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Rock Magicians

Photos by Jack Gould

Last year, when the drummer for the much-beloved but defunct Pixies performed a solo act at the ultrahip music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties, in the south of England, few expected that his performance would involve not a single note of music, let alone feature a glowing kosher pickle and a strangely powerful meteorite from Malibu. Yet there was David Lovering, in front of a thousand-plus music fans, wearing a blinking headset with an antenna and a white lab coat, performing a strange brand of science-based magic he’d dubbed “scientific phenomenalism.” The audience of the packed ballroom was, as might be expected, initially perplexed, but soon was roaring with laughter and cheering on the eccentric Lovering. The notoriously fickle English music press gave the show rave reviews, Mojo magazine calling Lovering a “born entertainer.” Reflecting back on the event, the former drummer says, “It was perhaps my greatest achievement.”

Lovering had been introduced to magic in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles by local musician Grant-Lee Phillips. Phillips, who has recently embarked on a solo career after the demise of his critically acclaimed band Grant Lee Buffalo, had become fascinated by magic as a child growing up in Northern California. At the age of 12, Phillips donned a pint-size tuxedo and was performing as a child magician at a local vaudeville revival house. “I tend to trace it all back to a book on Houdini,” he says, “the ability to perform miracles, walk through walls, all of that simply obsessed me. My introduction to stage life came through being a kid magician. I spent much of that time dragging myself and a couple of filthy doves around to various venues.” Phillips gave up performing magic professionally in his early teens, but he continues to be fascinated by it.

Lovering never meant to be a magician or a musician. In fact, he graduated from college with a degree in engineering, but a job building lasers was soon interrupted by the Pixies’ unforeseen pop success. Six years later, the Boston band split up and Lovering moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to play drums in various musical projects, including Cracker, Nitzer Ebb and Tanya Donelly’s band. Though uninitiated in the magical arts, Lovering had always been a practical joker with a love of electronics. Before the Pixies, he worked at a Radio Shack and once wired the store’s toilet to a deafening car alarm. “It would scare the shit out of people,” he jokes. Phillips sparked his friend’s interest in magic by hauling Lovering along to a convention so they could check out some of the tricks. “We went to see what they were selling at the dealer booths,” Lovering says, “and I saw stuff that just completely blew me away. I saw one particular card trick that I couldn’t get over. I had to learn how to do it.”

Around that time, a friend of Lovering and Phillips’, filmmaker Carlos Grasso, who had directed videos for Grant Lee Buffalo, Cracker, L7 and Bad Religion, among others, answered his office door to find an elderly man in a rumpled tuxedo and waxen mustache asking, “What can you do for an old magician?” A surprised Grasso offered the gent a cup of coffee and was rewarded with the man’s life story and a standing invitation to visit him up at the Magic Castle. Grasso took him up on the offer, inviting his friends Phillips and Lovering along. “I had never actually been to the Magic Castle,” Phillips recalls. “I had seen shadowy pictures of it on television shows hosted by people like Bill Bixby, and I would think, that’s the place I want to live. It’s probably the closest thing to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, sort of like Dean Martin’s take on the Victorian era.” The now magic-obsessed Lovering also fell in love with the club, saying, “To me it was like a holy place.”

Most people think of magicians and envision some tanned über-nerd in a Miami Vice suit doing flashy illusions to a melodramatic song like “Dream Weaver.” They are the show-biz equivalent of the smug car salesman — you know they’re getting over on you, yet you continue to watch as if hypnotized, and then slink out feeling like a world-class rube. And while most of the magicians out there do resemble this tawdry image, perhaps this began to change ever so slightly when Phillips introduced Lovering to another alternative rocker turned magician, Rob Zabrecky.

In 1997, Los Angeles native Zabrecky had been in New York to record his third and final major-label album as singer and front man for his band, Possum Dixon. Despite critical raves and a loyal international following, the quirky pop group had never managed to score major radio play and sell the massive units needed to maintain label backing. Far from being distraught over the band’s impending demise, Zabrecky knew exactly what direction his new career would take. In fact, during those last recording sessions, producer Ric Ocasek had to remind Zabrecky that they were there to finish an album and not perfect Zabrecky’s growing arsenal of magic tricks.

 

Zabrecky had discovered magic on tour several years earlier, when he stepped into a Baltimore magic store to avoid the oppressive heat. “I asked the guy behind the counter if there was a trick he could sell me for under $10 that I could do in a nightclub,” Zabrecky recalls. “He must have needed the money, because he put a scarf in his hand and — poof! — he made the scarf disappear. So that night we were playing at a club and our guitar player broke a string. I asked the audience for a condom and someone threw one up. I took the condom out, put it in my hand and —poof! — made it disappear, and people really seemed to enjoy it. I had no awareness of magic before that, other than Ronald McDonald at a grade school party pouring evaporated milk on my head.”

After recording that final album with Possum Dixon, Zabrecky returned home to Los Angeles and began diligently studying magic. He phoned an old friend from high school who had become a magician and began accompanying him as a guest to the Magic Castle. For the next few months, Zabrecky went to the Castle at every opportunity and eventually decided to audition for a membership of his own. After passing the audition and becoming a member, Zabrecky spent nearly all his free time at the Castle, most of it down in a basement library poring over dusty old books on the secret art. He was there so much, in fact, that when the librarian took a vacation, he asked Zabrecky to fill in, and eventually made him the substitute librarian, a post he still holds today.

 

The famed Magic Castle is a private club located in an old 1908 Victorian mansion perched in the hills above the enduring sleaze of downtown Hollywood. It was started in 1963 by Milt Larsen, a writer for the TV show Truth or Consequences, and his brother Bill Larsen, a CBS executive, in order to fulfill their father’s lifelong dream of starting an upscale private club for magicians. To gain entrance, one must be a magician member, an associate paying member or the guest of a current member. Men must wear jackets and ties, women equally formal attire. Besides the two main theaters, there are smaller performance spaces, an upscale restaurant, a multitude of well-stocked bars and a maze of catacomblike hallways adorned with exotic magic memorabilia. Screen legends Mae West, W.C. Fields and Bela Lugosi were all members, while recently Nicolas Cage, Drew Barrymore and Marilyn Manson have been spotted making the scene.

Budding conjurers Lovering and Zabrecky first met in a Hollywood nightclub five years ago. Mutual friend Phillips was hosting a vaudeville-style variety show and had invited Zabrecky to perform some of his new, darkly atmospheric magic act. Lovering was there in the audience, and after the show Phillips introduced the two, and they quickly became friends and co-conspirators. Soon, Zabrecky convinced Lovering that he too should audition for a Magic Castle membership. “I put together a three-trick act,” Lovering says. “The audition was in the museum room, which is in the cellar. I stood up there and they turn the lights up on you and there are three judges seated in the back and you can’t see their faces. I started with a rubber-band trick and then I did a coin trick called ‘Presto Change-o,’ where coins keep changing in my hand. And as I did that, one of the judges stopped me and said, ‘I have to tell you, 12 years ago, when I became a member, those were the first two tricks that I auditioned with.’ After that I knew I was in.”

Like Zabrecky, Lovering also began to spend most of his time up there once he became a member, learning from the many magicians who would perform both onstage and at the bar. Besides serving as a place of entertainment for visiting guests, the Castle also functions as a sort of clubhouse/lodge for its many magician members. Walk through the old mansion with Lovering or Zabrecky, and they are constantly greeted by fellow magicians who have arrived to watch one another’s acts and talk shop. Over at the bar, a magician in a velvet suit and top hat, referred to as the “human cartoon,” scopes for girls, while another member, sporting a black eye patch, confides that he has come there just to get out of the apartment.

 

While Zabrecky and Lovering now seem to be gaining the respect of their magician peers, there was some initial resistance. Contrary to mainstream magic’s Loverboy-like aesthetic, Zabrecky’s act has always seemed more akin to the slightly foreboding style of David Lynch. “Early on I had an act where I was a funeral director, and I submitted a sample tape to perform at the Castle,” he says. “It was right after 9/11, and they said, ‘What are you doing? Keep your funeral director out of here.’ It actually took four years for me to perform up there. The old guard knows what they think works, and it’s a ’70s Love Boat–style illusion show with mullets and purple jump suits and girls getting sawed in half. They see that as the type of magic that appeals to the masses. I seem to be viewed as the Norman Bates of the Magic Castle.”

Just as Lovering has incorporated a love for science into his act, Zabrecky too has created his own personal style. Standing before an audience in a stark black suit, with piercing eyes, he explores a particular genre called “Mentalism,” which involves audience interaction, storylines and mind reading. “Because there are not a lot of props, it tends to be more theatrical,” he explains. “It’s just numbers and words unless you present it well. I like storylines, the Hitchcock plot that leaves you a bit uneasy. I usually play John Cage music to throw people off and make them feel uncomfortable.”

Recently, the Magic Castle newsletter featured an article on Zabrecky, Lovering, and another magician, called Fitzgerald. In true DIY fashion, the three of them, joined occasionally by a friend called “Handsome Jack,” have taken to performing unofficial shows every Friday night in an unused basement theater of the Castle, believing that the only way to truly perfect their craft is to perform constantly. The night management at the Castle began referring to them as “The Unholy Three” for their offbeat and irreverent performing styles. “It really is a new-wave, alternative, avant-garde kind of magic,” Lovering says. “In my show I make references to weed and masturbation. And while they don’t exactly frown upon us at the Castle, it’s definitely different from the stuffier atmosphere you tend to see there.”

Earlier this year, Zabrecky was finally awarded a prestigious weeklong engagement at the Parlour of Prestidigitation, one of the Castle’s two ornate theaters. Besides performing at the Castle, Zabrecky also appears at local nightclubs, opening for bands, and at private parties. “I do a lot of parties for what I call punk rock yuppies,” he says, “kind of the smart, arty types who don’t mind throwing back a couple of cocktails and being entertained by a strange midnight magic show.”

Lovering has yet to play one of the Castle’s main theaters, but he continues his and Zabrecky’s Friday-night shows there and performs regularly at a North Hollywood art space called the California Institute of Abnormal Arts. He has also taken his magic act on the road, touring as the opening act for musicians Grant-Lee Phillips, Cracker, and former Pixie bandmates the Breeders and Frank Black.

“I think acts like his are a really good thing,” Black says, “because by the time you take the stage as the headliner, everyone still has fresh ears. Most of the time people are really into it; occasionally he gets heckled. But because he does a kind of dry comedy show, it doesn’t seem that out of place. There were, of course, some mishaps with his inventions. He once destroyed one of our vintage amplifiers with pickle juice.”

Like many touring acts, Lovering mans his own merchandise table after each performance. But instead of selling the standard T-shirts and CDs, he offers signed 8-by-10 photographs of himself, detailed plans to build something called a “Vortex Canon,” and authentic meteorite particles. “They’re from a meteorite that landed in Australia back in 1939,” Lovering explains. “I have them in little packages and sell them by the gram, like hash.”

While on tour with Frank Black and the Catholics, Lovering discovered that midway through each night’s performance, an intricate self-built machine called an “Electronic Flux Amplifier” would inevitably heat up and catch fire. As he waited for the device to cool off, he decided that he should host a short question-and-answer with the audience. “People would always ask me when the Pixies reunion would be,” he says, “and I would tell them that Frank, Kim and Joey, they’re always asking me about it, but that I’m really a scientific phenomenalist now.”

To be sure, there have always been alternative magicians out there. When asked who it is that inspires them, Zabrecky and Lovering both mention the same names: Ricky Jay, an intensely talented sleight-of-hand artist and actor; Max Maven, a mind reader and favorite of Orson Welles; and Eugene Burger, a mysterious bearded close-up master. The masses may flock to the saccharine big-budget productions of David Copperfield and Lance Burton, but perhaps like a corporate-rock scene of the mid-’70s, dominated by heartless exhibitions of virtuosity, the magic world is primed for an artistic punklike resurgence.

 

Zabrecky, Lovering and their cadre may not be technically flawless magicians — not yet anyway — but they all seem to demonstrate an almost defiant originality. And it might just be within an art form like magic, precisely because it has been so neglected, that we suddenly discover something fresh and new. As Zabrecky says, “When I started getting into magic, I quickly focused on the people I really liked. It was like listening to a bunch of records and deciding you like Black Flag over something more mainstream. It felt just like it did when I was discovering music at 13, and I still feel that way about it. It really feels like what I’m doing now is new and unexplored.”


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