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Before there was Neko Case and "Lady Pilot," there was Tangela Tricoli and Jet Lady, the 1982 album hailed as a masterpiece of outsider music by those (very few) who care about such things. Jet Lady featured Tricoli, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and sometimes a tabla, warbling the title-track manifesto and tunes about the life of a housewife and the difficulties of selecting one particular brand of cheese in the supermarket. And then there was the now-classic "Stinky Poodle":I'm just a stinky poodle,
The songs are the sort of things one might come up with late at night at the end of a very long road trip: goofy, free-associative and only occasionally on-key. Like most outsider music, it's annoying — but also strangely endearing.
In real life, Tangela Tricoli is Angela Masson, a pilot for American Airlines who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in aerospace safety. She is also an artist, a part-time belly dancer, an amateur physicist (she claims to have discovered an error in Einstein's theory of relativity) and a sometime-politician who ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1980 and is now trying to start her own political party based on the principle of building consensus.
Masson was in St. Louis recently, accompanied by her 21-year-old daughter, Athena, to attend the International Society of Women Airline Pilots convention at the Four Seasons. Like the other women, she wore her pilot uniform, but her hair was streaked various shades of red and gold, and her wings wouldn't stay pinned to her jacket. While waiting to have her picture taken with the other pilots, she sang a few lines of "Life of a Housewife."
"I sing about everything I do," she says. "I can't sing on-key, but that doesn't stop me."
Jet Lady began as part of Tangela Tonight, Masson's talk show on LA cable access. It was the early-'80s equivalent to a blog.
"There was a special segment where street musicians would come on and sing," Masson remembers. "It was very inspiring." She recorded "Stinky Poodle" in honor of the poodles that appeared on every show. (It later became the theme song.) Gradually over the next few years, she went back to the studio to produce the eleven other songs collected on Jet Lady. "It was just for fun," she says, "a way for me to be creative."
The album fell into obscurity almost immediately. Then, in 1995, Phoebe Buffay first sang her signature number, "Smelly Cat," on the TV show Friends. Fans of outsider music and early '80s LA cable-access shows immediately noted its resemblance to "Stinky Poodle."
Masson was more pleased and honored than outraged.
Still, she was unaware of her level of fame until 2002. "I was Googling this captain I used to be married to and didn't like very much, to see if he was dead," she recalls. "I didn't find him, but I found thousands of references to me."
A few days later, Erik Lindgren, impresario of Arf! Arf! Records, the Massachusetts label that specializes in outsider music, got in touch with Masson to ask if he could reissue Jet Lady on CD. (Arf! Arf! also released Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela, an album by obscure St. Louisan Lucia Pamela.) Masson, with help from Athena and her nieces, recorded a new version of "Stinky Poodle" to mark the occasion.
"Athena's more musical than I am," Masson brags. Nonetheless, Athena refuses to join her in an impromptu performance of "Jet Lady."
"Did you sing that to me when I was a baby?" Athena asks her mother. "It would explain a lot." Athena did, however, pilot a plane from Florida to California at the tender age of twelve. "How screwed up is it," she asks, "that I could fly a plane before I could drive?"