|In the air tonight|
By Brian Kamenetzky
Special to Page 2
The United States sucks at air guitar.
a) they're trying to make up for not sending me to the Super Bowl, or
7:30 p.m. -- Media access begins.
Air guitarists are refreshingly open with the press. It's a good thing, because it takes me about seven seconds to realize that the only thing sillier than competing in the U.S. Air Guitar Championships is interviewing people competing in the U.S. Air Guitar Championships. Yet there I was, searching for my Roy Firestone moment.
"So Kid Wicked, Air to the Throne of Riff (take that Chris Berman), do you feel you've got the chops to outperform your opponents tonight?"
Kid Wicked, a leather vest-clad man in a giant afro wig, felt primed and ready. "My first grade teacher, Mrs. Taylor, told me that I liked to share music with others. I remember this kid, Joey Owens. We were big Kiss fans. I was actually a little jealous of Joey because he had a longer tongue. But we rocked out anyway. If it comes down to pure air guitar prowess, I'm not worried about anybody." Fantastic.
Entourages are not limited to NBA locker rooms and David Beckham. Matthew Johndrow of San Francisco arrived with his own contingent of Bay Area press, along with 10 or so friends from all over California. Still, the attention notwithstanding, Matthew seemed a little casual. "To be honest, there are way too many people taking this too seriously. I'm just here for a laugh and a couple of drinks. I don't really care too much about winning." Someone call Lou Pinella.
The competition finally begins around 9:30. Competitors are given one minute to perform, then are judged on a four to six point scale based on the following: originality, charisma, feeling, technical ability, artistic merit, and my personal favorite, "airness." Air roadies are allowed, though air back-up bands are not. Use a pick, or don't. Your choice. The contestants could even go acoustic, though wisely all figured that even the most ass-kicking air rendition of "Fire and Rain" wasn't going to fly. It turns out crowds at air guitar events are a lot like fans of an expansion team. There's a honeymoon, but it doesn't take long for it to end. The first few competitors were met with wild cheers, enthusiasm, and "I saw Springsteen at Staples last winter and this totally blows him away." After that, though, guitarists had to break out their A-Game, because everyone in the crowd morphed into the Bulgarian judge after the floor exercise.
"This guy blows," noted one very hot blonde behind me during Aaron Semmel's performance. She wasn't afraid to editorialize, despite lacking a Doctorate in Airology from Van Halen University -- which, according to his official bio, Semmel has. (Anyone looking for a dark horse to fill Miami's spot in the Big East?)
There are technical players and spaz types. Others are in between. Lots of Zeppelin. Jane's Addiction, White Stripes, etc. (Except for Matthew, who tries to reinvent the air guitar wheel and breaks out the Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years." The move shows moxie, but backfires in the end. The Blonde starts heckling him halfway through his set.) Lots of big sunglasses, fake fur, spandex, and more mullets than a minor league hockey game.
10:23 p.m. -- The evening's first moment of true genius. Benjamin Walkin, playing under the name Ryan Flynn (or it could have been the other way around, I'm not totally sure) arrived on stage in a wheelchair. After a few seconds of seated whaling, he threw himself from the chair, and, presumably to represent the healing power of rock and roll, not only walked but air-guitared with enough energy to make Mark Madsen proud. The crowd loved it, and so did the judges. Benjamin/Ryan will move on to Round 2.
Eventually, a fellow clad in black spandex named Clayton Sweeney earned the opportunity to face off against New York's C Diddy in the finals. Forget the Yankees visiting Fenway or the Raiders invading Denver. At the Roxy, C. Diddy faced the most hostile crowd I've ever seen. But when he broke into a passionate and technically-perfect (dear god what have I become) version of Extreme's "Play With Me", then removed his robe to reveal the Hello Kitty breastplate underneath, it was no longer an east coast-west coast, Biggy vs. Tupac thing. It was about sending America's best to Finland. It was about reclaiming what is ours. It was about the end of the night for Clayton. "I knew it was going to happen. I couldn't stop it," said C. Diddy afterwards, hoisting a trophy that looked a lot like the Lombardi without the football on top, "I tried to warn everyone."
The night closed with every contestant on stage air rocking to Neal Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." Guitarists and roadies all jamming, the crowd jamming, chanting "USA! USA!" ready to claim the world air guitar mantle that should rightly be ours. This might not be a sport, but it absolutely should be. I was sold.
Now let's see if my editors will swing for a trip to Finland.