Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Air Guitar & the Birth of Harvey Wahlbanger

“Wait…what?  That’s a real thing?”

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that over the last few months, I’d be rich.  Yes, air guitar is a real thing…and it is glorious!  I performed in my first two competitions over the last couple of weeks and it was one of the greatest, if not also one of the most unique, things that I have ever done.  I am excited to do it again and again.  Before we get into that, though, I thought a little history of my story would be good.

The Genesis

Just a few years ago, I was just like you.  I had never heard of a real air guitar competition.  Obviously we’ve all done it, whether in the car or in front of the mirror, but never in front of an audience…and never being judged in competition!  This wasn’t even a real thing…or is it?

I first heard about the competition a couple of years ago at, of all places, my son Marshall’s day care.  He had taken a liking, and somewhat protective role, to a new girl in his class.  Lily had just moved from Chicago and was struggling with the adjustment to a new day care.  Marshall decided that she needed the one thing that makes him comfortable every morning; fruit snacks.  Every morning, without fail, Marshall would bring a bag of fruit snacks for her and try to make sure she was okay.  After a couple of weeks, I ran into Lily’s mom, Tina.  We introduced ourselves and explained the story behind the fruit snacks she kept receiving.

Flying Finn - My Mentor
This was all very sweet, but how does this bring us to air guitar?  Well once I met Lily’s dad, it all started to come together.  Andrew, better known in the air guitar community as Flying Finn, and I met and started talking.  As always, it starts with very basic conversation, but then transitioned to air guitar once I saw his shirt.  I was intrigued, yet was completely befuddled at what he was describing.  As soon as I got in front of a computer, I started to look him up on YouTube.  I also started pouring through the US Air Guitar website.  It started to blow my mind and I couldn’t look away.  I started considering it, but had yet to fully commit to it all.  During the summer of 2013, Andrew mentioned that he will be hosting a qualifying round in Des Moines and encouraged me to attend.  Unfortunately I had softball that night and was unable to attend, but was starting to consider it more and more.

All it took to push me over the edge to compete was beer, Cards Against Humanity and professional wrestling.  We went over to hang out with their family and, while the kids played downstairs, we started playing cards and drinking.  Eventually the conversation turned to air guitar and Andrew was in full recruitment mode.  I think he saw my rising interest and continued encouraging my participation.  He said one thing that sealed the deal, “It’s a lot like pro wrestling…”  I didn’t hear the rest of the comment.  As a 30 year wrestling fan, that was all it took for me to buy in.  That moment I committed and was ready to roll.

Choosing A Song and Finding My Character

As soon as we left that night, my mind immediately started searching for the perfect song (round one is a one minute song of your choosing, round two could be anything).  Every time I got in the car or played on my iPod, I was listening for anything to jump out.  Then, while watching WWE, it hit me.  Cult of Personality, CM Punk’s entrance theme, hit and I immediately knew this was it.  It was a song I knew, loved and could really get into.  It was comfortable enough for me to feel confident when I hit the stage for the first time.  Andrew was able to cut it down to a minute for me and I was on my way.

The next part was finding the character.  You see, everyone in air guitar has a character.  Whether it is Nordic Thunder, Bjorn Turoque, Lieutenant Facemelter or the many others…there’s always a character.  Ryan Wahl isn’t stepping on stage; someone I create and portray will be.  I began by thinking of words that associated with my last name.  Rock Wahl.  Brick Wahl.  Great Wahl.  They all were fun but too basic for my taste.  Then, my excessive drinking history from college came into play.  It hit me like a ton of bricks…Harvey Wahlbanger.  The name just resonated with me.  It was fun.  It was crazy.  It was easy to chant.  Boom!  We have a name.

Harvey Wahlbanger's
first appearance
In all honesty, creating an image was the most difficult aspect of the creation phase.  Finding a song and creating a name is easy.  You just have to think a little bit and let something hit you.  Creating the image that you’re known for is complex and difficult to figure out.  The one thing I knew is that my attire would likely be inspired by pro wrestling.  So I went to a local craft store and just started walking around, looking for inspiration.  Then it all started coming together:

Shorts with my name down the leg.
- Sleeveless jacket with a bunch of sequins, a combination of the Macho Man and Chris Jericho.
- Feather boa inspired by Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
- Sunglasses
- Bandanna
Custom Guitar Picks…yep, that happened.

The only issue was finding my color.  Flying Finn had yellow.  Iron Dragon had purple.  It just went on and on.  Looking into it I realized that no one had orange, which is my wife Rachel’s favorite color.  So as homage to her, that became my color.  After hours of work, my costume was complete.  Harvey Wahlbanger was complete and ready to unleash into the air guitar world, but how would he get introduced?

Introducing Harvey Wahlbanger

Yet again, Andrew came to my rescue.  He’s really been my mentor and guide through this process.  I feel somewhat guilty relying on him so much, but you use your resources, right?  I received the following e-mail:

Old school wrestling-style interview video of you calling out current Des Moines champ.

I got giddy!  This was right up my alley.  I immediately sat down and wrote out three promos, all themed to call out the current champ.  I donned the full costume for the first time and jumped in front of the camera.  Rachel recorded them, each in one take, and I prepared to release them to the world.  I e-mailed the champ, CorpAIRation, and told him what I was doing.  I was introducing myself to a new community and didn’t want to rub anyone the wrong way.  He was all for it and we were off and running.  I started off with one titled: Ignore the Call.

During that time, the champ injured himself but still qualified in a different city qualifier.  So, instead of using the pre-written videos, I started filming new ones.  I put the costume on, sit the camera in front of me and just went.  The response I got from these was awesome.  Posts and e-mails from air guitarists around the country started to come in.  I even received two videos coming back at me!  The fun had started and I had yet to step on stage.

Debut Performance

I was set to make my debut performance on Friday, June 6th in Des Moines.  If I finished in the top 3, I would move forward to Chicago and perform in the Regional Semi-Final.  As a rookie, this was my goal.  I wanted to make, not just one, but two steps in the competition.  On a selfish level, I wanted to perform CM Punk’s entrance theme in his hometown.  As a lifelong wrestling nerd, it was just something cool I wanted to do.  I met my competition when I arrived, and even did some fun stare-down poses with the two (Iron Dragon and Stackhammer) that sent response videos to me.

As time drew near, I was overwhelmed by the support of friends that came out to see me.  My friends Jason, Ryan and Marc all created custom t-shirts to support me.  It was awesome to see and very humbling.  It really made me appreciate the people I have around me.  I threw down a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbon beers to take the edge off, knowing that I would likely “be in my head” if I went out for the first time sober.  When my…excuse me, Harvey’s name was called for the first time, I burst on to the stage to a roar from my “fans”.  What a rush.  The venue was small, but it still felt amazing.  Here is what happened…

The performance went well.  I was pretty happy at the end and soaked in the chants of “Wahlbanger” that I might have encouraged my friends to chant.

Between rounds one and two, I made a rookie mistake.  Given that the second round song (at least the particular cut of it) was one I wasn’t familiar with, I made the mistake of mingling with friends rather than focus on the performance.  It definitely showed.  Due to that I finished in fourth place by 0.4 points.  My dream of Chicago was finished, but the fun and lessons I learned would stay for future performances.  We ended the show with the traditional group getting on stage and jamming out to Freebird.  During that, the crowd can join the performers on stage and just have a great time with us.  It was really cool watching everyone jam out and have fun together.  It really made me appreciate how something as “outside of the box” as air guitar is, really bring people together.

The rest of the night was filled with stories, advice, laughs and quite a bit of beer.  I woke up the next morning on the Finn’s couch excited to air next season.

The Resurrection

Nordic Thunder
I was finishing up packing for a trip to LA on Sunday night, when I got an e-mail from Andrew.  He simply asked if I had checked my e-mail lately, which I had.  Within 30 minutes I received an e-mail offering me a Wild Card position for the Chicago performance!  I was elated!  I ran upstairs to make sure Rachel was cool with it (she was) and I responded quickly to lock in my spot.  The next hour was a whirlwind of filming a ten second intro, a video telling Chicago I was coming and securing my ticket.  I was going to carpool with the Finn’s up to Chicago so week was locked in.  Fly to LA on Monday morning.  Fly to Des Moines Thursday night.  Drive to Iowa City Friday morning and meet up with the Finn’s.  Jump into the car and drive to Chicago.  Perform.  Drive back to Iowa City on Saturday afternoon.  Grab the car and drive home Saturday night.  Quite the insane week, but I was all about it!

The Chicago performance was awesome.  Performing at The Metro, just down the street from Wrigley Field, was an amazing experience.  I performed on the same stage as The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and The Ramones; to name a few.  As we dropped off our stuff, we ran into legends of the air guitar community.  Nordic Thunder, Hot Lixx Hulahan, Mean Melin and Bjorn Turoque were all right in front of me and could not have been more welcoming.  It was a really cool moment for me.  After watching these guys on YouTube and the brilliant documentary Air Guitar Nation, this was a big moment for me.
The Chicago Semi-Finals

As a wild card, I was one of the first participants of the night.  I ended up going third overall and was pleased with my performance.  The scores weren’t what I had hoped for, but going third overall may have played a factor in that.  My favorite on stage moment is right after the first judge gave his score and the Chicago crowd, most of which had never seen me before, started to boo.  They had enjoyed my performance and that alone gave me a moral victory.

Regardless, it was almost more rewarding to be able to sit back and watch performers who have been on stage for years, absolutely impress everyone in the crowd.  I got to watch world champions perform.  I got to watch national finalists perform.  I realized that there was a whole new level of performance I have yet to achieve or even consider.  These performers were amazing and watching them was an honor.

The End of the Beginning

It’s been a whirlwind and surreal experience for me.  I met such an amazing array of people over the last few weeks.  I’m not going to name them, since I’ll likely forget to type someone, but what a spectacularly supportive group of people.  While we are all competing for the same goal, everyone was ready with a compliment and words of encouragement.  It really is a family feel and one I am ecstatic to be part of.

I’ve got one last gig this season, a joint performance with Flying Finn at the Apple Tree Day Care, and then I’m done.  I’m excited to perform in front of the kids and then spend the offseason working on everything.  Season two will hopefully feature new songs and an improved costume for Harvey Wahlbanger.

As crazy as all this is, it’s great to be part of something so unique and special.  Yes, this is a niche thing but it’s a niche that can grow and grow.  I mean who doesn’t love music and fun?