The Artful Mentalism of Bob Cassidy by Bob Cassidy
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2005)
Mentalism is an art, and is practiced most effectively by artists. Capitalizing on their own personalities, each puts his own unique stamp on the material he performs. It's been said that mentalism is easier to perform than traditional magic, but that it is far more difficult to perform well." On these points, Bob Cassidy and I agree. In fact, Mr. Cassidy and I agree on many things. Bob Cassidy and I certainly disagree on some things as well. The authors of The Federalist Papers once opined that there are some things about which "reasonable men may disagree" albeit that this would appear to leave out some of the self-styled mentalists I've come across.
Nevertheless, when Bob Cassidy speaks, mentalists tend to listen and those who don't, probably should. And that's because he's one of the few mentalists I've encountered who really knows what it means to thoroughly entertain a paying audience. In a biographical account in the pages of this book, he proudly recounts some of his back-ground working in biker bars (an experience we also share), describing the extremely attention-getting opening of his show for such venues. He concludes with this thought: "Never say a word until you have everyone's attention, and do whatever you must to get it." Whether or not this is my kind of mentalist talking is besides the point; more to the point, this is my kind of performer.
The volume at hand, published by H&R Magic Books, is actually a collection of works that have been previously released, but have generally been either difficult to obtain for some time, or at the very least, far more expensive than this quite reasonably priced package. The works included are: The Art of Mentalism 2; the four installments of The Principia Mentalia; Theories and Methods for the Practical Psychic; Strange Impressions; and But Stranger Still. In total, the author offers that this represents the bulk of his most significant output over the past 10 years.
The book begins with Art of Mentalism 2, which is a later expansion of Mr. Cassidy's neo-classic 1983 text, The Art of Mentalism. This second version is a superb book in itself, and it's probably not an exaggeration to suggest that the complete act described within it is worth the price of the entire volume to a working performer. Here he de-scribes several of his core routines, including his opener (a series of quick psychological forces); a routine revealing the names of a thought-of famous name and famous place; a simple but strongly presented book test; a three-envelope test which is a masterful version of Annemann's "Fourth Dimensional Telepathy;" and a memory demonstration in which the performer instantly memorizes a deck of playing cards.
This first manuscript is remarkable because it represents a working pro's core repertoire, developed and refined over years of experience before paying audiences. Anyone wishing to assemble a commercial act of killer mentalism would do as well to study a program of this nature as would a close-up magician be advised to study the Stars of Magic or The Vernon Book of Magic. And any beginner—aspiring mentalist or close-up conjuror—would likely be equally intimidated by the nature of the material in either case, because you're not going to run out the door and start doing such stuff tomorrow. But there is an abundance of practical advice and experience here that makes these routines far more valuable than the mere methods or even the commercial scripts which are included. The envelope test is a billet routine, and I have found most uses of billets that I've seen to be painful exercises in self-deception on the part of the performer, as to what the audience finds convincing or entertaining. But when I saw Bob Cassidy do this routine for an audience of more than a thousand, those silly bits of paper were reduced to virtual non-entities. By the time the routine reached its conclusion he was on stage, standing back-to-back with a spectator, engaged in what was apparently a full-scale drawing duplication with no billets or envelopes anywhere in sight or awareness. And when I saw him teach the memory routine in one of the best mentalism lectures I've ever attended, I noticed him doing a perfect in-the-hands false riffle shuffle and thought to myself, well, here's a guy who's not afraid to do something difficult when its warranted and can strengthen the effect. In many ways, Bob Cassidy reminds me of the late Tony Andruzzi. For all Tony's posturing about tradition-al conjuring and card tricks, he possessed deep expertise about all forms of magic, from comedy to illusions and was equally fond of all of them, when done well. Tony appreciated all magic, and was far more likely to enjoy a performance of first rate close-up card magic than he would a demonstration of lousy mentalism or bizarre magick. I suspect that, in this, he and Bob Cassidy would have agreed and that would have made three of us.
The Principia Mentalia consists of 20 principles, beginning with "Plausibility depends on context" and ending with "Trust no one." Each principle provides a trick or tricks which serve as examples of the idea under discussion. Consisting of more than 100 pages, this section includes a load of tricks, methods, presentations, and other ideas, providing a useful course of study for any mindreader-in-training. Principium one begins with a hilarious addressing of the standard objections to billets, i.e., "Why does la spectator) need a book to think of a word? Why does he have to write things down or pick cards or DO ANYTHING BUT THINK? Isn't that the way a REAL MINDREADER would do it?" (Emphasis per original.) The author's answer to these seemingly unfathomable mysteries is fun to read, and while this is a gross oversimplification, it may nonetheless be useful: in essence, he says that "All you have to do is watch a real mindreader and see what he does." And guess what? The author is a "real" mindreader—and since these are the procedures he uses all the time, they must, virtually by definition, not only be acceptable, but provide proof positive that this is how a real mindreader would do it!
The author frequently makes the case that the performing mentalist must have a "subscript" that underlies his presentations, an internal through line that explains to him-self and his audience what he is doing and how and why he is doing it. No argument there, and I think this is true of all magicians, mentalist or conjuror alike. In Mr. Cassidy's case, I admire his use of recurring imagery like having the spectators imagine information as if on a blank movie screen to provide consistency, and also a kind of restraint, in his work. Would that in fact magicians made the same effort to provide subtle through lines for their audience to follow and connect with. Elsewhere he comments that "It is the presence or absence of consistent subtext which marks the difference between a trickster and a true magician between a practitioner of mental magic and a true mentalist." Hard to argue with that, but we're getting to the arguable parts. Mc Cassidy's offers some of his personal subscript, which he calls the "web," an elaborate pile of gobbledygook which presupposes some kind of alternate consciousness universe that somehow explains how that guy with the pince-nez glasses and the mane of silver hair is managing to tell you what number you're thinking of. I know a lot of people who would either die laughing or simply walk out upon having such doubletalk foisted on them.
As it turns out it's rather difficult to actually pin down exactly what Mr. Cassidy's thoughts on claims and disclaimers might be. On the one hand this is a guy who admits to teaching courses in developing your psychic ability, which unless it included a session on the Center Tear probably didn't produce much in the way of lasting results for his registrants. On the other hand, he repeatedly expresses his apparently sincere concern that, no matter what a mentalist decides to claim or disclaim, it is of paramount importance that mentalists not "create potential detrimental reliance on the performer's claims." Hence we can safely assume that the author does not sell private readings to his audiences, and that hand-in-hand with his concerns come his stated preference for "remaining on stage and out of the classroom."
Mr. Cassidy is smarter than the average bear, however, and I credit him with having given substantial thought to these issues, and for having repeatedly argued, here and elsewhere, that the mentalist has a responsibility to his audience, which is a far cry from some of the extreme lais-sez-faire approaches I have seen argued elsewhere. I suspect in the end that where Mr. Cassidy draws the line on what is or is not "detrimental reliance" is much like Justice Potter Stewart's infamous declaration about pornography: that he could not clearly define it but that "I know it when I see it." Such definitions, however pragmatic, make it difficult for others to parse with any exactitude. Then again, Mr. Cassidy is not only a mentalist, but a former attorney. We refer you again to the author's final principium, which states: "Trust no one."
The impenetrable mysteries of the author's ethical stance notwithstanding, there are a lot of good tricks in these pages, and plenty of utility techniques too. There are priceless bits of blunt performance criticism and insight throughout, to wit: "So many of today's mentalists have cultivated what I call a 'disc jockey (AM or FM) persona.' Others, equally phony, come on like they're either selling time shares in vacation condos, or selling you the benefits of the latest pyramid scheme. Still others sound like tele-marketers reading from a prepared script." To which he goes on to note that "Effective performance, impromptu or formal, requires well honed performing skills." And he adds that, "But that's the same as effective acting if it looks like you're acting you're not doing it right. Your per-forming skills must be subtle and being natural is the key."
The author details the "microphone switch," which I must mention has preceded this author, and has in fact been used for many years although not very obviously in the act of The Great Tomsoni and Company. That aside, the points about the handling here are subtle and extremely useful. This section also includes a version of the Question and Answer test which is ambitious, extremely clever, and utilizes elements of improvisation that in the end deliver what the author refers to as a "Jazz Q and A." Although I confess I've never been very fond of the Q&A routine, despite its appeal to certain types of lay audiences, nevertheless I will also say that anyone competent enough to put this diabolical combination of methods to use will end up with a result that will absolutely deceive any smart aleck who has heard of the one-ahead principle. I enjoyed reading this, even if I'll never use it.
The next section is entitled "Theories and Methods for the Practical Psychic," and begins with this pithy epigram: "Why do I call myself a practical psychic? I cheat." There is plenty more material of practical use to be found here, and throughout the rest of the book, and I will not detail much more of it. There is a lot of work on technique here, including billet switches, billet reading, and a clever take on the window envelope. There's an excellent routine for the "Psychokinetic Pen" that will provide a definite improvement on most routines. There's a routine which should win the award for Best Title for a Living and Dead Test, namely: "Find the Dead Guy!" There's a routine about baseball and the World Series that would have been of great use this past fall, since only a mindreader could have predicted this year's outcome. There's material on making gimmicks and gaffs, including the author's detailed work on making impression clipboards. He makes such boards him-self commercially, and most of us will prefer to buy his excellent products rather than go through the trouble of making them ourselves, but the author is clearly parting with all the real work here, and if nothing else that will help you to keep even the boards you buy in tiptop shape over time and repeated usage.
If it isn't already clear, there is a striking quantity of practical, polished, useable work in these pages, from the mind of a creative and original thinker, a fun and engaging writer, and an experienced professional performer. What's more, unlike the insane trend of prices for mentalism material going higher and higher, apparently inversely proportional to the content, the price of this book is a basement bargain. That said, the book could have used the services of a careful and thoughtful editor, along with some more thorough proofreading. Since there are different manuscripts here that were written at different times, it would have been nice, for example, had an editor noticed that red lipstick, used as daub, mysteriously turns to black in a later reference. Also, illustrations do not make their appearance until late in the game, when the author obtained a digital camera and the skills to import images into his desktop publishing. But that doesn't mean that some of the earlier work wouldn't have benefited from the addition of an occasional illustration.
Before I leave you to run out and buy your copy of The Artful Mentalism of Bob Cassidy, I would like to point out the thing that sets Bob Cassidy head and shoulders above so many mentalists, especially many of those currently engaged in the business of producing product and publications for the alleged improvement of their peers. In an essay "On Creativity and Originality," Mr. Cassidy poses this blunt question to the reader: "Are you an artist or a hack?" He offers some commentary about how to tell one from the other, and bless his artistic little heart he even confesses that he "sympathize[s] with and love[s] the "artist who never makes a dime" as opposed to the "well-off hack who has never had an original thought." Be it children's magic, conjuring for adults, or mentalism, there has always been a surfeit of hacks and a shortage of artists. Not unlike David Kaye, the author of this book really is an "artistic" mentalist, as clearly stated in the title. And against the tide of hackdom the tsunami of hackery that pours forth today, surfing the waves of new book tests and impression devices and overpriced bullshittery, these gentlemen are struggling to paddle their way to the surface and, before we all drown in the raw sewage of the rush to commercial profit, fight to be heard above the roar: "But what of the art? You can still make it an art!" Would that we all hear their calls, and swim with them to higher ground.