[The Reverend Billie Damage rocks out at the WA Air Guitar Championships…]
Last Friday night, I was a guest judge of the W.A. Air Guitar Championships.
Yes, that’s right. As unlikely as it might seem, your mild-mannered, glasses-wearing, gangly reporter was flown across the continent to adjudicate the finest air guitarists on the west-coast.
Now, before you all chime in with claims such as…
“But that’s not fair!! I know for a fact that you are TOTALLY IGNORANT about all things Air Guitar!”
“But I’ve been Air Guitaring since you were in nappies, and you get a call-up of this calibre with little or no experience in the field! You lucky bastard!”
…let me reassure you of my credentials!
True, it may be that I have rarely, if ever, played an Air Guitar myself. And true, prior to this week, I was only vaguely aware that an “Air Guitar Championships” actually existed.
However, in my defence, I must say this: although I am not a specialist in any particular field of fake musical instrument playing, I am, however, considered in some circles as an expert in witnessing unusual do-it-yourself cultural phenomena. Take, for instance, my coverage of the Jelly-Wrestling in a local pub in Sydney. Clearly, I’d had no prior experience in Jelly Wrestling before writing those reports. But sometimes, I warrant, it is in fact an advantage to be ignorant.
And anyway, as I found out on Friday night, Jelly Wrestling and Air Guitar have some crucial things in common. They both take place in pubs; and they’re both much better when performers and audience alike are quite drunk. Neither requires an inordinate amount of skill to get started (the threshold to participation is frighteningly low) but you know when you see a good performer, that you’re in the presence of something transcendent.
To prepare myself for judging the Air Guitar competition, I watched Air Guitar Nation, a documentary tracking the determination of American air guitarists to win at the World Championships in Finland. Here are a few observations I made as a result of watching the doco, observations which I believe stood me in good stead when it came to judging here in Perth:
1. The participants are often enthusiastic geeks who have very little musical ability.
2. Generally, not a great deal of effort is put into costumes or choreography, even at the international level.
3. The judge’s scores commonly reflect the level of excitement in the audience. Hence, you don’t need to be very clever to be a good judge.
By the time Jasmin came to pick me up, my costume was almost complete. Thanks to my ingenious sewing-machinist friend Dave in Sydney, I was clad in a figure-hugging black and silver spandex outfit, inspired by (but not slavishly replicating) Gene Simmons of KISS. It involved: a sequin-studded stretchy top split down to my belly-button, revealing chest hair, but modestly concealing my nipples; vinyl “boot enhancers” and black tights; and a cape which attached to my wrists to form an enormous bat-wing. I topped it off with a curly heavy-metal wig.
I figured if I was gonna be a judge, I might as well make a good impression. Jasmin caked on my makeup and we were on our way.
Of course, I had not really factored walking through Northbridge dressed in this outlandish (and “somewhat” gay-looking) getup into my gameplan for the evening. Thankfully, with the assistance of my chaperone, and a coat to keep the cold off my bare chest, we made it into the venue un-bashed.
For those of you unfamiliar with Northbridge, it is a precinct on the “wrong side of the tracks” just north of Perth city, reknowned for its weekend hooliganism, drunkenness, and lack of tolerance for performative dressing. I spent my teenage years avoiding the place. (Even the cops are scary there. If you want a taste of a night out in Northbridge, read this yobbo’s blog. My favourite response to his blog entry is this one.)
We arrived at The Deen, a megapub famous for its late late messy nights, long queues, and chewing gum mashed into the carpet. We threaded our way through the crowd, which seemed to consist principally of blond men and women only just over the legal drinking age. They were rocking out to Slim Jim and the Phatts Band, a West Australian covers band that has been around ever since I was a kid.
My passage through the bar caused something of a sensation. The boys were giving me high-fives, the girls were stopping me to have photos taken on their mobile phones. Eventually we found “backstage”. We knew we were in the right place because young men were putting the finishing touches on their ironic glam rock outfits.
“Oh shit!”, one of them exclaimed. “Don’t tell me we have to compete against YOU?!!”
Flattered as I was that my costume had made an immediate and threatening impact, I reassured them that I was “just a judge”. They had nothing to fear from me.
These niceties taken care of, Jasmin and I set about meeting the competitors: The Reverend Billie Damage; Smokey Rockinson; Ronnie Cockfingers; The Sex Puppy; and The Wild Man from The Wheatbelt.
I felt silly introducing myself as plain old “Lucas”. It occurred to me I had forgotten to think up a cool stage name. But Smokey and Ronnie invented one for me on the spot: “The Lightning Rod“, on account of the strategically placed silver lightning bolt in my costume.
There was great cameraderie backstage. In the photo above, we see two of the competitors, Ronnie Cockfingers (left) and Smokey Rockinson. Ronnie sported a large tubular appendage which snaked down the left leg of his leopard skin tights. Smokey, for his part, confessed nervousness, as he was scheduled to perform first. This is widely regarded as a disadvantage in Air Guitar circles.
I asked them to feed me a few lines each to sum up their characters. They launched into stories about themselves that, sadly, I cannot repeat in the pages of a family publication. Suffice to say Ronnie had elaborate and sordid tales about the conquest of women; and Smokey spoke of being “The Spawn of Satan”. These were clearly made up on the spot, revealing a skill at improvisation that I trusted would come in handy onstage.
In secret, when we had a moment alone, Ronnie told me that Smokey is actually an accomplished classical guitarist, a skill which he suspects interferes with his friend’s Air Guitar ability.
Incidentally, when they’re not Air-Guitaring, Ronnie and Smokey play together in a “real-instruments” glam rock band called “White Leopard”.
[Sister Louisa backstage with The Reverend Billie Damage…]
I was impressed to see two sexy nuns swanning into the green room. “Hurrah!” I whispered to Jasmin, “Some female contestants!”
But soon enough I discovered that Sister Louisa and her companion, Sister Marie, were not themselves competing. Instead, they were the assistant-groupies of The Reverend Billie Damage (pictured above posing beatifically with Sister Louisa).
Next I met The Wild Man From the Wheatbelt, seen here consorting with Smokey Rockinson. The Wild Man was the dark horse of the competition. Unlike his rivals, he did not talk himself up, or invent crazy stories. His costume was understated. He just sat quietly nursing a beer. Before the show, neither Jasmin nor I rated him highly, given his rather simple costume idea, and taciturn manner.
The fifth and final contestant was The Sex Puppy. For some reason, we managed to miss out on getting a photo of The Sex Puppy. If anything, he was the scariest of them all. A tall skinny fellow with a long red beard and penetrating eyes, he wore a simple navy blue pair of mechanic’s overalls, and an African skull mask over his face. “I have to be careful with this mask,” he said. “It was lent to me by a friend”.
And so, onto the competition.
[Michelle, Events Manager at The Deen, explains the judging process to The Lightning Rod…]
Usually in Air Guitar, there are two rounds: in the first round, the competitor brings a song of his own choice which has obviously been rehearsed, and which, in an ideal world, best showcases his talent (the song is trimmed to 90 seconds); the second round is more challenging: all competitors must improvise to a compulsory song. Tonight, however, time ran short, and the second round was scrapped. Michelle passed me the score sheet and we all rushed out to the stage.
I found myself a position befitting a judge, high up above the crowd. Contrary to my expectations, it was a very difficult job. I had to simultaneously: scrutinise the actions of the performer; gauge the vibe of the crowd; and allow myself to remain open to the “X-Factor” – the ineffable quality, that je-ne-sais-quois of the sport known simply as “Airness“. In the meantime I jotted down notes, and shot a series of terrible blurry photographs, and a couple of passable videos on my digital camera.
Here are my brief judging notes. Please remember that the role of a judge is “To Judge” – not to pussyfoot around being nice to people.
In my opinion, Smokey Rockinson, Sex Puppy and Ronnie Cockfingers turned in disappointing performances. Sex Puppy played along to a track by Polish pagan metal band Behemoth. It seemed to me that for Sex Puppy, having Behemoth pumped through the PA system in a musically conservative venue like The Deen was a subversive end in itself. Good for him! And as for Smokey and Ronnie? Well, they were having a good time, and the crowd liked ’em. But they just lacked…”airness”?
The Reverend Billy Damage, by contrast, had obviously put some serious thought into his choreography. Sisters Marie and Louisa escorted him onto the stage, and as the music began, they tore off his robe. The sexy nuns then retreated into the crowd while Billy performed Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands On Me, an appropriate tune for an angelic-looking but decidedly unwholesome priest.
[The Wild Man from the Wheatbelt onstage. This video doesn’t really do justice to his performance…]
But it was The Wild Man from the Wheatbelt who impressed this judge the most. He had assembled a medley of rock hits, including, as a finale, Let There Be Rock. Given my current interest in all things AC/DC, this was a wise choice of music. The Wild Man’s raw stage presence and energetic gusto scored highly. True, his music-medley was awkward, with long silent pauses between segments, and his technical skills, while enthusiastic, were fumbling and crude. But I saw potential in the Wild Man. I looked at him and I thought to myself: “Given the right opportunities, this one could go a long way”.
[Sisters Marie and Louisa pray for a victory, Slim Jim calls the scores, while The Lightening Rod hypnotises the crowd…]
My scores were tallied with those of the other judges. The Lightening Rod was then invited onstage to assist Slim Jim in handing out the trophies. Sisters Marie and Louisa knelt down in prayer, hoping a miracle would strike for Reverend Billie, but it was not to be. The judges’ decision was unanimous. The Wild Man from the Wheatbelt took the title.
Almost immediately, the bar transformed into a mediocre disco, and we found ourselves dancing to top 40 hits. One by one, fans of The Lightening Rod approached me to express their admiration for my outfit, to have their photo taken, or to cop a grope of my spandex-clad torso.
Shortly after, a less cheerful group closed in on me. These were friends and family of the Reverend Billie Damage, convinced that their man had been robbed of the trophy. They wanted me to admit that I had made a serious error of judgement.
“Well Lucas,” I thought to myself, “Here you go again: dressed up as a half-baked Gene Simmons, dancing to the latest chartbusters in a Northbridge club, while being hassled by angry comrades of the runner up in a regional Air Guitar competition. This may, in fact, be a good time to get out of here.”
But before I could slink away, I bumped into The Reverend Billie Damage himself. Fortunately unlike his loyal supporters, Billie was gracious in defeat. He was not at all cross with me, just a little down in the dumps.
“You know,” he said, “That makes three years in a row I’ve been knocked out by the Wild Man from the Wheatbelt”. He shook his head sadly. “I just don’t know what I have to do to beat him.”
Patting his black-cassocked back, I mumbled a few consoling words, then caught Jasmin’s eye. We beat a hasty retreat into the wild streets of Northbridge.
– – –
PS: The winner of the WA Championships, The Wild Man from the Wheatbelt, is now entitled to perform at the gala launch of the Bon Scott Project Exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre on the 16th of May…