In his first column, Garrett Kamps ponders the big questions

People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar -- flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures, with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music. It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone. It neither saves the things we love (as we would wish them saved) nor ruins the things we hate.

-- Dave Hickey, art critic, in his essay "Air Guitar"

Air of greatnessMatthew Johndrow, 26-year-old amateur air guitarist, looks like your older brother. Tall, stately, with sandy-blond hair, a firm jaw, and bright, optimistic eyes, he looks like he could have been an actor on CHiPs. He does not look like a rock star. But that's not stopping him: Johndrow is on his way to the 2003 National Air Guitar Championships, driving up Southern California's 405 freeway in a borrowed car, sunroof open, hair blowing, and the would-be music-mime is explaining the rigorous decision-making process that went into all of this.

"I more or less signed up for it for the fuck of it," he tells me. "I was down here already [on business], and my friends were like, 'Sign up!' And I was like, 'Well, if you guys wanna come up, I don't have a problem doin' it.'"

Now that is enthusiasm.

But what the hell, it's more than you'd expect from a certified public accountant, which is what the San Francisco resident does for a living. Oddly enough, he's not the only air guitarist/ accountant competing in the championships. C. Diddy, who won the East Coast championship on June 16 and who has been flown to Los Angeles to face off against the West Coast winner, is himself a number-cruncher by day. He's also the 500-pound gorilla of tonight's festivities. Rumor has it C. Diddy can shred glass with his nimble digits, that he channels the spirit of Hendrix, that when performing he wears a red kimono and a Hello Kitty breastplate.

Johndrow, however, doesn't seem to care.

"I guess [C. Diddy] was on Jimmy Kimmel last night," says my avuncular chauffeur, who is driving about 60 miles an hour in a city where the freeway river flows at closer to 90. "From what I hear, he guaranteed victory. And you know what? If that's his gig, then more power to him."

"You're not getting off the freeway, are you?" I ask.

"No, I'm talking so much, so I'm just staying in the right-hand lane," says Johndrow, playing it safe as we inch toward our destination.

In the world of air guitar, you cannot play it safe. As in many noble professions -- astronaut, fireman, veterinarian -- ballsy types dominate. Tonight, at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip -- a club just up the street from the Whisky A Go Go where the Doors and Guns N' Roses got their start -- it's the cantina scene from the original Star Wars: There is a Heinz-like variety of outlaws.

Like Scary Jerry, a blond hard-body wearing a bawdy fur coat over his bare, muscled torso, and flanked by Sherry and Terry, a duo of white-hot female air roadies (that's industry parlance). Scary tells me that he plans to "rock this stage harder than anyone else who's ever rocked this stage before," a tall order when you consider the competition, which includes Bjorn Toroque, a ringer from the East Coast flown in by NBC, and Aaron the Baron Semmel, who looks like Elvis and "makes movies with Madonna." My personal favorite is Benjamin Walkin, the contestant who has everyone sympathetically believing that he is confined to a rhinestone-covered electric wheelchair.

And then, of course, there's David "C. Diddy" Jung of Brooklyn, N.Y., a man whose professed "Asian Fury" makes the room buzz when he enters it.

"I've been given lessons in just about every instrument," Diddy tells me before the show. "I can't play a single one of them. So when I was around 11 or 12 years old, I decided to pick up the air guitar. I haven't looked back."

Johndrow finally emerges from the changing room, dressed conservatively in bluejeans, a simple red, white, and blue vest, and a long, brown-haired wig; clearly, he hasn't allowed the formidable competition to get him down. "Everyone here is so serious that it's kind of making me laugh," he says. Johndrow's stated goal for the evening is "to go up onstage and see my friends laughing at me and go out in L.A. afterwards and have some drinks." It's not the most vicious strategy, but luckily the man has a secret weapon, an ace up his sleeve that both he and I think just might give him a shot.

Rather than choose an obvious heavy metal song like Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" or Metallica's "Orion" for his 60-second performance, Johndrow is dipping into the treasure chest of classic rock. He's air-guitaring his favorite song, the one he knows like the back of his hand: Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years," a tune certain to win the judges over with its whimsical solo, its time-tested appeal, its nostal--

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