The blues, like jazz and country music, have become so diluted and misshapen in recent years that all three essentially exist as pitiful ghosts of their formerly commanding selves. With a scarce handful of genuine blues forces left—the 90-something Delta overlord Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards, the renowned musical ambassador B.B. King—the idiom today primarily exists as a showcase for musicians whose instincts run unremittingly to a terminal state of heavy-handed overkill, manifested as a tasteless barrage of notes that seem to purposefully avoid the primitive simplicity that made blues the primary source of most American popular music.
But within the tangled, polluted community of so-called blues players, there is yet one who stalks through the sound’s tangled jungle with a formidable mixture of dazzling technical facility, a passionate, innate understanding of the form’s spiritual qualities, and a repertoire of almost unbelievable scope—3,000 songs and counting.
That man is Carlos Guitarlos, a scrappy, hard-driving and hard-living Chicano axe-man from Southern California, whose near life-long involvement with the blues has driven him through an often brutal, cyclical course of monumental artistic peaks and disastrous, life-threatening plunges. Perhaps the only thing that’s kept him alive has been the music itself, an inescapable avocation so deeply-rooted that it’s provided Guitarlos with an unlikely yet sustaining edge.
Growing up in 1950s-era Cypress Park, a hardscrabble, working class community whose neighborhoods were ruled by the notorious Cypress Park Boys street gang, Guitarlos’ involvement with music (he was writing songs at age 14) kept his carcass safely anchored in the garage, chewing through Chuck Berry songs with a variety of cohorts, honing that devilish blues edge until it gleamed with the razor’s luminous, threatening slash-and-gash capability. By the early ‘80s, when he hooked up with powerhouse blues shouter Top Jimmy and began assaulting audiences as the twin engines of infamous aggregation Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs, not even the fiercest hardcore punk bands of the day could manifest their boozy, incendiary impact.
Holding forth at a weekly residency that stretched for over a year in Hollywood underground Mecca the Cathay de Grande, the Rhythm Pigs’ Blue Monday gigs drew in a star-studded rabble that included sit-ins by members of X, the Doors, the Blasters and frequent contributions from diehard fan David Lee Roth, the band’s gift for unmatched hellraising swiftly grew to a word-of-mouth roar that allowed them to positively dominate the town’s nightclub culture. Guitarlos’ shredding, impeccable fretwork was matched only by his reputation as a volatile, unpredictable, often hyper-obnoxious hothead; to call him self-destructive would be a grievous understatement—apart from the deleterious effects of his viciously Olympic-scale partying, his greatest mistake was flatly refusing David Lee Roth’s personal request to allow Van Halen to record one of Guitarlos’ compositions (Roth, instead, immortalized the group with the song “Top Jimmy” on Van Halen’s 1984 album).
The Rhythm Pigs’ pyrotechnic chaos, however majestic, could not stand; when Top Jimmy ended the pair’s nine-year association (splitting for Vegas to care for his ailing sister), Carlos went into a well-lubricated freefall and nearly bought the farm in 1990 after going into a diabetic coma that lasted three full days. After recovering, he disappeared completely from local bandstands. To local hipsters—many of whom had been on the receiving end of more than a few withering Guitarlos tirades—his evaporation was more of a relief than a cause for concern.
San Francisco is a suck town for those on the bum. At one point, the city became so overrun by the homeless that it chose to entirely cease service in and out of the lower Market Street East Bay Transit terminal, handing it over instead to the army of panhandlers whose infestation made further public service impossible. It rains much of the time, temperatures rarely crack 70 degrees, and it’s foggy almost every fucking day until at least noon.
Among the innumerable down-and-outers, Guitarlos re-emerged—as a strictly-for-tips street singer. With a scrawled cardboard sign that read WILL PLAY FOR FAME OR FORTUNE, he had become a gaunt, wasted figure, but his music still delivered more than enough raw-knuckled razzle-dazzle to distinguish him from the ragged horde of guitar-strumming competitors. In 1994, the Bay Guardian newspaper named him Street Musician of the Year, an accolade that, while welcome, did not exactly reinstate him to a position of comfort.
Seven years later, diagnosed with congestive heart failure, he nearly died (again), but the ornery slinger astonished his doctors by not only surviving, but fully recovering. He finally got off the sauce and, with assistance from faithful (and long-suffering) nephew Damon Ayala, returned to Southern California and the recording studio, producing first 2003’s acclaimed Straight From the Heart CD and his current, equally kicking Hell Can Wait disc. Both are mesmerizing displays of his far-reaching prowess, twisting through a kaleidoscopic range of vernacular blues styles—fiery Louisiana zydeco, low-down Delta plaints, rousing jump-blues rave-ups, Chicago-style roof-raisers—with a critical acuity and an idiosyncratic personal style that’s matched by an almost reverent emphasis on the traditional basis of each regional flavor. Guitarlos pulls it off with a near supernatural prowess, conjuring the blues on a sprawling, epic scale, even as he maintains a delicate sense of intimacy and involvement.
Like his avowed idol, Robert “Hellhound on my Trail” Johnson, Guitarlos’ blues seem to soar, propelled by an indefinable, almost mystic quality long since drained from the idiom by the ceaseless degradation visited upon it by wrong-headed ofay aspirants. How he manages it is as mystifying as his own survival, something that even Guitarlos himself may be unable to explain. Ask him, and you’ll likely get a cryptic statement about “imaginary phone calls to Robert Johnson from beyond the graveyard, on a phone made out of human bone”—but when you hear him play, you’ll understand. (Jonny Whiteside)