Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Requiem for Phoebe




I came home to the sad news that singer Phoebe Snow had died.  I had not thought of her in years, and she probably didn’t think of me at all, but our paths crossed thirty-some years ago, and the news of her death brought those memories back to me tonight.  This story may well describe the last time I saw her .  . .

The year was 1977, and the show that’s clear in my mind was in the old Orpheum Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  It must have been summer, because I’d driven there in my blue Eldorado convertible with my brother.  I wasn’t traveling with the tour, but they had my sound equipment, and I was in Boston to fine tune the crossovers, limiters, and equalizers.  I was also swapping out some of the amps; that tour used Phase Linear 700s, some of the least reliable but best sounding amplifiers ever to do a rock and roll show . . .

Phoebe was two years from her debut album, Phoebe Snow.  She had recorded another album, Second Childhood with producer Phil Ramone, but it had not sold as well and she was kind of struggling to find her way after changing musical directions and the birth of her child.  She was touring the music from both albums, playing the “artsier” arrangements like No Regrets and Isn’t it a Shame, but the audience wanted the simplicity and beauty of Poetry Man.

Dan Hill had just found the biggest hit of his career with Sometimes When We Touch.  That’s the only song of his that most people know, but he had other sweet melodies, like You are All I See and Still Not Used To.

We (the guy on monitors and myself) watched the whole show from the alcove on stage left, next to the monitor console.  I stood at the edge of the curtains looking out across the stage.  I remember each of them singing, and then the two of them together, at the end of the night.  I wish I could remember what they sang together.

There was a nice perch I'd found by the amplifiers, which sat on the floor with heavy cables going forward to the speaker arrays on scaffolds to either side of the stage.  I watched the needles swing in time to the music, never coming close to maximum power.   I marveled at how little it took to fill a big hall with simple vocals and instruments.  I’d had Black Sabbath in the same venue, a few months before, using ten times the wattage from the same racks of equipment.

I liked shows like those, because I enjoyed the melodic performances.  I did a lot of heavy rock and roll, but I always felt my ears and my gear took a beating, while performances like Dan and Phoebe were comfortable and warm.  And they were challenging . . . when you have a simple show, with one vocal and one instrument (a piano or guitar) ringing out, they must be clear, brilliant, and smooth. 

Shows like these were among the most challenging jobs I did, because the sheer volume and distortion at a loud heavy metal concert hid many defects and errors; faults that were plain to hear at lower volume shows like this one.  The simpler the music, the better it has to be delivered, to sound right.

Phoebe and Dan always struck me as solo performers, but both were backed up by bands.  However, the bands were really in the background for the whole show.  When I recall the night, I can’t remember the other musicians at all, though I remember the sounds of the piano and the guitar, and of course we were using a 24-track mixing console with all the channels filled so there had to be a other few musicians to feed it!

It’s funny . . . I can remember every piece of equipment at the show, and the car I drove there, and even the feel of the curtains behind the stage. But I cannot for the life of me conjure up the faces of the musicians. 

I guess that’s the Asperger’s . . . I lived in a world of machines, not people, and the gear was my world.  I wonder if I’m still that way today . . . so much has changed, but much is still the same; more than I know sometimes . . .

Best wishes to you all
Good night

PS: The photo I chose is not Dan Hill or Phoebe Snow; it's John Sebastian at a performance in 2008.  I chose it because I felt it evoked the feeling of that night, so long ago.  I could have gone and cribbed a "Phoebe photo" online but I don't do that . . . this blog is illustrated with my own photos, not stuff I find online.

11 comments:

aimeevelazquez said...

What a beautiful post, John. It absolutely pulled me in to the feeling of that night. Thank you very much for sharing a snippet of the life of Phoebe Snow with the masses. It is a wonderful memory of her that I am sure her loved ones will cherish.

said...

I totally relate to not being able to "touch" the face in memory, John. I myself live in a world not of machines, but of color, texture (be it music or literal color and sensation) and words. It's hard for others to understand why/how one can recall minute detail and care about someone, yet not recognize their face; I sometimes find myself staring at people for whom I care in an attempt to compensate for such.

Anyway, thank you for this touching post and thank you for reaching out to the world. Thanks for being real.

James said...

I've always been embarrassed about not being able to remember people. I can meet the same person 10 times and not be able to remember their face (or their name), but I'll remember what we talked about or did. ...or if I did something really socially stupid. Ah, well - at least I know its a disability now.

r.b. said...

Going through my list of blogs I read, I saw Phoebe memtioned. I saw her in real life, too. I remember the friend I was with at the time, that's about all.

I found it amazing, and not at all surprising, that she gave up her life of music for her child. As for me, I think she chose the better life.

jackiewheeler said...

John, This is not the correct place for this comment. I saw you on tv. I think you can help scientist develop a cure for spinal cord / nerve damage. I have thought about stem cells. Couldn't something be produced to allow stem cells to become nerve cells that climb on a man made "bridge" reconnecting severed nerves? Like the way they climb in an embryo forming ? Just a thought. Thanks for reading. Jackie Wheeler /jackiewheeler2009@hotmail.com

Mat said...

Dear Mr. Robison,
I just saw you on Science Channel last night.
How did you keep the flames emitting from KISS's guitars from heating the strings and damaging them and making them too hot for the player to touch with his fingers without getting burnt?

I wish you well, thanks.

John Elder Robison said...

Mat, the guitar used smoke bombs, which do not generate open flame. That said the heat from the lamps and bombs would often pop the top two strings. Ace did not play right above the opening. If you watch video of that era he plays down by the bridge

Sue said...

My son was diagnosed last year, he also has intermitten explosive disorder. Yours, was the first of twenty books that I read. Whereas they were all helpful, Be Different which I read today, was the one I was looking for, explaining how you felt made all the difference to helping me understand better. Unfortunately the counselors have no idea what to do, books like yours will make all the differenc to everyone This group of professionals are willing to learn. The books written by the professionals are too textbook, and do not give any real insight into how ya'll think or learn. I had to take my son out of public school and home school him, because they do not know or care to learn about his capabilities. Thank-you, Bless you

newnoz said...

She was such a classy, deeply moving singer that i find it hard to believe she has sang her last song. I will miss her

Mom said...

My 17-year-old son has mild to moderate autism. He was 9 before he could remember his siblings names (now granted, he has lots of them). But even today people will say hello to him and when I ask him who they are he says, "I don't know, but we played football together...this year, this coach..." He knows the situation, but the faces are all blank.
Sandy
www.twelvemakesadozen.blogspot.com

Marcel said...

Thank you for this post, mr Robison.

I didn't know this! Phoebe Snow died; what a loss. I very much enjoy her performance on The New York Rock And Soul Revue. Live At The Beacon, with Donald Fagen and Micheal McDonald.

Best regards from a Dutchman.