|

SOUNDS OF SILENCE

Airs and grimaces

by Stephen Ellsesser

You don’t even need a guitar to let your hot licks hang out anymore. Duckwalk like Angus (Young; AC/DC), windmill like (Pete; The Who) Townshend and bow like (Jimmy; Led Zeppelin) Page — no prob; all with air, but not like (Michael; Nike Air) Jordan.

Air guitar is no longer for the guys without girlfriends, stuck at home with nothing but cassettes and the bathroom mirror to fill a Saturday night. Heck, it’s not even just for guys.

“It’s really stupid but really fun,” said Miho Horiguchi, a company worker who attended the Air Guitar Japan semifinals at the club Milk in Ebisu, Tokyo, this month. “You don’t really have to use your brain to watch.”

For Horiguchi, the evening of crotch-grabbing, monitor-climbing and facial contortion at its finest brought back memories of college years she spent as a drummer in a heavy metal band.

However, playing an instrument that exists only in the beholder’s imagination, the crux of air guitar, should not be easy, said Ricky Fuji, a professional wrestler who has been honing his airness as a hobby for 20 years. “Sometimes you use more energy than wrestling,” he admitted.

Fans and air-guitar connossieurs — there is such a sub-species, even in Japan, a relative newcomer to the world of air guitar — agree that detail is the way to go. A good way to score points with judges (one of whom wore Third Reich-style headgear while another had a Hitleresque mustache at Summer Sonic for the finals, but who’s counting . . . ) is to begin by tuning up — cranking your air machineheads in front of your air amplifier while staring down at your air tuner (heightened awareness advisable).

But no matter what, make sure to remember to play your instrument.

“You used the whole stage, which was really great,” one judge said to a hopeful semifinalist who’d performed an energetic version of “I’m the Man” by heavy-metal band Anthrax. “But you forgot to play guitar.”

Shame really, because that had been one of the most energetic renditions of the evening, pulled off by a twentysomething wearing black briefs and a matching undershirt who performed enough nether-region play to make an exotic dancer shut off the Tina Turner albums. But the judge had a point: Air guitar is nothing without, well, the guitar.

The crushed man who’d overlooked that could muster little more than an apology, but no one could question his self-confidence, if nothing else.

But Mr. Black Briefs was on to something. The right look can make or break an otherwise solid air-guitar solo.

Running the stylistic gamut were Miyagi Mario and Gorgeous, whose respective performances of Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” and T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” resolved one of life’s great imponderables by showing that drag queens and mullets really can share the same spotlight with ease.

Gorgeous’ look was reminiscent of David Bowie’s gender-bending, while Miyagi had hair down his back beneath a trucker hat and a white sleeveless undershirt — both printed with the inspirational slogan “Rock.” And, as he told the judges later, he had worn his tightest shirt — to best show off his nipples.

But elite exponents of the atmospheric ax have still something extra on top of that. Perhaps relevancy off the stage, when the crowds have scattered and the show is over?

In the movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a futuristic Utopia was built around two air-guitaring teenagers on the verge of flunking out of high school who formed a band that solved the world’s problems by uniting everyone with a circular strum that was part (Hawaiian; “Tiny Bubbles”) Don Ho and part (see above) Townshend. Moral: Never underestimate the power of air guitar.

Ultimate air stage

As you may, or may not, have expected, Finland has long been the Mecca of airness, having hosted the world championships ever since the first one was held there way back in 1996.

On the road to that ultimate air stage, at the Summer Sonic festival in Chiba’s Makuhari Messe last weekend, Japan crowned the two winners who tied in the Air Guitar 2006 Japan Final. One of them was defending champion Takeshi Kongochi; the other was comedian Yosuke Oochi, whose ample frame and Cosby-esque Tiger sweater made him look more like a small-town high-school principal than a would-be rock star. But once Oochi donned sunglasses, his sideburns became more porkchop and he was a rock god.

Jumping, thrusting and shaking to Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”, Oochi leaped and moved with a grace seemingly at odds with his rotundity, while displaying musical air-proficiency of a searingly high order. Oochi played to the crowd and the judges loved him — even claiming he could jump as well as (see above, again) Townshend.

The last performer at the finals, however, was Kongochi, whose suit and spats were offset by the tie he took off his neck and tightened around his head — the lone anomaly of his polished appearance. And building upon what earned his trip to Finland in 2005, Kongochi set his airness to classical — this time rendering a heavy-metal version of Beethoven’s Fifth.

As his final chords floated soundlessly away, Kongochi felt sure he’d flopped and his yearlong reign of air-guitar terror had ended. Then, to his amazement, the judges awarded him the same score as Oochi — meaning that both men would represent Japan at the world championship.

“I thought no way,” Kongochi said. “The level of air guitar in Japan is rising. At the end of my performance, I thought to myself that it didn’t go so well.”

Oochi, a first-timer who was a late entry through Summer Sonic’s spontaneous “Shortcut to Finland” contest, had never thought of himself as an air-guitar idol even three days before the competition. So it was only after some friends goaded him into entering at the festival that he came to share Kongochi’s glory.

“In Japan’s world of air guitar, Kongochi is a god,” Oochi said. “Being compared to him is like being compared to Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix, so I’m very happy.” But like rock’n'roll proper, Air Guitar Japan has room at the top for more than one maestro. Just don’t forget to play guitar.

Extra reporting by ERIC PRIDEAUX