Guitar Man is pointing back at a flock of young women seated inside a restaurant on East Fourth Street and mugging for a photo through the front windows. People are always asking for photos. Guitar Man is always obliging.
He grips an acoustic Ibanez and really leans into the pose, muscles flexed against a megaton grin; the ladies inside click their iPhone cameras and smile at their digital souvenirs. With a hearty laugh, Guitar Man scoops a D-major into the air and strums with patent joy.
Errant young professionals dot East Fourth like fauna on a quiet Midwestern prairie. It's Thursday night. Early spring. Kinda empty around here, really. A pair of suits gawk at Guitar Man as they wheel their Audi into the valet lane. Our superhero lumbers slowly, his grizzled goatee and blond mane accenting a red-and-blue getup with a touch of the 1960s and a dash of weathered uncle shopping at a thrift store. He eyes the landscape, looking for the next soul in need of salve.
"I'm Cleveland's only real superhero," I can remember him telling me when I first met him on a snowy December evening. The wind snapped and cars slipped through icy Ohio City that night, but there was Guitar Man, strumming "Beautiful Day" out on Market Street. He asked if I'd like to hear another. Why not?
Tonight is no different, though it's quieter out here. And people aren't really picking up what he's laying down. Yet. See, Guitar Man has a job to do, and — well, goddammit — if Cleveland's not living up to its potential, Guitar Man will just have to work that much harder.
The siren's call of the millennial rolls through the wind: "WOO-oo-OO!"
It's Emily's birthday tonight. She and three friends are out for a night of Clevelandpolitans. Ever the charmer, Guitar Man reels them in with the promise of song.
"I'm gonna use all my superpowers, Emily, to create a perfect birthday song just for you — never before heard in the city of Cleveland!" His hands are flitting around his head, conjuring electrons from the air and buzzing with some unseen neurological energy. His eyes roll around, looking for that inspiration known only to worlds of superheroes and legends.
"And I got it!"
Guitar Man launches into a jaunty rockabilly rhythm: "Happy birrrrthday to you...Happy birrrrthday to you ..." The girls join in a call-and-response refrain. They're loving it. They're dancing now, and Guitar Man seems wrapped in a haze of rock 'n' roll — blue cape billowing as he rounds the corner toward the final line: "Happy birrrrthday to youuuu."
Applause. There's always applause and, without a doubt, smiles.
"I want to warn you," Guitar Man says directly, and Emily's face drops for a moment. "Do not under any circumstances let me catch you not having fun tonight."
She and her friends burst into laughter.
"All right, ladies. I'd love to stay and chit-chat. But clearly I've got a city to save."
I receive a call in January from a man named Eli Fletcher. He says he's got something to tell me about Guitar Man, that ubiquitous character Clevelanders have undoubtedly encountered roaming the streets of one entertainment district or another.
Fletcher's place is on West 90th, far from superhero land. I knock on the wrong front door at first before Eli bursts from another portal on the side of the house and greets me on his porch.
"Come on in!"
Two cats — Bongo and Ouija — scamper about the house and fall into impromptu and short-lived scraps beneath tables. Ouija was a stray brought in by Eli. She spends her days pissing off Bongo now.
"I washed a mug just for you," Eli says, ambling into the kitchen to pour some coffee. I settle in and gaze across the accoutrements of his home studio: a massive Santa Claus statue holds court beneath a grandfather clock hanging horizontally on the wall. Here, a bust of Ludwig von Beethoven. There, a washtub bass. "I hope this'll do it for ya," he says with a raspy voice and hands me a teacup of coffee.
He looks like Guitar Man, and I can't quite grasp how. The goatee? The eyes? Something seems so familiar. He turns on the stereo and cranks up some of the music he's been working on lately.
Then I see it: the acoustic Ibanez, leaning against a closet door.
Eli starts to play a song. He says it'll all make sense. It's called "That's My Buddy," a tune about a beloved little pet dog. By the end of it, Eli is wiping a tear from his eye. He writes a lot of happy songs, he says, but he writes a lot of sad songs too. That's kinda how life goes.
He grew up on the city's westside, poor and nomadic. But musical instruments were always around — somehow. Through a cousin's drum set or a friend's guitar, Eli found a way to play. He didn't have his own, nor his own lunchbox nor color television. When he first saw The Wizard of Oz, that part where everything blooms in technicolor blew his mind. This is what it must be like to be rich, he thought.
There's a story he'd like to share with me, he says. His first guitar was stolen when he was 16. Right here on Cleveland's westside. More than 30 years later, some guy offered to sell him a guitar that sounded mighty similar. It had to be his, he thought. After a wild goose chase across the neighborhood, the guitar changing hands a couple of times between sellers, Eli tracked it down in a consignment shop on Madison. Things like that — the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the right time, whichever you please — have defined his trip.
After he was kicked out of his parents' house as an elder teenager, he took up life at a "hippie commune" on Woodbine Avenue with fellow musicians Gary Emond and Sam Phillips. There, he found himself surrounded by kickass gear: Gibson SGs, 73-key Wurlitzers, and more of the finer things in musical life he simply wasn't exposed to while growing up.
"I got into an environment that was conducive to learning," he says. This was in the late 1970s. Ohio City was very different back then. The neighborhood tried to harden young men's souls.
He picked up a bass when called upon for a one-off jam session. "I said, 'Nothin' to it.' Never touched one in my life," Eli says decades later. "Picked it up, figured I'd pick one note and just hammer on it. Found a rhythm. Figured, well, I'll find another note that goes with this one. Oh, that's gettin' a little better. I started mixing it up. Next thing you know, I'm playing the shit out of the bass guitar."
Soon enough, Eli began playing the shit out of the bass guitar onstage in the City Band and later, and more prominently, the Joe Average Band. Wild times, at least those that Eli can remember. He played all over town, even gigging on the streets for dough.
"I was determined to not let go until something happened," he says. "I'd like to resurrect it all, but, you know, the discipline it takes to play on that level ... I always felt I was working toward something; but looking back, I was already there. I just didn't know it."
Eli shifts the conversation to the present: "Do you want to see my movie poster? I'm gonna make a movie."
There he is, in cinematic glory: Guitar Man: The Movie. And bedecked by looming, Star Wars-esque typeface, a simple message: "In a world where terror and chaos reign and all that is left is music, humanity's only hope is Guitar Man."
In 2013, half of Cleveland shut down to make way for Captain America. For most of us, all that meant was a longer commute and the chance to see some cars blown up downtown. Captain America wasn't here to save Cleveland. He wasn't real, after all.
Guitar Man showed up in town right around that same time. Erumpent with panache, clad in the colors of our country and the spirit of days past, he began kicking around Ohio City and making merriment in the neo-hip corners of town, the parts with the bars and restaurants and people. GUITAR MAN blazed across his chest in bold letters. He could brighten your day with a smile or a well timed G-chord or a,"Hey, good lookin'!"
Like right now: These four guys are hanging around East Fourth the night before the Kentucky Wildcats take to Quicken Loans Arena for a Sweet 16 NCAA game. They were trucking back to the hotel before Guitar Man calls out: "How's it goin', fellas!"
"What's your story? Howyadoin?"
"I'm Guitar Man, Cleveland's only real superhero. I'm out here saving Cleveland one song at a time. You guys want to hear a tune?"
Hooked. Guitar Man launches into one his classics, "Free Beer," and the guys whip out smartphones, snapping photos and shooting wobbly video. One of them shuffles his feet in rhythm. A Mercedes honks, breaking up the dance party as the driver tries to make his way to a garage entrance. The guys eye the luxury car warily, returning to the fun as Guitar Man reaches the final verse. You know the one.