Justin Howard aka Nordic Thunder Credit: Jim Newberry

When Justin Howard steps from the wings to take center stage at Metro, he looks like he’s walked out of a poster charting the evolution of man—unkempt, hairy, and dressed in what appear to be hides and furs, he’d fit in a step or two to the left of Homo sapiens. The 28-year-old bearded barbarian is known in the demimonde of U.S. Air Guitar as Nordic Thunder, and though his ax is imaginary, the rock-god reception he draws from the crowd is real.

Howard, a video editor for Rotary International who lives in Ukrainian Village, stalks the stage in a brown leather chest piece and a loincloth sewn together from thrift-store purses and hair extensions fished from a Dumpster behind a beauty-supply store. He earned his spot at the July 23 finals of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships by winning the Chicago regional competition in May—his fourth such win since 2006—and at Metro he’s a hometown favorite. This is his fourth trip to the national finals, where he’s never advanced past the opening round.

To kick off his first-round performance, Howard hoists a hollowed-out horn and gulps stale beer from it. He points to the heavens and the heavens answer with “Sirius,” the Alan Parsons Project instrumental synonymous with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. With each booming guitar reverberation, Howard windmills like Pete Townshend and spits a mist of beer into the green lights overhead. A crack of strobe lightning signals a break into a snippet of “Dragon Chaser,” by German power-metal band At Vance. Howard whips his long dark hair, head-banging as he picks invisible strings. He crams as much Scandinavian jukebox fury as humanly possible into 60 seconds, and when his brief routine is over, the crowd is his.

The judges declare him among the best of the 22 first-round competitors—only five are supposed to make it to the second and final round, but due to tie scores, ten do. An hour later, Howard shreds Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood“—for this round the judges pick one song for everyone—and cuts his knees and feet to ribbons with the night’s most impressive move, a bare-knee slide that carries him all the way across the stage (he only wears his handmade leather boots for round one). It’s a risky stunt for a guy who tore a meniscus in his knee playing air guitar in 2005 and ruptured a disk in his back and herniated two more during the 2008 Chicago regionals. Despite his injuries, he competed in the 2008 U.S. finals eight weeks later—but afterward he needed surgery and was laid up for three months.

“Pain is temporary, but air guitar is forever” is Howard’s motto, and Nordic Thunder always goes for it. This time, what he calls his “power slide” runs a little long, and the only things that keep him from careening clear off the stage are a couple stage lights (one of which does fall) and a grumpy bouncer.

Howard can’t stop to apologize, though: if he wants to win, he has to keep playing. The slide has left his legs a bloody mess, but at the end of the round the judges crown him America’s best air guitarist, awarding him a WWE-style prize belt. His second-round scores from the three judges—2008 world champion Craig “Hot Lixx Hulahan” Billmeier, comedian Ben Bowman, and Wisconsin state legislator Gordon Hintz, a former air-guitar competitor under the name Krye Tuff—are 6.0, 5.9, and 5.9. (Performances are scored from 4.0 to 6.0.)

“When I started sliding and I wasn’t stopping, I was like, ‘Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit,'” says Howard. Still, he doesn’t seem too sorry about crashing into the bouncer. “I was in the moment, but I remember his face. He turned and gave me a look like, ‘Are you serious, dude? What the fuck are you doing?'”

“It was totally worth it, man,” Howard says. “I might be hurting. My feet may be this apparent pad of scab and scar. But one thing will always remain: I will always be the 2011 U.S. Air Guitar champion.”

Howard’s triumph means he’s going somewhere Nordic Thunder should feel right at home: Oulu, Finland. That’s where the world’s premier faux Van Halens will go balls-out and hammer-on for the 16th annual Air Guitar World Championships. Part rock festival and part Olympics, the event runs August 24 through 27—the championship itself is the 26th—and draws as many as 8,000 fans to an enormous outdoor stage dedicated to a living-room indulgence.

Howard’s mission is to defeat the man who’s beaten his fellow Americans for the past two years: backflipping, gold-spandex-wearing Frenchman Sylvain “Gunther Love” Quimene. In 2009 he edged out both Billmeier (defending his 2008 world title) and American champ Andrew “William Ocean” Litz, and in 2010 U.S. champion and Chicagoan Matt “Romeo DanceCheetah” Cornelison didn’t even make it to the second round against him.

Overthrowing a back-to-back world champion is never easy, and Quimene isn’t just any champion. He’s a minor celebrity in France, who plays shows with his “air band,” Airnadette, and appears in international Levi’s commercials. “He’s a formidable opponent,” Billmeier says. “And honestly, I was quite proud to pass the crown to him. Every new year, you’re a little worried about who it’s going to be. But if it’s going to be a homoerotic Frenchman in gold tights that represents me, I was OK with that.”

But Dan “Bjorn Turoque” Crane, “master of airemonies” at the world championships for the past few years, says Quimene is vulnerable. “Gunther is a bit of a one-trick pony,” he says, referring to the Frenchman’s signature backflip. “I think his time for retirement is now.”

Howard thinks he can exploit that weakness and bring the world title back to the States. “I want to take it from the French. I really do,” he says. “And I plan on giving them hell and bringing the thunder for sure.”

First, though, Howard has to get to Finland. His short-form birth certificate, issued in Austin, Texas, isn’t enough documentation to get him a passport, and in late July he’s told that getting his long-form certificate will mean an eight-week wait.

It’s up to Pam Howard—mother of Nordic Thunder—to nip in the bud what might’ve been the first air-guitar birther conspiracy. From her home in Casper, Wyoming, she calls the records office in Austin and explains that her son is an American patriot. What she says, as he remembers it, is something like “He’s going over to Finland to represent our country on a global stage.” Suddenly the wait isn’t quite so long. One long-form birth certificate, coming up.

Justin Howard’s girlfriend, Chelsie Jangord, is also making the trip to Finland. But she’s no mere spectator: she also plays air guitar, as a character called Cannonball Mavin that’s inspired by Loretta Lynn and Satan. Jangord has competed at the regional level before and is angling for a spot in the world championships via the dark-horse round on August 25, where nonchampions can play their way in at the last minute.

“I definitely want him to win,” Jangord says. “I don’t think I have what it takes to win the world. I’m just doing it for fun.”

Win or lose, Howard is making the most of his notoriety. On July 26 he appeared on George Lopez’s TBS talk show, Lopez Tonight, less than three weeks before it was canceled. Nordic Thunder found himself among ordinary mortals: fashion consultant Tim Gunn and Faygo-fixated cult hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse.

“He went to CVS and bought some Rembrandt stain-removal toothpaste,” Jangord says. “I think he’s gone Hollywood.”

Howard sounds affronted. “It was on sale for way cheap,” he says. “And I like a good deal when I see one.”

Weeks after winning the championship, though, he’s still recovering from the beating he took at Metro. “I am a little concerned,” he says. “My big toes on both of my feet are numb. If you took a needle and stabbed them, I wouldn’t feel it. And I don’t think that’s normal.

“The doctor told me that I’ll have back problems for the rest of my life,” he continues. “The two other disks that are herniated—if I don’t take care of myself, those will rupture.”

According to Howard, this makes every performance a round of Russian roulette. “I know when I go onstage, I’m going to go out there and throw caution to the wind. But I’m also aware that this may be the last time that I ever do this, because who knows what’s going to happen to my back.”

Whatever supernatural powers the air-guitar Viking calls upon when he hits the stage, they don’t grant him the ability to see into the future. “Lord willing, I go over to Finland and win a world championship,” Howard says. “That is the top of the top. I see no need to prove myself anymore. I’ve already done it.”