Lydia Tomkiw: Like Royalty in Exile by bart plantenga
Lydia Tomkiw: Like Royalty in Exile “Father warned me that I’d explode and I did.” • Lydia Tomkiw, “Friendly Manifesto” ----
by bart plantenga ---originally appeared in Fringecore 9, which I cannot find anywhere
I ﬁrst met Lydia Tomkiw shortly a4er Reagan’s corona:on. I was struck by how her face and words embodied that tenuous femininity known as tough fragility — a teacup balanced on a G-‐string. She could’ve been Catwoman’s stunt double, Theda Bera’s lost sister, or Sylvia Plath’s ghostwriter. Flickers of deﬁance ﬂared up around her robust, redhaired countenance as she nego:ated between femme fatale and femme tragique. For a long :me (in pop years), she and ex-‐husband, Don Hedeker, reigned as alt-‐pop royalty as Algebra Suicide, when “everything in this world seems drunk ...” and they felt “like celebri:es — we / sway and the crowds scaTer ...” Before “Spoken Word” or “Performance Poetry” there was Algebra Suicide. When their singles ﬁrst hit stores and radio sta:ons, nobody knew where to s:ck them: pop, alterna:ve, art rock, experimental, performance art, COLLEGE Alterna:ve? They were almost all alone (the excellent Longshoremen also come to mind). And by the :me “Spoken Word” became a Billboard chart, they were long gone. This began as a “whatever-‐happened-‐to” story — a4er crowds stop scaTering, remembering or buying. Sure, fame has built-‐in rewards: “The best part’s being recognized. To realize you’re more’n just a drop in the ocean. I once arrived in [NY] by bus and this East Indian girl, si`ng on her suitcases said, ‘you’re Algebra Suicide; I saw you perform in Chicago,’” remembers Tomkiw. But what happens when you become “stuck to the wall, a ﬂash in the pan ...” Lydia’s “He’s Famous Now” prognos:ca:ng her own fate: “if you squint in the distance / You can see him lumbering toward the horizon ...” Fame harbors a virus called disposability; pop economics con:nually (re)manufactures anxie:es through the perpetually new; and, although new is nothing new, those begging to be considered alive today must consume what ﬂaTers them most. My job as re-‐revisionist? Squeeze “the human heart, so ugly yet exalted” under a microscope and look for squiggly signs of why Algebra Suicide’s reign as poetry band emeritus was so long. Tomkiw hales from that stretched yawn of territory wedged between the two coasts, where most great American music — blues, jazz, garage — seemingly emerges from; that vast social tundra of parking lots, where people meet at stoplights or in 7-‐11 checkout lines instead of cafes. America’s midwest: haughty mediocrity, internalized terror, “a silence that ... eats holes in the dark,” — where humans meet fellow travelers between the lines of each other’s journals. Midwesterners may confuse dreams for life and vice versa — but that’s not psychosis, that’s survival here in Henry Miller’s “air-‐condi:oned nightmare” where, Lydia no:ces, “winter chews up my life.” Algebra Suicide’s ﬁrst single, the surreal “True Romance at the World’s Fair,” describes it as: “dog collared loneliness [where] the world is not a wild place.” Trenchant words pegging boredom and terror as high crimes. Lydia “set out to answer ques:ons” about heroic escape, reinven:ng reality through impassioned curiosity; oﬀering escape hatches, even decadence as a reprieve from everyday life where “there’s nothing to dance to, nothing to signal an impending good :me.” Escape from “this season [that] has numbed us like
a ﬂy in an ice cube” comes in many forms in her songs: you can “remove my breasts / so I can slip through the gates,” or become “chainsaws under the stars.” In “Recalling The Last Encounter” she wants “to become hydraulic: Hit the newsstands! / Na:onal exposure! Feel the world crawl into me ...” And for awhile Algebra Suicide “hit the newsstands.” I remember my ex-‐ radio sta:on, WFMU (NY/NJ), receiving their single, “ True Romance...” with its clairvoyant lyricism swaddled in Hedeker’s post-‐garage-‐sonic gouache, earnestly pricking hearts like other great songs of resistance to ennui, i.e., Pa` Smith & Lenny Kaye’s “Piss Factory.” Like other divas of her :me — Nina Hagen, Diamanda Galas — Lydia resembled some late century re-‐“vamp”-‐ed mirage of ero:c/exo:c intangibility: part BeTy Page, part Dorothy Parker. Intrepid college radio listeners took her to heart, mind and elsewhere up the charts. Sly and seduc:ve, yet never connivingly brazen like Master/Slave Rela:onship’s Deborah Jaﬀe; she seemed to dictate poetry from some mythic sa:n-‐sheeted 4-‐poster. By 1986, Algebra Suicide was in demand and described as “Joy Division with a sense of humor,” and Tomkiw as a “female Lou Reed.” (She s:ll likes that one.) Her wry self-‐eﬀacing wit and art = fun convic:on sweetened her s:ng and groomed her as a kinder Lydia Lunch, a subtler Pa` Smith, a more earnest Laurie Anderson. The daughter of Soviet refugees; Lydia’s father worked the US Steel mills while her mother was a clothingstore saleslady beloved by drag queens “she could dress to the hilt.” They’d moved to Humboldt Park, a blue collar Chicago neighborhood, northwest of “The Loop,” where white-‐ﬂight le4 them in the minority. “By the :me I was 13 it was overwhelmed by gangs and violence. The park was large and visually beau:ful, but two gangs fought over it as territory to sell drugs, guns ... Needless to say, I became a ‘housegirl,’ I’d stay in the house to avoid ge`ng hurt.” This is where she “used to get visions,” drowning out the dolorous Slavic folk records her parents played with Top 40 radio while entertaining various escape tac:cs. Although feeling trapped, Tomkiw “always sensed there was a way out, something bigger ... more loving, safer and fun and that judged on eﬀort and ideas rather than who was stronger ... I think I always knew to get to that place was through brains and crea:vity.” Guns were common but most gangs preferred knives and “karate s:cks.” “When my brother and I heard about possible rumbles — they usually ended with stabbings or shoo:ngs — happening a4er school, we’d fake throwing up to leave early. I stayed on the good side of girl gangs ... when I was a hall monitor and La:n Queens came in late with a bloody scalp or black eye, I’d look the other way. By 8th grade, drugs, especially heroin, were everywhere. Lots of the boys died before ﬁnishing high school, and almost all the girls dropped out because they had kids some died too. I think isola:on — countless hours listening to radio, watching TV — presented this ‘window’ into other kinds of lives, that there was something else out there beside this violent power struggle in this liTle neighborhood. I dreamed of being on the Brady Bunch and having a conver:ble full of friends and surf boards ... I also fell in love with reading and I wrote short pieces, fantasies about having fun and glamour without danger.” Chicago is the midwest’s capital. Its glorious temples proclaim the hegemony of venture capital but they house no one; meanwhile most Chicagoans reside in ramshackle :nderboxes in drab neighborhoods. Chicago’s major byproduct is corrup:on and biggest export may be crea:ve types. Those who survived fused their resolve, bought guitars, stole books, kept journals, ploTed escapes — metaphysically, psychotropically or physically, if not all three. Jerome Sala, Carl Watson, Bob Rosenthal, Barbara Barg, David Sedaris, Rollo Whitehead, Jim Feast, Deborah Pintonelli, Sharon Mesmer, and many others emigrated, like Hemingway, Lardner, Dreiser, Sandburg, Wright, Farrell and Algren before them. Most never returned. Tomkiw considers poetry her life blood “because no one ever listened to me un:l I started wri:ng;” words nego:ate, if not alter, reali:es. She remembers being singled out in primary school: “My 2nd grade teacher saw my crea:vity, and while other students did penmanship, she’d take me to the back with paper and paints and tell me to ‘go for it’. It was heaven. She also sensed I could write. I wrote my ﬁrst poem in her
class, and about 15 years ago, she mailed it to me — ‘Why My Father Should be Father of the Year.’ That she kept it since 1967 was touching. If even one person believes in you, you have gravy.” “In [high school] I discovered Gerard Manley Hopkins — a priest who wrote like wild and could almost make me cry. I took [his] clue — you can name things that have never been named before and write about them ... Bill KnoT, Frank O’Hara, are major inﬂuences ... Pa` Smith, Lou Reed, too.” She kept wri:ng, and at the University of Illinois “the love of language took over ... I wrote and wrote and found out I was good. Or else I got convinced I was.” She met Hedeker in mid-‐1980. Don was twanging guitar in his band, the Trouble Boys, in Jamey’s Elsewhere, a dive owned by an ex-‐stripper “where you’re more likely to ﬁnd a cockroach in your drink than meet anyone date-‐able,” There were 5 people in the audience that night and only one was female — Lydia. A4er the gig, Don oﬀered her a ride home, saving her from the lecherous advances of a fellow band member. Lydia invited Don to a poetry reading. Don, arriving late to avoid feeling out of place, complimented her poetry that evening because, Lydia noted, “he’d heard it was good.” They began da:ng in July 1980, married in 1981, shortly a4er his new band, the Psycho Capones, fell apart. But he never stopped strumming his guitar. One night she got the idea to “get my poetry out and see what happens.” She sat down and began reci:ng to his :nkering. It clicked, and a4er bickering about what to call themselves, Don gallantly li4ed “Algebra Suicide” from “Last Encounter”: “:ght clouds that wriggle like Army worms: a form of Algebra Suicide ...” Although Lydia o4en dreamt of rock stardom she knew she was no nigh:ngale; she wasn’t even allowed to sing in church choirs. On later discs you can hear Lydia’s deadpan twang lured into singing by Don’s Orphic harmonies. But Lydia usually came to her senses and out of considera:on for others, kept her words unsung, refusing that goopy realm where poems mutate into lyrics/poetry-‐lite. Don played his Les Paul in the raggedly concise NY style — Branca, Verlaine, Thunders — cloning their distorted textures, while minimizing Lydia’s vocal limita:ons. Lydia describes it as an “integra:on of text and music.” But it’s more like a forced handshake, or unresolved sibling rivalry because some:mes the music contradicted her poe:c deadpan perched between recita:on and song — her A’s opening up to AH, as in “blAAAAAAHnds,” verbally mimicking the ﬂaaaaatness of the plains, digging deep furrows along the way. In “LiTle Dead Bodies” (their 1983 cult hit) Don’s lovely Velvets’ shimmer avoids her morbid preoccupa:ons with “100 pounds of ﬂesh about to go bad,” — call it accommoda:ng tensions, to-‐and-‐fro, Romulus and Remus, John and Yoko ... Imagine LoTe Lenya (also a nonsinger) due:ng with Thurston Moore. Four :mes a week they’d drive to Don’s dad’s garage, where they’d knock back ideas, sounds and huge cans of Foster’s Lager deep into the night, huddled around a spaceheater, with a “piss bucket” in the corner. “When the beer was gone we were done, although some:mes we’d hang out, play cover versions and I’d threaten to sing Rolling Stones or punk stuﬀ.” Algebra Suicide ﬁrst played at soirees; their ﬁrst paying gig was the University of Chicago auditorium. Excluding friends, most early audiences were totally bewildered. In 6 months they had 22 songs. At this point “we grew antsy, asking ourselves ‘what’re we doing this for?’” They produced their ﬁrst 2 EPs on a 4-‐ track, one take each; sent out over 200 promos to radio sta:ons and were ready to release their ﬁrst album, The Secret Like Crazy. At this point, I thought I was listening to the sequel to Coal Miner’s Daughter. They con:nued working separately; she never waxing poe:c to his composi:ons and vice versa. Meanwhile, Lydia read in the poetry scene which “was in such a lull that it was hard to kick anything over.” Then a bar everyone forgets the name of held the ﬁrst boxing match-‐style poetry event and arguably, the Poetry Slam — for beTer or worse — was born. Subsequent “protoslams” began happening in Tut’s where they built a boxing ring in which poets would pound out pugilis:c poe:cs, punchline for punchline. Local Chicago newspaper journalists served as judges. It lasted four matches before organizer Al Simmons took the “protoslams” to New Mexico.
Lydia’s ﬁrst appearance was against a nude photo-‐model. She lost. But defeat oﬀered instruc:on: her hack opponent’s “self-‐proclaimed poetry” made Lydia realize quality had nothing to do with this racket. Today we’re beholden to the no:on that marke:ng solves all problems — including ones of quality. Poetry slams ﬁt right in, serving as literature’s auxiliary marke:ng medium, with a game show parody format that best serves people whose a`tudes masquerade as philosophies, and opinions masquerade as ideas. In 1984, Mark Smith modiﬁed the Slam concept to its present format at the Green Mill Lounge. Chicago’s intrepid verse-‐maven, Bob Holman, would later carry the slam virus East, to NY’s Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, where it inf(l)ected en:re genera:ons of poe:c kine:cs at around the same :me the crack epidemic emerged. Meanwhile, to Lydia slams were like “a thousand canaries engaged in one-‐upmanship.” Tomkiw was too busy anyway, working full:me at Columbia College, going to grad school, band rehearsals plus managing the business end. Their early singles set performance standards: clearly-‐enunciated poetry way forward of seduc:ve backingtrax. Lydia’s :niest preoccupa:ons opened up immense worlds underneath, like fanciful “what-‐if” sonograms probing the incongrui:es inherent in our dominant culture. In “Praxis”: “An unborn baby will press its face up / against it’s mother’s womb, thinking it a window. / It must be why children look like / Distor:ons of their parents.” Her obsessions — ﬂesh, mortality, escape — became palpable reveries. In “LiTle Dead Bodies” Lydia theologically pursued the body–soul split — deciding suicides are impolite because “there’s something le4 for someone else to clean up.” She contemplates her own, politer departure: “convenient, leaving no mess, as if vaporized while taking a shower, as if I moved to Antarc:ca, leaving no forwarding address.” In the late ’80s Tomkiw performed with her naugh:er doppelgänger, Lydia Lunch, at Chicago’s Club Lower Links — the performance was called “Lydia2.” But somehow, they’d reached a lull, the ini:al high evapora:ng — “then nothing nothing nothing.” Then, just as despair was descending, they received “a miraculous call ouTa nowhere” from the German label, DOM, and then three days later from the MassachuseTs label, RRR, and Secret was born, followed by Real Numbers. Trouser Press named “True Romance” one of the best indie singles of the last 10 years; a4er editor Ira Robbins called with the news they danced dervishly around their apartment. It also appeared on ROIR’s Best American Underground compila:on. They made many other “Best-‐of” lists — including the Sun Times and OpGons — many proﬁles and radio interviews followed. In 1987, they were nominated for a Grammy in the new “Spoken Recordings” category. The Trouser Press Record Guide went so far as to wonder: “Is Algebra Suicide on the verge of ﬁnding a way to inﬁltrate the mainstream?” They were feeling the queasy-‐ ecsta:c rumblings of something about to explode. A4er a CD-‐release party for Real Numbers where Big Black’s bassist, Dave Riley, jammed with them on stage in 1988, they began touring, venturing away from home, stretching their repertoire — Cleveland, PiTsburgh, NY and points east. In Greensboro, NC, they “basically played for the mice and roaches” at this Chinese Restaurant/club — nobody showed. The road’s humility schooling had begun. Undaunted, they “got ambi:ous” and arranged a 15-‐city European tour, in 1990. They designed installa:ons and post-‐hallucinogenic painted slides. But as early as their ﬁrst gig in Munich, Lydia began sensing that all was not right. She, for instance, thought the concert went spectacularly while Don was so upset for missing a few notes, he took to smashing his guitar backstage. They played Antwerp’s suburbs, Düsseldorf and Köln, where fans sang along, and Bordeaux, where stage-‐ edge fans yelled, “‘LEEdia, we love yOO!’” Glowing reviews and feeling ... appreciated, especially because “people didn’t even always understand the language but s:ll they loved us. This does plenty to alleviate depression when you realize life’s more’n just survival.” In Paris, where I lived at the :me, they played the recordstore-‐cavern, EPE, Établissement Phonographique de l’Est, and there I witnessed their eﬃciently inspiring show ﬁrsthand. White costumes converted them into scrims catching the abstract paTerns, disembodying their stage-‐presence, as parts of them melted into the background and forced the audience to ﬁnd and then reassemble them over and over on stage.
Back home, in 1991, the beloved ramshackle Club Lower Links was going bankrupt. Lydia and several partners bought it. Lydia did bookings, helped organize readings and, of course, Algebra Suicide performed there. They were si`ng preTy at that scene’s epicenter. By the :me their 1991 European tour reached Paris, Tomkiw was mastering the performer’s art of self-‐ imposed trances “like ge`ng high on automa:c pilot.” She thought they were hi`ng their stride: fun and success merging. “ They were working vaca:ons. In Europe they put you up, feed you, appreciate you.” But, the limelight that gloriously jus:ﬁes living also contains a performer’s undoing. Their 11-‐year marriage began unraveling, the 1992 tour never materialized and by 1993 they divorced. While Don became a university sta:s:cs professor, Lydia, who’d put so much into this, refused to believe it was over. She persevered, sold her share of Lower Links to avoid losing even more money, and when Tongue TwisGng appeared, Algebra Suicide toured again — a painful experience. Summer 1993: she doggedly began recording material with other producers she respected, like Edward Ka-‐ Spel & the Legendary Pink Dots. Incorporated, the collec:on of post-‐Hedeker produced poems, is her swan song cum escape from Don’s signature sound. But it s:ll sounds like Algebra Suicide; Lydia’s smart poetry lunging out of rich atmospherics like a bee emerging from a ﬂower, full of nectar. Incorporated however, fell on deaf ears. In 1994 she ﬂed ghost-‐ridden Chicago for NY where she dealt with self-‐doubt, anonymity, survival. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop the thinking with drinking, couldn’t absorb NY’s insistent distrac:ons. She was “scrambling for any job to pay the bills,” going from temp agency to endless interviews and typing tests. She was either overqualiﬁed or not sprightly enough for oﬃce jobs. “I had recurring stomach viruses and horrible headaches — I think it was psychosoma:c.” Other tragedies followed: a dog aTacked her in her East Village apartment hallway, requiring some 70 s:tches. Then, one night she heard rustling, turned on a light, and there she was, face-‐to-‐face with a rat. She eventually stalked and killed it with a hammer to the head in her bathtub. She seemed to stop wri:ng but never stopped telling people she was. She’s survived this slump and is again “wri:ng like mad but I’m scared. Wri:ng makes me feel worthwhile ... If I was told I could never write again, I’d be a shell of a person. I can’t understand why brilliant people I embraced don’t write anymore ... but then again, I sort of know why.” She’s working on a novel. “Ugly Kids is about 4 friends who grew up in dysfunc:onal families and eventually made something of themselves. They cover up their insecuri:es with obsessions. One’s enslaved to drink, another sex, another shopping and another success.” Her novel promises to illuminate the muddled complexi:es of the contemporary heart. I’m wai:ng for the completed manuscript in the mail. I’m certain it’ll contain her many “worlds that worry god.”
Article originally published in FRINGECORE 9 in 2000