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The Ballad of Carlos Guitarlos

The hard living didn't kill the rocker or his passion for music. After years of playing on the streets, he's clean and on the rise.

April 30, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — 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."

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