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Carlos Guitarlos

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In the L.A. Times this week, there was a front-page story about a man's fall and his steps toward redemption. I'm a sucker for those stories, because I believe in redemption (I once argued for hours with a friend that Pulp Fiction was most of all a moral film, because it was the story of Jules' – Samuel Jackson's character – redemption).

And I was a deeper sucker for this story, because I sort of know the man involved, and because of the impact he indirectly had on my life.

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…

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 the 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.

While I was raised in Los Angeles, I moved away early, and never meant to come back. My Parisian then-wife and I were transferred here by our employers and we were unhappy about it, and with each other over it.

We started going out; to plays, concerts, and little clubs, and in one little club (Club 88 on Pico) one night we saw three bands: Top Jimmy (with Carlos Guitarlos), Los Lobos, and then in an unbilled after-hours set, The Blasters. It was sweaty, beer-drenched, ear-ringing rock and roll perfection. I've seen a lot of concerts… Nine Inch Nails in a small club on Sunset, Jesus and Mary Chain at the Whiskey… that I was lucky to experience, but there was something Platonic about this one.

And driving home, two things happened. First Wife #1 and I realized that we'd fallen in love with Los Angeles, and in turn reconnected with each other… which meant that we would go on to have Biggest Guy and Middle Guy, two of the three best things in my life… and I realized that I was in love with America, because unlike NIN or other bands, whose music cuts across cultures and unites a worldwide "youth culture", bands like Top Jimmy, Los Lobos, the Blasters, and X… the Los Angeles 'roots rock' bands of the 80s were specifically from and about America.

That affection for place and love of country gelled, in part, because of that rock and roll show; and I'm grateful for that as well.

Carlos Guitarlos' self-published new CD will be at Tower Records, and I think I'll go by and pick one up today. You may want to do the same, if you can talk your local music store into finding it for you.

Who knows where it might lead… for him, or for you.

[Note: Just went to Tower, and they won't have it for a week. It's available directly at his site, Carlos Guitarlos and via CDBaby

Cross-posted on Winds of Change.

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  • carlos?

    Recently it has come to my attention that there is another person that has the same name as me. As long as I can remember, I have been called Carlos Guitarlos. On a whim I decided to google my name and found out that the Carlos Guitarlos is being used by someone else! I realize that he is also a talented musician and I respect his music/art. Now I am left in the akward position of asking myself ‘who am I?’ Do I continue to use the name my friends and family have always called me or do I change my name which is who I am so that there aren’t any issues with the other guy? I play the guitar and sing professionaly for numerous well known bands. I am more of a musician than a computer guy. I’ve never really worked with computers. I didn’t know about this other guy, yet I am from Los Angeles too. What are your thoughts? Do I keep my name or let it go to the other guy? I have put a lot of work into keeping my name good. I have a well known name in the midwest on record labels and touring groups.

  • nate

    Wow. Carlos guitarlos is my dads friend! They hang around hollywood and silverlake a lot. He actually came to my house one day and gave us a free copy of his CD “Straight from the heart”, when he first made it. It was just a burnt CD he made. He was at my house just jamming and playing music. The other day he was actually in hollywood/silverlake with flea and the singer from X playing with them at a small club. And you should change your name other carlos. I’ve known this guy since I was a kid. And my dad has known him for years on end. Carlos Guitarlos belongs to this guy.