An artist's work lives on

September 23, 2007


Chicago's underground rock scene was much smaller and less vibrant when I first arrived here in the early '90s. The energy of the mid-'80s had dissipated along with post-punk bands such as Big Black, Naked Raygun and the Effigies, and the alternative explosion of the mid-'90s had yet to ignite. From my perspective, two of the biggest signs of life were Material Issue and Algebra Suicide, in large part because of their tireless and charismatic front persons.

Jim Ellison and Lydia Tomkiw weren't just the leaders of their respective bands; they also booked shows (Ellison at Batteries Not Included and Tomkiw at Lower Links, which she co-owned for a time); networked non-stop to bring together local musicians, DJs and writers and generally did whatever they could to focus the national spotlight on local music. Ellison died an untimely death in 1996; now, Tomkiw is gone, too: She died earlier this month in Phoenix, Ariz., where she'd been living near family. The cause is pending an autopsy; she was 48 years old.

The daughter of Ukrainian parents who fled the Soviet Union, Tomkiw grew up in Humboldt Park, avoiding the streets of that tough neighborhood to form her artistic identity in front of the bedroom mirror. She developed a strikingly original visual style and became a unique and wickedly funny poet. "She could've been Catwoman's stunt double, Theda Bera's lost sister or Sylvia Plath's ghostwriter," author and fan Bart Plantenga wrote. "Flickers of defiance flared up around her robust, red-haired countenance as she negotiated between femme fatale and femme tragique."

Tomkiw took part in some of this city's earliest poetry slams, but she found her real niche after meeting guitarist Don Hedeker and forming Algebra Suicide in 1983. The duo paired Tomkiw's poetry -- "spoken word" barely does justice to the hypnotic way she delivered her verses -- and Hedeker's inventive sonics over the course of several albums, EPs and singles boasting memorable pieces such as their college-radio cult hit, "Little Dead Bodies."

"I've heard that somebody is born every eight seconds," Tomkiw intoned. "So I presume that somebody dies every eight seconds / Just to keep things even / It makes me feel shortchanged when I read the obituary page / Somebody's holding back information."

"Of the many vocalist/instrumentalist duos to emerge in and around the New Wave, this Chicago team was quite unique," another big fan, Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins, wrote. "Over the course of its career, Algebra Suicide flirted with pop forms and occasionally shared stylistic ground with both Laurie Anderson and the Velvet Underground but never wavered from its own individual path."

Algebra Suicide came to an end in 1993, not long after Hedeker and Tomkiw's marriage unraveled, and Tomkiw lived for the next decade or so in New York, where she collaborated with Edward Ka-Spel and the Legendary Pink Dots on a 1995 solo album, "Incorporated." She hadn't made music since, in contrast to Hedeker, who teaches biostatistics at the University of Illinois in Chicago but remains active on the local scene as leader of the Polkaholics. Yet her work with Alegebra Suicide lives on.

"The band never had a lot of fans, but for the ones who did like it, it meant a lot to them," Hedeker said last week. "I think she wrote tremendous poetry. She was a very charismatic person, and she knew how to make people enjoy things, so she was very good at being a front person. And she was very successful at making poetry and art seem like fun."

The poetry and music of Tomkiw and Algebra Suicide can be sampled on the Web at bra/ and on the group's MySpace page.

Lollapalooza market analysis
In another noteworthy bit of music news, publicists for the massive Lollapalooza music festival in Grant Park never responded to requests for attendance numbers during or immediately after the event -- last week, they finally said the concert drew 167,000 people over three days last August -- but a recent press release from Austin, Texas-based Inquisite, which bills itself as a "human insight software company," contains a lot of data about exactly who bought tickets to the much-hyped destination festival.

A company spokeswoman said concertgoers filled out a survey either at kiosks in the park or online when they bought tickets, "and Inquisite's software aggregated and analyzed the results." The goal, of course, is to attract advertisers who want to reach these music fans -- or in the corporate-speak of this fest, a "carefully targeted, highly desirable demographic group."

"The type of data we were able to collect using Inquisite is extremely valuable to us as we are always looking for more detailed profile of audiences to use when we offer sponsorship opportunities," says Kim Couch, Marketing Manager with Austin-based concert promoters C3 Presents, in the Inquisite press release.

According to their report:

  73 percent of Lolla attendees were between the ages of 18 and 34.

  61 percent were male; 39 percent female.

  15 percent had completed high school; 30 percent had four years of college; 11 percent had a graduate degree.

  55 percent came to Lolla from outside the Chicago area.

  When asked if they had voted in the 2006 election, 52 percent said yes and 41 percent said no.

The latter point illustrates that AT&T's Blue Room Webcast, which censored Pearl Jam for comments about President Bush, shouldn't have bothered, given the level of political apathy. And the fact that more than half of the concertgoers came from outside Chicago says a lot about why the promoters have shown so little interest in becoming part of the local music community.