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

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It was a room with a single chair, pale yellow walls and a door that opened on a huge set of steel steam pipes. "Where were we?" Phoebe asked resignedly. "Oh yeah, school, schools. I hate 'em. Teachers too. We were talking about Phoebe Snow, the tracks? That was a good period. When I got to junior high school, I started going through a lot of changes. A lot of girls in class had started to wear stockings and bras and stuff and when we got dressed in gym I'd be very conspicuous in my ankle socks and undershirt. But I didn't need a bra and as a matter of fact I got pretty pissed off because a lot of those chicks didn't need a bra either. I almost got beat up in that gym class. They threw me in the shower and hid my clothes and life started to get tough. By the time I was in ninth grade people were actually laughing at me and I was afraid to walk into a classroom. The jocks and the greasers, the only people who mattered, thought my name was funny, my body looked funny, my face was a scream. And I just got more and more awkward.

"Then in high school my girlfriends – they were generally outcast types like me – we all got into partying and getting drunk. I remember getting drunk at the junior prom 'cause I didn't like my date, although I had asked him to take me and paid for the tickets. He did it up right too, brought me a half-dozen long-stemmed roses, picked me up in a big Cadillac. Then he tried to rape me after and I was really like ... asexual in high school. I was very locked into myself, I guess; music was more interesting than sex. Anyway, I got stinko drunk and threw up all over the place and he dumped me on my doorstep. What a bummer. Then I didn't want to graduate. One of the jocks kicked me in the ass during rehearsals for the graduation ceremony and I just refused to go. I prayed all night, 'Please God, let something happen to the graduation exercises.' Sure enough, it started to rain during the opening song and in just a couple of minutes it turned into a downpour. Everybody grabbed their diplomas and split.

"Then came the college hassle. I got rejected by about 11 different ones because my marks from high school were really shitty. I knew I was a failure but my parents really thought college was important and they wouldn't give up. They took me on a trek through the northeastern states, to interviews at all the most hip and progressive schools. Rejection. Finally, one guy didn't even finish his interview with me. He just said, 'There's not any point in showing you around today, it's snowing too hard.' And I got in the car with my parents and cried. I ended up going to evening school in Teaneck for a while and then riding the subway into New York to the New School for Social Research. I took creative writing and anthropology, which put me to sleep."

Phoebe had already developed into a musical original and she had done it more or less on her own. "Sure," she admitted, "I took piano lessons. I was a little piano prodigy for a while, but I couldn't stand my teachers. 'No blues, no barrelhouse, no boogie woogie,' one of 'em would yell. Okay, okay. I would remember what they played and mimic what their fingers did and convince them I was reading the pieces, but I wasn't. I still can't read music, I still haven't learned theory." At age 15 she began taking guitar from Eric Schoenberg, who was involved in arranging Scott Joplin piano rags for the instrument. She studied Stefan Grossman's How to Play the Blues Guitar, bought some Sam Charters Mississippi blues albums, hung out at the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village, listening and learning. Still she rebelled at reading notation. Instead, she "would take a chord somebody had shown me or written out in tablature – that I could read – and I'd add a note, move my pinkie up one to see how it sounded. I invented chords; I'm sure they'd been invented before but I found them for myself in very roundabout ways." Several years later she would take voice lessons for a few months with David Sorin Collyer, vocal coach to Paul Simon, Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli. The results were predictable: She rebelled at the teacher/student situation, though not without learning voice exercises which she continued to find valuable.

She was still pursuing a desultory college career and skirting the fringes of various Village scenes when she met Charlie. "Some of my girlfriends in Teaneck told me he had a jug band and that he'd really dig to hear me play, so I went over and played for him, with a lump in my throat, you know. He was in somebody's den with these five or six kids in his jug band and I played and he took me aside and said, 'Listen, you're too good for my band.' I freaked out and said, 'Oh, no, listen, I just want to be with a band.' Actually, at that moment I just wanted to be part of the furniture. But he said, 'No, you should be out there on your own,' especially after I sang my little blues number for him. What was it? 'Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon till the Juice Runs down My Leg.'" We laughed; the image of short, bespectacled Phoebe walking in with her insecurity pinned to her sleeve and then opening up with her unbelievably authoritative voice on a classic piece of raunch was irresistible.

There was a knock on the dressing room door. "Phoebe Snow?" asked a nervous Yalie stagehand. "Do, uh, do you have a road manager with you?" She shook her head. "Well, Jackson's band is still out there tuning up and taking levels, a-a-and we have to open the doors in five minutes and your band hasn't had a sound check. So is there somebody, I mean, we asked Jackson's band kinda polite and they're still playing and ... do you have a heavy with you?" Phoebe jumped to her feet and jabbed a thumb into her chest. "Me," she said, "let's go." By the time I'd put away my tape recorder and found my way out of the catacombs and up the stairs Browne's band was gone and Phoebe's was beginning "Either or Both."

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Song Stories

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