By Alex Nassiri
The lights of the El Mocambo dim as a cheer grows from the crowd of mildly intoxicated onlookers. A superhero-like figure, cape and all, steps up to the microphone. Our shadowy figure speaks: “I am here for one word: Rock and Roll!” As his howling war cry dies away, a volcanic burst of sound floods from the speakers — it’s Van Halen’s “Eruption.”
The crowd once more explodes into cheers and shouts. No one thinks about the awkwardness of our caped crusader’s exclamation. No one cares that he’s punching the air with the precision of a machine. No one dares to laugh or mock. This is what air guitar is all about.
“Air Guitar Nation,” the new documentary profiling the first Air Guitar Championship in the United States, debuts in theatres March 23. To coincide with the release — or maybe it’s just a marketing “coincidence” — Toronto held its first ever air guitar competition last Thursday.
This sort of thing seemed to be right up my alley. Since the age of nine, I’ve been a slave to the almighty riff. Pink Floyd’s “Time” did it for me the first time I heard it on the radio; I couldn’t resist shredding the air upon hearing the opening notes of the glorious, fuzzed-out solo.
In spite of all this, competitive air guitar seemed absurd. Even as a product of a generation reared on “Wayne’s World” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” I was apprehensive to strap on my invisi-axe. But then I thought of the importance of Sony’s “Guitar Hero” to millions of music fans, and I was willing to give it a shot. Besides, there was a press screening of the film just days before the competition, and I figured maybe that would give me the upper hand.
The film is a gospel for all that is rock: it’s funny, loud and political. “Just think, every young man and woman who has an air guitar in hand can’t hold a gun. We are doing this for world peace,” says Jukka Takalo, representative of the Air Guitar World Championships. Two-time World Champion Zack Monroe elaborates: “I just see it as a real wholesome art form. I mean, we’re here for the music. You can’t commercialize something that’s invisible.”
And he’s right. The competitions are refreshingly jovial and devoid of backstabbing and name calling. There are no “American Idol” divas here; rather, it’s just people in search of the most elusive of elements: pure rock.
The stars of the documentary are two American contestants: C-Diddy, the first American World Air Guitar Champ, and Bjorn Turoque (pronounced To-Rock). Turoque, self-identified as the “Second Best Air Guitarist in the World,” was promoting the film during the competition at the El Mocambo.
“Let me introduce you to the judges,” says the emcee as he gestures at the table to the left of the stage. Highlighted by a TV camera spotlight is a writer for Rollingstone.com, a representative of EMI Canada and the now legendary Turoque. Along with free beer and chance at a $250 grand prize, the contestants are promised a brief performance by Turoque during the intermission.
My fellow competitors are excited by the prospect of seeing a professional air guitarist in action. “I had a chance to see the movie at a sneak preview, and I’m pretty excited that Bjorn is here tonight. He’s the real deal,” says Glen Airy, Glen Rocks. I agree, but I’m too busy sizing up the competition to be much of a conversationalist.
We certainly make up a motley crew backstage. There are the frat boys, Master Yoshi and The PK; the Fubar extra, I Have Crabs; the Quebec City Champion (and our aforementioned shadowy figure RAD); independent television personality Hurricane Andy; and professional astronaut Captain Cosmic. I am up against the best.
The film’s slogan for the competition continues to chorus in my mind: “The axes are invisible. The chops are real.” How true it is. I find out at the last minute that I’m up first, and I take to the stage to give my best rendition of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me Now” as Reginald Shredwicks — a name that I made up on the spot.
Each contestant is allowed a minute to perform a song of his or her choice. Then five finalists each have to perform another minute of a song pre-selected by the competition’s organizers. Those 60 seconds feel like an eternity in the face of white lights and white heat. I score poorly, but I receive a hero’s welcome backstage. I’m more than happy to enjoy the rest of the competition as an audience member.
While celebrating “best air guitarist” may be kind of like giving a trophy for best lip synch-er, it’s hard to knock the results. Everyone at the El Mo is having a great time, any music is appreciated (the only pre-requisite: ROCK) and anyone can perform. The constant cheering, wall of devil horns and innovative costumes more than prove how important this music is to both the crowd and the contestants. It may be a little absurd, but there’s an accepting community that basks in this absurdity — and it loves every minute of it.
After the dust settles and the scores are counted, Glen Airy, Glen Rocks comes away the winner. He will move on to the Ontario finals held at Lee’s Palace on April 19. Following this announcement, Turoque and the emcee welcome finalists and just about anyone else who’s interested back on stage.
They jam a send-off performance with one of the all-time air guitar classics: Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Ridiculous poses, competitors shredding back to back (Turoque included) and leaps off of stage monitors abound. There certainly is a whole lotta love going on.