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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.