Phoebe Snow apparently never really came out of the coma she fell into after having a brain hemorrhage last year, and today she died.
This NYT obituary gives a reasonable, if potted, survey of her career, but as it acknowledges, that wasn’t what was most important in her life. Snow’s daughter Valerie suffered severe brain trauma during birth, and from then on, her priority was finding a way to finance her home care:
“At the end of ’77, I toured for five weeks while this young couple looked after Valerie. When I came home, she was literally starving herself, and I was virtually insane. I would say that I had a breakdown. I took her down South for treatments, and the doctor at a clinic there said to me, ‘Have you ever thought about a little voluntary rest commitment for yourself?’ I said, ‘I’ve been away from my kid for over a month, and I’m not gonna do it again.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do when you tour again?’ He said he knew a woman who would take Valerie while I was on tour, and I agreed to talk to her.
“That night, from my hotel room, I called the woman. She was a sweet, gentle lady. She told me she looked after five other kids, and so when she came to the clinic to meet me, I was gung ho. She asked when I was going on tour again. I said probably not for another six months. She said, ‘Well, then, we’ll take care of the adoption papers now.’
“I looked at her and said, ‘You adopt them?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ she said, ‘I don’t just babysit. I’m the adopted mother of these children.’
“I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ And for one hot minute I looked at her — you know how someone just oozes kindness and beauty? — and I thought, ‘Well, maybe…maybe it’ll be best.’ And then I looked at my little girl who was lying there so messed up and I just said, ‘No, thanks.’ I never thought about it after that.”
Phoebe Snow is my parents’ age, and Valerie, who died in 2007, was a few years younger than I am. Snow kept her home for the rest of her life. I’ve adored her music for decades, and I’ve often thought of that story: Snow, who coolly commemorated an adulterous relationship in her biggest hit (“Poetry Man”), proved capable of a different kind of complete devotion when she’d grown up a bit. You don’t hear a lot of stories like that about celebs who came of age in the early ’70s. (And let me just say that I’m not standing in judgment of parents who decide their children really need to be in a facility; every case is different. My point is that Snow clearly had a sense of what she herself must do, and she did it.)
I kept meaning to see Snow live, but I never did, though I return to her albums again and again. After her career as a recording artist stalled, she was never really in the public conscience except as a singer of ad jingles. But listen to her records, after all these years of being clobbered into submission by Whitney and Mariah and Christina, and you remember what it’s like to listen to a gorgeous, limber voice with an impossible range that serves the song rather than shoving its impressiveness in your face all the time. And unlike the bitter/smug Joni Mitchell of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Snow critiqued post-war American suburbia from the inside, as one of its products, and with real empathy underneath the resentment. Only a few of her albums are great overall, but almost all of them have great songs: “Two-Fisted Love,” “Something Real,” “I Don’t Want the Night to End,” “All Over,” and lots that’s not on YouTube: “My Faith Is Blind,” “Key to the Street,” and scads of wonderful covers (such as “Love Makes a Woman,” which is on YouTube). A remarkable legacy from a remarkable woman.