That was my question as I sat in the judges' nest at the Independent with Fecalface.com's John Trippe and the Onion's Marc Hawthorne, ducking the occasional flying beer cup from the stage (God bless the drunkard's poor aim and stain-repellent polyester). Marc, John, and I had reunited to rate contestants in the San Francisco qualifier of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships . It's a job we felt worthy of holding because we like Motörhead, we drink beer, and we were invited back after doing a swell job last year. Oh, and also, Marc showed up wearing a tux, which has to count for something.
The rules of Air Guitar, as delivered that night by MC and Air Guitar Nation star Björn Türoque, are simple. "You can play acoustic guitar or electric guitar, but it has to be invisible," he told the sold-out house last Thursday. "No props, and no, you can't play your penis." Judges were instructed to consider a contestant's technical ability, stage presence, and "airness" that indescribable ability to turn a rock 'n' roll performance into an art form. The local we picked last year, Hot Lixx Hulahan, was a real champ. He won the nationals in New York and went all the way to the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland where, sadly, he didn't win. But he's going back for more.
This year's prize-hungry heshers paraded around the stage in two rounds, windmilling their arms out of the sockets, shaking their studded codpieces, and squeezing their mouths into shrunken oh yeaaahs and all riiiiights in their best approximations of righteous rock idols for 60 seconds apiece. Fifteen Judas Priest, Danzig, and Nirvana fans with names like Alaskan Thunderfuck and Glenny Kravitz revealed their personalized bedroom-shredder fantasies; five finalists went on to a second round of pantomiming the same song, Skid Row's "Youth Gone Wild." Before we even got to Sebastian's anthem, though, Rôqhelle (pronounced, in air-speak, Rock-Hell) was already barking complaints from the judges' chambers, which she'd bum-rushed kamikaze style. Rôqhelle commandeered a microphone, ranting about deserving higher marks. (Contestant performances are rated using the Olympic figure skating scale, 4.0 to 6.0. You can't talk your way into improving your numbers, although Rôqhelle's sheer determination was slightly admirable.)
Another frustrated entrant, Jammin' J-Bone, got his teal bell-bottoms in a twist when our Onion authority quipped that his guyliner glam look was somewhere between "Gene Loves Jezebel and the guitarist from the Afghan Whigs." Shaking a beer bottle in his fist and shouting obscenities, J-Bone only cooled when host Björn Türoque took his side and shot back, "When you peel back the layers of the Onion, you find there's not much there."
To be fair, humor trumped hostility that night, most of the rockers didn't leave the stage cursing daggers, and J-Bone and the Onion shook hands in the end. The contestant-judge tension even added entertainment value when the airness otherwise lagged. The Air Guitar antagonism was more in the vein of WWE meets American Idol than a fierce Jerry Springer smackdown.
I understand that, as silly as the event gets, the stakes are still high. The Air Guitar organizers love San Francisco because people here are always down for some ass-making theatrics. If there's the slightest opportunity for someone to pour on that banana-yellow body suit or trick themselves out in tiger stripes, there's at least one crazy local up to the task. Take your pick, from Gay Pride to Burning Man to Bay to Breakers to Air Guitar, grown adults find excuses to suit up in costumes, adopt alter egos, and lick that invisible guitar neck until it's thoroughly slimed. Throw in the Bay Area's rich history of headbangers and punks, and you've really honed in on that sweet Air Guitar demographic. Here live the truly committed, waiting for their annual chances to prove their awesome rockingness using nothing but what the good Lord (and maybe the Goodwill) gave them.
Air Guitar is a competition, though, and since them's the breaks, only one lucky dude flies from here to New York. As of Thursday, that dude is Ricky Stinkfingers , who had a rocky start in the first round during Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell." The ex-Clevelander was Andrew WK with a Jheri curl, and he had enthusiasm from here to the top of his giant tube socks. One problem: He kept forgetting to actually play his instrument. A low technical ability and a high stage performance balanced out into average airness. In round two he sewed things up, though, jogging around with a gigantic grin, keeping his air guitar close by at all times, avnd ending his set with a stage dive ... to the floor. (Stinkfingers is a big guy.) But hey, a very rock 'n' roll finale all the same.
Now Stinky (aka Alex Forbes) is a winner for the second time in his life. "I think my basketball team came in third place when I was in fourth grade," he told me later. "That was an unbelievable feeling. But this feels a lot better. This is a reason to hang my head high for the rest of my life. This is going on my résumé hopefully it will lead to respect and promotions."
In the end, all's fair in love and air. And for Rôqhelle and J-Bone, there's always next year.