Like all professional air guitarists, Andrew Litz (a/k/a William Ocean) struggles to define the concept of “airness,” the intangible third criterion by which artists of his ilk are judged. The two others? No problem. Despite his inability to play an actual guitar—”Not a lick,” he admits—Mr. Ocean squeaks by in the “technical ability” category and excels at “stage presence,” a skill honed through karaoke contests (a triumphant performance of Billy Ocean’s “Carribean Queen” inspired his stage name) and a bit of college theater work, climaxing with his role as the “badass Russian constable” in
Fiddler on the Roof.
“Not a major role,” the 27-year-old admits on lunch break in Hell’s Kitchen from his job as an event planner. “But an essential one.”
Right. So. Airness. “Everybody kind of has their own definition,” Ocean muses. “When I’m done with a performance, what is the reaction of the crowd? You’ve just been onstage for 60 seconds playing—nothing. If it’s just average applause, cheers, OK. Fair performance. But if the crowd is screaming and possibly bleeding—just an eruption of emotion—that’s a perfect airness score. If you’re able to convince the audience that you’re playing a guitar—you are actually performing this song. Very elusive.”
It is Thurday afternoon. Roughly ten hours from now, a shirtless William Ocean—the word air shaved into his chest hair—will shock a sold-out Bowery Ballroom with a full standing flip onto his back that crushes an empty beer can he has set onstage. He will then leap on someone’s shoulders and be carried like a conquering hero through the rapturous crowd, returning to the stage only to reveal the American-flag-print Speedos lurking beneath his sparkly pants, as his audience gleefully dissolves into a sea of pumped fists and cries of “Ocean! Ocean! Ocean!” All this will occur while he mimics the guitar solo to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
And thus is airness defined.
This year, Ocean’s obsession has inspired a full-length film ( Air Guitar Nation, unveiled at the Tribeca Film Fest) and To Air Is Human, the forthcoming memoir by Björn Türoque, regarded within the discipline as a sort of Dan Marino/Jay-Z figure: fantastic ability, highly beloved, but never quite able to win the big one, and now prematurely retired. Björn is our Bowery Ballroom evening’s emcee for the 2006 U.S. Air Guitar Championships, wherein the victors in various regional qualifiers—such as Austin’s Thunderpants the Destroyer, Chicago’s Nordic Thunder, San Francisco’s Hot Lixx Hulahan, and New York City’s very own William Ocean—clash gloriously. The winner goes on to the big one: the Air Guitar World Championships. In Finland.
At last year’s nationals in L.A., Ocean (then representing Chicago) and Türoque were bested in the finals by hometown hero Rockness Monster, who got obliterated in Norway by some dude from Holland. American pride is now at stake. We must reclaim the prize. The Bowery’s judging panel—the co-founder of Vice magazine, a Daily Show correspondent, an Atlantic A&R rep, and 2004 Air Guitar world champ Sonyk-Rok—will thus be brutally tough on contestants.
Ocean had anticipated this, though, and over lunch discusses his intense training regimen: loads of Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, and AC/DC on his iPod as he runs through a workout routine of deep knee bends, splits, and stretches. He has come a long way from his adolescence, spent unconsciously playing air guitar along to the Beverly Hills 90210 theme. He is through fucking around. “I’m kind of known as the guy who goes up onstage and batters his body,” Ocean says. “I’m leaving it all on the stage. I plan on leaving on a stretcher.”
This is not irony. It is, however, absurd. “It’s kind of ridiculous, to tell you the truth,” William admits of his ascending celebrity. “CNN came to my house last night.”
But at the Bowery, Ocean stumbles out of the gate. The first round consists of a 60-second song snippet chosen by the contestant; William, picked to go first, unleashes a spirited mediation on Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” that nonetheless lacks in, yes, airness. We sense he is holding back, as do the judges, who assign him middling grades within a scoring system ranging from 4.0 to 6.0. As only five advance from the initial field of thirteen, his legion of fans fear a quick exit.
Fortunately, his competition varies in quality. Many performers merely violently shake their right hands over their groins in a weak pantomime of “shredding”—when confronted with relative amateurs, it’s alarming to note the similarity between air guitar and masturbation. This is probably not a coincidence. “There’s a difference between playing air guitar and fingering your mother,” jeers the Vice guy to one particularly hapless contestant; informed the contestant’s mother is present, he adds, “She must be exhausted.”
A few potential champions do emerge, however. S.F.’s Hot Lixx Hulahan veers splendidly from mariachi strumming to speed-metal thrash, flinging his sombrero off to punctuate the transition. New L.A. rep Count Rockula combines Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”–era visual aesthetic with Alien Ant Farm’s nu-metal remake. The “collegiate” champion—Zombie à la Rainbow, Esq.—scores high mostly by terrifying everybody. And soon six contestants move on to round two, as William is barely clinging to a tie for fifth.
Now, a “random” song is chosen (over lunch, William confided that he was predicting G N’ R), and the finalists take turns interpreting it—like the air-Goldberg Variations. Tonight’s selection is fertile for interpretation: “Enter Sandman.” Once again, Ocean goes first. The chest hair, the flip, the beer can, the crowd procession, the Speedos. Armageddon. By orders of magnitude the night’s most triumphant performance, this calamity earns Ocean three 6.0’s and a holdout 5.9 from Sonyk-Rok. Though five “Sandman” variations remain, we assume it’s all anticlimax—only Hot Lixx Hulahan asserts himself by leaping offstage and upstairs to the Bowery balcony where the judges are perched, knocking over drinks and clinging precariously to the railing as he gesticulates. Incredibly, he too earns three 6.0’s and a 5.9, and though both the crowd and, eventually, the judges call for an “air-off” betwixt the two foes, Björn Türoque sheepishly reminds us of the rules: The scores from both rounds are added together. William Ocean finishes fourth. Hot Lixx Hulahan is going to Finland.
There is a brief period of consternation and beer-tossing after this announcement; Ocean is uncontestably the night’s star attraction. But whether due to good sportsmanship or air fatigue, we soon acquiesce, and the evening ends with a robust all-air-shredders-welcome onstage jam to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Ocean, stripped now to just the flag Speedo, is a prominent figure in the throng, noble, resilient, defiant. An American hero who, even in controversial defeat, leaves it all onstage.