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COLUMN ONE

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

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.

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