Air Force One

It takes a real airhead to judge the U.S. Air Guitar Competition. Fortunately, I was available.

Come on, admit it—you know you’ve done it. Whether at some dive bar just as your beer balls were kicking in, or Risky Business–style in the privacy of your bedroom, you did it. Be it AC/DC, Van Halen or the mighty Zep, the crunch of a classic riff rang out, and you just couldn’t resist. You raised your arms, embraced your ethereal ax and rocked that fantasy fret board like Jimi Hendrix on crack.

Well, as it turns out, so have a lot of other people—so many, in fact, that for the past five years, people from all over the country have gathered each summer to attend the US Air Guitar Championships. Last June, I attended the US finals at the Bowery Ballroom in New York and—being a lifelong air guitarist myself—had the time of my life. Now I’d been invited back for 2007—but this time as a celebrity judge in the sold-out New York Regional.

The contest was hosted by Bjorn Turoque—author of To Air Is Human: One Man’s Quest to Become the World’s Greatest Air Guitarist, and one of the stars of the recent documentary film Air Guitar Nation. Before retiring in 2005, Bjorn’s signature move was toking on an “air spliff” mid-song—so it was no surprise that when I met him at the Aireoke after-party for the film’s premiere back in March, we hit it off instantly. After chatting briefly with Bjorn and the contestants backstage, I was summoned up to the judges’ area in the balcony to get the contest under way.

The rules are simple: In round one, each “air-o-smith” has 60 seconds to rock out freestyle to the musical selection of their choosing, using nothing but thin air. In round two, they all have to improvise to one surprise song chosen by the USAG administrators—which, this time around, turned out to be the Mountain classic “Mississippi Queen.” The judges—consisting of myself, Atlantic Records exec Leigh Lust, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, and hard rock singer Andrew W.K.—were then called upon to comment on their performances and give each contestant a numerical score between 4.0 and 6.0 (like figure skating, but without the crying and broken kneecaps). The scores are based on three criteria: technical ability, stage presence and “airness”—the degree to which the performance transcends mere mimicry or mockery and enters the realm of true artistry.

Leigh, Andrew, Jason and I assessed one competitor after another—applauding some and tearing others a new airhole. There was Boba Fretts (who wore a Boba Fett mask), Shreddy Mercury (a fuzzy-headed gnome in a black jumpsuit), Betty B. Goode (a superfox in daisy dukes and thigh-high knee socks), and one retard in a full cow costume who called himself simply “The Cow.” The USAG folks wisely kept the free beer flowing to us, which only fueled my and Jones’ sarcasm.

Overall, I found myself unimpressed by the talent, or lack thereof, of the current contestants compared to the ones in 2006; unbelievable as it might seem, I began to think they weren’t taking this contest seriously. But eventually last year’s NY champ, William Ocean, was up. He had tons of crowd support, and with good reason: This guy was a maniac—jumping, diving, thrashing and shredding. Ocean ended his performance with his signature move: the back-flip beer-can crush. When it came to airness, compared to Ocean, the rest were mere ponds and puddles. Predictably, after all the scores were tallied, Ocean took home the crown for the second year in a row—which meant that he would go on to compete for the US title in August, and possibly for the world title in Finland this September.

For the finale, all of the contestants came back onstage for a mass air jam to “Free Bird.” After the show, I treated a few of the contestants and my fellow judges to a fat joint of Love Potion backstage. Upon finishing an inebriated interview with, I turned to our illustrious host: “You may be Bjorn Turoque,” I declared, raising my invisible Flying V to him in tribute, “but I’m Bjorn Turoll!”

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