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The Air Guitarist
“OK RUN THIS BY ME ONE MORE TIME. We’re stuck in traffic, in a 20-something-foot U-Haul heading toward a storage facility.”
“Lockyer-Own Self Storage to be precise,” Wülf Noodleman said, adjusting the mirror to better judge the space between the side panel of the too-wide truck and the passenger side door of a too-wide SUV.
“And what exactly are we’re picking up?”
“His guitars. His amp. His lighting gear – his whole rig.”
“Rig? Lowell doesn’t even play an instrument.”
“Tell that to the winner of the Contra Costa County Air Guitar Championship.”
“Oh my Gawd. And you had the nerve to tell Lowell you were worried I couldn’t handle the weight?”
Wülf set the emergency brake at a red-light and faced Jennifer Lovejoy, a Goth girl, pretty enough that one could excuse the black ankle length crinoline skirt on a late spring morning, but nonetheless inappropriately dressed to haul musical equipment. “Yeah, so he plays the, well, the air-guitar, but we create the vibe. We’re his talismans, his lucky charms. Since Lowell won that tournament last month, he’s been challenged by every top air-guitarist from here to the Olympic peninsula. You can make up to a grand for winning one of these contests, hook up with a sponsor – one guy even got a spot on Letterman. Every little bit that we can do to generate the rock star experience gives him that much more of an edge.”
“Ha. What do they get from the sponsor? Invisible Stratocasters? Look at him there on his cell phone talking to his, uh, manager, sandwiched between Jade and that slut Jasmine.” She scowled at Lowell Coxhull, who was framed in the rear window of the car in front, smoking a cigarette, flicking back his brown, Frampton-esque mane. The brake light of his rented Mustang accentuated the golden highlights on the ringlets of his perm. He leaned over and pretended to do a line of coke off of Jasmine Jump’s silicon breasts.
After pausing for several stop lights and some hotrod antics from Nic Watts, the lead-footed, donut-swerving chauffer of Lowell’s entourage, they arrived at Lockyer-Own Self Storage and pulled up to a large container. The guitarist and his mates stumbled out the car in a meteor shower of sequins and cigarette smoke clutching alcopops and each other in a scene lifted straight out of a day in the life of the Libertines.
“Wülf! My may-yun! Yee-aa-yuuh! 10-Four good buddy, pull that big ole rig up here yee-ay-uh.” Dressed in a silky white top that was open to his navel and tight white pants that poured themselves into a pair of shiny gold lame encrusted boots Lowell motioned the van into position. The erstwhile groupies giggled and groped one another as they stumbled into a heap against the hood of the Mustang.
“Are those real alcopops Lowell, or just a figment of your imagination?” Jenny sneered.
“Well if it isn’t the daughter of doom herself,” he said. “Hang on princess. Nic, grab Jenny a Smirnoff Ice and let her be the judge of that.” He swung his hair around and admired his assembled road crew. Wülf jumped from the cab of the U-Haul with a boom box, which he set on the hood, and cranked up a song by Monster Magnet, eliciting an arpeggio of impromptu air-guitar from the delighted axe-man.
The ogre-like Wülf, dressed in the Hell’s Angels chic favored by Role Playing Game enthusiasts, strode to the back of the truck and opened the heavy rollup door. He unhooked the portable ramp from under the bed of the truck, and angled it towards the container entrance. Hopping into the back, he readied it for the largest pieces of equipment, which he preferred to pack toward the front wall panel, “for ballast.” Meanwhile, Nic opened the door onto an impressive array of air-amplifiers, air-synthesizers, air-dry-ice machines, and Lowell’s second to none rack of vintage air-guitars. The friends walked around the empty container, careful not to trip over an imaginary cord or speaker cabinet. The last time they visited the unit, Butterfly, an ex-groupie, made the mistake of stepping on one of Lowell’s cherished invisible harmonicas, a relic from his short-pants days as an air-banjoist with a group of campy pranksters known as the ‘Not Ready for the Grand Ole Opry Players.’
While the roadies strategized how they were going to lift the phantom stack of Marshall Amps, Jenny hovered at the rear, hugging her black bodice. When Jade Pierce, the younger of the two groupies, coquettishly sought Lowell’s help with a microphone stand that couldn’t have weighed more than, well, it was make believe, Jenny couldn’t contain her sarcasm any longer. “Oooh Lowell, help me lift this will you, you’re so strong.”
“Back off Jenny, nobody asked you anyway,” Coxhull snarled.
“Take it easy Lowell, I just don’t want you to break a fingernail and spoil your vibrato.”
“OK that’s enough,” Wülf dropped his end of a pretend lighting rack, sending Nic sprawling under its full weight. He grabbed Jenny by the arm, where his grip left a very real red mark, and pulled her behind the truck. Jenny had other ideas though, as Jasmine observed when she dropped to her knees to spy on the couple as they argued. “How dare you grab me like that? Did you see that little tart back there? Doesn’t that make you want to puke?” Jenny paced back and forth ranting; swinging her arms and tugging at her Wicca inspired pewter jewelry. “What the hell is Lowell’s deal? And why do you guys follow him around like he’s some sort of monster of rock or something?”
“Dammit, Jenny, quit dissing my friends. We’re trying to have a little fun before tonight’s gig. I know it isn’t real, he knows it isn’t real, but if he wins we all get to party with the proceeds. What the hell’s wrong with that? And what’s your beef with Lowell and Jade anyhow? Is there something you need to tell me?”
“Oh my GAWD... Now you’re really imagining things. That I would have any interest in that poodle haired fake artist is... Take me home right now. You and your imaginary friend’s have gone way too far this time.”
“I’ve got a job to do Jenny, so either ask Lowell for his cell-phone and call a taxi, or drop the attitude and give us a hand. You’re acting like a spoiled assed brat and the act is really getting old.” Wülf stood his ground while Jenny circled, preparing to deliver one final blow.
“OK, Mr. Make Believe, or is it Elderoth?” she said, mocking his Dungeons and Dragons handle. “Go and play with your imaginary friends, in their imaginary world and help your fake friend win his pathetic air-guitar contest.”
Wülf stopped cold and clenched his fists. If there was one thing he didn’t like, it was being teased by his D and D moniker. (It “sapped life-force” from his avatar and risked “invoking an energy terminus.”) Jenny prepared for the worst. “OK, if that’s the way you want it, you’re off the crew. Go sit in the cab while we pack. Stay away from the groupies, stay away from Lowell, and most of all, stay away from me.”
Jenny whelped, and cast a maudlin glance at Wülf before climbing into the passenger seat of the truck. He slammed the door behind her and paused to gather his emotions, which in his girlfriend’s hands had suffered a beating. She watched him through the rear view mirror walk back to join the crew and gathering her knees to her chest, turned on the radio to block it all out.
Meanwhile, the friends continued packing the van. It didn’t take long for them to summon back the good vibes. The girls kept the roadies entertained with their over-the-top groupie impersonations, Nic and Wülf hauled equipment into the back of the truck, and Lowell polished the necks of his guitars. Jasmine simulated rolling a joint, and pantomimed blowing an erotic shotgun of smoke into Jade’s pliant mouth, before passing the doobie to the boys. It was all going to plan. The amps stacked up perfectly in the back of the truck and the lighting gear, while awkward, was loaded without breaking a bulb – a first to Wülf’s recollection. When Jenny heard the footfalls of Wülf’s Doc Martens as he loaded an invisible synthesizer into the rear of the truck, her heart ached on account of the hurt feelings she’d caused him.
A few alcopops and a pretend slug of whiskey later, the gang broke into a chorus of I Believe in a Thing Called Love which echoed beyond the hollow container unit across the grounds of Lockyer-Own Self Storage. Even Jenny had to smile at the racket they were making. The good feelings, and the glorious awfulness of the song made her rethink her position on the whole imaginary affair and she decided to give it another go. Lowell winked at her as she walked back into the container, and the girls toasted her as they sang.
“You look like you could use a hand,” she said to Wülf, who was hoisting a mixing board onto his thighs.
Wülf looked up, suspicious at first, but he melted as she smiled and caressed his furry face with her sparkling gray eyes. “Alright, but be careful where you lift it. Last time Nic mangled a fader bar when we were lifting it onto the stage.” They shared a knowing laugh and Jenny tiptoed to kiss him on the forehead.
The work continued apace. With another helping hand the truck was being packed in record time. “The quicker we work, the more time we got at the bar,” Nic explained.
Jenny made up for lost time and volunteered for the tedious yet essential task of winding up the imaginary electric chords and amp cables. She helped the girls sort the plectrums and spare guitar strings, and was relieved when she noticed an obvious squeal of irony from Jasmine when she pretended to deep throat an invisible microphone. This was going to be all right, she thought. As long as you go with the flow, it’s actually quite funny.
As the last box was packed away, the friends hugged and cheered as Lowell broke into a kick ass performance of We Will Rock You. At the end of the guitar solo, Jenny grabbed Wülf and they made out to the cheers of the entire crew.
With their car stereos blasting, the entourage assembled in the seats of the tour caravan and headed toward Lowell’s gig.
Sticky Fingerz, a roadhouse nestled at the foot of Altamont Pass, was swarming with air-guitarists, pretend roadies, and virtual groupies. As greasy and grizzled as a biker’s beard Fingers was a patched corrugated tin bunker with a muscle-car bound heavy metal parking lot, with a bar that overlooked a pressboard and plywood dance floor with a 30 by 20 foot stage. It was the type of crappy concert hall that broke up many a covers band, but for an army of air-guitarists it was nothing less than the Hollywood Bowl.
Lowell’s crew unloaded the truck, careful not to mix Lowell’s rig with the competing guitarists’ gear. Wülf and Nic traded beers and war stories with several of the rival roadies and the three girls stared down every made up, blown up, halter-topped tart who came within flirting distance of their men. Lowell was clearly in his element air-autographing invisible guitars for a horde of young fans, strutting his stuff in front of the erstwhile Satrianis, Vais and Iommis who were his rivals.
After the wet t-shirt contest queen was crowned an enthusiastic introduction from a well known local emcee got the competition underway. Lowell and crew smirked through a Slowhand-era Eric Clapton impersonator, and winced at a Rush acolyte who faked guitar over obvious organ parts. They applauded a parolee whose Ace of Spades was riddled with angst that only prison time could provide and clapped politely for a young woman who conjured a perfect Emmylou Harris - only to be disqualified for “insufficient use of tremolo and effects.” But as the evening progressed, with the back slaps and autographs, the hugs and the handshakes, it was clear to all but the vainest, self-delusory performer: reining champ Lowell was who the crowd had come to see.
And then, allowing for a ten-minute pause to set up the stage, it was Lowell’s turn to go on. Wülf and Nic hustled the amps, the stage monitors, the lighting rig and the imaginary drummer’s array of fancy equipment into place. They threaded invisible cables and wires with the precision of rank and file union gaffers. They tightened the skins on the drums and tuned the guitar to the key of G “the way Thurston likes it.” Lowell went onstage before the lights went up moving several of his biggest fans to spontaneous cheers. It was during these breaks, before the performance that he liked to work the crowd, to get a sense of what they liked. Were they a Zeppelin crowd or Black Sabbath? Were they wild for wah-wah pedals, or were they whammy bar types? It was the thinnest of lines to thread. And while you could only please half a crowd with a particular artist or song, you had to hook the other half with style, technique and if need be, histrionics. “It didn’t hurt Hendrix any,” he liked to say.
Meanwhile Jenny was back at the bar. The drinks were flowing and though she would never have admitted it earlier, enjoyed soaking up the good vibes (and jealous looks) that came with being part of Lowell’s entourage.
“Hey, Cruella De Vil?” teased a blonde girl in pig tails and a tight t-shirt. “You with that creep Lowell?”
“Yeah that’s right, Daisy Duke. Who are you with? Your cousin?”
“You’re with Lowell’s crew?” a biker in sunglasses and a ZZ-Top beard said. “Have a Budweiser on me.” He handed Jenny a drink and they clicked bottles. She took a long sip and turned her attention to the stage.
Lowell paced the floor checking his gear, primping, preening - giving the devil's horn salute to his fans. He buffed the fret board of his beloved ’58 Stratocaster – the same model Eddie Van Halen pretended to play in his bedroom before he actually knew how. But despite his confident exterior, he knew something wasn’t quite right. He couldn’t explain his trepidation on his own, so he motioned his friends away from their roadie duties and gathered them at the back of the stage.
“Ok guys talk to me. What’s up? Something ain’t right.”
“I don’t know Lowell, I think it’s going great,” Wülf said with a shrug.
“The crowd’s digging it,” said Jasmine.
“Aw Lowell, you got ‘em wrapped around your finger, and you haven’t even played a note,” Jenny said, giddy from an intoxicating blend of beer and attention.
Suddenly the footlights dimmed and the emcee’s theme music started. A spotlight hit the stage like a comet, illuminating the host.
“Alright everybody! Are you ready to RAAAAWK?” The crowd erupted in a thunderous chorus of cheers and started chanting Lowell’s name in unison.
“Oh God,” Lowell said, panicking. “I can’t do this. I… I…"
“It’s cool man,” Wülf said. “You’re solid. Ready to go.”
“What’s the song?”
“You know, Space Lord. Monster Magnet.
When the emcee finished his introduction the spotlight swung around the stage, searching for Lowell. Just as the ball of light touched the fringe of his mohair boots, he panicked. “Hang on. My stomp box dude! Where’s my Buzzbox Guyatone effects pedal? Oh my GAWD! Who forgot to pack the effects pedal?” The roadies, the groupies, everyone in the crew froze as the spotlight landed on top of them like an interrogation lamp.
“The Buzzbox Guyatone effects pedal.”
“The Buzzbox Guyatone effects pedal?”
“The Buzzbox Guyatone effects pedal!” The crew gasped. They turned and queried the reluctant roadie.
The Goth girl furrowed her brow and drank deep from her Budweiser. She ransacked the storage unit, rifled through the folds of imaginary packing blankets and checked the wheel wells of the back of the truck of her mind. She sought clues in the faces of the crowd. The guy who tried to pick her up outside the bathroom. The punk chick that pretended she’d taken her beer by accident. She considered the slags and rednecks who were loitering a little too close to Lowell’s gear. His rig, she thought and burped silently.
“Don’t everybody look at me,” she said and combed her memory for where she could have left it behind.
About the author
Peter Allison is the author of the novel Lockyer Self Storage, 2011, Ninth & Broad Press for sale on Lulu.