Lydia Tomkiw: Glowing Bright as Nirvana
“My pristine self is melting, my old whore halo / Glowing bright as Nirvana.”
• Lydia Tomkiw, “Blush #102”
A conversation between Sharon Mesmer and bart plantenga about Lydia Tomkiw.
BART: Lydia Tomkiw had it all and I was envious. Envy melted away to admiration, however, after her early book of poetry, Popgun Sonatas, led to her first single with partner Don Hedeker, “True Romance at the World’s Fair.” This took college radio by storm – in some ways reminding me of Tim Buckley – creating a delicate balance between precious and punk, tender and hardened. It became one of the most played indie singles during my early listening days at WFMU, before I started DJing there. She had it all, including poetic chops and a partner who played Lenny Kaye to her Patti Smith or Sonny to her Cher, or… They toured, she got fan letters, was on the avant edge of the spoken word explosion in the early 1980s and was a pioneer of the fusion of difficult poetic investigations of the heart with pop flirtations.
She loved the taste and perks of fame; one of my favorite lines of hers is from “Charming Twilight Haze”: “We feel like celebrities – we / Sway and the crowds scatter; / We’ll go home when the birds start singing.” That this high could go higher was never in doubt, that it could precipitate a dramatic and tragic fall from the grace known as some renown still bugs me because this good friend died and talent and poetic insight could not save her.
We couldn’t save her either – or could we have? She died in September 2007 of a broken heart or ill health due to a what’s-the-use existential shove into a hard deep corner. This is how I see it. What’s your take?
SHARON: Firstly, you write that “talent and poetic insight could not save her.” To me – and I’m no romantic – that’s exactly what does some people in. What did her in, among other factors. It’s a savage truth, no less true today than it ever was. Maybe it’s truer today, when there’s even less of an advantage toward survival for the intelligent and sensitive, and a surfeit of advantage for the dull and unimaginative. I think Lydia both wanted and didn’t want to be saved, though I think she wanted to be saved more than she wanted to end up adrift. She truly wanted to be saved, but I think she was reluctant to try to save herself, and that was probably what would’ve saved her: utilizing that ability herself.
BART: I agree for the most part. I remember lots of conversations about death, however. She really seemed like a Romantic poet or some Pre-Raphaelite with her elaborate preparations for her death. She is portrayed in my novel Beer Mystic and here I quote from it: She dreamt of the lavish funeral details and the exact circumstances of her death – in bed on the brink of being discovered for her musical accomplishments, her best friend [”You don’t want her,” She warned. “She don’t drink beer, hates it.”] holding her left hand, It was as if we grew up in a time when one’s poetic gravity could be measured by one’s insights into death and dying – many we admired killed themselves, it just seemed like part of the job description. In one scene she takes me to the local coffin maker in Brooklyn, just on the other side of 3rd Ave. I think and she showed me the kind of coffin she wanted. She told me the songs she wanted played at her funeral; to quote once again from Beer Mystic: “She knew the exact four songs – I can’t remember, a Roy Orbison song, something by Joy Division, a song by Sinatra, and one by Echo & the Bunnymen with the line ‘Everybody loves you when you’re dead’ – she’d hummed them all.”
But when she was on top of the world she could be the most effervescent, gloriously alive and happy…
SHARON: Lydia was an incredibly self-directed person, and I think if she had wanted to kill herself, she would’ve just done it. She would’ve made the decision and carried it out. She would’ve made sure that she was dressed a certain way and her make-up was perfect.
BART: You might be right, but her preoccupation with death in her songs was noteworthy although it may have been a poetic device; although preoccupied with it, it was meant to emphasize how precious and short life is/was and that we need to live a gung-ho life as our best revenge: “I am nothing to put to rest / I am nothing but a fireball / Take it! Take it, and something will erupt” [”Mantic Sway,” Swoon].
SHARON: I know in my heart she did not want to end up how she ended up. She was not angling to be on anyone’s Heartbreak Top Ten. On the other hand, she made it difficult to be friends with her, and I’m not just talking about near the end. We didn’t speak for eight years, mainly because she withdrew her friendship from me after my engagement to an abusive fiance broke up and I spun out emotionally and acted out, acted up. She wrote me a long letter, detailing my bad behavior, and how I made it impossible to be friends with me … ironic in light of later events. I’m not saying I disagree with anything she pointed out in the letter; in fact I agreed with pretty much all of it. I was a selfish and self-absorbed (in my own pain) pain in the ass. I was pissed and someone — anyone, everyone — was going to pay. So, I didn’t see or speak to her for eight years. It was during that time that her star was rising, and so I can’t speak to what she was doing during those eight years, though she did tell me some things about Algebra Suicide’s European gigs, her break-up with Donny, the break-up of the band, etc. You know more about that era than I do, so I’m gonna back up to before that, to before she and I split as friends, and connect the years that we were close (1978-1982) to the later years, from 1996 on, when we had our rapprochement (and then went our separate ways again, a couple of years before she died).
BART: I opened for her a couple of times in Paris with Black Sifichi, a great spoken word performer in France. She seemed almost desperate for adulation and luckily it was there – even at this very cool underground club in Paris. In “May I Take Your Order Please” [Incorporated, 1994], for instance, she sings: “I’d also like the adoration of millions, but if that’s not possible / It would be nice if this became a Broadway musical.” Algebra Suicide was very professional, especially for the late 1980s with visuals, slides and such. But by tailoring her work to a spoken word performance market I almost thought she was hemming in her poetry to be, well, more entertaining, like stand-up almost. That world has a glib and slippery feel to it that is different from poetry regardless of the overlap. Stand up poetry is mostly about one-liners and the more humorous and outrageous, the “better” the poem. And she was one of the first – but as we know, and as she felt, she never really got her just due once she moved to NY.
SHARON: She was different by the time she got to NY. She was depleted and exhausted and unsure of herself, precisely (I think) because of what you just noted — that she did not get her due – but I think that situation had begun even before she came to NY. She came to NY already unsure of herself, so I think some things had begun happening when she was still living in Chicago. I say this because the Lydia with whom I was best friends, with whom I was a college freshman, with whom I shared the stage at readings (we did our very first poetry reading together), with whom I went to punk clubs, who was my kindred spirit and older sister, lived fully alive. She was witty, charming, beautiful, funny, brilliant, daring, positive. What I learned from her was immeasurable… about getting off my ass and creating a career for myself, about getting behind my work and being proud of it without being egomaniacal, about trusting my ideas and seeing them through, about getting into all the corners and hidden places of a situation and seeing what treasures were there and using those treasures to my advantage. For any abilities I might have in those areas, I have Lydia to thank (also our teacher Paul Hoover). But here’s the thing, the thing that I see as part of what did her in: at a point, she was unwilling to do those same things for herself. Those things that she knew so well how to do, those things that she taught me to do, those things that would’ve lifted her out of the slough of despond. She needed to do those things, and she could’ve done them with little effort — it was second nature (or at least it seemed that way to me). She had a base here that she could’ve worked from, she had a new CD out, she was working on manuscripts, she had a job, friends, connections, a family that loved her, a mother that lovingly and selflessly supported her. But I think she resented that she was going to have to do it all over again on her own, because she was exhausted by the divorce, losing Lower Links, and not having the kind of audience in the States that she had in Europe. In fact, I think that might’ve been what did her in: in Europe she was the kind of artist she’d always known she could be, knew she was. Her perception of herself — talented, charming, beautiful, inspired, the creator of powerful work — was mirrored by an appreciative audience. And they were not misled. She was all those things.
BART: I think that’s the gist of it. A combination of blows – some beyond her making, others very much her own fault – led to a despondency as a result of perhaps basing her esteem on something so fickle as pop fame. That and a series of NY-style setbacks: lost jobs, endless job interviews, that stress leading to more drink and drink on breath never leads to a job not even in a bar.
SHARON: When you move to New York you kind of have to give yourself over to New York (though maybe this isn’t true anymore) and be like Jack Kerouac said: “Submissive to everything, open, listening.” She was not about to be submissive, because she’d already established herself, and it had taken years of work. Honestly, I think she felt like I did when my engagement to the abusive fiance broke up: worn out, angry, depressed, pissed, and not about to kiss any more ass.
BART: I don’t think its giving your self over. New York takes it regardless and you have to run with it to catch up as it tears on down the hall with your soul in fist like a damp gym towel… I mean, I really felt for her because I was going through the same things. I was sleepless, run ragged by the city that never sleeps and seldom lets you sleep… Indeed. I think there is this need to prove you can make it in NY. Even though most great artists, writers, musicians DON’T live in NY and never lived here. There is something almost Wagnerian, like defying the mermaids noisy din, to prove you can make it and come out on top. I thought that once for about 3 weeks in 1978. But you have to give it up. And being on top of her game in the Second City and accepted and pad in Europe tuned and lubed her for some placement in the NY top 40 with a bullet and rising fast. But she had to start at the bottom and that bottom was just too far down. Even our Unbearable mates mostly ignored her and were not really interested in her accomplishments. This I never quite fathomed.
SHARON: I agree. I never fathomed their ignoring of her, but I just chalked it up to a kind of distrust of what she did: spoken word, poetry with music … I think some Unbearables saw that as not serious writing or something. There was a lot of judgement there, of her and in general, as I later learned. That’s a whole other complicated conversation, though. Also, there was that idea floating around the Unbearables that if you’re famous somewhere else but not in New York it doesn’t matter.
BART: Yes, totally – not everyone but still, in the NY scene she was an interloper and no matter how many times I introduced her with her credentials to this or that group or scene it did not matter… On a more societal level, why is it that people/poets investigating the heart of the matter, those who have the material of our nature in hand so often opt for suicide – I’m not saying Lydia committed suicide, not in any conventional way, however, she did stop wanting to live on some level [is that OUR failure?] – Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Tim Buckley, Sylvia Plath, Ian Curtis, Jim Morrison, et al. I know she embraced things close to the bone, her system was like a barometer of sorts, a sensitive gauge for things decadent, frivolous, joyous and painful but WHY could she not write her way out?
SHARON: First of all, you ask is “Is it our failure?” This is something I’ve been struggling with in regard to my sister, who died of cirrhosis in 2009. I’ve been going to Al-Anon to deal with this, and the impression I get from hearing what gets spoken about there is that people make their own decisions, and once that decision is made, it’s made. That said, though, I believe that Lydia did not opt for suicide. I’m telling you. I know what you’re thinking: she didn’t put a gun to her head, but she might as well have. And I don’t care what she wrote in “Little Dead Bodies,” either. She knew a good idea and a good poetic phrase, and the drama of both of those put together, combined with some sincere belief . . . you can’t beat it. It’s brilliant. But you know how I know she didn’t opt for suicide? Lydia and I were both raised Catholic, in the Old World, Eastern European sense … the grand, ornate neighborhood cathedrals, the altars at home with the statues and the candles, the rosaries, the saints, the whole deal. The unspoken, unconscious recognition of this shared past was probably what drew us together in the first place. And they teach you, almost from the minute they pour the oil on your head during Baptism, that you don’t kill yourself — it’s against your religion. It’s drummed into your head. Suicide is not an option. You may think, “Well, I could just kill myself,” and you may even want to do it, you may even fantasize about doing it, but there’s this thing — the threat of Hell — that stops you. Even if you haven’t gone to Mass in years, even if you don’t consider yourself Catholic anymore, that idea is still there.
BART: Gotcha. But on some level, dying of natural causes at age 50-something still seems vaguely suspect. I know she was terribly unhealthy, drank a lot, ate poorly and that, to me in part signal a nihilistic pattern of what’s-the-use that leads to a logical devaluation and…
SHARON: I think you can want to stop living but not want to die. I think you can want the pain to stop without wanting life to stop. As for what Catholics pick up and embrace (in spite of themselves) along the way: it’s there with the guilt and the fear and not being able to breathe because of all the incense during First Friday benediction and the memory of how nuns smell.
BART: Good point.
SHARON: So, I don’t think Lydia wanted to die. I think she wanted to live — she was one of the most life-savvy people I’ve ever known — but she didn’t want to live the life of a nobody, having once lived as a somebody. I think drinking put her in that space and time of notoriety and fun again. But I don’t think she drank because she knew it would eventually kill her. She drank because when she was drunk she was who she’d always wanted to be, who she knew she was. And that was not a corpse.
BART: I’ve always believed that words are like heaps of words on the shovel of poetic sensibility – to mix metaphors – like we’re heading toward cement as in cement shoes. What I mean is, Lydia had a kind of modern or Victorian or Romantic poet nagging preoccupation and fascination with death – in “One Night I Fell in Love,” Tongue Wrestling, she sings: “I was holding my breath / I was so much in love, and I turned a lovely blue.” She talked about it to me like others talk about a pet rabbit almost, with death as the ultimate profundity, as the ultimate challenge but I think that, although I admire many of the poets, singers, artists, writers who went before their time [or maybe they prescribed their time, their end, so as not to be beholden to the effects of aging – handsome corpse syndrome] I also admire those who deny or defy this whole looking in the maw of mortality too much. There’s way too much distracting beauty out there and that seemed to be another message that Lydia had for herself and for us – smell the roses or the Wild Irish Rose and be distracted from death’s inevitability with a real dose of distractive joy of living found in the grand emotions like love and in the incidental and most miniscule of life’s details.
SHARON: I also admire “those who deny or defy this whole looking in the maw of mortality.” And that’s one of the reasons why I took Buddhist refuge vows (though I still consider myself an Old World, Eastern European Catholic at heart!): Buddhists look unflinchingly into the maw of mortality, and after I had experienced the sudden death of my sister in ‘09 I wanted to learn what went on when we died and how to deal with it. Buddhism had presented itself to me at key points in my life, and so I decided that maybe I should pay attention, finally. And what I learned, through Buddhism, was pretty much what I’d been taught in Catholic school, through the example of the Catholic saints (but without the flogging and the whipping and the bleeding and the baggy and unattractive sackcloth): looking into the maw of mortality is really all about the precious nature of human birth. And I re-learned it yet again this year, when I had to deal with my own mental and physical health issues by living in the present. It’s the only way. I think it’s one of the places where Buddhism and Catholicism agree, actually, on the idea of the preciousness of being here, …
BART: I don’t know, I think Catholicism has too often neglected the here and now for the sanctity of the hereafter and denying the pleasures of the now to enhance your place in the hereafter.
SHARON: … and Lydia and I talked about this, too, back in the day, and also the last time we were together. She and I took a bus from Penn Station out to Jones Beach to see the band Chicago. We sat way the hell up in the nosebleed section, and while the Doobie Brothers played (they were the opening act, and thankfully it was the non-Michael McDonald Doobies!)
BART: Yikes, talk about embarrassing moments of musical indiscretion. That beats MY doing a school report on Chicago [album 3 or 4] and their use of street noise and I once liked Dan Fogelberg! Albeit, because the gal I was after at that time was a fan…
SHARON: If we’re going to confess our musical geekitude: I liked Bread when I was 12. We went to that concert more for the Chicago part than for the Doobies part, and for the sheer goofy stupid fun of it. But going back to Lydia… we talked about life and death that night, and the “distractive joy of living found in the grand emotions like love and in the incidental and most miniscule of life’s details.” It was my impression that, even though things were bad for her, she didn’t want to die. There was always something to live for, and that something was found in life’s details. Her work is about identifying those details, don’t you think?
BART: She would have loved this conversation about embarrassing musical likes. I imagine the 3 of us sitting on your stoop until way past midnight talking about our musical Achilles heels, until a neighbor leans out the window and yells “Shaddap!”
Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008) and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008). Fiction collections include Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, 2005) and In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose, 2005).
bart plantenga is the author of Beer Mystic & other fictions plus YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and his forthcoming YODEL IN HIFI. His radio show Wreck This Mess debuted in 1986 on WFMU (NY), moved to Radio Libertaire (Paris), then Radio 100 and is currently on Radio Patapoe (Amsterdam). He lives in Amsterdam with partner Nina Ascoly and daughter Paloma.