“Juke-joint Jimmy is the latest thing He’s got the sound that everybody digs And the joint been jumpin’ when the band been pumpin’ And you know they’re playing crazy gigs Well you ain’t been living til’ you’ve seen the living thing Top Jimmy and his Rhythm Pigs.”
– David Lee Roth of Van Halen “Top Jimmy” from the album 1984
They were rude, obnoxious, mean as snakes. People made the mistake of taking that attitude to mean they were a punk band and tried spitting at them, something Johnny Rotten would have taken as a compliment, but those people usually wound up looking like stomped Sloppy Joes on the dance floor after the boys in the band were done with them. Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs would have been the stuff of legend even if they couldn’t play, but playing was what they did best. When they weren’t falling down drunk. For a time in the early 80s, they were Los Angeles’ most notorious band as well as its best, and a lot of big stars loved nothing better than to hop up on stage with the band for a number or three. David Lee Roth, the vocalist of Van Halen and author of the lyrics quoted above, was one of those people, as were Dave and Phil Alvin of The Blasters, Exene Cervenka of X, Ray Manzarek of The Doors and countless others. It wasn’t just style, it was a rush. It was fun. It was getting away from the trappings of their own publicity machines and slipping into the vibes of gut-level rhythm and blues. To trade lines with Top Jimmy – who got his name working at Top Taco, a favorite food joint for the punk set – was grand enough, but standing near the amplifier tethered to one Carlos Guitarlos was probably a mind blower. Even on nights when he barely seemed conscious, amazing music came from that amp. He could play just about any genre, any era, any song, and he could do it in a way that caught the attention of the most beer-soaked, loud-mouthed bar patron. A lot of people would shut up in mid-conversation for a Carlos Guitarlos solo.
Carlos was very big, as were several of the Rhythm Pigs, and scary as well. There are a lot of people out there who haven’t got a lot of nice things to say about him. They don’t know him now, of course. They remember the Carlos of the early 1980s, the one whose ability to play with such depth and emotion and his propensity to be rude and drive people away presented an odd paradox. He could be disarmingly sweet, too. Legend has it he was playing one night and saw the woman of his dreams, jumped down to the dance floor and kissed her. It may or may not have gone quite like that, though many people say that’s gospel, but she’s the one he married and had a child with, a daughter who is now 17 years old.
The band remained a local phenomena as more and more of the people who regularly joined them on stage went on to mega-stardom. Meanwhile, Carlos’ marriage broke up and his ex-wife and daughter moved to San Francisco. He went, too, not wanting to lose contact with his family, divorced or not. What followed was years and years of change. Carlos never needed a band to make music because he can play several parts at once on the guitar, so he became a street musician, using the money to pay for his lodging and food. He developed diabetes, but didn’t listen to his doctors much. He continued drinking and living a hard life. On March 4th, 1990, Carlos went into a diabetic coma from which he emerged three days later, “supposedly with no brain damage,” he says with more than a little suspicion in his voice. “March 4th was my birthday, and my ex-wife thought I was drunk because of the way I was acting, but I wasn’t. I was so high on the orange juice I was drinking I didn’t know I was hallucinating.” The juices were kicking his blood sugar through the ceiling and he had no idea what was happening to him. His reputation precluded sympathy or trust from others. It’s a miracle he ended up in the right place and is alive today to talk about that particular brush with death. It certainly wasn’t his first, and there would be others.
In 1994, Carlos was named Street Musician Of The Year in The San Francisco Bay Guardian’s yearly entertainment survey. If you’ve ever been to San Francisco you know there’s a musician on nearly every inner-city corner, and many of them are better than half of the people currently in the top-40 charts. Carlos’ favorite spot is a BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] station, where he puts out his cardboard box and his sign which reads “Will play for fame and fortune,” and then proceeds to play for the pure joy of playing. It’s just what he does. He plays for reaction, he plays for kicks, but most of all, he plays to play.
He was still doing just that when, in 2001, he found himself in the hospital with a diagnosis more disturbing and threatening than diabetes. The hard drinking, hard living man was told he had congestive heart failure, class four, and needed immediate surgery. By this time, 51 year old Carlos looked about 70. Alcohol had to go, like it should have gone so many times before. This time, however, Carlos really understood what was at stake, and he walked away from the bottle.
After his dual recovery from alcohol and surgery, Carlos began life on the path that has brought him to June, 2003. Thanks in large part to the tireless support of his nephew and manager, Damon Ayala, Carlos Guitarlos has released his second solo CD. Not just any CD, but a tour-de-force that is being heard outside of the Bay Area. Most of the old Rhythm Pigs fans didn’t expect to hear from Carlos anymore. Top Jimmy died on May 17th, 2001, and as far as they knew, Carlos had vanished into thin air a decade and a half earlier. Now he’s back, dramatically transformed from the Carlos of old, though still as cocky when it comes to questions about his abilities as a player. He’s not alone in his assessment. The LA Times did a feature story on Carlos and, uncharacteristically for an entertainment feature, put it on the front page. The CD has been very well received, critically, with some major publications placing it in contention for Album Of The Year honors. Time will tell how that turns out, and how the CD does commercially, but the point has been made. Carlos is still here, and he can deliver, so his old fans who thought he had vanished can stop wondering now. This CD is for them, and for everyone who loves American music. It’s for guitarists who want to be inspired, and blues fans who are looking for the real thing. And it’s for Carlos. On the street or in the studio, he just does what he does. What he’s always done. Carlos plays guitar. Every single day.
Cosmik: I’ve read a lot of articles about you that make it sound like you fell off the planet for the past fifteen years or so, but that’s not even close to true, is it?
Carlos: No, that’s nowhere near true. I’ve been playing music every day. I haven’t fallen off the planet, I’ve just been out of the public eye. In fact, I’ve been the public eye itself. I’ve been playing in the streets and in clubs once in a while. Every time my friends go to San Francisco, I get up and bug them to play, and do one of my songs or something. What I’ve been doing, though, is playing every day in the streets and making more money than a band, because I can play every kind of music really well. If some kids walk by I’ll play something from Fantasia or Wizard of Oz, if somebody my age walks by I might play “Layla,” or if somebody older walks by I might play Sinatra.
Cosmik: That’s a hell of a musical vocabulary.
Carlos: Well any kind of American music. And I’ve written over thirty-five hundred songs.
Cosmik: You left LA for San Francisco to stay close to your ex-wife and daughter. The popular conception of you at that time is that you lived on the street. Is that true?
Carlos: No. Sometimes I didn’t have enough money to get a room for a week so I’d stay at a friend’s place. Once in a while I stayed outside. Three, four or five times, but no, I would stay at a friend’s house and pay them later, or stay there and do things for them, but I was always working, you know? Unless I was in the hospital. I didn’t actually live on the street. I played on the streets.
Cosmik: And you’d just come from being not only in the public eye…
Carlos: From being in the number one band in L.A.
Cosmik: Which was pretty huge.
Carlos: Which was a big deal in L.A., yeah.
Cosmik: Yeah, but it wasn’t just L.A., because the legend spread. So did the lineup. You guys had a lot of good players up there.
Carlos: Well, the band was popular where ever we went. At first it was myself and Top Jimmy, and then John, Don and Billy from X, and Steve Berlin and Ray Manzarek. Then we got different guys from The Blasters and Los Lobos in the band. We had Gene Taylor, too, from the Thunderbirds and the Blasters. We had all kinds of different people. We had the great Bill Campbell, the best Texas guitar player alive, he was the house band leader at Antones, and he was the house band leader for the first two and a half years at Slims when it opened up.
Cosmik: For a guy who was used to a certain lifestyle in LA, what was life like, on an emotional level, when you were first in San Francisco? What did you have to deal with?
Carlos: Oh, well it was fine. I was playing all the time and that’s all that matters. I don’t have to have all the trappings or people following me around saying yes or no. The Rhythm Pigs, we didn’t have a manager, we didn’t have a car, we didn’t have nothing. We just played. So moving away didn’t change anything because I still had my music. I never dropped out or away from what I was doing, I just took it away from other people.
Cosmik: When you got to San Francisco, then, you were playing by yourself on the street, and that’s all you needed.
Carlos: Yeah, because I make it play the bass part, I can thump with my palm, and snap with my finger and get a bass and snare drum part, I can play the rhythm and fills all at the same time.
Cosmik: Like the best of the old country blues players.
Carlos: Almost. I can do that, too.
Cosmik: You’ve been writing songs on almost a daily basis since when?
Carlos: Since 1967. I started playing when I was 10, and started writing 7 years later. I started on upright bass and harmonica, then saxophone, and then guitar all the way from the first three months of 1960.
Cosmik: Here’s something that I can’t even imagine. You’ve written so many songs. How did you preserve them? You wrote them by the hundreds, if the stories I’ve heard are true, and you didn’t always have a way to record them.
Carlos: I have a pornographic memory.
Cosmik: (Laughs) Yeah, but for that many songs?
Carlos: I know every single stroke of the drum, every single piano inversion, every guitar part, every background vocal, every string and horn part, everything to every one of my thousands of songs is in my head.
Cosmik: DID you have a way to record them as you wrote them?
Carlos: Oh, sometimes, but I didn’t need to because they stay in my head. Every single part.
Cosmik: I’ve read a quote by you where you said – I’m paraphrasing, but something like “I play on the street and a hundred people walk past, but one will recognize a riff and stop for a minute.” I listen to you play and I can’t imagine you playing and not having at least a small crowd around you.
Carlos: Oh, they have no idea, though. They’ve been spoon fed crap for years by “Empty-V,” which can have two “Ts” I guess, so “Empty-TV.” They’ve been shown, and had it presented and they’ve been babied, so they don’t know any better.
Cosmik: Then how can it not be frustrating. I understand the gratification would be there on the hundredth person, who really gets it, but isn’t it irritating watching the oblivious people walking around?
Carlos: Because I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and as far as money goes, I don’t care if I make 20 dollars or 220.
Cosmik: I hear you do pretty well in that department.
Carlos: Yeah, you kiddin’? You know what the worst part is, though, is hardly any musicians stop. (Laughs.) “Hey, what’s that, a bass? Uh… I have to go…” They figure if I’m playing the streets I must be lousy so they don’t stop for a second to listen. No patience.
Cosmik: Probably embarrassed because they can’t keep up with you.
Carlos: I recognize them. I’ll see a bass player and I’ll suddenly play a more complicated bass line, and if a horn player walks by I’ll jump into a Coltrane or Sonny Rollins song or something and play the parts exactly right, so I guess that does bug ’em. Or I’ll stretch my hands out and do all the parts at once. When I play with piano players I always freak them out because I played with Gene Taylor [The Blasters, The Thunderbirds and Ronnie Hawkins] for years and years and years, and he’s like one of the greatest ever and I know all his licks. We played well together. So when I play with piano players, they’re all trying to do the licks he’d learned and changed, some could just nail those runs and not miss a note. And then I’ll answer on the guitar [sings a fast, complicated solo line] and it freaks them out. But I don’t do it to push them out of the way, I do it to go with them.
Cosmik: I think that’s a key to your sound. So many guitarists only listen to other guitarists, but you’ve obviously listened to great sax players and pianists and bass players and…
Carlos: I can listen to a band and I can inflect in my chords and runs parts of what everybody’s doing, but everything at once. And it gives me something to do. (Laughs.)
Cosmik: The songs that are on Straight From The Heart… are they all songs you’ve played on the street?
Carlos: Yeah, but on the street I mostly like to play [cover] songs. I’ll play whatever I feel like, though. I mean I might play “Ramblin’ On My Mind” by Robert Johnson 6 times in 3 hours just ’cause I like to hear it.
Cosmik: When you’ve written and developed songs with just your guitar and your voice, and you had a long time to think about a lot of them, did you think out things like bass parts, drum parts, production?
Carlos: When I write the song, the whole thing is in my head. Every stroke, every volume, everything.
Cosmik: Even production?
Carlos: The production’s just got to be as real as it can be. I don’t care about production. Put something in that’s right, take something out that’s wrong. Marc Doten did a great job doing all that, making it sound like we did it all at once.
Cosmik: It does feel very spontaneous.
Carlos: What we’re doing now over at Don Huffington’s studio is being done all at once. I’ve got Don Huffington (drums) and Bob Glaub (bass) recording the tracks for my next album with me.
Cosmik: That’s a solid team there!
Carlos: They’re the modern version of what Russ Kunkle and Lee Sklar were, the American rhythm section. We just recorded a lot of songs in just a few days.
Cosmik: Playing it straight, no overdubs?
Carlos: Oh, a couple. Voice, maybe. If someone wasn’t there we had to put them on the next day.
Cosmik: On Straight From The Heart, you had Marc Doten co-producing with you, and some pretty fine players.
Carlos: Marc’s a great bass player, too. I had my friend Dave Black there. He did a bunch of my songs in L.A. AND told my jokes, so we got him on rhythm guitar, and we had my same drummer of the past 23 years when I’m L.A., Joey Morales, whose father is Lloyd Morales, one of the great drummers of all time. Played with Les Brown for 29 years.
Cosmik: Black’s playing compliments yours perfectly.
Carlos: Well, that’s because he’s doing my playing. (Laughs.) He puts something of his in it, but it’s basically my thing there that he knows, and it fits perfectly, yeah. Dave’s good. And my bass player, Bill [MacBeath] played on about half the songs. He owns the Ivy Room on San Pablo in the town of Albany in the East Bay, east of San Francisco. He played with Alvin Youngblood for 6 or 7 years. My drummer, Ed Michaels, played with Alvin and also with Roy Rogers for 7 or 8 years, so I have a real good band. Down south I have an almost better band. I use Mark Doten and Marcus Watkins from Double Naught Spy Car, named the best instrumental band in L.A., and then my old drummer [Morales], who knows everything I do, and then this guy Vince Meghrouni, who plays harmonica, flute and saxophones, and sings some backup parts with me live, along with Mark. He’s really good. He’s like a jazz player, really, so he can handle it.
Cosmik: I gotta tell you, even if I heard this CD without knowing who it was, I would have jumped on it and written a rave review. I would have said the difference between this and most modern day blues albums is some people play the blues, but you’re a bluesman. I wonder if you’re more proof that you can’t play the blues on the truest level if you haven’t had a hard road.
Carlos: Well… what this album is, it’s a little wall of American music, and there’s no holes in it. Might be some music missing as far as different styles, but it’s like the first four songs: Cajun, early 60s soul style, heavy Motown with a sort of a Peter Green solo, and the fourth one is a folk song with a guitar and a harmonica solo.
Cosmik: The fourth one can easily be argued as a blues tune, I think.
Carlos: “Straight From the Heart?” Yeah… But it’s all different kinds of American music on the CD, really, which has all come from the blues. I’m not going to sit down and be a fucking “comb your hair” blues band, and if Muddy Waters was alive he’d be like me right now. He wouldn’t look back to what happened in the past. He’d change it. Move on. There are so many great players in blues nowadays, but they’re not doing anything with it. They’re just playing it great, but they’re not doing anything different. I don’t try to be as good as the… I mean I know every Robert Johnson song, but I’ve never tried to learn one correctly because I can’t be like that. I make up my own way of doing things.
Cosmik: So do you resist the notion that you’re a bluesman.
Carlos: No. I put in all the hard time crap to back that up, but I’m not saying I am and I’m not saying I’m not. I have all the right elements, and I put them into many styles which are all from the blues. I’m a step away from the blues. I’m pullin’ it along.
Cosmik: Your guitar playing just knocks me out. You have at least three tones that could almost be called signature. On “Keep My Hot Tamales Warm,” you really surprised me. With a pretty backing track like that I’d expect a gentle, reverbed sound. It’s just what you hear from people. You come in with this gritty, fat riff in the front of the mix and it turns out to be exactly what the song needs.
Carlos: It shoves it at ya and sticks ya.
Cosmik: You like “in your face” playing, don’t you?
Carlos: Oh yeah yeah yeah! Singing, too. I can sing so loud I can sing over a band without a microphone.
Carlos: With Fender Deluxes and small bass amps and regular drums instead of a rock drummer, I can sing over a band without a P.A..
Cosmik: Are you serious here?
Carlos: [Conspiratorial tone] I can sing louder… than… fuck!
[Ed.Note: Carlos checks on the status of the household but learns that some of his family members are asleep, so his planned demonstration and likely destruction of my telephone speaker was postponed a few moments. Suddenly he backed away from the phone, far enough that I barely heard him say “Here” before my phone speaker distorted from the volume of Carlos singing “Lord, won’t you help me, I’m falling again,” and then a small child shouted something I couldn’t understand but may have been Spanish for “I’M DEAF!!!”.]
Cosmik: Good God!!
Carlos: That’s just moderate. I can sing loud.
Cosmik: Considering what you’ve done to yourself over the years, you’re really lucky you can still do that. A lot of people who abused their systems far less are practically in oxygen tents. But you sing well at any volume.
Carlos: You should hear Marcy Levy singing.
Cosmik: I’m not sure I know that name.
Carlos: She used to sing with Eric Clapton and with Bob Seger. Real soulful voice. She co-wrote “Lay Down Sally.” For a while she was called Marcella Detroit. We wrote this song that goes “I found someone so close to me – So true and strong for eternity,” with a diminished and a suspended [guitar chords], and she made up her verse on the spot, and she had people crying. I have a video to prove it. She’s such a beautiful, soulful singer.
Cosmik: Interesting, because I was thinking about female vocalists and “The Drought Song.” I wouldn’t be surprised to hear one or two of the best female vocalists in jazz covering that, but it’s a natural for anyone with a soulful delivery.
Carlos: Oh yeah. And in about 20 years people will listen to that song over and over when there are water wars, because I wrote it back in 1977. I was in San Francisco for about 6 to 8 months, and it was the fifth year of a 7 year drought there, and they had that famous poster that said “Shower with a friend,” and a picture of a guy and girl cuddling under a shower nozzle, water and soap on them and so forth. I saw that and I said “Geez, there’s gonna be some water wars coming up in about 20, 25 years.” So that’s what the song was about. When the water commissioner would be more important than the oil commissioner.
Cosmik: Your guitar tone on that song is totally different than on any other. It’s sublime. No question here, just admiration, I guess.
Carlos: I use gigantic strings. Gigantic. And that gives them a jazz tone if I want it. I can bend them just like they’re .009s, but they’re .015s.
[Ed.Note: This refers to the thickness of the high E string on a guitar, which is the thinnest of the strings. The thinner the string, the easier it is to bend. When a player says he uses .009s, he’s talking about the relative gauge of all his strings. .010 is markedly more difficult to bend than a .009, so for Carlos to have a .015 for a high E string is a little like you trying to use a high tension wire for a shoelace. Good luck tying it.]
Cosmik: [after a moment of stunned silence] Nuh uh! .015?!?
Carlos: Write this down: .015 plain, .020 plain, .025 plain, and then right now I’m using light ones on the bottom, so .040, .050, .060.
Cosmik: Here are the gauges of the strings in a standard pack of Ernie Ball Slinkys. Okay, .009, .011, .016, .024, .032, .042. So the low E is about what you use for a D. What the hell do you bend your strings with, Carlos? A crowbar?
Carlos: No, I have little vices at the end of my arm, and hydraulic fingers. I can bend them just like the skinniest ones everyone else uses. That’s how I get “the sound.” You don’t get this sound through amps and matched tubes and pedals. I don’t use any pedals or nothin’. I don’t use anything to get those sounds. Sometimes I don’t even use reverb. Dave Alvin’s doin’ all the reverb on “Poppin’ and Pumpin’,” so I purposely put my amp up to 10 and the bass and the treble down to 0 to make it as flat as possible. I just wanted to go opposite of what he was doing. When I start singin, and then I do that first lick with the half steps moving up chromatically, there’s no reverb, no treble, no tone controls, just volume on a fender amp because they have active circuits.
Cosmik: So how about on “Keep My Hot Tamales Warm?” That’s wet.
Carlos: It’s got reverb, but it’s reverb from my amp, not from a pedal or the board. I can make reverb work with my hand on a guitar that’s not plugged in. Carl Perkins showed me that.
Cosmik: You’ve gotta teach me that one someday. So the distortion on “Ain’t That Lovin’ You,” which is just nasty….
Carlos: … is just the amp up and my big strings kicking the speakers’ ass.
Cosmik: That explains the big sound. The songs are fun. You’ve had what I think is a hard life. I’d be bitching left and right if I were you, and here you are writing songs that make people happy. “Co Co Club” is impossible to feel bad while listening to.
Carlos: That’s a song I wrote in about the end of 1981 about a real club. Reuben Lopez, who has the Rock City News, had a club called The Co Co Club with this shady character who had a lot of shady white stuff there, and it was called the Coke Club. I said “Okay, I’ll play your opening weekend,” and I wrote the song and took the lyrics to Reuben, and he framed it at the top of the stairs where you go in. It’s a true story.
Cosmik: I must have been deaf for a minute there. Missed the drug reference. But I wondered about what taking your scratch to get some back meant.
Carlos: “Take a tumble and rollin’ with the dice” was mentioning drugs and taking a chance at love, both. Then it went “Just a Sunday night and I’m down at the Co Co Club,” because I opened on a Sunday night there, “They take it slow” because it was just a cool hang out, “and dance, you know. Because on Sunday we know where to go, so everybody catch a ride and go down to the Co Co Club.” And then “So for a real good time come down to 319,” that was the entrance, 319 Spring. “You can dance and romance till you drop, and if you take your Scratch,” you had Scratch Magazine then, “you can get some back.” Scratch Magazine, if you took it and your picture was in that week’s issue, you’d get in the club at a discount. So he took a picture of everybody just to get them down there. [Laughs.] So that’s what the line about taking your scratch to get some back is about.
Cosmik: By the way, the guitar riff and its tone at the very end of “Co Co Club” is so good it has to be fattening. Just blows me away. I’ve been trying to figure out something. Are the stories wrong? It’s said you’ve been living for years with a guitar and a small battery powered amp. Was that your only amp?
Carlos: Oh, I’ve had other amps, I just couldn’t play them on the street. And I didn’t have them here in L.A., and then I borrowed some amps that were better for the recording. It was a mixture of amps. Mostly small [Fender] Princetons.
Cosmik: Tone is something that a person doesn’t have to be a guitarist to appreciate, obviously, but the players that are reading this will hear the tone at the end of “Co Co Club” and wonder how you got it, while non-musicians will have the purer experience of just getting goose bumps. So… how did you get it, Carlos?
Carlos: I come by a tone just in one moment of plugging into an amp. It’s coming from me through my fingers off the neck of the guitar. I can create tones and different sad shades on an electric guitar that’s unplugged. You just do it.
Cosmik: One song sounds much different than the others. “When The Pain Stops Killing Me” is obviously a man in more than one kind of pain, and it’s very effective and easy for a lot of people to relate to. The sound is more primitive than the other songs. What was the reason for that?
Carlos: That was recorded two years before the other songs. Dave Black’s playing acoustic guitar, and he’s playing slide. The electric lead at the very beginning and right end of the first verse, just five six notes and five or six notes in the middle, that’s all I play on that. And I sing it. Dave put the exact same version on his record, and that’s Atma [Anur], one of the world’s great rock drummers, just tapping out a few notes here and there. That’s why it says “Great drums: Atma Anur” in the liners. Now the way that happened was it was just acoustic bass, me with about twelve notes total on my Strat, and Dave on acoustic guitar, and me singing live. Then he played it for Atma with no drums and no slide. Atma was supposed to learn it so David could re-record it for his record, but instead, Atma, almost with tears in his eyes, said “That’s too much emotion. You can’t change that. I’ll just play drums to it.” So he played drums to it in one take and that was it. He really laid it down, but it’s not just playing drums; it disappears all the time, what the drums are doing, going into the shadows, then comes out and goes another way, then fades into the shadows, then comes out again. He doesn’t play a beat to it, he plays little feels. It’s amazing. Then they kept it for David’s record, and David put slide on after the drums. David came up with the main idea for the song. He sort of timidly said “Well, I’ve been trying to write, and… what do you think of this title?” It was on a piece of paper he’d carried around for two or three weeks, all ragged and about ready to be thrown away, and it said “I’ll stop killing the pain when the pain stops killing me.” And I just freaked! I said “Fuck! That’s it! That’s a song that writes itself! Oh man, that’s fantastic!” So he came up with the structure, the chords, the verses and the story line, and then we changed it around. David did about 50, I did about 40 and Marc did about 10 percent of that song. Dave was writing it about me, I think, which is why it worked so well for me.
Cosmik: Until I looked at the writing credits I didn’t know anyone else worked on that, and I assumed it was another autobiographical song, so it makes sense to me as a listener that it’s about you, considering what you’ve been through. Another very personal song, if you don’t mind talking about it, is “Straight From The Heart”. It has everything to do with the miracle of your story, I think. When was that written?
Carlos: That was written on a hospital bed when I was about to go in and have some work done on my heart. I’ve got Congestive Heart Failure, Class 4. I’m supposed to lay down and die, but I’m not going to do that. I’m not supposed to be able to breathe, but I can sing louder than a band.
Cosmik: The song’s basically a prayer. Talking to God.
Carlos: Yeah, telling him “Hey look, you’ve been calling me.”
Cosmik: You’ve been near death a few times now, and you’ve skated by before, but this time it seems you’ve done more than skated. It seems like you’ve done it right, and you’re sober. For a lot of people who spend that long in that kind of lifestyle, sobriety is really a drag.
Carlos: No it’s not. I just made up my mind, and you know why that was so easy? Because I only had to make up what was left of my mind. Dave Black said “I used to get high every day, so I go to a meeting every day.” I said “Dave, I don’t need to do that. I don’t need someone to hold my hand.” He said “Well, I think you should go to a meeting with me.” So I happened to go at three months, and then I was in L.A. again at the six month [anniversary of sobriety], so I went, and then I went at the ninth month time, and then I went at the one year time. At the one year time they give me this fourth chip thing for my key chain, and when you play in a bar you get a drink chip, so I thought I’d make a joke. I got the chip and they said “You want to say something, Carlos? Make a speech,” and I go “Okay. Can I get a drink with this?” The whole place went cold. (Laughs.) David tried to lighten it up. He says “Well tell us how you did it, we’re all proud of you,” and everyone goes “YAY! YAY!” like a kids football team. So I said what I said to you: “Well I just made up what was left of my mind.” That went over even worse. The truth is I just stopped.
Cosmik: You have an ally now, one who has been doing a lot of great things for you. Do you want to talk a little bit about your nephew, Damon Ayala, and the partnership you’ve got going now?
Carlos: Damon Michael Ayala. My oldest brother’s youngest son. He has two. He works for the DWP [Department of Water & Power] in Materials Management, so tomorrow he has to be at work at five in the morning, but he’s been working all this morning and this afternoon on the computer searching out places in the city to e-mail to, keeping track of where we are in the nation in [radio] plays, sending out more press packages, coming up with more concepts for getting us out there, more ideas to discuss with our publicist, Susan Clary [of Big Monkey Publicity], and still helping take care of four kids. He’s in charge of managing all the DWP materials for the City of Los Angeles, and that’s a big job, and he still handles all this.
Cosmik: Nice to have him on your side.
Carlos: No kidding. He’s going to work at five in the morning, then he’s going to take his lunch time during a show I’m doing tomorrow, then he’ll come home at about six and work on the computer until two in the morning. He works hard. He’s fucking crazy. (Laughs.)
Cosmik: A whole lot of street performers have worked and worked with the goal being to do concerts and stop doing streets. Do you see yourself ever giving up playing on the streets?
Carlos: If I want to play somewhere I’ll just get up and play. I don’t care. I’ll play anywhere. Even if I’ve got a shitload of money in my pocket. If I just made a hundred bucks that day and I’ve got two or three thousand in the bank, I’ll still go to a hoot night and go on first, then the amateurs will go on for hours after me. I know I can always go on first. I could be in my room playing for myself, but I go play for people.
Cosmik: Good things are happening to you, Carlos. You paid a lot of dues getting here, but you know you ran up some bills, too. Right now the time seems right. Major newspapers and magazines are calling your CD one of the best of the year, people are hearing you as you and not a Rhythm Pig. Are you surprised by all this? Is it a lot to take in?
Carlos: No, I’m not. Damon said something at the start, when he was talking to me in the hospital, before I wrote him the letter saying “let’s do this, here’s our game plan,” and what he said was, “This is the way I look at it: we can make this for something you just sell on the street to make sure you get a room every day, or we can make this to do anything we want with it, because I think a Carlos Guitarlos record, recorded the best we can do it, can’t be denied.” And I think he’s right, because these are all true stories on this CD. They’re all true stories, every single word of every single song I’ve ever written. And they connect.