-- Dave Hickey, art critic, in his essay "Air Guitar"
Air of greatness Matthew 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--
Wait, that's bullshit. He's totally fucked.
Sure enough, Johndrow's happy-go-lucky composure doesn't stand a chance, not against the spazzmotic freakout of the body-condom-wearing Airtight Messiah, not against Bjorn Toroque's Led Zeppelin mega-medley, and certainly not against Benjamin Walkin, who is miraculously cured of his paralysis onstage by none other than God himself -- the God who, according to Walkin's T-shirt, "Rocks!!!!"
But no one -- not me, not Johndrow, not even the panel of judges, which includes Audioslave's Tom Morello, arguably one of the best real guitarists of the last decade -- is prepared for C. Diddy. Really, seriously, the only way to say it: Holy Fucking Shit. When Diddy goes head to head with West Coast winner Krye Tuff, "playing" the solo from Extreme's "Play With Me," which sounds like the heavy metal equivalent of "Flight of the Bumble Bee," I can actually see the guitar. When he swings it around his head toward the audience, I flinch; when he hurls himself around the stage, I worry that he'll break it or, for that matter, screw up the song, which is impossible because he's not even playing an instrument. But shit, that's not what it looks like. And, of course, the Hello Kitty breastplate is a really nice touch.
After the show -- after everyone gets back onstage to play air guitar to Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and C. Diddy riles the crowd up into chants of "USA! USA!" as he promises victory at the world championships in August in Finland -- Johndrow goes out with his friends and parties like a rock star on the Sunset Strip. The next Monday, he goes back to working downtown as an accountant. And that's that.
But me, I have some things to think over. Namely, in the context of Hickey's quote, I find myself musing, What kind of Air Guitarist am I? When I write about music -- as I'll be doing in this here space, week in, week out -- am I like Johndrow, content to play the song I know by heart, wear the bluejeans and wig, and settle for just showing up? Or am I like C. Diddy, unapologetically wielding my (Cauc)Asian Fury? In other words, can you hear the music I'm writing about? Can you actually see the guitar? I hope so. And toward that end, I'm taking the master's advice. When asked the secret of his success, Diddy offered the simplest of words: "Enjoy yourself, so the audience may enjoy you."
To which I'm adding: And refrain from playing it safe.
As you may have noticed, this column has no name. Please give it one. E-mail suggestions to email@example.com. I will choose a name on Aug. 20. The winner will get some CDs or something.