By Rob Manker, Chicago Tribune reporter
2:11 PM CDT, August 30, 2012
Justin Howard's award-winning performance of a guitar that isn't almost wasn't.
When the Chicago man known onstage as "Nordic Thunder" failed to repeat as U.S. air guitar champion in Denver this summer, it cost him an automatic berth in last week's world championships in Finland, where he finished second a year ago. Undaunted, Howard paid his own way to the 17th annual event in Oulu, entered the open Dark Horse competition and reached the finals by tying for the last qualifying spot.
There, judges declared his faux rendition of Metallica's "Hit the Lights" the best performance in last Friday's title round, winning Howard a custom-built guitar, an expense-paid trip to defend his title next year and the distinction of being this year's best air guitarist in the world.
"I recognized last year when I had the U.S. title that there is a power that comes with being a champion," Howard says, walking a fine line between himself and his character without a hint of pretense. "But there is a purpose behind (air guitar), and that purpose is to promote world peace."
A native of Casper, Wyo., and a 10-year Chicagoan now living in Ukrainian Village, Howard says he plans to spend the next year doing just that.
Now, the long-haired, wildly unshaven Howard is back to work editing short humanitarian videos at Rotary International headquarters in Evanston and as an actor/director at The Annoyance Theatre in Uptown.
"You talk to air guitarists and you're like 'What do you do in your day job?'" Howard says. "Most are teachers, some are attorneys. There's a guy that works for The Huffington Post. We're all idiots, but a lot of them do really cool things."
The 29-year-old Howard, a graduate of Columbia College with a concentration in film editing, hints at the possibility of an endorsement deal for the loincloth-garbed Nordic Thunder and says he's working with an agent to help manage that and other opportunities.
Could this mark something of a mainstreaming of air guitar?
Mick Napier, owner of The Annoyance, says Howard sold him on air guitar as a valid field of performance, to the point where Napier showed a live feed of the world competition for friends and colleagues in the theater on Friday.
"The first time I went to see air guitar, I thought it would be really stupid and I had no respect for it at all," Napier said. "I had no expectations that I was going to have a good time, I was only going to support Justin. And at the end of it, we were screaming like little girls. It has such a fervor attached to it."
Video of Howard's winning performance shows blood streaming from his legs. Upon returning home, he was treated for an infection in his foot, the result of his signature "power slide" move on a rough surface that wasn't meant to be slid upon. Add to that surgeries for a ruptured disc and two herniated discs in his back and a torn meniscus, and Howard's seven-year professional air guitar career has taken quite a toll. But he'd do it all again, he says.
"Pain is temporary, air guitar is forever," he says, echoing his oft-repeated T-shirt-ready motto.
And if you're wondering, yes, Howard says he plays the real guitar too.
"But I'm better at the air guitar."
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