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A final fling with air guitar strings

Johnny Utah returns from Brazil after playing country's most-watched television program



Air guitar is quite possibly the most ridiculous thing in the world. There is no real skill involved and all it takes to be good at it is some theatrical flailing of the arms and a flare for showmanship. Wiggle the hips, flick the tongue, play to the crowd before doing a back flip to an AC/DC song and you're poised to take the national championship.

That's more or less how Cole "Johnny Utah" Manson became a three-time national air guitar champion and a sort of Whistler legend. He ruled the nation - albeit in a very obscure way - and then last July, he retired.

But to indulge in a final fling with those invisible guitar strings, he accepted an invitation by Brazilian television program, Domingão do Faustão, to perform alongside the Brazilian and American national champs. It was one of several appearances on Brazilian television for his air guitar display, but this time the producers put him up at a ritzy Rio hotel. He was given the five-star treatment. The champs were given back-up dancers and costumes. They signed autographs for fans. It was a fabulous irony, he admits, being treated like a rock star without ever having to play an instrument.

And it's really quite ridiculous, watching Manson perform with a Mohawk and black painted finger nails, rocking out like rocking out was going out of style at any moment, wiggling his fingers and his face in time to an Angus Young solo.

This was the final showcase of a weird and brief career as a professional air guitarist. Manson won the first-ever Canadian championship, held in Whistler back in 2006. And he kept winning. In 2007, he won the B.C. title in Vancouver, then placed second at the 2008 nationals in Toronto. The following year he won the nationals, then went to the world championship in Finland, where he placed third. In 2009, he won the nationals in Winnipeg and went back to Finland, where he placed tenth. In 2010, he won the nationals again for the third time, then went back to Finland and placed third yet again.

It's all a big joke really. Air guitar is performance art for the unpretentious, a way to rock out for people with no musical abilities. The costumes, the music, the maneuvers-the passions may be real for the people who participate but Manson has always known it's a joke.

"Humour plays a big part in it. For the people who are involved, it's a really funny joke that we take seriously," Manson says. "You're up there dancing around with an air guitar. It's the one thing that people probably do in private when they hear a good song but if you do it in front of people at a party people kind of laugh at you."

Air guitar popularity sky-rocketed with the release of Air Guitar Nation , a documentary following the American champion on his path to taking the title at the annual world championship in Oulu, Finland.

The first official contest took place at the Oulu Music Video Festival in 1996 as sort of a joke but has since taken off to include a network of 20 countries that each have national championships, leading up to the annual world championships held each year in - you guessed it - Oulu. The competitions are judged based on the old 6.0 Olympic figure skating system, where each participant does a one-minute routine and is given a score by five judges.

So, yeah. It's been a good time for Manson, who earns his keep running Whistler Kishindo Martial Arts, but now he's stepping aside.

He says he will help organize competitions along the West Coast, hopefully with the next national championship to be held in Whistler this year.

Can the next champion possibly live up to Manson? Well, it's anybody's guess.