Wednesday, July 2, 2003

For these musicians, to air is truly divine


Wednesday July 02, 2003

For these musicians, to air is truly divine

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Dan Crane plays guitar for the "faux-French '60s band" Les Sans Culottes. They've rocked Vegas' Venetian and opened for Ringo Starr. But when Crane appeared on NBC's "Last Call With Carson Daly," he didn't bring an instrument. Or at least not a visible one.

You've seen air guitar before. When your buddy at the bar jumped onto the table and tried ineptly to play along with Hendrix, resting his imagined Stratocaster on his beer belly -- that was air guitar. Wayne and Garth played air guitar, as did Bill and Ted. Chances are you've played air guitar yourself.

But it's not just you and your mirror anymore. The U.S. Air Guitar Championships were held Saturday at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, and by the end of the night, a national air god emerged. Finally, the United States will be sending a representative to the (eighth annual) World Air Guitar Championships, held in Finland.

You laugh, but Crane is here to prove you wrong. There's "nothing funny about air guitar," he says.

Guitarists and groupies

Inside the club, afros and mullets converge. Bare-chested men go glam, in lederhosen and gold chains and tacky lipstick, as they and saunter and blow cigarette smoke in each other's faces.

The air guitarists and awestruck air groupies lounge on the VIP mezzanine. They schmooze, drink beer and grant interviews.

"I have played air guitar since I hopped out of the womb," says Jerry -- just Jerry -- from Nevada. He is wearing a furry, gray coat with no shirt, torn jeans and black-and-white checkered Keds. "I play spring break, weddings, my living room, the john....If I could play a freakin' instrument, I wouldn't be here," he admits. But still, "I think my research and development will take me to Finland. I may not be the most talented, but I will outwork you."

Jerry has two roadies named, appropriately, Veri and Berri. Both have dirty-blond hair and are showing lots of skin. "I'm old enough to know what turns me on. And that would be air guitar," says Berri. "We like it when he plays hard," adds Veri.

Standing nearby, Crane, a.k.a. Bjorn Turoque, frowns at the extravagant posturing. "L.A. is so superficial," says the Denver native. "It's filled with fake [cleavage] and fake smiles." In contrast to the competition, Crane is understated in his rainbow pants and black shirt with a yellow handkerchief tied around his neck.

Crane takes his air guitar seriously. "I'm a nihilist," he explains. "On the plane over, I read a lot of Nietzsche to get into the whole nothingness thing. I'm taking on the role of the Nietzsche Supermensch." Air guitar, he says, "is about nihilism, existentialism, showmanism and a lot of other isms."

Indeed, the Finnish Oulu Music Video Festival, which holds the World Air Guitar Championships, does so "to promote peace," reads its Web site. "According to the philosophy of air guitar, all wars would cease and bad things disappear if everybody in the world only played air guitar." Amnesty International, step aside.

Here's how the championships work: First round, the 20 contestants choose their own music. Next, five semifinalists each perform the same surprise song. The air guitarist who remains standing will go mano a mano with David "C-Diddy" Jung, the legendary East Coast champ. Winner takes all -- a real electric guitar, donated by Guitar Center, and a trip to Finland this summer.

The judges know their riffs: Nina Gordon, formerly of Veruca Salt; Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and currently with AudioSlave; and Roy Trakin, editor of Hits magazine. They'll score contestants based on subjective analyses of originality, charisma, feeling, technical ability, artistic merit and "airness."

"Air guitar has always been my art," says Shawn "Dick Maynard" Mason, who sells electronics in Los Angeles. He's wearing a long black trench coat, Mafioso-style. "I used to play with my dad on long car trips. I always joke with my friends that I'm the greatest air guitarist. Now I can prove it."

"It's C-Diddy!" somebody shouts. The champ has entered the building. He sports his signature Asian motif -- a long red kimono and tight red Chinese print stretch pants -- and is flanked by an actual entourage. Surrounded by would-be celebrities, C-Diddy projects the real thing. Cameras whir.

Sitting in a dark corner in his wheelchair, Ryan "Benjamin Walkin" Flynn, from Fontana, seems to shun attention. The mirrored cross rising from the back of his chair and looming over his head implies otherwise.

"I only came to represent Christian rock music," Flynn says. "We'll find out tonight if Christian rock gets the respect it deserves."

The real pretend thing

Everybody is already grinning as the curtain goes up. For an audience that just paid actual money to watch pretend guitarists pretend to play guitar, it can only get better.

The first few acts are uninspired. Then Mason takes the stage. He sheds his trench coat to reveal the glittery silver sleeves of his black shirt. As the Foo Fighters' "Everlong" begins, Mason bends his knees and slides his fingers up the fret board. He appears to be playing actual chords, not just air chords. He closes his eyes and bangs his head.

"Dick! Dick! Dick!" chants the happy mob.

The energy balloons as the night progresses, both on and off stage.

When it's time for Flynn to perform, nearby do-gooders lift his wheelchair gently onto the stage. "Praise Jesus," he tells the crowd. As the music begins, he drives his electric chair around the stage with one hand, works his guitar with the other. Then the wheelchair takes a violent turn, and Flynn spills out.

There is a collective gasp. But Flynn jumps to his feet and leaps into the air.

Appearances are no longer what they seem. All is air. At the end of his set, Flynn runs to the edge of the stage, reaches into his crotch and throws a handful of glitter at the audience -- which, judging from its deafening response, loved every second.

Good air guitar is actually more about technique than glitz and glam. The savants stand out because they are actually playing an instrument -- not a fake guitar, but rather a real air guitar. When an expert changes chords, the music jumps accordingly. When an expert strums violently, notes turn shrill and the amps scream.

Jerry strides onto the stage with all the bravado of a rock god. Veri and Berri come crawling after him, tear off his shirt and slink back offstage.

Jerry has the look -- hair falling over his eyes, a lanky physique. He has the sexpot groupies. He may even lead the rock star lifestyle. But when it comes to air guitar, he's a pretender. His fingers lag behind the music, get ahead of the music, just generally hinder the music.

In the semifinals, pure technical prowess -- on Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" -- trumps stage presence.

Gordon "Krye Tuff" Hintz, wearing kneepads and a pair of handcuffs as a belt buckle, is the last to perform. He is quiet and confident, and gazes out into the crowd as if to say, "Don't worry. I will rock for you."

His fingers dance. The beat flows through his body like electricity. And then he does something daring even for an air guitarist: He hurls his instrument upward.

The crowd screams. Eyes follow it up, up down, down ... and Hintz catches the guitar. His arms shudder and he jostles slightly, but he's got it, he caught it. His chords continue, flawlessly. He is the Ace of Spades.

It takes charisma

The dark club is humid with perspiration when C-Diddy arrives to battle Hintz for the title. The guy's got charisma. He unties his sash, pivots, and the red kimono falls open. Never before has a Hello Kitty breastplate looked so good. Never before has music seemed to bend -- to tremolo, to reverb -- at the will of an air guitarist.

The crowd goes crazy. C-Diddy plays with effortless virtuosity, a la Eric Clapton. He kneels, throws his head back, and his guitar wails. He owns the act so completely that the music seems to be emanating directly from him. "It can't get any better than this!" somebody shouts.

The judges agree. C-Diddy accepts his trophy and tells Hintz, "You have been a worthy challenger, my friend." He also accepts the real electric guitar, but looks unsure of how to handle it.

A champion crowned, the buoyant mob turns patriotic. "USA! USA!" they bellow. Finland, here we come!

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