Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Spotlight: Algebra Suicide

(As published in B-Side, 1994 or thereabouts...)

Time for some truth-telling: Despite the reputations that musicians like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Henry Rollins have gotten as "poets," they're not.

They're songwriters.

Walt Whitman was a poet. And Emily Dickinson. And Leonard Cohen. And so is Lydia Tomkiw, the female half of the spoken-word-with-music duo Algebra Suicide.

"I was a graphic arts major," Tomkiw (pronounced "Tom Q") recalls of her college days. Then she took a poetry class.

"That's when I switched schools. I transferred to one that offered more creative writing classes. I got really fierce about it. Once I started writing poetry and getting pieces I could tolerate, I started sending them out. Then, after about a hundred rejections, the first acceptance came along, and that spurred on the next one and the next one."

As Tomkiw's pile of published poems grew into chapbooks (The Dreadful Swimmers, Popgun Sonatas), she began to envision other outlets.

"I just thought, 'There's got to be some other way to disseminate this stuff.' A dear teacher of mine said something to me very early on, like, when I was nineteen, that's stuck with me: 'The sign of an immature artist is one who wants to make and keep for himself.'"

Hence Algebra Suicide, a.k.a. Tomkiw and Don Hedeker. In the past year, they've capped their decade-long career by getting divorced, breaking up the band, and releasing their swan song, the excellent Tongue Wrestling, on Chicago's Widely Distributed Records.

"The way Don and I would work is, he would go downstairs and work on tunes, and I would have a pocketful of poems ready. He would present his music to me, and I would find something that fit. Or didn't fit, preferably. You know, for a happy, bouncy tune, I'd maybe apply something a little morbid."
She laughs. "Actually there was a nice tension going [during the Tongue Wrestling sessions]. So a lot of the tunes turned out--I wouldn't say better--but harder. There was none of the 'Whatever you want, darling,' you know? The divorce was in the process. So I was like 'This might be our last release. We have to do this." And then he'd turn around and say, 'No! We have to do that."

That tension comes through. On the best tracks, Hedeker's synthesizer and guitar work sounds both lively and haunting, like a less perverse Wall of Voodoo. And Tomkiw's poetry walks its talk.

The best is "What I Like Doing Best," a whirling, epithet-rich tribute to osculation. "Busting slob, swaying gush, nabbing drool, boodling," Tomkiw chants. "Flinging woo, pitching woo, spooning, smooching." When she gets to "in a tizzy, I remember getting dizzy, while listening to, like, / Thin Lizzy," she's practically given birth to a world. When was the last time Dylan, Reed, or Rollins did that?

"That's the one the title Tongue Wrestling came from," Tomkiw says, "and that's the one that I like best because it's about what I like doing best. I mean, it's safe enough to admit that without sounding slutty."

With her passionate but detached, weary but wise Windy City accent, Tomkiw also doesn't sound like Laurie Anderson. Just ask her. "I've been doing this since 1982, and the first time I heard Laurie Anderson was in graduate school, and that was 1985. I think it was 'O Superman.' It was part of a program on spoken word or whatever, and I was, like, 'I don't sound like this at all.' The comparison I like best is when somebody wrote, 'Female Lou Reed.'"

More truth-telling: As a poet Lydia's lots better than Lou Reed.

Listeners will soon have another chance to answer these questions for themselves. Tomkiw plans to release Incorporated, her first non-Hedeker album, by mid-October. Produced by Tongue Wrestling's Chuck Uchida, it will feature collaborations between Tomkiw and Belgium's Dirk Ivens ("industrial dance music?" gropes Lydia), Martin Bowes ("same thing but more up-in-your-face"), Reality Scare ("They're synth-heavy, sort of like New Order"), and more. The album will not, according to the poet, mark a radical departure from her established track record but a "progression," especially the "dance tunes."

"My years with Algebra Suicide were really good and gave me the courage to go on and do other things. And I hope whatever comes out after this, if not different, is--"

She pauses.

"You know, I'm really blessed and lucky because I'm thirty-four, and I think of people in the music business who just seem ridiculous by that age.

"What I do is, like, one genre in which I think I can keep going."

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