna be doing Bromberg's concert at Avery Fisher Hall," the stocky, mustachioed Nichols was saying. "You too? That should be fun."

Onstage Burgh and Nichols would flank Phoebe, providing colorings around her deft acoustic guitar picking while bassist Chuck Fiore and drummer Beau Segal contributed solid but understated rhythm. Burgh began the carefully structured sets in a jazz vein, plucking warm, globular chords and Wes Montgomery-like octaves out of his electric hollow body. Later, after "Poetry Man" and the bluesier material had created a mood, he would stand up and brace his feet like a bull getting ready to charge and hit a ringing intro to Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down," Phoebe's tour de force closer. He matched her riff for screaming riff through the song, following her voice into its dog-frequency range while Nichols filled in on organ.

It was Nichols's job to hop around between a bewildering array of instruments during the sets. In the course of "Harpo's Blues" alone he jumped from piano to organ to plunger-muted trombone, and on other numbers he used pedal steel guitar and conga drums as well. Amazingly, his versatility was matched only by his wholly unassuming stage presence; Phoebe remained the center of attention. She would slip on almost unobtrusively, dressed in slacks and blouse or a one-piece pullover as if she were hanging out in someone's suburban den, drop into a folding chair stage center and begin deliberately tuning her guitar. Then she'd tap out four brisk beats and the band would come on in her lilting "Either or Both."

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

It was an opening as disarmingly, breezily direct as Phoebe herself and she was singing for keeps from the first note. She would end some of the lines in a kind of bebop-tinged blue yodel that jumped its obligatory octave and then swerved and glided into what sounded like every possible melodic nook and cranny before beginning its final downward glissando. Phil's backup vocals sounded uncannily like Phoebe double-tracked and the song came off as pristinely as on her album, but with more presence and spontaneity.

Theoretically, these minutes onstage made up for the hours of driving and waiÈing. In practice, the guitar cases seemed to get heavier and heavier; exhaustion from the two shows in Passaic was catching up with everyone as they shuffled slowly into Yale's Woolsey Hall. Downstairs, deep in the subterranean chambers and passageways which connect Yale buildings underground, a dinner table had been set up and several middle-aged women were tending a hot buffet. "Look at this," Burgh enthused. "Salad, ziti ... real food." Phoebe ate salad and little else and was soon sitting in a corner, alone. Musicians, stagehands, roadies, girlfriends and groupies paraded through. A corpulent Italian arrived with several gigantic pizzas and Phoebe left to find her dressing room.

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