Phoebe Snow, RIP

I was sad to see on Twitter the other day that Poly Styrene had died. I’d been a big fan of her music. Not much later, I read that Phoebe Snow had died. I’d kept up with news about Poly but realized that I hadn’t heard what was going on with Snow in a few years. I came across the CBS morning news video embedded here on Roger Ebert’s blog at the Sun-Times. It’s several years old but it was full of detail and I was sobbing by the end. If you’re at all a fan, you will be well served to check it out.

Here’s the lede of the Associated Press report on her death, as published by the Kansas City Star:

It wasn’t long after the release of “Poetry Man,” the breezy, jazzy love song that would make Phoebe Snow a star, that the singer experienced another event that would dramatically alter her life.

In 1975, she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie Rose, who was found to be severely brain-damaged. Her husband split from her soon after the baby was born. And, at a time when many disabled children were sent to institutions, Snow decided to keep her daughter at home and care for the child herself.

The decision to be Valerie’s primary caretaker would lead her to abandon music for a while and enter into ill-fated business decisions in the quest to stay solvent enough to take care of Valerie.

Snow, who worked her way back into the music performing world in the 1980s and continued to perform in recent years, died on Tuesday from complications of a brain hemorrhage she suffered in January 2010, said Rick Miramontez, her longtime friend and public relations representative. She was 60.

Snow never regretted her decision to put aside music so she could focus on Valerie’s care. She was devastated when her daughter, who was not expected to live beyond her toddler years, died in 2007 at 31.

“She was my universe,” she told the website PopEntertainment.com that year. “She was the nucleus of everything. I used to wonder, am I missing something? No. I had such a sublime, transcendent experience with my child. She had fulfilled every profound love and intimacy and desire I could have ever dreamed of.”

There are key distinctions between this report and the CBS News one embedded above. But it’s clear from both — from everything you can read about her — that Valerie Rose was the focus of Phoebe’s life.

I wondered, while watching the video, how she had such strength to raise a child alone, to turn her back on an unbelievably promising music career. I wondered whether her religion played any role. There’s no religion to speak of in the video report. The AP report tells us only that she was born Phoebe Ann Laub to white Jewish parents.

We have to go back to a 2008 profile in the San Francisco Chronicle to learn the answer:

Yet, when it comes to her own listening, Snow says she always comes back “to the original R&B guys, James Brown, Sam Cooke. I was just listening to the original group Sam Cooke was in. What were they called? The Soul Stirrers? They were so good I almost fainted. A lot of that Baptist stuff is so powerful. Tremaine Hawkins, Aretha … that’s the stuff I really grew up listening to.”

From a religious standpoint, though, Snow embraces neither Judaism nor Christianity. She’s a Buddhist, a practitioner of the Nichiren Shoshu style, whose practitioners chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as a meditation tool. She says her practice is the main thing keeping her going after the death of her daughter.

“When Valerie died, I thought I would rail against my religious practice,” Snow says. “I questioned it at first for obvious reasons. But then my faith deepened. I became much more devoted. I found, almost … I’m trying to find the right word to describe it … sanctuary.”

Apparently she converted in 2002, according to this old PopEntertainment.com profile:

She says, “If you had told me at any time before the year 2002 that I would be chanting for hours at a time at a Buddhist temple, and that I would travel fourteen hours to Japan and chant day and night, I would have laughed out Phoebe Snowloud in your face. But I have had a very profound and visceral experience, at a very low point in my life. I was a sad sack. A friend called me and said, ‘I’m having a Buddhist meeting in my house.’ She was not an arm twister. She was really laid back about it.

“She said, ‘And we’re going to have a little pot luck afterward,’ and I said, ‘Oh!.’ Food was my nemesis. I wonder if it was the food that got me there, but I got there. I had such a profound experience the first time I chanted. Don’t try to intellectualize it. Don’t try to categorize it. Don’t try to explain it. Because you can’t. It’s beyond comprehension. That’s where faith comes in. If you have faith, you can do anything. Don’t try to understand.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if a reader didn’t have to go searching for information about the religious life of the recently deceased!

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  • joye

    This isn’t strictly journalism related, but I wonder just how many religious conversions can be directly traced to that little phrase, “and there’ll be food afterwards.” I know that mine can.

  • Julia

    Great stories.
    I hadn’t thought about “Poetry Man” in lo, these many years.
    What an incredible story. RIP, indeed.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I agree. When religion is a focus of someone’s life, it should be present in an obituary.

  • JWB

    Lots of the obits for Poly Styrene specifically mentioned that she’d gone on to become a Hare Krishna. I’m not sure why (if in fact a study of a broad enough sample of obits would show a meaningful difference) her religious evolution would be more likely to be mentioned than Ms. Snow’s in their respective obits. Is it too cynical to wonder whether it’s just because one had a wikipedia article mentioning her religious transformation and the other didn’t?

    On the related subject of musicians/conversions, http://www.nstop.com/paloma/intervw.html is a fascinating interview with Ms. Styrene’s fellow female/British/’70′s-punk legend Palmolive (original drummer for the Slits and then the Raincoats) conducted decades later where she was living a quiet life on Cape Cod as a born-again Christian and wife and mother. You can sort of tell that the interviewers, being secular/hipster punk-rock obsessives, are extremely unused to dealing with born-agains, but are trying their hardest to seem polite about her religion when she turns the conversation that way, perhaps so that they don’t spook or offend the interviewee and dry up the stream of non-religious anecdotes she’s offering about the old days.


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