We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
A local sorcerer’s adventures in prestidigitation and philosophy take him from 18th Street to Las Vegas.
As magician Alain Nu steps to the stage in his black suit, his matching bag of tricks in hand, he hears a voice boom from the back of the early-evening crowd here at Madam’s Organ: “Excuse me, do you pull furniture out of your ass?”
“Why?” Nu asks the battle-ax up in the mezzanine. “Do you need a chair?”
Nu doesn’t miss a beat. He has to be on his game at this blues club on 18th Street NW in the heart of Adams Morgan, a place that prides itself on living up to the epigram printed on the T-shirts sold behind the bar: “Where the Beautiful People Go to Get Ugly.”
On stage, Nu asks for a volunteer right off the bat. “You,” he says, addressing a lovely woman in dreadlocks who has raised her hand. He asks her to pick a spoon, any spoon, from the three he proffers. He hands her a pen and asks her to write something on the one she has picked. “Write anything,” he instructs, “anything at all.” The woman draws a peace sign and hands the spoon back to him.
As Nu holds the spoon in the palm of one hand, swirling the fingers of his free hand around it, the spoon buckles and warps, bending almost in half. It seems effortless. The crowd is now completely mesmerized. And just to prove that he hasn’t used sleight of hand or any other funny business, Nu asks his volunteer to inspect the warped spoon. Presto! It’s the one with the peace sign on it.
“There it is, folks,” Nu pronounces after bending a few more spoonsand more than a few minds. “No heavy machinery, no trick photography, no chemical additives, just 100 percent special magic.”
Nu could be playing Caesar’s Palaceand he does, oftenbut he actually enjoys working at Madam’s Organ, in what is considered a very tough room. He says it gives him a chance to hone his magic chops. “But because it’s a bar, and because there’s music being played, it’s a real challenge for me. You have to understand that, in a bar like this, the music is easy for [the audience]. All they have to do is listen, and if they want to talk to somebody else, they can. Whereas if you’re a comic or a magician, you can totally die up there. But I’ve sort of established a following of people who come and cheer me on.”
Over his suit, Nu wears a silver “Hand of Mystery” medallion on a chain. “I’m no master of accessory,” he tells me, tugging at the medallion, “but this is the one thing I wear.” Nu insists it has powers to help him tap into the “collective consciousness.” “Plus,” he adds, “it really pulls my outfit together.”
Nu, it seems, is the consummate wiseass, equal parts performance artist and bullshit artist. And let’s face it: The magician is a performer who has always had a slightly squirrelly vibe. The magician fucks with your head. He insults your intelligence. He gets over on everyone around him, leaving you clueless about how he levitated your wife or your girlfriend or how he pulled that last card”that card you have in your mind right now”out of your ear. The magician is a mixed bag, exalted for his enigmatic and mystical powers but regarded as a con man and charlatan all the same.
Like most in his line of work, Nu never tips his hand long enough to give away a trick, except to suggest that his illusions and misdirections are so fast and fleeting that they are invisible to the naked eye. Obviously, the dimwits in the audience miss everything. “A second ago, you weren’t paying attention,” he announces after performing a few card tricks. “But I was.”
However he works his juju, Nu is considered by those in the know to be the world’s foremost spoon bender, surpassing even the feat’s most famous practitioner, Uri Geller. An article in the June 1998 issue of The Linking Ring, a magazine published by the International Brotherhood of Magicians, said that Nu’s “spoon bending in particular was poetry in motion. He did things with metal that would make Uri Geller’s head spin.” A fairly specialized publication, The Linking Ring is the final word on magic, a sort of Field and Stream for sorcerers.
As musicians begin to set up behind him, Nu steps from the stage and begins to work the crowd one on one. Skeptical customers swivel in their bar stools to get a closer look. Inches from their eyes, a spoon bends in one of Nu’s hands as he swirls the air around it, never touching the utensil, at least as far as they can see. Nu seems to use his power of concentration to bend stainless steel. Then he offers his outstretched hands for inspection, palms up, and invites me to feel his unusually warm fingers. They’re not piping hot, mind you, but they are indeed strangely warm to the touch.
How does he do it? If you can believe Nuand you probably can’tthe spoons were bent by his “chi”-charged fingertips, a reference to the Chi Gong energy-balancing exercises developed in ancient China. As a Vietnamese-American in his mid-30s, Nu cashes in on the Eastern energy schtick to great effect. Sounding like the Karate Kid, he tells me a story about meeting an old Chinese man when he was 16 while doing a street performance in New York City’s Chinatown.
“I met an old, homeless wise man who was watching me perform. He was admiring my work, and then he proceeded to tell me about the Hun Dynasty and Ghengis Khan, and then he said something that moved me and always stayed with me: He told me there were many different kinds of medicine in the world, and magic itself is a kind of medicine. That changed my philosophy and influenced the way I performed. I realized that if what I do can make you smile, then it’s magic. I also realized that we’re all magicians. We are all blessed with the power to change conformity with our will.”
Nu tends to go on like this quite often. Who knew that we need only the will to tap into our own innate magical powers to transform our world and ourselves? Who knew that magic is so, so…so magical?
Looking back on his life, the Bethesda native says he seemed destined at birth to be a magician: “My uncle was good at the old pulling-the-thumb-off-the-hand trick, and after that I got into ghost stories.”
From several uncles, all of whom were Vietnamese refugees, the young Nu heard captivating stories about deserted jungle encampments attacked by spirit tigers. Nu describes himself as a nerdy kid who pored over books of the strange-but-true genre. Soon, he fell under the spell of Charles Fort, a turn-of-the-century American philosopher who was skeptical about conventional scientific explanations. Fort posited that conventional scientific method is flawed because it relies solely on empirical evidence, ignoring the unseen world.
“It’s great stuff, especially these days, because it preceded the whole X-Files craze,” says Nu. “What interested me most about magic is that it was all about mystery-making, and there’s so many unsolved mysteries and that sort of thing in the world that I found it to be the most performance-oriented way of being able to bring people my own fascination with these unsolved mysteries.”
At 13, Nu landed a job as a magic demonstrator at the Magic Shop in Rockville. Around the same time, he started holding séances in the basement of a friend’s home. The kids would gather around, light candles, hold hands, and break out the Ouija board. On one occasion, he says, the board summoned a ghost that was keenly interested in an old glass of whiskey: “We realized that the person was probably an alcoholic or something, because the Ouija board kept going toward the glass with the remains of alcohol in it. It was at moments like that that I felt that I could have actually experienced real magic.
“Skeptics would say that we were fooling ourselves,” he continues, “but I would tend to think that in many ways, regardless of whether or not we were fooling ourselves, we were tapping into this wonderment that I think is important for people. I think it’s important to be skeptical. To be skeptical is to be open, but to completely close your mind off to something that doesn’t seem rational is not exactly skeptical.”
He quotes Ten Kai, a Japanese magician, who was huge worldwide from the ’30s to the ’60s. “He said something that resonated with me: In one of his books, Kai said that magic is not about tricks; magic is a way. And it made me realize that magic has a lot of parallels to spiritual beliefs and also to martial arts disciplines. Like martial arts, in magic you have certain masters from all over the world, and each one has a slightly different style, and each style is derivative from one school or another. I have a style that is definitely derivative of certain other people and certain other influences that I’ve had, and it would be completely different from [that of] someone who was from the Midwest or the West Coast.”
Although Nu delves into all types of magicfrom modest optical illusions to big, boxy dismemberments and levitationshe is primarily a mentalist, a psychological magician in the tradition of Aleister Crowley, the man who described magic as the “science and art of causing changes to occur in conformity with will.”
Nu likes that definition “because it’s very broadwhich I think is elegant, because it lets you know that there’s certain things within our power that we can assume as magical, so long as we assume them in that perspective. For instance, speaking to one another could possibly persuade or manipulate or create a chain of events that changes conformity. And so therefore speaking to one another, or communicating on any level, even a nonverbal level, and then, deeper still, on the psychic level, creates changes in conformity.
“And because of that, I think, it’s a nice way to approach magic, because then you can take magic apart. You can take apart the stuff that is trick, and realize what it is and what it’s worth. And so the stuff that involves optical illusions, that’s a form of trickery, being able to trick the eye, or being able to make you think something. To be able to trick the eye is not just tricking the eye…it’s also kind of tricking the mind into believing something that is being seen actually isn’t.”
Nu instructs other magicians at a convention he runs called the Phoenix Gathering, held each year the week after Memorial Day. He says it helps others “get a better insight into one’s performing ability and one’s personal philosophy towards magic. We talk a lot about things, like ‘Why sawing in half?’ ‘Why a wound?’ You know, those types of things.”
He says that last year’s show drew about 500 magic enthusiasts, many of whom brought their kids along. “That’s another reason why I like magic,” says Nu. “I like its universal quality. I can do a corporate event one day and the next be at Madam’s Organ performing for a bunch of drunks.”
Busier now than ever, Nu is on the road once or twice a month. Last Friday he flew to San Francisco. He was back home on Tuesday for a corporate event at Reston Town Center, and he flew out again to Las Vegas the very next day for another show at Aladdin’s, the newest casino on the strip, and another high-paying corporate gig, this one from the Capital Financial Group. And he’s booked for a several-week gig at Caesar’s Palace that begins Nov. 11. “It’s just crazy like that,” he says. “It’s a lot of skipping around.”
At Caesar’s, he has a tiny 80-seat theater. He performs one show every 20 minutes, essentially doing back-to-back shows from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. “It’s a very nice, cushy little job,” he says. “You go to work and after work hang out with friends and wake up late and go back to work. So it’s like a four-week party.”
But Nu says he likes his agreement with Madam’s Organ. “[Owner] Bill Duggan lets me play whenever I’m in town. It’s not a whole lot, but it’s a little bit of pocket money for me, and it winds up being a fun gig. It keeps me in the loop, locally.”
Nu says that for Halloweenand the 74th anniversary of the death of Houdinihe’ll be in Ocean City, Md., performing at the convention center for the National Association for Campus Activities’ East Coast regional conference. “I have been known to do séances on Halloween,” he says, “but this year, I plan to do a spooky show using some of the ‘bizarre magic’ I wrote about in my book The 6: The Bizarre Magic of Alain Nu.” The genre, says Nu, uses occult phenomena and symbolism to create “a more mysterious air.” But he doesn’t recommend that I read the book: “It’s mainly for people who are already into magic.”
Before he packs up his bag of tricks, I ask Nu if he’ll teach me a simple trick. “There really is no such thing as a simple trick,” he says, heading for the door. CP