The Prodigal Bluesman

Carlos Guitarlos: From big-shot LA asshole to broke BART busker and back. Well, sort of.

According to J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder, another word for “redemption” is “comeback.” Carlos Guitarlos wants both.

Carlos Guitarlos is tired of telling his hard-luck story: Musician, formerly big LA scenester in the early ’80s — friends with David Lee Roth, Darby Crash, and Exene, no less — skids out and ends up playing for spare change outside BART stations with little money and a bad heart, literally and figuratively.

You see, he was an asshole. A drunken, high, big-mouthed, egotistical prick.

“I should’ve been shot crossing the street in 1980,” he half-jokes now. Granted, he was part of a cabal of boisterous, beefy blues players, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, whose reputation as the best Los Angeles bar band was eclipsed only by their reputations for booze (Jimmy died at 46 of liver failure), drugs, women, and all the excesses of the club scene. Van Halen wrote a song about them on its 1984 record called (doy) “Top Jimmy.” Tom Waits, Ray Manzarek, Dave Alvin, John Doe — all those guys sat in with the band.

All that partying aged them quickly, but at least the band burned out and didn’t fade away.

Now, Carlos has done a 180. His heart is declogged and strong as an ox, he’s sober, and he’s just about the nicest guy you could meet. No, really. For a man who has been accused of only having one subject he liked to talk about — himself — he starts our interview by impressing on Clair just how fantastic Marcy Levy, one of his collaborators, is. (She’s a talented songwriter known for co-writing “Lay Down Sally” with Clapton, among other things.)

“The best thing about her: She’s an amazing woman. All talent or music aside, she’s just an amazing person,” Carlos says. “Besides all that stuff she’s done, she’s still writing well, still doing great. … She’s a fucking pro and she can sing … she’s a world-class fucking singer. She sings lead in this band and backup. I’ve got her on a full-tilt boogie.”

He barely takes a breath between words, which is actually bad, since he’s calling from a hospital bed. Periodically Carlos has coughing fits. There’s something wrong with his respiratory system, but doctors can’t figure out what it is.

“Hi!” he says sweetly into another phone. “Is that you, Marcy?” Levy is on her way to the hospital for one of her daily visits. Guitarlos sounds like more like a beloved great-uncle than a fellow musician. “Okay, be careful, see you soon,” he says, hanging up. Almost immediately his daughter calls. He apologizes for the interruptions.

“Hi, honey,” he says, sweet as syrup. He talks about his daughter all the time: She’s in her late teens, and it’s apparent he wants to make up for any lost time he may have had with her in the past. The two of them are figuring out some sort of plan for some sort of thing, and after he hangs up he scolds himself for forgetting to say “I love you.”

This pains him. For a moment I think he’ll call her back and say it, but the interview continues.

“I wasn’t a punk rocker,” he clarifies about his LA days. “I was a songwriter nut. But … I knew everybody, every single person. Have you seen Gary Leonard’s book called Make the Music Go Bang? I’ve looked at it with a magnifying glass at the audiences, and I know nine out of ten people in those audiences. I know everybody in the book, but in those shots, I knew almost everybody in the audience too.”

Carlos Guitarlos is then pressed on the important things: What is David Lee Roth really like? “He’s just a regular guy,” he says. “He goes through all that bark-mouth shit, all the yelling, all the posturing, all the posing … you know he’s kind of a boisterous guy, but he’s very well-educated, very smart, comes from a good family … he’s a smart cookie. He’s a fair and honest person as far as I know, he’s strong in what he says and what he does — if he cares about something, he goes and does something about it. David Lee Roth is a fucking great guy.”

He lapses into another coughing fit, deeper than the previous one. That won’t keep him, however from rumbling up here for his Saturday night Biscuits and Blues gig in SF — Carlos is playing shows again in search of that redemptive comeback. His latest solo release is called Straight from the Heart, a collection of blues and New Orleans-based originals.

In that album’s liner notes, Guitarlos wears a T-shirt with the words “Once proud hero Fallen angel Drunken Doofus Hell of a blues player” scrawled in Sharpie across it. That’s part of the story, but not all of it: Like David Lee Roth, he’s also a smart cookie and, holding court from a hospital bed, a great fucking guy.


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