There's a giant hole in the crotch of Mean Melin's pants.
Seconds ago, he hoisted an imaginary guitar over and behind his head, strumming the invisible strings to Motorhead's frantic metal anthem "Ace of Spades." Then he dropped to his knees — and this became a bust-out performance.
He's the last one onstage at the Kansas City regional air guitar finals June 9 at the Record Bar. He's tonight's favorite, although he faces stiff competition from Hammerin' Cock And Thunderin' Ballz, Longbottom Leaf, Banana Man, Dirk Tickler and Satanica.
And he's already banged up. He bruised his foot practicing and could barely walk last night, but now adrenaline, tape and a few beers have numbed the pain. He keeps playing despite the rip in his pants. His head bangs, whipping sweat from his floppy dark hair. His fingers slide up and down the neck of his air guitar. He windmills and hammers on the imaginary chords. His fist pumps.
He spots a beer cup sitting on the edge of the stage and punts it into the crowd, then executes a flying elbow drop to end his set.
The crowd erupts. Longbottom Leaf jumps onstage and bows to him. Another fan dives onstage just to touch his red Chuck Taylors.
A goofy smile crosses Mean Melin's face.
Air Guitar World Champion Hot Lixx Hulahan — the host of tonight's battle — gazes down at Melin's crotch.
"A testimony to his rock," Hulahan says, getting an eyeful of Melin's manhood. "Is that a fucking moose knuckle?"
Now it's time for the judging.
"I was going to give you less than what I was going to give you, but then you kicked that fucking cup," says judge Charlie Burt, who DJs around town.
"Yeah, he did!" a woman screams.
Burt raises a satanic score of 666.
"I think it was the behind-the-head that convinced me," says judge Lacey Storer, a former reporter for the St. Joseph News. "You are ready to play with the big boys." She raises a perfect 6.0.
"Goddamn right!" a woman yells.
Impressing the last judge, Türoque, isn't going to be easy. Türoque knows air and he knows "Ace of Spades." That much is clear from the opening moments of the 2006 documentary Air Guitar Nation, which shows the genesis of competitive air guitar in the United States and follows Türoque's heated rivalry with C-Diddy to become the first American to compete in the World Championships.
"I don't know, dude," Türoque says. "You guys thought that was all right?"
"Fuck, yes!" someone yells.
Türoque raises a 6.0.
"Mean Melin. Mean Melin. Mean Melin," the crowd chants.
They're cheering for a guy who just pretended to play guitar — and rocked their fucking faces off.
Mean Melin throws up the devil horns. He's going to the U.S. Air Guitar Championships in Washington, D.C., on August 7.
Friday night at Washington's 9:30 Club, Melin will shred against America's finest air guitarists to see if he's good enough to represent the United States against faux Van Halens from more than 20 countries at the 14th-annual World Air Guitar Championships August 19-21 in Oulu, Finland.
Some Finns started the air-guitar competition in 1996 with a goal of promoting world peace — they figured people couldn't hold guns if they were holding air guitars.
In 2002, a couple of Americans went to the World Championships; when they returned, they started running U.S. Air Guitar competitions across the country. They documented everything in 2003 (thus Air Guitar Nation), leading to the showdown between Türoque and C-Diddy, who wore a Hello Kitty breastplate. Clubs on the coasts sold out, and C-Diddy went on to become the United States' first Air Guitar World Champion.
Since then, organizers have added more cities and more competitions, and they've inducted a roster of hall-of-famers. Boone's Farm sponsored the latest tour, which included the first Kansas City regional competition in June.
That night at the Record Bar, Mean Melin's raw greatness was obvious from the moment his air roadies — Peter "Stiff" Dickens and Longbottom Leaf — cleared a path, leading him onstage for the first round. The roadies strapped on his air guitar, fired up an air joint, shot him up with air smack, and cut up lines of air coke. Melin threw an arm to the sky, and for the first time that night, there was a feeling that something big was about to happen. He thrashed through 60 seconds of a wailing solo in Megadeth's "Wake Up Dead," and ended by throwing his guitar in the air and letting it impale him. Türoque compared his performance with a coke high: It was over too soon.
Mean Melin had tapped into an invisible force: airness.
"It's where the art of mimicking the guitar transcends just faking the guitar and becomes an art form unto itself," Hot Lixx Hulahan explains.
"He has airness; there's no doubt about that," Hulahan says of Melin. "But he doesn't even know what he tapped into. ... With great power comes great responsibility. We'll see how he uses it."
Türoque adds: "It's probably best if one doesn't fully understand one's airness. It's like someone who knows they're hot. That's kind of annoying. I'm not going to mention any names of some champions we've found this season so far, except for [coughs] in Chicago, but he [Chicago winner Romeo Dance Cheetah] knows he's good and he has a little too much swagger. This guy [Melin], he's a dork. He wears fucking pants that he shouldn't be wearing. He had, like, a breached birth going on in his crotch in the second round, and it was great. ... I swear to God, I saw a crowning vagina at the end of his performance. And that's rare."
Türoque says Melin will be a contender at nationals.
"We're always looking for new talent. That's why we're driving around the country." He says he sees the same thing from the same people year after year. "But this guy. I felt like he brought something new. I thought he was great. He's got the technical ability. He's got stage presence coming out of his ass. It's like he sweats stage presence. Comes out like blackheads on his face. And airness. He's definitely on his way to some severe airness. I think he's good. He just needs to do a little practicing."
Eric Melin has lived the rock-and-roll dream.
Playing real drums instead of pretend guitars, he has chased rock stardom. He has played in bands; been signed to a major label; toured nonstop; headlined in Chicago, New York, Austin, Los Angeles and Little Rock; and been dropped by a major label. He still plays. His latest band, the Dead Girls, has an album coming out in September.
He started out playing trombone in the fifth grade, but that ended in a botched recital. Then he tried guitar. That didn't work, either.
"It was pretty obvious that I was born to be a drummer," Melin says. "Even though I want to be in front. I want to be the lead singer, but I can't sing. I want to be the guitar player, but I can't play guitar."
He saved $100 and bought an old five-piece Ludwig 1969 gold sparkle kit. He joined his first serious band, Truck Stop Love, after graduating from Olathe North High School in 1989 and moving to Manhattan, Kansas, to attend Kansas State University. Truck Stop Love tapped into the fuzz of Dinosaur Jr. but added rockabilly and country to the mix.
"None of us knew what we were doing," he says. "We were literally drunk every night. A bunch of long-haired guys wearing flannel shirts. You can imagine the stereotypes. We were out of control every night."
He quit K-State after two years so he could play with the band full time. It signed to Scotti Brothers Records, home of "Weird" Al Yankovic and Survivor, and released an EP in 1993.
Recording that EP with Joe Chiccarelli (who would go on to produce indie heroes the Shins' 2007 album, Wincing the Night Away), Melin let his ego take over. He says he made the label fly his "shitty drum set" to the studio in Santa Monica. He didn't realize that when recording, he was supposed to use nice instruments because he was making something that would last forever.
"I was so dead-set on not selling out," Melin says.
Chiccarelli humored him and set up the drums.
"We did the first track," Melin says. "He said, 'Come into the studio and listen to it.' He played it for me, and it sounded like shit."
"Can we put the real drums up now?" Melin remembers Chiccarelli saying.
"That's how green I was," he says. "We didn't know what the fuck we were doing."
Two years later, they put out a full-length. How I Spent My Summer Vacation was co-produced by Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and sound engineer Jeff Powell in the Memphis studio where Big Star had recorded all of its albums. It was, Melin says, "a really big fucking deal for us because we're big fans of Big Star. I'm really proud of that record."
But Truck Stop Love broke up around 1997. Melin went on tour with Lawrence's Kill Creek but didn't see the band going anywhere. When the Kill Creek tour ended, he joined Manhattan pop-rock kingpins Ultimate Fakebook.
"It was like starting all over, from the ground up," Melin remembers. "It was brutal. Shitty shows. ... But the music was amazing, and I knew we were going to get somewhere."
The band released albums on Lawrence label Noisome, won an ASCAP competition and threw its winnings into radio promotion. This led to a spot on the CMJ Festival, and the band toured with the Get Up Kids. Epic Records noticed and signed the group in December 1999, and Fakebook's first album was out by July 2000.
But Epic dropped the band in 2001 when a new vice president took over at the label and cleaned house.
Still, Melin never had to worry about money. Despite the loss of the Epic contract, the band was a full-time job, turning out records on independent labels and touring with MxPx and Nada Surf. Eventually, though, it split up, too.
Melin went to work at a dog-food factory. And he went back to get a film degree at the University of Kansas in 2004. About the same time, he and J.D. Warnock started Scene-Stealers, a cable-access movie-review TV show in Lawrence, doing 11 shows before turning it into a Web site in 2005. He also helped start his latest band, the Dead Girls.
Even after all that, he says, "Air guitar is how I enjoy live music. It's what my body does naturally when I listen to rock. You know how you put on a Halloween costume, and suddenly it empowers you to do stuff you wouldn't normally do? The air-guitar persona is the rock star I've wanted to be since I first saw a video of Kiss when I was growing up — confident, bigger than life, pulling out all the moves on a big stage with thousands of screaming fans."
Not only does Melin know the real rock-and-roll life, but he's also accustomed to high-stakes competition.
In 2007, he and a couple of buddies were contestants on VH1's World Series of Pop Culture. In the first round, Melin was the hero. His partners had been eliminated, but he knocked out all three members of the other team. Then, in the semifinals, he missed a softball: He forgot the infamous "hair gel" moment in There's Something About Mary.
The next year, he made the cut for movie week on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. By the second episode, he had won $75,000 and was going for $100,000. The question: Which one of these four films isn't a Merchant Ivory production?
A. The Golden Bowl
C. The Wings of the Dove
D. Surviving Picasso
"I had two lifelines left, and I told myself: 'Don't answer anything you don't know for sure.' And I had already gone against that once and had won." He used his option to phone a friend. She sounded confident of the answer, but he asked whether she was sure. "And she said Surviving Picasso again. I'm like, 'All right.'"
His friend was wrong. Melin went down to $25,000.
Millionaire's producers kicked him out of the studio — standard practice after a contestant loses. For three hours, Melin walked around Central Park dwelling on his loss. Then it hit him. He remembered Billy Crystal on the Oscars, joking about how much The Wings of the Dove looked like a Merchant Ivory production but wasn't. He also thought about what Millionaire's producers had told him: "After you win $25,000, we do not want you to win any more — we're trying to trick you, and if you think you know the answer but you're not sure, you're probably wrong."
In retrospect, Melin says, he called his friend because he just wanted someone else to make the decision for him. "I had gotten all that way by myself, and it was so much pressure."
Now, once again, the pressure is on.
"My persona is all about confidence," he explains, a month before the U.S. finals. The competition may be ridiculous, "but since we are having it, I'm going to try my damnedest to win," he says.
"I take air guitar as seriously as anybody, but I'm not going to walk around in my Mean Melin persona and kick drinks over and be like, 'I'm better than all you guys, so fuck you.'"
The difference between Mean Melin and Eric Melin, he explains, is that "Mean" is a literal nickname given to him for, as he puts it, "incidents relating to too much tequila in the early '90s."
Eric Melin, meanwhile, "is a pretty laid-back guy" who really just wants to be taken seriously as a movie critic.
For now, though, he's concentrating on air guitar.
At Melin's Lawrence farmhouse, the yard is a lush, green, wide-open space. The sun is beginning to hang on the horizon. On a boombox, Melin's 60-second edit of "Wake Up Dead" plays on a loop. He jumps into his practice.
He's not sure whether he'll stab himself with his guitar for the grand finale or just catch it and go into a hot 15-second solo.
"At this point, I've identified two problem moments in the song," he says.
He needs to work on the timing of catching his guitar near the end. He's also having trouble throwing his ax over his shoulder, catching it and executing a kick.
Practice lasts about 12 minutes.
"I'm already tired," he pants. "The other problem is getting through it all the way."
For now, he focuses on nailing small parts. "Once I do the routine from beginning to end, I can't walk anymore. I've got to sit down."
Melin knows that everything he does has to be bigger than life. He watches his reflection in the patio's glass door. He keeps doing the move over and over, kicking his leg up after he catches the air ax.
"That was closer," he says. "That was closer."
He has seen the competition. He has watched the YouTube videos of hall-of-famers "Big Rig" (the word "air" lights up on his ass) and William Ocean.
"I have to look like I fucking mean it."
He marches toward the glass door, watching his facial expressions, as the song comes to an end. He throws his fist in the air in triumph.
He's trying to figure out how to make it look like his imaginary guitar is smoking from his hot playing — an homage to Kiss spaceman Ace Frehley. He knows that smoke bombs didn't work for Türoque because he read Türoque's book, To Air Is Human. But maybe smoke bombs will work for him.
His girlfriend, Jodi Gentry, shows up. She's blond and pretty and seems amused by, but supportive of, his quest.
"She's used to me doing ridiculous shit," he says. "Most people don't do it. Nobody even tries. I'm the guy that always tries. ... Rarely do you get the opportunity to do incredibly stupid things, and I try to take advantage of all those opportunities. Why not?"
He's borrowing an old Ozzy Osbourne Black Sabbath outfit from a friend who played in a Sabbath tribute band. The pants are white with black triangles at the bottom. They seem durable. Everything he wears will be black and white. He has a black, cutoff Mean Melin shirt. He bought new, black Chuck Taylors and gel inserts.
"I think it's going to look really sharp," he says. "Kind of going for more of a sharp-cool look than a goofy-dumbass look like some of them have going."
If he makes it to the second round, he might change into a black, long-sleeved shirt with white tassels hanging from the arms. Right now, it's too small, and his belly hangs out of the bottom. He's also worried that if his arms are covered in black sleeves, they'll disappear in the background.
He's seeing a massage therapist because he threw out his neck while headbanging. If only he were 10 years younger, he says he could be retiring now. He can't touch his toes.
"It's ridiculous because I'm so out of shape," he says. "It's just taxing on my body."
"Isn't this how you hurt yourself the first time?" asks Nick Colby, who played roadie "Stiff" Dickens at the Record Bar. Melin is walking across the concrete patio to the grass.
Members of the Dead Girls and others have gathered at the farmhouse for an unofficial "dress rehearsal" and critique session.
"Different shoes, buddy," Melin says coolly, showing off his new Chuck Taylors. His pants fit, and a Kiss belt keeps them in place. The Mean Melin shirt looks wicked, with a screen print of his maniacal scowl.
Just three weeks before the competition, there's a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time. If his bandmates don't understand his act, then the D.C. judges won't, either. Being a newbie, he'll be one of the first onstage. He'll have to impress them early. He'll have one advantage: He has played the 9:30 Club before, on a couple of tours with Ultimate Fakebook.
Everyone is here to tell him what works — and what doesn't.
"Wake Up Dead" pounds from his stereo system — he has upgraded from the boombox to his basement stereo system, which is turned up loud so everyone can hear it outside.
Melin breaks into his act and throws the guitar in the air and catches it at the end.
"Yes!" screams Dead Girl JoJo Longbottom (aka Longbottom Leaf).
"What if you catch it on your knees, and you're Chuck Berrying it?" Longbottom asks and then demonstrates. Longbottom and Colby know that the ending needs more oomph. They run through ideas. Should he hump it? Catch it in his mouth like a sword swallower and puke it up?
"I don't like this swallowing bit at all," Melin says. "Getting impaled in the chest is cooler. I just haven't found a way to make it work yet."
Gentry loves the impaling end. She thinks it's just what he needs to put the act over. But how does he pull out the guitar? Or does he play it through his back?
Colby shows him how to play the guitar while pulling it out.
Should he die? Or should he end by triumphantly surviving? Melin practices his death roll. Does it work? It still needs something extra. Someone suggests blood. He had thought about it but didn't know how to make it work.
"In theory, it's awesome. But how is the blood going to go everywhere?" Melin asks.
They talk about stitching a blood packet into his shirt. But he doesn't want to look like he has one giant man boob. Warnock, his fellow Scene-Stealers movie reviewer, leaves and comes back a minute later with a plastic baggie filled with water and slaps it on his chest. It splatters everywhere.
Everyone loves it.
"That'd be fucking hot," someone says.
Melin is skeptical.
Colby fills up a handful of baggies with water. Melin starts from the beginning, covertly pulling the baggies out of his back pocket while swinging his imaginary guitar around his neck. He tosses the guitar and lets it impale him. On impact, he smashes the baggie on his chest. Water sprays everywhere.
"The guy in the front row just got a face load of blood," Colby says. Everyone is loving it.
They show him how to make the blood spray and how to make sure it covers the print of his face on his T-shirt.
Then he switches to the other move. The swing-and-catch-and-kick. Colby tells him that he's kicking with the wrong leg. But Melin has the step wired into his brain.
It's going to take reprogramming. He runs through it several times. He nails the kick. He misses it. It's a mix. There's still a lot of work to do.
He's been practicing for more than an hour. It's getting dark. He's soaked in sweat.
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