Last Thursday night, I watched, speechless, as Jesus got clobbered by a burly, long-haired Demon from Mobile, Alabama. I couldn't believe my eyes. One minute Jesus was rocking -- um, make that spazzing -- out to Nine Inch Nails, and the next he was writhing on the stage like an injured animal. As others in the audience hooted and hollered, I just shook my head. Jesus may be a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing's for sure: a guitar god isn't one of them.
Relax, charismaniacs, this wasn't that Jesus. No, this guy had allegedly ridden his bike all the way from Mexico City to take part in the 2004 U.S. Air Guitar regionals at the hi-dive. The annual competition is that big a deal. Who knew?
I certainly didn't. When I was tapped to be a judge, I figured an air-guitar contest would be worth a chuckle. I was completely unprepared for the packed house I found at the hi-dive, and it made me wonder what qualified me to assess anyone's air-guitar prowess. When a film crew documenting the event asked just that, I couldn't come up with anything better than this: Since I'd seen my share of air guitarists and had even sliced the air with Pete Townshend-like moves a time or two, I knew what it took to throw down.
As the masses continued to file in, Matt LaBarge, wearing the stern look of a major-league umpire, tried to explain the judges' role. "You'll be grading on a skating scale from four to six," he instructed. Needless to say, I haven't cashed in too many bum credits watching ice-skating and had no idea what he was talking about. So I consulted with my fellow dignitaries on the panel -- Jeff Davenport and Erin Roberts from Radio 1190 -- but they weren't able to shed any more light. Still, this was just an air-guitar competition. No one could be taking it that seriously, right?
Au contraire, mon frre. When I stepped outside the bar to get some fresh air, I saw a contestant being interviewed by the camera crew. Clad in a scraggly black wig, an Iron Maiden Piece of Mind T-shirt, striped spandex tucked into his socks, and dirty white running sneakers, dude was as serious as the bulge in his pants. Forget sticking a pair of socks in the briefs to augment the package; this cat had shoved an entire sock drawer in his. "I'll give these bunch of wankers a run for their money," he said in a shoddy, faux-British accent, looking directly into the camera. "They can kiss my bollocks and suck my arse."
Alrighty, then. As I waited for the competition to begin, I couldn't decide what was funnier: the concept, the contestants or Rocky Mountain News reporter Erika Gonzales, who'd been dispatched to cover the event. I eavesdropped as she conducted a straight-faced interview with one of the entrants, Captain Metal, a pirate who was outfitted in a homemade cardboard suit of armor. Tough gig: What questions do you ask a dude whose get-up makes Maris the Great look plain? But God bless her, she worked her way around the room with the investigative diligence of Woodward and Bernstein.
Finally, around 10 p.m., Magic Cyclops, the host of the proceedings, made his way to the stage and kicked things off. He asked us to remove our hats for the Pledge of Allegiance and then held up a sizable sticker of Old Glory and played Jimi Hendrix's ear-shattering version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was breathtaking.
What unfolded next, though, was a mutant hybrid of Heavy Metal Parking Lot and This Is Spinal Tap. One after another, the thirteen contestants strutted their stuff, each employing a different strategy. Some, like Gooch, Ultimate Showdown and Air Dan Knight, relied on either the shtick of songs or their outfits. Others, like Ryan Striker, had brought props in hopes of wowing the judges and the crowd. Still others -- like Bjorn Toroque, in his turquoise leather jacket with leopard-print lapels, and the mono-monikered Keith, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Diggy Diamond with his skull-like face paint, black Speedo and spiked belt -- had the complete package: image, presentation and technical ability. But ultimately, one participant was so goddamned convincing that he blew everyone else away. When Jesse Pulley (aka Demon Strait) played "The Queen Is in Love," by Yngwie Malmsteen, complete with sweeps and whammy dives, the choice became a no-brainer.
As we unscientifically tabulated our final scores, some guy came up to the table and said, "It's an air-guitar competition; it's all about the gimmicks." Much as I hate to be a master of the obvious, he was right: It was only an air-guitar competition. And even though none of us knew what the hell we were doing, we knew what we liked. So Demon was crowned the winner, an honor that earned him a trip to Los Angeles to compete in the U.S. finals on June 17. If he wins there, he'll fly to Oulu, Finland, in August for the World Championship. After Demon and others in the top five were named, all of the entrants went back to the stage for an air-guitar gang bang, an orgiastic rendition of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."
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After the contest, I talked for a few minutes with Demon, who services video games on the East Coast when he's not rocking the free world. He spoke in such fragments that it was like having a conversation with Boomhauer from King of the Hill. I asked Demon his age, and he replied 39, then quickly changed his mind: "I'm actually forty. When you're born and you have your first birthday, you're actually entering into your second year of life -- so I'm forty."
"So from the looks of it, you're a bona fide guitarist, yeah?" I asked.
"I'm not a rock star," he replied. "So I don't do that. But people can see my ability. I lost by a tenth of a point in Chicago, because they pulled out some ŒBlack Betty' shit," he added with obvious exasperation, referring to the Leadbelly tune. "At least here they played some classic Van Halen. Who knows what they'll have me play in L.A.? Maybe Nelly or some shit like that."
Upbeats and beatdowns: Pacman. Mr. Pacman. Miles. Mr. Ron Miles. Please come to a white paging telephone -- or any phone, for that matter. Seriously, if you're one of the following artists or bands, I need to speak with you immediately: Dressy Bessy, Hemi Cuda, Ron Miles, Brad Upton Quartet, DJ Ty Tek, Mr. Pacman, Buckner Funken Jazz, String Cheese Incident, Two Ton Moxie, Yonder Mountain String Band and Zebra Junction. Call or send an e-mail to the address listed below. Thank you. You are now free to move about the country.