The One and Only
Saturday was a honky-tonk, Wednesday was another honky-tonk, and Friday was a real-estate convention. "Of all the shows I've ever done, this," said Yogi Baird, "is one."
He walked out of the sunshine and into the League City civic center, where the main hall had been partitioned into booths. Some booths offered candy or cookies or popcorn to draw you in. Yogi and his friends were the only musical troupe. They were neither starched nor polished nor hair-sprayed; they wore cowboy hats and boots. They squeezed into the booth of an agency called the Michael Group, behind a sign that read, "Don't fiddle around -- 100 percent commission." None of them knew what that meant, and none cared. Yogi drew his bow across the fiddle, the boys fell in with bass and guitar, and they were off.
Oh me oh my Miss Molly, I'm in love with you
Oh me oh my Miss Molly, won't you say you love me, too...
They played "Rocky Top," "The Cotton-Eyed Joe," "Diggi Diggi Lo." It was unconventional convention music. A salesman, who had begun tapping his toe, abruptly checked his watch and moved on. The business of the day could not wait, and passersby were passing right on by, until Yogi stepped out and stopped them. Candy could not do what Yogi did, nor cookies, nor your average fiddler. Yogi got their attention.
"Oh, Jesus!" said a woman, raising her hands to her face.
"Oh, my God!" said another.
"I wouldn't want to see that man's foreplay."
"Why's he coming over here? Don't come over here!"
But Yogi went over there and showed them what he does with a fiddle.
There may be another contortionist fiddler contorting on some Appalachian back porch at this very moment, but Yogi doubts it. He says he's the one and only, and a newspaper database confirms that all recent sightings of contortionist fiddlers have been of Yogi Baird.
He was seen in Robocop II with his head between his legs, playing "Born to Be Wild." In the same position, he fiddled for Oregon delegates at the Republican National Convention. Yogi's picture once ran in the Weekly World News, and he says he might have made the front page, if he'd been a horse with a human head.
Paris, Madrid, Nashville -- Yogi has played in all of these places.
"'And do you know the MGM Grand in Las Vegas?" he asked. "Well, I played the Conoco across the street for Bill while he worked on my van."
Several days after the real-estate convention, he was found at ease in his home. It lay on a dirt road in the northeastern part of the county. There was a car seat on the front porch for a bench and a toothless old dog named Misty fast asleep. Yogi was squatting like a frog in the open door. He held a cigarette between thumb and half of a forefinger. A horse had eaten the other half.
"I do Texas yoga, man," he says. "I am just as much a yogi as all them people who speak in that Sanskirt language."
He is 48 years old. He tells people, only half-joking, that he got started in yoga because he was on a power trip. He wanted someone to kiss his ass, and unable to find anyone, he learned to do it himself. And now where was he? He's a man who found a niche for himself and literally twisted himself inside. The ultimate self-made man is a man in a knot.
How does it feel, Yogi?
Words failed him. He went into contortions -- first one leg and then the other, "because I, as we all are, am a universe." He could play the fiddle here, he could play it there. He could even play it standing on his head. Finally, Yogi slipped his right leg behind his right arm so that the foot protruded from his left armpit. And then he stood up.
"To do this, which you could," he said, "you would have to pay a dear price."
From a farm near Abilene, Katie Baird said she and her husband tried to do well by their three sons. There was food on the table and a roof over their heads, and every Sunday morning, they all went for religion to the Baptist church. One of the boys grew up to be a welder, another went into the Navy, and then there was Richard, who became a contortionist fiddler.
Were there signs in his youth that he possessed such a talent?
"No, sir, I'm afraid there wasn't," said Mrs. Baird. "He took that on when he left home."
Richard said he has been "ham and cheese" all his life, but contortions were never part of the Baird daily routine. Music was a different matter. He had an uncle who was both fiddler and fiddle maker, and when Richard joined the school orchestra, it was natural that he chose the fiddle.
He was an obsessive sort -- about reading, about music and sports. His mother said he was always training for something. He took his fiddle wherever he went, picking out songs by ear. In high school, fiddling and football became his dueling interests. His small size required him to view football as a game of mind over matter. He jumped rope endlessly and did thousands of sit-ups. To this day, he wonders how his life might have been different if the coach had seen the merits of a 150-pound tight end. He thinks he might have played in the NFL.
"Why not?" he says. "I had the attitude."
High school ended, though, without scholarship or firm prospects. Richard wanted to have experiences and see the world. He saw the Vietnam War as a chance to get into shape. More than his football fantasy, it's interesting to imagine what might have become of the contortionist fiddler had the Marines not rejected him for a blown eardrum. (One wonders, too, how many contortionist fiddlers the Marines have saved us from.)
Instead of the discipline and suffering of a soldier's life, Richard entered a long wandering period, at the end of which he truly found himself. He sold Bibles, threw the chain on an oil rig, worked in a garage. He was "tasting flavors," he says, and none of them tasted good. They all tasted like work.
When he went to visit an uncle near San Francisco, Richard finally caught a groove. "We're talking the other side of the world," he says, and Mama said she really worried about her son, the "hippie situation" being what it was. Richard made friends. He grew his hair. He never found anything to protest, but he did enjoy the party. He sold his car and took his toothbrush and fiddle on the road. He and his fiddle became closer than they ever had been. Richard fiddled for the rides he was given, and for the food and shelter. He traveled the country like this, until as though on a rubber band, he came back to Texas, because it was home.
He was a busker, essentially, and when he got the job at the Flying B Country Carousel in Odessa, he had to cut his hair and learn how to play lead and fill and melody, and songs like "Faded Love." Most important, he learned how to be a showman. There was another fiddler in the band who played backward and on the floor and with the bow in his mouth, "and boy, that inspired me!" he says. Richard spent long hours practicing the same tricks.
He was very happy at the Flying B and thought he was rich until a slick Kirby salesman knocked on his door. Richard was sucked in: He both bought the vacuum cleaner and became a salesman of them. "Greed!" he explains. He put down his fiddle, and for four years he tried to work for money alone. The pursuit deadened him, and the woman he had married fell away from him, and one day he called the bank and told them to come get his Buick LeSabre because he didn't want to pay for it anymore.
He put his fiddle over one shoulder and his boots on a string over the other, and he stood by the road. Richard went to Corpus Christi to sit in the waves. Richard went to Big Sur and played the blues. Again, he came back to Texas, where he resumed the life he had had before the Kirby man distracted him. The name of the club in Houston was Fool's Gold. As he began making people happy again, he came alive again. A girl named Anola flirted with him, and she became his lifelong mate. He started smoking cigars. The notion occurred to Richard Baird that he might become a big-time star, if he just had a little something extra.
It was found in the apartment he shared with the guitarist, the secrets of peace and prosperity as revealed in B.K.S. Iyengar's book, Light On Yoga. Richard gazed at the pictures in rapture, reasoning that if the people liked his fiddling tricks now, "Boy, they'd really love it if I could do it with the splits. And I just had this vision of myself doing this, and I'd be the only one in the world who could."
According to the fiddler, yoga was invented a long time ago when "these guys wanted to learn how to meditate." They figured the lotus position was optimal. The lotus being what it is, they began stretching themselves to make the position more comfortable.
It is said now, and not just by the fiddler, that words cannot explain yoga, that you must experience it, that it may take a lifetime to understand it, grasshopper, and that even then you might not get it. But that is the eastern approach, and "this is America," says Richard, "and that means I have endless opportunities to dream up something and go for it." So he went for it. In pursuit of publicity, Richard began doing exercises for inner peace. The result was painful.
"He'd turn real blue while he was learning to be limber," his mother recalls. "Being a nurse, I was real worried about that."
He did it by the book, without a guru, not knowing at first even how to breathe. He learned to breathe again in circles. At night, he fiddled in the clubs, and during the day, while Anola was working, he stayed home with four children, improving his act. He sat on the floor for hours, tugging his leg toward his neck. When the children came to tattle on one another, as likely as not they would find Daddy standing on his head. Attempting the splits, Richard would shout, "Is this closer, Anola? Am I getting closer?"
Anola learned to live with him. He was working for their future. He quit smoking, drinking and consuming meat. She quit cooking for him when he began eating only about once a day, sometimes nothing more than a can of Ultra Slimfast to ward off hypoglycemia. It was important to be empty when he stretched. The body is like a balloon, he realized: You don't want to twist it when it's full.
Holding most of the poses, he was also playing the fiddle, which took his mind off the pain. His fiddling technique improved. It took a year and a half before he could pull a leg over his head. After two years, he got both of them over. Then, as though he had reached a summit, he took a deep breath -- and popped.
Hemorrhoids, the occupational hazard.
He tore muscles in his neck, back and legs, too. His practice of yoga was so intense that he saw himself as Bruce Lee, fighting through it. To balance action with grace, he also fancied himself as Fred Astaire. He began adding tap dancing to his daily routine, and the clickety-clacking could be heard as he stepped off any carpet. Gerland's, he discovered, had the best dance floor in town. Away he went dancing through the store, with kids following behind "like leaves on a windy day."
And five years went by. Yoga, whose literal meaning is "to join," gradually closed the divides in Richard Baird. Redneck was merged with hippie. Athlete was united with musician. "I am a limber son of a gun," he announced, and when he could hang between two chairs with legs parallel to the floor, Richard felt he was ready for his debut. A yogi was born.
There is divided opinion now on the wisdom of Yogi's struggle.
Bill Parish, a one-man band who has collaborated with the contortionist fiddler, says every star must have a gimmick. Elvis swiveled his hips. Tom Jones wore tight pants. Yogi plays the fiddle with his head between his legs. "It's solid entertainment value for your entertainment dollar," Parish says.
But in the purist community, it is generally felt that Yogi's contortions detract from the music. Howard Kalish, a fiddler for the Don Walser Band, says Yogi truly is a good fiddler. Where would he be without contortions? "Well," Kalish answers, "where is he with contortions?"
Says Yogi's mother, "He wanted to be a star, and so far as I'm concerned, he is."
His first contortionist gig came in 1983 with eight belly dancers and a band. Yogi upstaged them all. Things began happening for him very quickly, just as he had hoped. When a photographer spotted him contorting in a park, Yogi's picture appeared in newspapers all over the country. He was soon invited to appear on That's Incredible!. Yogi flew away on an airplane and appeared on national television, hanging between two chairs, fiddling away.
Strangers suddenly wanted Yogi's picture and autograph. He'd throw a leg over his neck and smile for the camera. When his family went into a restaurant, his children would plead, "Daddy, don't do nothing, okay?" But it was hard to get through a meal without at least doing a split. Anola got used to it, but the children were mortified.
Yogi thought the television show would lead to a contract of some sort, but it didn't. He returned to the honky-tonks wearing bandannas and sequins and boots painted to suit his mood -- usually red. He wanted people to say, "That guy ain't ordinary. He's got to do something." And Yogi satisfied their desire for something strange, and he passed the hat. When you make people laugh, they give you money, he says, "and this old hat has been filled with money."
He went to Nashville once. Johnny Paycheck offered him a fiddling job, sans contortions, he says. Yogi thought he was about to be a star in his own right and turned Johnny Paycheck down.
He went to Las Vegas. He ran into an agent who wanted 25 percent of Yogi's earnings if he got Yogi a show at the Gold Nugget. Yogi thought the man was greedy and turned him down, too.
In Branson, Missouri, Yogi built himself an open-air stage in a flea market, and then city officials told him open-air stages weren't allowed in Branson. Such constructions were odd, and he was odd, and according to country music, America was beautiful.
Yogi was mentioned in Ripley's Believe It or Not!. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Pat Sajak spent nine full minutes with him. Yogi thought each of these was his big break, but no one ever invited Yogi back or called with a record deal. The career he imagined at the Grand Ol' Opry or in Hollywood became instead a succession of Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, elementary schools, nursing homes and honky-tonks. Every now and then, he would be called in for another television show, laughed at and sent home.
It was as though people considered Yogi a one-gag act and didn't know he could play his fiddle in 19 different positions. He grew frustrated. Red meat no longer tempted Yogi, but he resumed drinking and smoking. Eventually, he broadened his notion of show business and made an appearance at La Bare as an exotic dancer. This was a dismal failure. Yogi couldn't tug his clothes off before his song ended. The ladies were not impressed.
He redeemed that failure two years ago, during an appearance at a nudist colony near Austin. This was the performance for which Yogi is most widely known by other performers. As he tells it, "just to be in the spirit of things," he took the stage in silver boots, a cowboy hat and a G-string. He had not really begun when a member of the naked audience asked the band members to get naked, too. Everyone else in the band was kind of disgusted by this gig, but Yogi says he dropped his G-string "for the goodwill of the community." He shouted with a grin, "Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you enjoy looking at my body half as much as I enjoy looking at yours." Yogi proceeded to go into full contortions, and looking back, he figures the nudists probably got more than they asked for that day.
It was a freaky thing to do, but by then Yogi had come to terms with who he was. "I'm a sideshow, a freak show," he says, and no one was going to let a freak run the circus. Yogi was about to quit showbiz and get a day job when he met Tim Poole.
Poole is a short, stout man who wears tinted glasses and a straw hat. He sells printing for a living and adopts stray dogs as a public service. He describes himself as "a small-time guy" and "a hustler."
When Poole laid eyes on Yogi, he thought, "To have a talent like that has got to be worth something." He made Yogi an offer, and Yogi was flattered and agreed to be managed by Poole for five years.
Poole's diagnosis was that Yogi has undersold himself. He would play a mall in Singapore one week and then he would pass the hat at a honky-tonk the next. There was also the example of Poole himself. He had no experience as a manager, and there was no reason, he admitted, for Yogi to have signed with him, except that no one else had offered.
But Poole was trying to think big now, for both of them. He wanted to get Yogi's music video on television, which he saw as the key to everything. He was talking to doll makers about creating a flexible Yogi doll. And he had arranged a regular Wednesday night gig out in the middle of nowhere at a place called the Yellow Rose.
Just the previous week, Yogi and his manager had run out of gas on the way back from the Yellow Rose. "Thank God he's in good shape," said Poole, who waited in the van. When the time came to go there again, they chose to drive separately.
Yogi often drives with a leg behind his head, just one at a time because "safety is everything, it really is." On this trip, he kept his limbs untangled. He wore sunglasses over his eyeglasses, and on his head, a hat he got in Portugal. He drank beer on ice, which he explained was a yoga thing: "I rehydrate as I dehydrate." Also, it was a redneck thing: "My beer's colder than yours."
Passing the area where he ran out of gas, he said his lessons have never been free. All he has ever wanted to be was a fiddler, and he had hoped the contortions would draw attention to his music. Instead, the contortions drew attention to themselves, and the music became secondary. But he was not ready to give up. His hope now was that American technology would do what yoga could not: merge the music with the contortions. It had always been necessary to put the fiddle down when he pulled his legs over his head; if the video could be spliced so that he flopped around without missing a beat, Yogi thought people would really admire that. As they watched the contortions, they would hear the music. Word would travel about Yogi's music. Someday, according to plan, people wouldn't ask him to contort anymore.
But yoga is something you do until you die, he says. "There is no end to it. You don't get too old." How could he lose except by quitting? Yogi worried this story would make him appear like "some idiot," when the fact was, "I've done what I've done to entertain people."
One hundred and five miles up Interstate 45, The Yellow Rose Cattle Company is a brand-new "Old West tourist attraction." A Boot Hill was there, a Pettin' Zoo, a Country Store, a bar. It was hokey and cheap, but the "trail boss" said, "It's just a Mom's apple pie American dream come true."
Yogi liked that. "You can't have a dream come true if you don't have a dream," he said. It was his third week at the Yellow Rose. He had hoped that 200 people might be waiting for his show, and so what if there there were only 20 when he began standing on his head? There was grace in his contortions and beauty in his violin. By the time Yogi's head was between his legs, he seemed at one with the Universal Self.
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