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View From the Top, by John O’Neill, San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 17-24, 2001

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July 17-24, 2001

From L.A. legend to S.F. street musician, Carlos Guitarlos gets a shot at redemption with Mission Blues.

YOU CAN FIND Carlos Guitarlos most days at the 16th Street BART station in the Mission. Camped out at the entranceway with a battery-operated Crate amp and a red Fender Stratocaster strapped over his shoulder, Carlos runs through a songbook that comes to him as naturally as reciting a home phone number. Folks hustle by, stuck in the workaday tilt-a-whirl, although some stop long enough to toss change or a dollar bill into the tip jar. Every so often someone will recognize a riff and linger long enough to listen to what this guy with a gray beard and weathered skin has to offer – which is quite a bit.

This man – whom people might easily dismiss as a transient with a guitar – is actually a great student of American music. Hang around and listen to him play long enough, and you’ll find yourself floored as he shifts effortlessly from Chuck Berry to Sonny Rollins to Howlin’ Wolf to Tarheel Slim to the Beatles. Sometimes he’ll play a familiar chart-topper; at others he deliver an arcane slice of roots past – all have the unique feel of a musician who is nothing less than a poet. Working on the bass and melody lines at the same time, Carlos bangs out one-string solos, jazzy chord progressions, and unorthodox end-run finger plucking that can only be self-taught.

“Most people think I’m some bum singing for a beer,” cracks Carlos from his seat at Tommy’s Joint. “I am.” Missing in action from his usual perch due to a diabetic flare-up, he’s laying low, close to his SRO home on Polk Street. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred people will pass by,” he says, “but then that hundredth will recognize a Robert Johnson riff. Then another hundred will pass by. But people usually give me something. I’m out there all day. I mean, what else do I do? I wake up, see if it’s working, jack off, then go out and play.”

Smart-assed and self-deprecating when he isn’t pumping up his playing ability, Carlos spins a good story for anyone willing to listen. Would-be hipsters who pass by him as if he were some bum would do well to pay him some respect. They should know about the work he’s done on now classic albums in their collection like Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones and the Breeders’ Last Splash, or the contributions he’s made to various local acts. They might recognize him as one of the city’s vintage street performers, but few know that once upon a time, as a member of the legendary Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, he was one of the state’s most admired guitarists and an integral part of the Los Angeles music underground.

Carlos, Top Jimmy, and the rest of the Pigs were big men who played large, lived large, and shot to the top of the heap before plunging down the other side like a freight train coming off its tracks. Now he’s got a shot at redemption with his upcoming album, Mission Blues. There may well be a million stories in the naked city, but that of Carlos “Guitarlos” Ayala is something else again.

Once a Rhythm Pig …
Coming up hard in L.A.’s Cyprus Park, by the time he was 13 Carlos Ayala was able to play any song he’d heard once. The prototypical neighborhood outcast, Ayala would hole up in his bedroom and spend his after-school time playing music. He joined his first band, Steamroller (whose lineup Peter Case would join five years later), and continued to absorb influences as he bounced restlessly around. He was interested only in the elements of music that spoke directly to him, which led him again and again to American roots music. After a self-imposed break from the club circuit to concentrate on writing, he returned to performing, although he still lacked direction. In the late ’70s, he says, he was also able to start a small eight-track studio “after about eight years of being a total recluse.” He smirks, adding, “I was a lot like Fred Neil, only I was fucking alive!”

An old neighborhood kid named Dave Drive (of early L.A. punks the Gears) got him out into the scene, and he was hired as a bouncer at the after-hours club Zero Zero, where he quickly became a fixture. He became Carlos Guitarlos, and cemented his name in the Los Angeles punk stratosphere, when he was tapped to play with Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. Top Jimmy (a.k.a. James Koncek – he earned his moniker while slipping free food to grateful punks who hung around Top Taco) would go on to build a reputation as southern California’s number-one blues shouter during the early and mid ’80s, with Carlos as his right-hand man.

First-class musicians all, the band got their start playing Monday nights in the basement of the Cathay de Grande. It wasn’t long before the word was out about the volatile blues demons who never practiced and who drank as hard as they played. Able to melt blues down to the purest element – transcending race and genre – the passion of Top Jimmy and his hellions was well suited to L.A.’s burgeoning punk scene. It didn’t hurt that they were also a spectacle; the entire band was physically gigantic (Carlos being the lightest by 90 pounds at 260), and when they weren’t ripping up the stage, they were in the audience ripping up the dance floor. Barnstorming clubs throughout California on a triple-threat bill that also included X and the Blasters, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs were recognized by both critics and fans as L.A.’s premiere live band. Their gigs were packed, and soon the band was working as much as seven nights a week, at a time when pay-to-play was beginning to come into vogue.

“We always made money,” Carlos says. “We worked eight days a week and always had a packed room. X would play the Whiskey for three nights and would agree to not play for a hundred-mile radius for a week or two or something like that. We’d play three nights, then play down the block and pack it on a Monday, then get a call Tuesday to open for the Surf Punks ’cause they weren’t selling tickets. It was a great time, and after a while everyone wanted to play with us or meet us, and I got to meet a lot of nice people.”

Music and mayhem
While X and the Blasters went on to influence an entire generation of musicians, the Rhythm Pigs’ closest brush with fame came via Van Halen’s 1984 tribute “Top Jimmy.” While they possessed an honest beauty and raw soul few performers have achieved, the band refused to be tempered and wouldn’t be tamed. Their legend is littered with stories of mayhem and destruction: band members throwing bouncers down staircases, attempting to tomahawk record-label reps with a microphone stand, stopping shows to beat up punks who spit to show appreciation, packing up on the fly to avoid a bust, and enduring Herculean substance abuse.

Though they enjoyed phenomenal success in their own backyard, the band was little more than a rumor outside the state. The nonstop dance party continued, but even the greatest fighter can swing away for only so long; the Rhythm Pigs imploded in 1987 shortly after going into the studio. They would leave nothing behind to be remembered by except boozy memories of wild nights and the question “what if?”

“We were a bunch of belligerent assholes, and you know I wouldn’t want to spend eight years with you either,” Carlos says. “It’s like getting married. It’s like either I love you or I hate you … well, I hate you. But there was love. Jimmy was my best friend. It was the real thing. Real punches. Real snorts. Real women. Most of all, it was real music. We did some bad shows, but on our worst day we were still better than anyone. You know, we never got a bad review, because we never followed any trends. We just made it up as we went along. They were good times, and they were crazy times.”

The fallout from the crash of the Rhythm Pigs was severe. Jimmy, his health wrecked, moved to Las Vegas. Eventually he recorded a couple of albums (including the sessions cut before the band collapsed), but last May he finally succumbed, at age 47, to liver failure. Carlos, whose marriage fell apart in conjunction with the band’s divorce, came north to San Francisco to be closer to his ex-wife and their infant daughter.

“I was at the end of my asshole days,” he explains. “I tried to clean up and followed them up here. That [divorce] taught me my biggest lesson. I wrote a song called ‘Where Is the Music?’ about it. ‘The Woman is love / The child is music / They both are the good times that came my way / Where is the music / Where is the laughter / The here ever after that once came my way.’ I’ll tell the whole world: I fucked that up. I still love [my wife], and I’d die if I couldn’t see my daughter.”

Though his name popped up occasionally on Bay Area music calendars, Carlos gave up the club circuit in 1991. Since then, most of his gigs have been on the streets (he started up in the Haight and over the years worked his way down to the Mission), plus occasional studio work with people who remember his reputation. And there are plenty of well-respected artists who still consider Carlos one of the best.

“Carlos is as good a guitarist as I’ve ever played with,” former Blaster and Grammy winner Dave Alvin says. “He’s a borderline genius. I’ve also seen a TV fall on his head and nothing happen to him, so I guess that says something about Carlos. It was a big wide-screen TV, too.”

Honest living
This is where the story should end, leaving us to ponder the valuable lessons learned about the importance of life and love and happiness and knowing when to say enough. Except it turns out there’s a new chapter. For all the twists and turns and crazy stories, it turns out that Carlos Guitarlos – once-proud hero, fallen angel, drunken doofus, whatever you want to call him – is a hell of a blues player. His upcoming CD, Mission Blues (Hemline), is an amazing document of one man’s life. Recorded at 42nd Ave. Studios by area musician Dan Laks, the album’s songs (11 original numbers and two cover tunes) were recorded and mixed down in one day.

“I wanted [the disc] to be simple, how it sounds when you see him on the street,” Laks says. “Of course I couldn’t do it on the street, but we pretty much got it. There are some overdubs, but Carlos had all these parts he heard [in his head], and they were great ideas. I couldn’t say no. He laid 13 tracks in one day, which is amazing, but we could have gone on longer.”

A few overdubs aside, Mission Blues sounds an awful lot like something that might have been caught by Alan Lomax on one of his field-recording jaunts. Carlos, all natural emotion and raw storytelling, brings a field-holler quality to his sound. While the guitar playing is deceptively simple, the overdubs and chord changes all feature his unique style of playing. Well-placed flourishes or strangely appealing string blitzes give his songs a character that’s evident in his street performances.

Most important, the originals are completely honest. The title cut is a direct nod to the city’s housing crunch from a guy who’s seen neighborhoods eradicated at the street level. “Keep My Hot Tamales Warm” comes from pondering suicide and an imagined conversation with Robert Johnson, and “The Love I Want” is a thinly veiled message to his family. Top Jimmy gets nods on both “Drinking Again” (a staple of the Blasters’ live show) and the searching-for-drugs vibe of “Poppin’ and Bumpin’.” The last cut “String Lament” is a dreamy, soft-focus instrumental as off-kilter as it is lovely; it’s the type of tune a man might hear in his head right before falling asleep.

Mission Blues is a convincing album that might just be the highlight of a career already jammed with highlights. Redemption might seem like too strong of a word, but it works as well as any. In the meantime, Carlos (who’s heard the disc just once or twice – he doesn’t own a CD player) is looking to return to the street to make some money and get back to the love of his life, his guitar.

“On the street I earn every penny I make,” he says proudly, “and these discs are like a gift. If I can sell two a day, I’ll be able to get a room every night. When I was doing clubs, I knew how to control ‘it.’ The room, the music, the people – I knew the album was gonna be good because of ‘it.’ I got lots of ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. I got enough to play out on the street and just let it all go.