Air Apparent: Lance Kasten won't stop rocking until he becomes national champion of the make-believe art of air guitar
Lance Kasten stands in the gritty back alley of the 9:30 Club, looking over a handwritten list of spins and pelvic thrusts.
"I'm going to do a 360 hop," he says. "Then I'm going to do a shake. Then I'm going to do one pelvic thrust. ..." He, like his opponents at the regional contest of the U.S. Air Guitar league, will spend 60 seconds jamming and gyrating to a soundtrack of his choosing -- holding an imaginary instrument. Kasten's performance will kick off with the Black Eyed Peas' "Pump It" before segueing into Van Halen's "Somebody Get Me a Doctor." "There's a spot right in it where I can take the guitar off, throw it up in the air and do a quick 360, catch it -- and then I'm going to punt my air guitar."
He scans the list a few more times before putting it in his back pocket. Then he hotfoots it to his SUV parked on V Street. In the car's back seat, there's a cooler. In the cooler, there's Tupperware filled with slices of beef. Kasten grilled four steaks in the afternoon; he ate one on the drive down. He'll repeat the cooler ritual twice more throughout the night to boost his energy level. He takes a swig of Red Bull and peels a banana. Last night, Kasten woke up screaming from a charley horse, and the banana's potassium is supposed to prevent an onstage leg cramp. "I'm not an air spring chicken," he says. "I'm just going to bring it." He is 48 years old.
Kasten began competing in this invisible pastime 30 years ago, when the Maryland native moved to Ocean City after graduating from high school in Pasadena. Air guitar contests had become popular at local bars, and Kasten thought they might be a good way to supplement his $25,000 annual income from bartending and roofing work. As most of his competitors were tipsy patrons with no prior air experience, Kasten easily raked in $10,000 in prize money over four years.
There are no hard and fast rules to air guitar, which may be why it suits Kasten. The art-- popularly traced to Joe Cocker's legendary, whacked-out Woodstock performance -- usually involves mimicking the motions of a song's lead guitarist, complete with power chords, picking and solos. But creativity and showmanship trump technical precision: The best air guitarists look as though they are playing an actual instrument while pulling off moves that would be impossible in a real performance.
When Kasten returned to Pasadena in 1984, his air guitar career took a back seat. He started a steady waiting position at Phillips Seafood, married, had a child and in June 1991 separated from his wife. It was then, as the 29-year-old general manager of Phillips's Baltimore Harborplace location, that Kasten began dating 19-year-old Phillips waitress Tina Kemmerer. "When I first met him, he had a jean jacket he wore that had Judas Priest and Metallica on it," she recalls. "He was a little bit of a rebel." After Kasten's divorce was finalized in June 1997, he and Kemmerer married in December 1998, sharing a home with Samantha, Kasten's then-7-year-old daughter from his first marriage.
Kasten left Phillips in 2004 and worked as a local sunroom sales representative before starting his own sunroom company, Exterior Dynamics. With four contractors in his employ, Kasten spends his day zooming from one job to the next. But as fast-paced as his life is, Kasten's ability to decide his own schedule has had one unforeseen benefit: He can invest more time in his beloved hobby.
"Air guitar keeps you alive," says Kasten, driving along Interstate 97 to one of his company's work sites in Severn. "It keeps the blood flowing. It keeps you young. It has a sense of coolness to it that's just indescribable. It gives you a rush every time you do it. A day without air is no fun. I feel like I've missed something, like taking a shower."
While Kasten was building his life, air guitar was taking off as a pop culture phenomenon. In August 2001, Manhattan branding consultant Kriston Rucker read a Wall Street Journal article about the annual Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The following August, he and friend Cedric Devitt headed there to see what the fanfare was about. They discovered what resembled an Olympic village of air guitarists, with competitors hailing from Australia to Belgium. But the United States, birthplace of rock, wasn't represented on the world stage.
Upon returning to New York, the friends decided to create the U.S. Air Guitar league. They scheduled its inaugural event at Manhattan's Pussycat Lounge in June 2003 with no idea of what to expect or whether anyone would even show. That quickly changed, however, when two days before the contest, Howard Stern spent a half-hour joking about it on his radio show.