Joe Cocker’s death today made me think of his famous air guitar performance at Woodstock in 1969. This moment, in many ways, elevated air guitar playing to a level of madness/virtuosity/trance, in a way that seems to resonate throughout the art form today.
On the same stage Jimi Hendrix would play just 20 hours later, Joe Cocker delivered one of the most famous public air guitar performances, in a cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” The Woodstock documentary (spliced into this YouTube clip) presents this iconic moment. The documentary frame reveals Cocker’s hands as he violent plays along to a lead guitar intro. This classic example of air guitar soloing departs radically from previous public images of air guitar playing, such as Bill Reed’s gestures on national television on the Steve Allen Show just twelve years earlier. Whereas Reed’s embarrassing air guitar elicited humor and (choreographed) looks of disapproval from his fellow performers, Cocker’s performance reflects sheer power, spontaneity, and abandon.
The cinematic gaze depicts him at an upward angle, which elongates his stature. The video is visually impressive—Cocker’s tie-dyed body juxtaposed to the blue sky. Cocker’s arms flail wildly in the air with each dramatic shift in the music, like a conductor in front of a large orchestra. The video primarily emphasizes Cocker’s body and close-ups of the other musicians’ hands, moving the music through a kinetic narration that shifts from moving body to moving body.
Cocker’s air guitaring affirms the seriousness with which air guitar might be played—as an emotionally invested orchestration of the affective power of a song. One can easily watch the video footage and forget that an actual guitar is sounding the music in the background.