The Ballad of Carlos Guitarlos

Times Staff Writer

The 53-year-old diabetic with a weakened heart, a white, unkempt beard and several missing front teeth awakens in his $35-a-day room the size of a jail cell, cradling his electric guitar. He gets dressed and shambles a couple hundred feet down the street to a seedy BART plaza in the Mission district. He sits on a battery-powered amplifier, plugs in the guitar, puts a cardboard donation box on the ground and begins to play and sing.

It might be Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” or an instrumental rendition of “Yesterday,” or the haunting coda from “Layla,” or “If I Only Had a Brain” from “The Wizard of Oz,” or Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Or this ballad, one he wrote in a hospital a couple of years ago when he thought he might die:

Lord, help me, I’ve fallen again

Straight from the heart

You can hear my tear when you

call in again

Help me make a new start....

The notes are fuzzy and occasionally halting, but the technique is unmistakably sophisticated: chords and melody played simultaneously, the way Chet Atkins might have done. An old gravelly blues voice, perfectly cracked, effortlessly in tune, pours from the slumped singer. The truthfulness of the voice commands you to listen, but it also commands you to wonder: Who is this? What is a guy with these chops doing here?


His name -- his stage name for 23 years -- is Carlos Guitarlos. Two decades ago, he was a member of a famously mercurial Los Angeles bar band, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. The band, a collection of big, obstinate, blues-loving men who played and partied fiercely and disdained rehearsals, was at the epicenter of Los Angeles’ club scene during a brief era when the roots-rock and punk-music movements collided, forging groups like the Blasters, Los Lobos, X and Fear. These bands were fraternities of elemental musicians, contemptuous of stardom, seeming to long only for one transcendent moment on stage.

By the late 1980s, that fervor was largely gone, along with the Rhythm Pigs. Guitarlos became another obscure name in the long list of musicians felled by drugs and booze, desperately following his ex-wife and infant daughter to San Francisco, living by playing on the streets and sometimes sleeping on them, losing himself in cocaine.

Which is where most of these stories end. Every once in a while, though, one of the fallen will rise and, as former Blasters guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin puts it, “bear the symbolic cross for the others.” And so it has come to pass that in this transit plaza, where commuters and drug dealers swirl in separate circles, paying little attention to him, Carlos Guitarlos is on the verge of resurrection, of making that new start.

‘Because It’s What I Do’

On Tuesday, a new label started by Guitarlos’ nephew released “Straight From the Heart,” a CD of 17 compositions, some written as far back as the 1970s. The CD -- rough in spots, delightful in others, bearing the influences of a blizzard of styles and sources (blues to Cajun to country to swing, Solomon Burke to Chuck Berry to Curtis Mayfield) -- is the first well-produced demonstration of Guitarlos’ talents. Amoeba Music’s and Tower Records’ Hollywood stores have agreed to stock it, and Tower is hosting a free performance by Guitarlos and his band May 8. Gigs in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and Alhambra are scheduled later in May and in June. Guitarlos has separate bands of working musicians ready to back him in Southern and Northern California as more dates unfold.

This is a big deal for somebody who has spent the last dozen years singing for spare change, who opened his first bank account two weeks ago and whose most notable award was Best Street Musician in a 1994 San Francisco Bay Guardian survey. But Guitarlos isn’t the kind of man who celebrates. He has lived most of his life in self-imposed isolation, communing with six strings. He has convinced himself there is as much validity playing at 16th and Mission as in any club. He has been clean for two years and proudly recites his daily routine: Get up at 7 and play on the street till 10. Go back to the room and write songs. Go back to the corner at 4 and play till 7. Go back to the room at night and write songs.

It’s a routine he’ll stick with even if the CD leads to out-of-town club dates. “I’ll wake up the next day and play on the street there,” he says in his hoarse, insistent voice as he sits in a coin-operated laundry, waiting for his clothes. “Because it’s what I do.” He is addicted to the purity of playing outdoors. “There’s no captive audience, so I earn every penny. Every penny. They don’t have to put in money. They don’t have to stop to listen. But when they do, it means something. And I have the same thank you for the nickel from a wino as I do for a $10 bill from somebody on the way to work. I do it because that’s what I do.”

Even his old friends agree that as a Rhythm Pig, he was a genuinely mean guy, glad to pick you up and throw you aside. Time and illness seem to have washed that away, leaving a quirky, self-absorbed sense of humor. On this day, he’s agitated about a Bay Area publication that alludes to him as “scraping by.” “Look at this,” he says, pulling a roll including seven $100 bills out of his jeans. He’s been selling the new CD for 10 bucks a pop at the BART plaza. “Does this look like I’m scraping by?”

The musicians who play with him regard him the way basketball players at Venice Beach might regard a playground legend who would have made it to the NBA but for bad luck and bad judgment: a flawed savant, a muse, a profound talent who warrants extra patience.

They joke with him about the question they pose to each other: “What’s your CSP [Carlos Saturation Point] today?” They tell stories about how he carried around a guitar neck to fend off robbers, how he fashioned a cardboard guitar in jail (on a street-brawl rap he eventually beat) to stage a tutorial for his cellmates. They marvel not so much at the technical fluidity of his playing or singing, but the originality, the rawness, the sincerity. “He has an incredible heart,” says Max Butler, a Bay Area guitarist who performed with Guitarlos earlier this month. Adds Alvin, who sings and plays on one of the new CD’s tracks and, like many, marvels that Guitarlos is still alive: “A lot of his songs have such a core of truth. He doesn’t disguise his faults. He’s not striking any poses. Carlos can’t, really.”

‘A Story to Tell’

It’s been one spit in the wind

Two strikes I can’t win

You’ve been callin’ me,

callin’ me, callin’ me

Come back again

Lord, help me, I’ve fallen again

Straight from the heart

He wrote that song in a hospital after being treated for congestive heart failure in 2001. The timing was poignant. Two months earlier, at a wake for Top Jimmy (James Koneck), who’d died of liver failure at 46 in Las Vegas, Guitarlos had sworn off alcohol and drugs. He weighed 80 pounds less than the beefy 280 he’d carried as a Rhythm Pig, and had been struggling with diabetes for a decade. It was not surprising he wrote the song while hospitalized -- he writes them everywhere, claims to have penned 3,000 and can regale a listener with scores of them at a time, including the year and place each was written. What was surprising was the commitment that followed.

Guitarlos’ nephew, Damon Ayala of Alhambra, who worked for the Los Angeles DWP in materials management and booked blues bands on the side, had grown up idolizing Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. But he wouldn’t manage his uncle as long as he was using and unreliable. Now, in Carlos’ hospital room, they talked about recording, and a month later Guitarlos wrote Ayala a letter laying out a session plan. It was, Ayala thought, the first time he’d seen Guitarlos think about his future more than a few hours ahead. “It’s going to be a hard-working, wonderful time,” the letter promised. “My part will be that of a true leader.... No drugs will be par.... I feel good!”

Between them, Guitarlos and Ayala recruited Alvin; John Doe, formerly of X; and Mike Watt, formerly of the Minutemen, to play on selected cuts. They lined up bassist Marc Doten to play on and produce the album at his home studio in Tarzana. Doten had long wanted to record Guitarlos; he’d played with him a couple of years before, recording a song called “(I’ll Stop Killing the Pain) When the Pain Stops Killing Me,” haunting because Guitarlos’ drug-weakened voice seemed to be coming from the grave. In two days at Doten’s studio last year, Guitarlos and the musicians recorded two dozen of his songs, songs about drinking in a two-tavern town, pledges of love, recriminations, dancing, suicide.

Then Ayala, 35, a father of four, went to work, spending late hours at his home computer, combing the Internet for radio stations that might greet the CD sympathetically. He found a few, including WRVG, a public radio station near Lexington, Ky., where music director Jerry Gerard, who had never heard of Guitarlos, began playing a different track each hour. “Just one look at the [CD] cover and you know the guy has a story to tell,” Gerard said. “Any decent-sized city probably has a dozen cats like Carlos ... but this guy has delivered a wonderful record.”

‘Get Outta My Way’

“I’m a Cricket, not a Beatle. Write that down,” Guitarlos barks gregariously. He is sitting on his unmade bed on the first floor of a single-room-occupancy hotel, reachable through two remote-control-locked doors. He embarks on a looping lecture that seems to say: The Beatles, elegant as they were, as much as they swept him away when he was a teenager, took music to too cute a place. Buddy Holly and the Crickets, by comparison, remained real. They pointed Guitarlos in the direction he wished to head: blues-based music more focused on making you dance than making you think.

Back then he was Carlos Daniel Ayala. Growing up in the northeast Los Angeles community of Cypress Park, he admired the sound of his father singing in the shower. He talked his mother into buying him a guitar at 10, and learned the basics from an older brother. He had a good ear: “By the time I was 13 I could play anything I could hear -- jazz, classical, anything. I probably played the notes lame, but I played the right notes.” He lovingly remembers radio stations that played it all -- black and white -- rather than segregating styles. He graduated from Marshall High, played in some undistinguished bands and spent most of his 20s living at home, writing songs and practicing, getting better, going nowhere.

In 1980, at age 30, he got a job as a doorman at the downtown Hong Kong Cafe, working with his guitar strapped around his neck. After hours one night, Top Jimmy walked in and started drinking each abandoned glass. A musician both men knew, Mark Frere, spontaneously introduced the doorman as “Carlos Guitarlos,” and it stuck. Soon Jimmy’s band broke up and he and Carlos began playing. The Rhythm Pigs evolved to a five-man core whose credo, Guitarlos says fondly, was “Get outta my way” -- overpowering the audience with furious cover versions culled from disparate artists.

Top Jimmy, when he wasn’t falling-down drunk, could sing anything with majestic soul. The band segued from Merle Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues” to an obscure rockabilly classic like “Ubangi Stomp” to the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” to a Guitarlos original like “Dance With Your Baby,” in which Top Jimmy demanded: “What’s it gonna take to make you move?” When the band was in sync, it was frighteningly intense. Van Halen’s David Lee Roth recorded a song extolling Top Jimmy on the band’s album “1984.”

“Jimmy,” says Guitarlos, “was the greatest singer. So powerful. And with me there pushing him and our [even bigger] bass player [Gil T] -- it was like a bunch of animals.” Guitarlos never sang back then. Why should I have? he demands. “Nobody could top Jimmy. Only singer I heard match Jimmy died last May.” His voice turns sad. “Juliette Valentine, the greatest blues singer in San Francisco.” She sang on the streets of the Financial district until she was murdered. “Soon as she opened her mouth there’d be a crowd. Her name is Juliette Valentine. And she’s dead.”

Every Monday night in their heyday, the Rhythm Pigs held court at the Cathay de Grande, a subterranean Hollywood nightspot. On one of those nights in 1983, Guitarlos spotted a clothing designer named Marilyn Pardee, stopped playing, walked over and planted a kiss on her. They kept running into each other, moved in together, married and had a daughter, but after a five-year relationship “things started getting out of hand,” Pardee said, and she moved north. Determined not to lose contact with his daughter, Guitarlos followed.

Those times were “dicey,” says Pardee, who still lives in San Francisco, but “I’ve always felt close to him even when I couldn’t allow him to be physically close to us.” They talk often. “They have a great divorce,” says Los Angeles photographer Gary Leonard, who photographed the couple’s wedding.

Two weeks ago, after picking up his laundry, Guitarlos caught a bus one block back to his hotel because his legs were swollen, a consequence of his circulatory problems. Getting off the bus, he spotted a little girl riding a mechanized pony and dropped a quarter in the slot. He crossed Mission Street to his hotel, mocking the drug trade. “Northwest corner is Smackistan, the southwest corner, where I play, is Crackistan.”)

He demonstrated a game of identifying the players: “Dealer, buyer, runner, dealer, dealer, informant, undercover cop.” A dealer overheard him and cursed. Guitarlos sat on a metal bench in the transit plaza next to a tired woman. He struck up a conversation and bought her an ice cream from a nearby cart. He shouted hello to workmen, cops, any face he recognized.

That night he rehearsed with his Northern California band at the East Bay home of bassist Bill MacBeath. He mocked himself when it was time for a third take of a song -- this was so unlike the old Carlos, who prized spontaneity over all else. He was dragging tonight, having trouble controlling his sugar level. MacBeath made him a smoothie and his energy came back.

After rehearsal, he stopped in at a nearby bar to watch a blues band. He was bored by its plodding style, and between songs offered to sing a number. The band agreed to back him. He spotted a local piano player and invited her up. “Dust My Broom,” Guitarlos said. The band broke into the song with a new power. People drinking got up and danced. Guitarlos had admired the lead guitarist’s instrument, and bought it from him for $400 cash during a break.

A few nights later, Marilyn and the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Eloise, drove to Guitarlos’ hotel to bring him dinner and the ATM card for his new bank account. They found him resting in bed, cradling his new guitar.