Mock and Roll at Ottawa’s Air Guitar Championships
All photos by Andre Gagne
I’d never seen a giant banana have a seizure before. To tell you the truth, it’s a soothing kind of hypnotic I can liken only to the times where I may have drunk more NyQuil than the cold required. As one in the bewildered crowd watching him, this mass of yellow blur wildly gyrating across the stage as though the man inside the costume also had a few irate hamsters in there with him, three thoughts went through my mind: How does the guitar solo to “Hotel California” go? How did I get myself into this? and Oh God, I’m next!
Two hours before I found myself being hypnotized by a large banana playing an invisible instrument, I was trying to coerce a blonde in shades and a Batman t-shirt to join me while I covered what proved to be the most bizarre story to come my way since reading Naked Lunch in my late teens. “Come on,” says I to fellow journalist Terry Steeves, “when are you going to ever get to see this kind of thing again, huh?”
Terry looked at me as though I had ferrets on my face and, surprisingly, said she was in. As my grandmother used to say, friends, never underestimate a gal in a Batman shirt. Two buses later, we were walking into the House of Targ where pinball dreams are found and lost for the price of pocket change. We didn’t quite know what we were getting ourselves into but, as is often the case in times of need, a man dressed as Pikachu appeared to show us the way. Unknown to Terry and I, the Pikachu had plans to recruit us into the madness that is the Ottawa Air Guitar Championships.
When I was a kid, like most teenagers with zero musical talent outside of being able to passably play “Three Blind Mice” on the recorder, many nights were spent in the dim light of my room rocking out to tunes like “Detroit Rock City”, “Sweet Child O’Mine”, “Crazy Train” and “Eyes of a Stranger” (Hey, it was the 80’s, lay off Queensrÿche!) In the teenage bedrooms across Canada we were all rock stars. You didn’t need to be able to play; you just needed to imagine you could.
Since 1996, however, Oulu, Finland has been trying to get you out of your room and into rock and roll reality -well, as much as pretending to play an invisible Strat while wearing a glow in the dark thong can be called reality. It is there that the Air Guitar World Championships are held and people from all over the globe come to participate. Canada’s branch started back in 2007, dying out briefly before Tim “Glen Airy Glen Rocks” Evans, 2007 Canadian Champion, brought it back in 2014. He’s been shipping Canucks off to Finland to follow their dreams ever since. Ottawa’s own Jason “Thrust” McNeely is a great example. He rocked all the way to Oulu last year after being crowned the Canadian king of air guitar in Toronto.
“Competing on the world stage was completely electric! You're in front of thousands of screaming people who are there to see you act like a rock star,” McNeely says. “Last year it was pouring rain, but over 8,000 people still showed up. It's such an amazing feeling to be up there. Nothing compares to it.”
“A good Air Guitarist is someone who can move, who loves the music and without an instrument can make a rock show come alive,” says Evans. “It's ridiculously fun. We keep it positive and light-hearted. It's actually a great way to enjoy your favourite guitar-based music. As you get into it you start to really want to push your performances into new places, find new songs, and explore the art form.”
To McNeely, a good actual guitarist is made by hours of practicing to master the instrument. An air guitarist, however, he says, needs only beer, passion, love, and beer. Back at Targ, Terry and I were about to discover that another three beers might be in order and quick! Pikachu, aka Freakachu, aka Sandy Gibson, was looking for what he calls “Brave Souls”, the fearless ones unprepared but willing to take one minute of their lives for the chance to live in air guitar infamy. Sure, there’s also the chance that one might make an utter fool of themselves but, he said, “when you’re playing air guitar you can’t be holding a gun.”
Somehow that seemed like sound enough logic for me. Besides, it was for a good cause with Gibson and other organizers of the event donating funds raised that evening to Right to Play, a global organization that “uses transformative power of play to educate and empower children facing adversity.” Plus, there was a ticket for a free beer if you signed up. Sold!
“A flair for the dramatic and willingness to be a goof,” Gibson says help with these types of competitions. “Knowing your song, actually making it look like you’re playing the guitar, innovative gestures, attitude, and crowd involvement” also help, he adds, and then motions us over to a table where we will sign our waiver.
Wait? What? Waiver? Three W’s attached to question marks most people probably never want to ever be faced with. The two page document began with the line: “I acknowledge that participating in this event or any other activity related involved INHERENT DANGERS, may be HAZARDOUS and involves RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURIES OR DEATH”. Those are their all caps, not mine.
Well, I thought, I gather even frolicking in a pool of ostrich feathers while eating Ben and Jerry’s can carry a few risks. Where do I sign? Nowhere, thankfully, did it request for my soul nor did the document need to be inked in my blood. In fact, I think I scrawled my signature with a Hello Kitty pen. Rock on!
I chose the Eagles “Hotel California” from a list that included “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Ace of Spades”, “Born to be Wild” and, for some bizarre reason, Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” At this point, if Terry was thinking how I only invited her to the event, not to shred on her own air guitar in front of a bunch of strangers, she didn’t say anything, signing away and selecting Heart’s “Crazy On You” to perform to. At least with her comic book t-shirt and shades she looked the part. I looked down at myself wondering how many guitarists, air or otherwise, became famous wearing khaki pants and Fruit of the Loom socks their dad got them for Christmas.
Wait, didn’t Hendrix start that way?
“So, when does this thing start anyway,” I asked, trying not to think too hard about my look.
“At 10,” the guy at the sign-up table said. I glanced at my phone. That was only 10 minutes away. Ack! I have to practice. Wait, how do I practice playing air?
“Cody, your perogies are ready,” came an announcement from above.
Sweat pooling, frantically trying to remember every lick of the “Hotel California” solo –I’d only get one random minute of the song to actually perform to– I turned to Justin Beauchamp in the seat next to me. He’d just moved to Ottawa from Montreal and was sporting a Macho Man t-shirt. Clothing baring 80’s wrestling icons is more than enough for me to strike up a conversation with you.
“This is one of the first things we saw a billboard for. I had to see what this was all about,” he told me. “Everybody has played air guitar in their bedrooms at one point in their lives, in their cars. I had to see it on stage.”
I mustered my best Randy Savage “Ohhh yeahhhh” in parting before being ushered into one of Targ’s back rooms along with the other participants where we would choose our performance order. It’s not every day you find yourself in a cramped office with a mime, a surgeon, a Pokémon and Little Black Riding Death. Oh yeah, the banana was there too. Each of us chose our stage name. I went first, immediately regretting the lack of imagination in going with my old CB radio handle, Havoc. After me there was Thelonius Star Brand, Sonic Song Bird, the Weekend Warrior and the Space Mime Continuum. Terry would choose the Blonde Terror and the only other female in the contest, the one dressed like a cute anime Grim Reaper, was Gen the Geek Girl.
“I think everyone has their own way of prepping themselves,” my mentor –even though I’d met him minutes ago– Jason McNeely says. “Personally, nothing beats a few cold India Pale Ales.”
He’d later nearly dent his skull with a beer can while showing us all how he took the air guitar world by a wet, beer soaked storm. I didn’t think I was ready to be that extreme just yet but I did need a costume. Thankfully, Gibson had brought a bin of props, clothing and wigs. There really wasn’t any time to ask if it had been washed or deloused. I picked up a brown wig, a green tie, some sunglasses Elton John wouldn’t wear and a plastic hook because, well, why not?
“Cody, your perogies are ready,” the announcement from above informed us again.
They began pumping the place with more smoke than a Vegas casino at 4AM, an Old Faithful eruption and what might accumulate if Cheech Marin ever threw a party for Bob Marley and Snoop Dog. The crowd walked over and encircled the performance area. Costume in hand and feeling fairly confident I knew the Eagles' tune alright, a surge of adrenaline suddenly welled up in me. You know, I thought, this isn't going to be disastrous. I've had years of practice doing this. That Macho Man shirt guy was right! Everybody can air guitar. Who knows, I might have a chance, I might rock this place, I might actually win and go to Fin…
Then I looked up at the banana and, pun very much intended, those dreams vanished into thin air. Never have I seen an oversized fruit man rock harder, his little flap tearing at the air, his hands perfectly playing his unseen axe. As I watched his face reddened into a purple/red hue, I knew I’d never beat the banana. I now had two choices: 1) make for the back door, change my name to Kanye and move to Mexico until nobody remembered I was the guy who ran away from the air guitar contest; or 2) roll with it, baby!
“Cody, your perogies are still ready!”
My stage name was called. I looked over at Terry, a mess of sweat from her performance a few songs ago. I glanced over at the judges table. McNelly was there along with Kristine Shadid from Crush Improv, Nancy Slater from Majic 100.3 and Suns of Stone guitarist Jimmy King. I slipped my hook over my left hand. It was time to make history.
Orrr, time to prance around like a fool for one minute suddenly realizing that in the span of time it took to walk from chair to stage I’d forgotten the entire song I’d chosen as well as the band that wrote it and the entire state mentioned in said song.
“Devil horns when ready,” I was told. I barely had time to question what that meant before the music started.
What transpired over the following minute is pretty hazy but I am told it involved me playing the wrong end of the air guitar with my plastic hook, two windmill motions that might account for the shoulder stiffness today, an attempt to play the tie as though it were a banjo and a whole lot of facial expressions usually made by power lifters or people who have recently dropped shot-puts onto their toes. I realized you never know how out of shape you are until you attempt to play an instrument that’s not really there at the speed you might use if being chased by a pack of panthers.
Still, it was a pretty amazing minute of ludicrous fun. You do just lose yourself in the moment. I could actually see the banjo in my hand even though I should have been picturing a 1960’s Les Paul. Suddenly, I was a kid again –an out of breath kid who probably should exercise a bit more, but a kid nevertheless.
The judges were kind. I scored slightly higher than Cody’s unclaimed plate of perogies.
The Mime, Star Brand and the others would have their moment to shine but the guitar heroine of the night would be Gen the Geek Girl. Her Baby Metal performance was nothing short of amazing. She even had her own pyro! From jumping up onto an empty chair while the crowd chanted for more, to her perfect combination of believable playing mixed with over the top reactions, Gen rocked like a gal who’d been practicing for 12 months. That’s because she had.
“I spent a lot of time listening to the exact same minute of the exact same song in the car and visualizing what I would do,” she would tell me later in the evening. “I thought of how I was going to move, what my hands would do but eventually you just get up on stage and throw that all out the window because you just let it take you over and you do whatever the hell you want to do.”
Geek Girl, whose real name is Genevieve LeBlanc, stumbled into the competition last year and realized it was something she had to try.
“It’s unsurprisingly vulnerable but also surprisingly empowering,” she says of what it felt like to finally perform after a year of practice. “There’s something to be said about getting up in front of a huge crowd of people and saying: this is me, this is who I am, and this is what I will do and you will enjoy it.”
By the time the final round ended –one where participants were unaware what song they would be doing– there was no doubt who had owned the night.
“Gen! Gen! Gen!” the crowd shouted. LeBlanc, who has her own game review radio show on Live 88.5, the Geek Girl Game Guide, was beside herself when the inevitable announcement of her win was declared by the judges.
“Anyone can do it, and everyone should,” said Evans. “We have a 73-year-old Mr. Bob who is quickly becoming a legend. We have trans people, corporate types, artists, comedians, teachers, office types. It's all for a good cause. Once people do it, they quickly get the point that it's just a fun way to show off and be a rock star for even one minute.”
Evans tells Ottawa Life that Gen’s next step will be to wow the judges in Toronto as she did in Ottawa then, if she wins there, it’s off to Finland!
“All love. No fear,” was LeBlanc’s advice to those thinking of partaking in their own path to air guitar glory. “If you want to go for it and you think it will bring something positive to the world, do it. Let yourself be happy.”
Three hours later, it’s four in the morning and the licks to “Hotel California” finally come back to me. I can’t sleep. I slip the headphones over my ears, crank up Queensrÿche, fingers at the ready, and I look towards next year, pausing only for a moment to wonder if Cody ever got his perogies.