Imagine the women in Norma Tanega’s songs with arms interlocked, braced against the chill of a Manhattan winter, queering the sleeve of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The singer-songwriter of the 1966 semi-hit “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” presented a vision as rounded as Dylan’s or Aretha Franklin’s: self-mockery as self-reliance; folk music verities shorn of messianism and topicality; lesbian and none too oblique about it. Collecting two studio LPs with another album’s worth of unreleased material, I’m the Sky: Studio and Demo Recordings, 1964-1971 marks the first meticulous appraisal this multimedia threat has earned, and it’s a good one—the collection argues for an artist who could’ve been major had her label known what to do with her, and had she taken the arc of a career more seriously than she took her independence.
“I never wanted to be a serious artist because I like to laugh too much,” Tanega once said. The child of a Filipino father and Panamanian mother, Tanega didn’t look like the other folkies. And the outlier turned her birthright into material. I’m the Sky‘s “If Only I Had a Name like Norma Tanega” boasts the couplet, “It can rise to the occasion/Even though it’s not Caucasian.” A stint at Claremont College studying classical music precipitated a move to the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene, where she eventually hooked up with Bob Crewe after her demos impressed the Four Seasons songwriter; he and producer Herb Bernstein were taken by a tune Tanega wrote about a cat she kept on a leash. This was awesome. In the post-Joan Baez era, Crewe and Bernstein fought the temptation to smother her with solemnity. Perhaps the quietly gay Crewe recognized the sense of fun and the tainting of received forms, the homosexual’s lasting gifts to popular culture.
And what tonal complexity Tanega brought to her songwriting. The songs don’t stop their yuks and clucks. A sardonic epitaph or a pirouette on a tombstone, “You’re Dead” uses doomy chords to address a “you” who might be Tanega herself or a lecture on planned obsolescence: “You’ll never get a second chance/Plan all your moves in advance.” The collection includes “I’m the Sky,” not quite hippie bullshit kept at bay by her mournful, bassoon-like timbre, which darkens the happy songs and buttresses the sad ones. Even better is “Jubilation,” a sexy-as-hell come-on in which an oboe deepens Tanega’s most lovesick melody; the valentine has the lilt of a canticle. “A Street That Rhymes at 6 AM” will stand as her anthem. “Syncopate your life and move against the grain/Don’t you let them tell you that they’re all the same” functions as advice to a prospective acolyte, or as a lesbian’s avowal. The alone-and-in-love-in-the-big-city air has a wintry crispness.