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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

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.

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