Although Phoebe Snow, the highly touted singer-songwriter from Teaneck, N.J., who died at 60 last week from complications of a brain hemorrhage, embraced Buddhism in her later years, she was as Jewish as a knish.
As a friend of more than 30 years, I’ve gotten some comfort from the obituaries that shower extravagant praise on her glorious voice and speak of her unparalleled devotion to her severely brain-damaged daughter, Valerie Rose Laub, who died in 2007 at 31. But none of the articles can convey what a wild ride it was to be her buddy. She was fascinating and frustrating and wise and wacky, and above all, hilariously funny.
Although some may view her life as tragic, my strongest memory will always be how much we laughed together.
Musically, she will best be remembered for her 1974 hit, “Poetry Man.” She was nominated for best new artist Grammy a year later on the strength of her album, “Phoebe Snow,” that was No. 4 on the pop charts.
But for those who knew her, Phoebe will be warmly recalled for how she, a single mother, essentially sacrificed her career to care for a daughter who was not expected to survive past childhood.
I first met Phoebe in 1977, when she participated in a telethon to benefit mentally and physically disabled people. She had given birth in 1975 to Valerie, who was severely brain damaged and physically disabled. Despite advice that the infant be institutionalized, Phoebe wouldn’t hear of it, and spent the next 31 years being, quite simply, the Mother of all Jewish Mothers.
In 1980, for the first time, Phoebe felt comfortable enough to speak publicly about her little girl. Most of our interview was about Valerie. “She is, without a doubt, the strongest, bravest person I’ve ever seen,” Phoebe told me. “She fights for every gain.” As for anyone who pitied Phoebe’s situation, they needn’t have bothered. “I don’t think I would have been able to learn half the things I do today, and live my life as well as I do, without what I’ve learned from brain-injured people.”
Our friendship began during that heartfelt chat. We would talk for hours, on the phone or in person, about everything and everyone. She started calling me “Steve-ela” so I called her “Phoebela.” She told me about her family, the Laubs, and said the name had originally been Laubenstein. We discussed low-carb diets and low self-esteem, whether someone could be a “Jew-Bu” (Jewish Buddhist), and recovered memory (a phenomenon she investigated during an intense friendship with Roseanne Barr).
The fact that she possessed a magnificent singing voice took a back seat in our relationship, although it would surface from time to time. While driving around once, Phoebe revealed she’d been taking opera lessons, and broke into an aria. I had to pull over and pay full attention to the incredible free concert taking place in my Toyota Camry.
In 1994, I began working at CNBC in Fort Lee, N.J., just a few blocks from Phoebe and Valerie’s modest but comfortable apartment. For 15 years, we hit most of the town’s eateries, but her favorite was always the local diner, where she was treated as a celebrity. Her focus on Valerie had caused her career to fade, and she often would say, “When I was famous…”
But she never complained.
In 1987, when Valerie was 12, Phoebe brought me to see how her daughter was doing in school. When the girl who was predicted to live her life in a vegetative state — and certainly never walk — saw her mom from down the hall, she virtually flew to greet her. I took a picture of Phoebe encircling Valerie with a hug that epitomized what Phoebe once called their “exquisite and divine love.”
After Valerie’s sudden death in 2007, Phoebe was inconsolable and began to slide into depression. But friends like Linda Ronstadt insisted she resume her long-stalled career, and by 2009, she had. She began touring, there was a new CD, and she even sang at Howard Stern’s wedding. I attended one concert and brought my cousin, a lifelong fan, to Phoebe’s dressing room to meet her. She was as funny and gracious as always, although she complained of a kind of exhaustion that I think was as much emotional as physical.
It was the last time I saw her. In January 2010, she suffered a stroke and never recovered.
The world will always have Phoebe Snow’s recorded music to remember her by. As for my magical friendship with her, it was like a pleasant melody that will linger in my mind forever.
The author is a longtime broadcast journalist, currently with CBS News.