Matthew Schwartz held a series of odd jobs while living in Queens, N.Y. Having earned an MFA from Yale, Schwartz did some stage and soap- opera acting. He waited tables and tended bar. He served as a nanny for cousins of the Kennedys. He also sold real estate for a spell and was once hired for the sole purpose of beatboxing at an electronics convention in Berlin. And every August, he'd travel to Black Rock City, Nev., to join the staff of the dubious Burning Man Festival, which he's been attending since 1998.
But it wasn't until Schwartz took in the 2004 U.S. Air Guitar Championships at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan that he scratched the surface of what would prove to be his true calling.
"I thought it was hysterical," recalls Schwartz.
His creative juices dislodged, the Bellevue, Wash., native nonetheless left New York this past winter for a job at a mountain resort in Jackson, Wyo. There, while surfing the Internet, Schwartz stumbled across highlights from the 2005 championships on You Tube.
"When I finished work there and came back to Seattle, I planned a motorcycle trip to L.A. to visit some friends and figured when I was down there, I'd sign up for the L.A. [air guitar] regional," says Schwartz, 29, who completed his undergrad work at the University of Southern California. "I was crashing on friends' couches and didn't have time to rehearse. I was going to bag it, but a buddy of mine called and said he'd bought a plane ticket to come down, so I put together a routine literally the day before in my aunt and uncle's parking garage.
"I went to the Roxy the next day and wound up winning. I did the Alien Ant Farm cover of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal.' I have this evil Michael Jackson thing going on."
Next up for Schwartz—air guitar alias, "Count Rockula"—was a packed Bowery Ballroom in New York City, where he would square off against 13 rival regional champions. Sporting a thick goatee, a wild mop of curly black hair, a dapper gray suit and top hat, and a lone black glove à la Jacko, Count Rockula popped, locked, rocked, and moonwalked his way into third place, with San Francisco regional champ Craig "Hot Lixx Hulahan" Billmeier parlaying his first place into a free trip to the September world championships in Finland.
"I refined things a little bit after my performance in L.A.—tightened up my mime work," reflects Rockula. "A lot of my friends who wound up making it to the Bowery said I was robbed. The judges in L.A. really knew what they were looking for, whereas the judges in New York didn't. I'm not sure the guy who's representing the U.S. is the best the U.S. has to offer." (When asked if he feels that Rockula was robbed, Air Guitar USA co-founder Kriston Rucker says, "No. There's pretty much always controversy.")
Schwartz briefly toyed with the idea of financing his way to Finland as a wild-card entry, but shelved it on account of his Burning Man obligations. Now living with his parents in south Bellevue, Schwartz is currently pondering a civilian existence as a teacher or social worker. Clean shaven with his hair slicked back, the handsome Schwartz (think Richard Gere crossed with Patrick Dempsey) orders a vodka-soda at Greenwood's workaday Baronoff on a recent Wednesday night, marveling at the inebriated blue-collar circus—it's neighborhood parade night, replete with floats and Seafair Pirates—unfolding before his eyes.
"We're at Burning Man right now," says a gleaming Schwartz, who goes on to compare the Baronoff's atypically raucous scene to a Burning Man exhibit called Bianca's Smut Shack ("basically just like a constant orgy," per Schwartz).
At the table to the left of Schwartz, a bachelorette party is in full swing. One of the celebrants, a heavyset redhead, sidles up to Schwartz as he's sketching a diagram of the Burning Man grounds on a piece of notebook paper.
"So just what is it that cute nerds do these days?" says Big Red.
"You know what they say about guys with big brains," Schwartz replies.
To Schwartz's left sits Lois and George, a pair of Elks Club septuagenarians dressed up like clowns. After belting back a couple bourbon-waters, they announce their intent to feast on barbecue pork and sing karaoke a mile or so up Greenwood at the Rickshaw Tavern. Smelling opportunity, Rockula's soon bound for the Rickshaw, too.
Once there, Rockula and a slender Filipino juicer conspire to perform a duet—Filipino on vocals, Rockula on air guitar—of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Jack & Diane." ("This is when he was just Cougar," says the juicer.) Unlike his attention-grabbing "Smooth Criminal" solo act, Rickshaw Rockula is a stripped-down version, more concerned with accurate pantomiming than power chords, kicks, and faux stage dives. His fingers move as though he's a skilled guitarist in real life. He's not.
"I keep meaning to learn [guitar], but the nice thing about air guitar is you can just rock out," says Schwartz. "It's an everyman sport."
As the night progresses, Rockula's "airaoke" services are summoned by approximately one in three crooners, on tracks as disparate as Lionel Richie's "Easy Like Sunday Morning" and Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train." He performs all requests with equal aplomb, abandoning booze for ice water so as not to hinder precision.
"People come up to me and think I'm this professional air guitarist," says Rockula, switching back to vodka as last call beckons. "When, in fact, I came up with it in one day."