Jodi was waiting for me at the terminal when I got off the plane, and we talked about how we were going to have to take two cars back to Lawrence. Then I rounded the corner toward baggage claim and heard some commotion. I looked up and there was a crowd of people holding balloons and signs that said “MEAN,” smiling and clapping.
The other passengers on my flight looked at us like we were crazy. I guess they figured out the guy with long hair carrying a guitar probably wasn’t returning home from military duty.
It was pretty much the best moment ever.
Four days earlier I had come to Oulu, Finland, armed with nothing but a sleeveless T-shirt, a Jimmy John’s receipt for $6.66 and a shred of hope of qualifying for the Air Guitar World Championships.
When I arrived, jetlagged and broke, I met 30 other people from all over the world — places like Japan, Australia, Germany, Russia and China — who had the same crazy notion that I did. Needless to say, we immediately bonded.
Two days of Airentation — a bike tour, a stroll on the beach, karaoke, the intense heat of a smoke sauna, and an honorary dinner — led to the legendary Dark Horse competition. I was to face off against 2011 World Champion Aline “The Devil’s Niece” Westphal and 14 other air guitarists for one of the remaining five spots in the World Championships. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Scores were middling at first, which I blamed partially on it being early in the round — and the crowd and judges not being warmed up. Going later in the competition is always an advantage. The Devil’s Niece didn’t draw as late a number as I did, but her performance was chock full of airness (the term we use to describe something that transcends guitar playing and becomes performance art). When her scores didn’t reflect how awesome she was, I worried that my idea of great air guitar and the judges’ was way off. Had I miscalculated in coming to Oulu, hoping for a spot?
I hit the stage with the intensity of a man with nothing to lose, and won the night, the respect of my new friends, and a spot in the Air Guitar World Championships!
I was hoping my luck would carry over to the next day as the competitors drew random numbers, but it didn’t. I would be second of 17. It was disappointing, but I had already achieved my goal. I would rock on the world stage, and all of my friends and family back home could watch the championships live-streamed on the Web like I had the previous four years.
But the judges were hard on everybody, not just those who went early. I got middle-to-high scores — nothing like the perfect 6.0s I got the week before in the US Air Guitar Nationals. Somehow, after round one, I was in third place.
In round two, the heat was on. The song chosen for us to air to was by a Finnish band called The Wedding Crashers. I had never heard it before, and had precious little time to get a routine together as places four through 10 aired to the song, one after another.
If I had an edge, it was that I knew my friends were watching from across the pond. I could picture them, jumping up and down and yelling at their computer screens, rooting me on, even though the song was not at all the thrashing style of music that I excel at.
I broke the song up into sections in my mind and came up with a move to accentuate each one, practicing in the security moat at the side of the stage. When I finally got to perform, I was confident. I was feeling the energy from the 8,000 people in the crowd, as well as everyone back home. The end result was a 5.9, a 5.8 and a 5.4 — enough to propel me into a first-place tie!
The Finns haven’t experienced a first place air-off since 2004, and my competitor was another Dark Horse qualifier, Washington D.C.’s Doug “The Thunder” Stroock, my roommate in Oulu! As he performed the one-minute cut of Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” that was chosen for us, I had THE MOMENT. It was like every bad underdog sports movie I’ve ever seen. Everything felt like it was in slow motion. This was it. It was within my grasp. If I can’t close the deal here, I only have myself to blame.
One minute later (it felt like ages), my heart was pounding as I took the stage. Without hesitation, I pointed to the sky and the song started. I knew the song but barely had time to put something together, so I just thrashed as if my life depended on it, thinking of everyone I know who loves this crazy sport/art as much as I do. Then as soon as it started, the end was near. I strummed my last air note and raised my hand to the crowd in time with the song.
They went nuts.
I don’t remember my scores but I remember seeing at least one 6.0. I had done it. I was the 2013 Air Guitar World Champion, and I had just won — wait for it — a guitar. A hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind guitar called the Flying Finn.
Days later, video of my performance was featured on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” HuffPost Live interviewed me, and Keith Olbermann would mispronounce my name on his show on ESPN2 — and apologize for it the next day on Twitter. But the best feeling was turning the corner at KCI and seeing all the people who knew that this silly, absurd competition really meant something to me — and to know that they were proud enough to come congratulate me at the airport.
Laugh all you want, but air guitar brings people together. I have friends here in Kansas and all over the world to prove it.
— Eric is a longtime Lawrence.com/Journal-World entertainment writer. He’s also the editor-in-chief of Scene-Stealers and on-air film critic for KCTV5. He’s a drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. On the air-guitar circuit, he goes by the name Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11.