Carlos Guitarlos on defying death, family and acid trips in Ojai
"Straight from the heart," says legendary blues guitarist Carlos Guitarlos with his world-weary voice. That sentiment is also the title track of his new album, and it almost became the last song Guitarlos ever wrote. "I came up with that on one of my many death beds," he says. "I whispered the words to my ex-wife Marilyn, and she wrote them down."
It has been a long, hard road for this gifted musician, with more twists and turns than might seem possible for one lifetime. Decades of hard drinking, drugs and carousing have taken their toll on his body, but certainly not his spirit.
"I have congestive heart failure, Class 4," he says. "I'm considered disabled. I'm not supposed to sing loud or do anything, but I can still sing over a band. I just decided I'm not going to die."
Guitarlos describes his sound as "a wall of American music," and on first listen to Straight from the Heart you know just what he's talking about. Careening stylistically from Cajun tunes to jump blues to Tin Pan Alley ballads, the album is a wonderful collection that chronicles the breadth of roots rock.
Guitarlos is probably best known for his long stint as guitarist with infamous Los Angeles band Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, who were part of the early '80s roots rock and punk scene that included The Blasters, X, Los Lobos and many others. With a boisterous blues base, the band was as famous for its hell-raising as it was for its music, and counted many of the day's biggest names as its fans. Van Halen immortalized the group on their 1984 album with the song, "Top Jimmy."
Born Carlos Ayala in 1950, he earned the name by which he is known because of the omnipresent guitar in his hands. It's a trait that's apparent as soon as he answers the phone at his Los Angeles home. Our entire conversation is punctuated with guitar riffs, unfinished songs and meditative strumming.
"I've been playing guitar since March 18, 1960," explains Guitarlos, whose reputation for thumbing his nose at authority was cemented by the time he graduated high school. "The day of the ceremony, I pulled up on a flat bed truck. We had a generator and when they called my name, we started playing ‘I'm So Glad,' the song by Skip James that Cream did."
School administrators were less than pleased.
"Everybody in the crowd dug it," Guitarlos claims, "but the school called the cops. Our bassist Danny was taken away laughing."
As for his diploma?
"I never picked it up," he dismissively chortles. "I didn't care about that. What do I need that for?"
By the early '80s, he was firmly in place with Top Jimmy.
"It was like a bunch of wild animals, roaming our range. We got away with everything," he says, not shy to sing his band's praises. "We were the best band to come out of L.A. for years. Even on our worst nights we were better than any thing you can imagine. It was a wonderful thing to hear."
Their popularity grew until it seemed that fame and fortune might be just around the corner. David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen even asked Guitarlos if they could record his song, "I've Been Drinking Again."
"But like an idiot," Guitarlos recalls, "we said we're going to do it with our own band. And then we ended up not doing it."
When asked if he laments the royalties that having a wildly successful band cover his material would have reaped, Guitarlos is pragmatic and almost sounds relieved:
"We would have all been dead. Everybody in the band would've bought too many things, and done them all, and died. I never would have had my beautiful daughter, never been married once, wouldn't have the friends I have now."
In the end, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs released only one album, 1987's brilliantly monikered Pigus Drunkus Maximus, and Guitarlos relocated to San Francisco to be closer to his daughter. There, his health began to deteriorate, but he also started an incredible second career busking, eventually being named "Best Street Musician" in 1994 by the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
It was the passing of musical cohort Top Jimmy in 2001 that inspired Guitarlos to sober up.
"The morning after Top Jimmy's wake, I must have drank more than a case of beer, drank a bottle or two of this and that," he recalls. "I started playing music at 2 in the afternoon and 6 o'clock the next morning I was done. When I woke up later I decided that was it. There were so many drugs that night. I never paid for it all those years. I was a complete idiot."
With a new lease on life, Guitarlos has assembled a dream band, notably featuring "the great Marcy Levy," a vocalist known for her work with Eric Clapton and Aretha Franklin. He's clearly proud of the band, taking pains to make sure everybody's name is spelled right—drummer Joey Morales, bassist-vocalist Mark Doten and Vince Meghrouni on tenor sax.
Several of Guitarlos' longtime fans make an appearance on Straight from the Heart, including Mike Watt, John Doe and Dave Alvin.
"I appreciate it when people come up and say, ‘You've inspired me,'" he says. "Like when [Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist] Flea gave me a guitar, and I thanked him. He told me, ‘Carlos, what do you mean, thanks? I should be thanking you.' I used to slough that stuff off and think, What a bunch of idiots. But now I appreciate it, with all my heart."
As for upcoming projects, Guitarlos says a new album is in the can awaiting release. Perhaps more importantly, he and Levy have begun a fruitful songwriting career together, recently doing a demo of a track—"Singing the Blues"—for Clapton. On a personal level, a company called About Entertainment has optioned the story of Guitarlos' life for a feature film.
"Almost every single person says, ‘You've got to get this guy Benicio del Toro play you. Just get him to gain a little weight like he did in Fear and Loathing,'" Guitarlos laughs.
When I mention his set this Sunday at the Adams Avenue Street Fair, he recalls having played old San Diego venue The Bacchanal and The Rodeo in La Jolla, which we both remembered as antiseptic.
"A bunch of times in the '80s we played at The Rodeo, though they pronounced it [in a sarcastically uppity tone] ‘Row-Day-Oh,'" he recalls, laughing at his memories of the establishment. "[At one gig], our bassist Gil couldn't make it and we didn't know this, so Johnny Doe [of X ] shows up in his place. Now Gil is, like, 420 pounds, and Johnny is a little stick man. Johnny's wearing a pair of Gil's overalls, stuffed to the gills with newspaper, and he's pasted on a little soul patch and a goatee.
"He played the whole night while Jimmy was yelling at the audience, ‘What the fuck are you doing?! Get up and dance or go home and watch TV and stop bothering us! Somebody wants to hear ‘Freebird'? We're going to kick their fucking ass!'"
Guitarlos brightens when he recalls another semi-local experience, noting that this one is sure to be recreated in the upcoming film.
"[In 1971], we went down there to take some acid samples to Ojai. We took apart my guitar and taped them inside of something. You never would have found it. So we went up the coast like a bunch of damn hippies, and somehow we caused this riot to happen when this lifeguard was trying to strangle this guy out in the ocean because he was swimming naked. All of a sudden there's a line of police heading towards the ocean.
"We just somehow escaped. It was a fiasco, but then these girls screeched up in their car and took us to their house and made love to us."
He's even got a souvenir of the occasion.
"Somebody filmed the whole thing. Twenty years later we got a film of it! It was amazing, just hilarious. Things like that used to happen to me all the time—everyday. Just amazing stories you would never believe."
Things are a little less colorful these days, but Guitarlos is pleased just to be making music. And he's pretty damn prolific, claiming to have written 25 songs the week of our interview—some of which, he says, are uncomfortably revealing.
"Too many of my songs are like little gang members following me around," he explains. "They bug the shit out of me. They scare me to death. They're scary because they're telling things that I don't want to know about myself, telling things about other people, observations I didn't want to make. The songs brought me down for so many years, but now they're just hanging 'round and they're not so troublesome."
Then, he plays me a few more snippets of tunes he's just finished, and it's clear that Guitarlos is pleased with the attention his music has found.
"I've got Marcy, I've got a great band," he says with a veteran's sense of resigned pride. "People are showing up at the gigs.
"I'm not yelling at people any more or picking them up and throwing them. I'm not telling club owners to fuck off. I'm not doing drugs, I'm not drinking… and I'm not a drunken asshole anymore."
He pauses for just a moment, strumming his beloved guitar.
"I usually introduce my songs with, ‘Here's another true story of my miserable, fucked-up life.'