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The Stuff That Pierces Hearts: The Importance of Lydia Tomkiw and Algebra Suicide

Algebra Suicide (Lydia Tomkiw)

Earlier this year, I wrote to a magazine that I like to pitch an article about Lydia Tomkiw,  post-punk absudist poet and singer for the band Algebra Suicide. I had done some writing and research for the piece, but hadn’t got too far.

I wanted to justify taking the time to go too far, which is largely why people pitch articles to magazines in the first place. The idea to to track her down and interview her had come to me a few months before, only to find that she had passed away in 2007 at 48 years old. There wasn’t much information easily available about her or her band, and I thought she deserved something bigger. Something more grand.

After a couple months of going back and forth with this magazine, they eventually decided to pass on the article. I wasn’t completely attached to it, just curious. But since then, I haven’t let go of the feeling that it’s important to say something about this odd and interesting person. I feel she’s akin to other artists I feel a deep admiration for – Gertrude Stein, Laurie Anderson. She’s in the category of artists that are important for reasons that aren’t fully tangible, ones that might make more sense in the dream world, rather than the physical, waking world.

I was casually listening to a mixtape while doing some chores around the house when suddenly the world around me stopped and Algebra Suicide came into my life. This is why I love mixtapes, DJs, radios, anything on shuffle – the unexpected. A song can come on and snap you out of what you’re doing, make you drop everything, put you in a trance, provide a brief, glorious fever dream of what life could feel like. A minor version of this happens to me fairly often, but the level of intensity that the Algebra Suicide song hit me with was striking. The only other song I remember responding to as intensely was when I first heard Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on Water,” a brilliant gospel blues song about the sinking of the Titanic and the tragedy that happens when men try to be gods. That instance was most of a decade ago. I was giving myself a haircut, listening to a compilation of 1920s folk blues, when “God Moves on Water” came on. I put the clippers down, went to my room, and  stared at the CD player that the song was coming from. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how it could exist. It didn’t seem real.

My moment with Algebra Suicide was similar. I dropped the broom, rewound the tape, stared at the moving parts, listened in awe.

I soon had all the bands albums that I could get my hands on. I loved every minute and listened  so often that I forgot which song had first grabbed my attention. I also quickly recognized that most of their work was extremely dated.  Alegbra Suicide pre-dates the rise of slam poetry by over a decade, but it’s the stigma of slam poetry that probably seals their fate in relative obscurity–Tomkiw’s absurdist spoken word vocals tell odd stories of tractor pulls and dating high school boys that died. I hear the surreal pop culture poems of Elizabeth Alexander, the dream narratives of Flann O’Brien or Haruki Murakami, when I listen to it, but I understand that it also sounds a little like open mic night in  the late 1990s, or a punk version of Ani Difranco’s “Fuel.”

At their best, Algebra Suicide sounds like a forgotten vestige of pop culture, the kind that can subtly encapsulate a time period or mood, void of the trite weight of a big hit.

If that magazine pitch had been accepted, the article I would have used my best authoritative voice and wielding facts I learned from disparate internet sources (mostly forum threads and the transcription of a long rambling conversation two of her old friends had after she died). I’d describe how Lydia Tomkiw was the child of Ukrainian immigrants, was raised in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, and was seen as the first woman to bring a heavy Midwest accent to college radio. That her and her partner – her collaborator in Algebra Suicide – started a music and art venue in Chicago, that Algebra Suicide once opened for John Cale, that a reviewer called them “Joy Division with a sense of humor” and a different one called her “The female Lou Reed.” I’d have said that she was in 1988’s Best American Poetry and New American Writing collections, published a book of poems called Popgun Sonatas that has been out of print for decades, and wrote a novel called Ugly Kids that was ready to published when she died and now seems to be lost.

But all of it would have just been a lead-in to get to the part where I talk about the feeling of the first time. The maze of her words, that voice that made my ears perk like a cat’s, and the little chill that went up my spine when the perfect blend of drum machine, bass, and guitar mixed with that voice, as it posed some riddle I couldn’t answer. A riddle that was maybe just an inside joke, I didn’t know. How that mystery has kept me endlessly intrigued, wondering what kind of person could have created such a strange and amazing dream.

Joshua James Amberson is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.
Let him fulfill your zine needs. 

2 thoughts on “The Stuff That Pierces Hearts: The Importance of Lydia Tomkiw and Algebra Suicide

  1. My husband and I knew Lydia well at one time. My husband had a record label in Chicago and produced some of Algebra Suicide’s albums. We live in Portland now if you are interested in interviewing my husband.

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