Sid Yiddish has been involved in the arts in Chicago and elsewhere for decades and is truly a modern day renaissance man. His involvement extends from music and poetry to performance art and painting, from theatre to film and so on. Far from diluting his process, this multi-dimensional approach to art is an inspiring and inspired model of what an artist is capable of when they constantly see challenges in everyday life as opportunities for creation rather than limitations to it. This Artist Story addresses the music side of his practice, his experiences on the TV show America’s Got Talent, and how to persevere and better the world by continuing to make new creative work. —CAR Music Researcher Bill MacKay
How did you get involved in improvisational music?
For the last few decades of my life, my work—be it poetry or performance—tends to go the improv way. I naturally gravitated toward it. It’s manic and impulsive, thinking on your feet and in a quick manner, too. How many rehearsed poets or musicians can say that? Some trads [traditionalists], for example, think improvisation is a little too frightening to achieve or even approach. I personally don’t believe in rehearsing, just getting together and playing. At least it’s what I do with my band, Candy Store Henchmen. Whenever I arrange a gig, we all just show up and it’s not always the same musicians either. I give the players a little instruction and show them the basic conducting gestures and then we storm the stage and make it ours for however long we’re on for. The great thing about improvising is that it’s never the same piece twice. It’s a lot healthier and fresher that way.
You’ve been featured on WGN Radio and have made TV appearances. What results have you had from these appearances?
Being on WGN Radio was a barnstormer if there ever was one. It blew open the gate to possibilities and it gave me a chance to speak and present myself to a wider, more conventional audience. Rick Kogan really believed in what I was doing and I believe he still does. How I got there was nothing short of a miracle. We’d been on a baseball performance bill together back in September 2008 and at the time, after I met him, I asked him what he thought of my work. He said, “I think you make Andy Kaufman look like Jack Benny.” Then for the next six months or so, we kept running into each other at readings, until one day he asked me to be on his show and also decided to write about me in his “Sidewalks” column in March 2009 in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine. As a result of being on Kogan’s show, I received numerous hits on my MySpace band page.
Since I was already working on a record at the time, it also brought into focus the power that the Internet, and especially radio, still has for me. I joked at the time that the whole city of Aarhus, Denmark, was listening in, because Rick also interviewed my good friend Pedro Da Palma about the record we were working on (Pedro, being lead throat and bassist for Clean Boys, the band I was recording my album with). More than likely they were listening, because my Danish fan base grew overnight, due in part to Rick Kogan exposing me to his listening audience. I would say that every time I’ve done a program, be it radio or TV, I’ve always gained more exposure, and then discovered that someone else wants me to appear elsewhere. The same applies to stage shows I do. Someone sees me and wants me for their show, so it works both ways.
What was it like being on America's Got Talent and what came of it? Was it mostly positive?
Well, being on America’s Got Talent was certainly an eye-opener for me and I think, for the whole of the United States. (16 million viewers can’t be wrong!) But it was an emotional roller coaster ride, too. I ended up trying out for it [because] three friends of mine told me that they saw a throat singer on the show in the previous season, and they all said in one way or another, if he could do it, I could too. So I applied and just forgot about it until the day of auditions in Chicago in November 2010. The night before I was performing at Swing State in Lake Villa (just north of Gurnee) and I finished the show at 12 a.m., hopped into my car, drove home, got my kit bag together, took a shower, and turned right around and drove down to a CTA garage, rode the train down to Chinatown, then grabbed a cab that took me directly to McCormick Place and waited in line. There were already 50 people ahead of me.
Over the next few hours, I changed into my regular costume and finally, after filling out paperwork and being given my sticker number, the doors opened up. I went through two panels of judges; the first panel loved what I did, while the second panel just sat stone-faced and didn’t say much of anything. I knew something was going on when I was asked to shoot a few screen tests and I sat before interviewers, telling them “my life story.” That’s when I sort of knew what was happening, but they never indicated I would be on at all. As it was, we weren’t allowed to tell anybody we auditioned for the program, as we signed paperwork swearing to secrecy, but these sorts of things tend to slip out and a lot of my friends already knew in some cases without even me saying anything that I had tried out.
In early January 2011, I received an email from a producer who told me that I was to be flown to Minneapolis and appear before a celebrity panel of judges, consisting of Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne, and Howie Mandel. A few more months passed and lo and behold, the ticket arrived and I was there in Minneapolis. There were amazing amounts of pressure put upon each contestant to “perform." And of course, it is a reality television show, so you sort of had to expect it. I had to do numerous amounts of kowtowing to them, had camera people and assistant producers follow me everywhere I stepped—meaning a lot of cameras in my face—and also, there was a lot of constant changing and shifting around to make things work, more so for their benefit, not mine.
So, when I finally stepped out onto the stage in the "X" spot, in my costume, Howie Mandel took one look at me and quipped, “You’re the Hasidic Lone Ranger!” while the rest of the audience just sat there, opened-mouthed and gasped when they saw me. I wasn’t surprised though. I was asked what I did and I told them, then I throat sang my signature throat singing masterpiece, “Mykel Board Weasel Squeezer." I saw and heard both Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne’s hands go directly down on their buzzers—they needed three, though, and Howie Mandel seemed to indicate to me that he really liked what I was doing. The audience of 1,000 certainly didn’t help matters when they themselves were booing and hissing at me. When Mandel asked me if I could do anything else, I did my female deer impression from my poem-song, “Oh Deer!” That was just too much for Morgan and Osbourne and even worse, Osbourne grabbed Mandel’s hand forcefully and slammed his hand down on the buzzer, giving me the three "Xs" needed to knock me out. I felt bad and was really upset, considering I had never been formally booed for my throat singing.
I tried getting offstage as quickly as I could without someone seeing the tears rolling down my face, but not before I was grabbed by backstage host Nick Cannon who was convinced that I wasn’t going to let the judges get in my way of whatever I was planning on doing in the future. Once I managed to get away from him, there was a show psychologist who held my hand for about 20 minutes, so I could calm down from being visibly upset. After I was led away and into the holding room, another camera crew asked me to pretend act like I was upset and pretend act to say some pretty awful things. Point being, I think all they cared about were camera angles and good television.
I was convinced at that point that my career was over with and that I had to start over elsewhere as something else in some other field, so I thought about giving away my horns. My friend Monk, from the band Monk 9, immediately claimed them, saying he’d take them off my hands for me, knowing full well that he couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to play them, but he wanted them because they were so cool. In early April, I had the opportunity to perform again, for a Flabby Hoffman Cavalcade show, where an America’s Got Talent scout had originally seen me the previous November. I was very afraid to perform for fear of being heckled again, which I was, but I held my own and did well. When May rolled around, I heard and eventually saw two previews of the show online, and that was about it. I became miserable once again and promised myself that I wasn’t going to let it get to me.
On June 8, when the NBC network did finally show the Minneapolis auditions, I was performing a solo poetry show at Elizabeth’s [Harper] Crazy Little Thing at Phyllis’ Musical Inn and just for the heck of it, asked the bartender to flip on the show, but she refused, preferring the White Sox game instead. Some moments before I went inside, I spoke to my mom on the phone and asked her if she had seen me on yet, but she hadn’t. So I hung up the phone, turned it off, and went back inside for a time. When I went back outside and turned my phone back on, there were four text and voicemail messages waiting for me. I was apparently shown on TV and didn’t know it and would find out the next day, when I checked my email and also my Facebook page.
There were at least 25 messages, 63 notices and five new friend requests waiting for me, as a result of that TV appearance, plus 99 new hits on my MySpace page. The next afternoon I looked around online for reviews of my performance, as I knew there would be some and I think the brunt of them suggested that I did something to offend the judges, but nobody was really sure. One of my favorites was from a reviewer in the Bay Area who said, “Honestly, how does an 'act' like this get through to the stage? And where can I get some of that crack?” Of course, when the performance has been edited tightly enough to make me look funny and stupid, what else should I expect from writers who have no clue as to what is real and what isn’t?
Yes, it turned out to be a positive experience, once it was shown. Two bits of news that they did tell us at the audition is that out of the 25,000 acts that were picked, we were the 400 left standing and no matter how far we got that day in Minneapolis, that the lot of us would go much further in our own careers. And I can say that the latter was correct.
Can you talk about the Clean Boys tour?
Ah, yes the great Safari Freakshow Adventure tour I did with Clean Boys of Aarhus, Denmark. Let me first give you the short story version of how we actually met, which was online back in the fall of 2007. They were looking for Mykel Board (a mutual friend of ours)—specifically videos of his old band Artless on YouTube—and when they couldn’t find anything, they typed in his name, and found my then newly filmed video of my throat singing classic, “Mykel Board Weasel Squeezer” and had commented on it. We became friends and in Fall 2008, I asked them to join me as my backing band over Skype for the Chicago Calling Festival in 2008, which they did and it was a crazy success, to put it mildly. We did it again in 2009, but this time I wrote a brand new composition, a punk opera, and they scored it. We did a few more gigs via Skype and then Pedro asked me to come over and tour with them. I said, 'Not until we have a record,' which led us to recording an album entitled, Safari Freakshow Adventure, the same name of the tour.
Pedro handled booking, which included approximately eight dates, (one that was cancelled later) and four spontaneous haiku writing workshops, which I taught to both high school students and adults. I met a lot of wonderful people along the way, too. We toured in a rented camper van for two and a half weeks and went around the whole of Eastern Denmark and even spent a weekend in Hamburg, Germany.
The great thing about the tour was everywhere we went, people were eager to see us live, but also thought that a punk band and a performance artist were a weird combination. I thought ‘What a perfect marriage it was!’ Clean Boys did their homework on me, as I did my homework on them, and we learned so much from each other. I really believe that I grew up on that tour as a performer, and it helped me get ready for even greater adventures ahead. One of the greater remembrances I have of them was they were so kind and so gracious to me in person, as they had been to me online. Their personas never changed all that much and they made sure I never got myself into a jam.
We toured usually with one or two other performers, VitaWrapMand, a guy who wrapped himself up in cellophane (Vita Wrap) and strategically placed bits of meat and sausage all over his body. Then there was (the now late) Estrid Balslev, a great elderly Danish performance artist who was, although extremely intense, extremely kind and gentle and reminded me of my own mother. Sadly, I only did one show with her, but we did spend time with each other on an evening visit to her home. The shows were primarily composed of the punk opera, the work we had done previously at Chicago Calling, and bits of their songs and my poems, plus the two cover tunes we did, "Strange Fruit" (Billie Holiday) and "Bite It You Scum" (GG Allin), the latter of which both VitaWrapMand and Estrid covered with us while on tour. Every show we did was different, some towns rougher than others (including Horsens, which was the most difficult of all towns we were in).
Can you speak a little bit about the instruments you play?
Well, I play a lot of instruments, including zithers, a violin/ukulele combo, bamboo jaw harps, a gong, a small Indian drum, wooden flutes, African alto thumb pianos, a five-string electric guitar, wooden xylophones, toy instruments, shofars, kitchen utensils, washboards, wooden and plastic kazoos, plastic and wooden slide whistles, anti-guitar, Furbys, Vietnamese jaw and Jew harps, a cow horn, a twisted bugle, trumpet, bird/train whistles, clarinet, Native American instruments, blues and chromatic harmonicas, claves, nose flute, injection syringes, toothbrush/toothpaste, fishing pole bass harp, homemade instruments, and rubber gloves. I also do throat singing, mumbling, spit-stream and incoherent sounds, and poetry, and I’d have to say, while my playing isn’t so smooth at times, I do a lot of freestyle work, like improvising and that’s what gets me by.
The bands I perform with—Adeptive Radiation, Island, Chicago Scratch Orchestra, and my own groups, Candy Store Henchmen and Torque Monks—allow me to be free and creative, even if I’m not the most polished musician in the history of the world. And thankfully, I work with musicians on all levels who understand that. My musical education is quite sparse. When I was a child, I took piano lessons, as I did later on in college and also post-graduate levels of basic piano. I even took a conducting class with an instructor who told me that I wouldn’t amount to much. Even though I have taken music theory three times, I still have trouble reading music and therefore, I play by ear and what I hear in my brain, which is how I think I became attracted to the form of conducting that I presently do, which is hand gesture conducting, in the style of John Cage, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn’s Masada, which I’ve been most compared to.
[There were] a few failed attempts of trying to learn a few orchestral styles, mainly with Weave Orchestra in 2005, when there was a branch based in Chicago. I had to learn 100 gestures in a matter of
six weeks. I only learned 60. When I joined Chicago Scratch Orchestra, I noticed they employed the same gestures as Weave Orchestra did and so when I formed my own group, I just adopted the conducting form and continue to this day to add new gestures into the mix. Some are simple and some are complex and I continue to create and employ gestures I see on the street while walking or driving or elsewhere, wherever I roam.
What projects or ideas do you see yourself developing next?
I am always working on something! Currently, I am curating a net compilation for the French label Sirona Records entitled Bird Gurp: Satanation in Spring (Luv 4 Da Gorks) due out this spring. Then I have two album releases I'm working on—one with Sharkie Seventy Eight (New Jersey) for his label, Cap 'n' Davey Recordings and Publications, entitled Cyberspace Easter Egg, due out this year (2012); and another record for Placenta Recordings, entitled Danish Viking Astronaut, due out this year. Then there’s a short narrative film by local filmmaker and Columbia College MFA candidate, Ryan Buckley, entitled Sid Yiddish, which will also be released in 2012. And speaking of Columbia, in Fall 2012 I'll be a graduate student in the MFA Interdisciplinary Arts and Media Program. Then, of course, there’s my group, Candy Store Henchmen, which I set up gigs with and we play wherever, whenever. I’m always composing, collaborating, moving into a new space in the universe and making it the most beautiful, sexy, and colorful place that it can be.
Candy Store Henchmen will be performing live at The Orphanage (Chicago) on March 16, at Coloraboration on April 9, and on WZRD on May 10. Sid will be on Rick Kogan's The Sunday Papers radio program on Sunday, April 1.
Sid Yiddish performs in tight spaces within the USA and Denmark. He works diligently as an oddball actor, throat singer, poet/writer, and musician/composer/conductor, and regularly contributes to multitudes of recording projects. Although Sid doesn't always understand what he produces or creates, he knows you will. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
Interviewed in Winter 2011–12.