Plenty of artists have been compelled to replace their beloved Guiness with O’Douls or other non-addictive substitutes, many of them as pissed-off about the loss of party time as they are grateful for survival. But Carlos Guitarlos, a beard-tugging, shuffle-strutting repository of LA rock history, has turned sobriety into a creative springboard into joy and newfound critical acclaim without sacrificing a rapscallion quality as sweet as it is sly.
Guitarlos’ notoriety is built in equal parts on his hellraising days with Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs during LA’s 1980s punk and roots-rock heyday, and on mean, brawling misadventures in San Francisco, where he’s earned his living over the past decade playing for tips on street corners. When Jimmy’s health finally gave out two years ago, Guitarlos — aware that he himself was careening on the proverbial edge — swore off booze and drugs. He says he’s been sober since the morning after Jimmy’s wake.
“I didn’t want to be in a band with Jimmy right away,” he explains, “y’know what I mean? Everybody kept lookin’ at me and whispering, ‘Carlos is next.’ I looked like crap.”
A close call with congestive heart failure two months later only reinforced his resolve to stay clean. He wrote “Straight From the Heart,” which became the title track of his first solo album, a boisterous roots-rock platter of 17 stories inspired by his dizzyingly colorful life, with guest turns by old pals Dave Alvin, John Doe and Mike Watt; it was released earlier this year to enthusiastic reviews and some Hollywood interest.
Eschewing the brittle bitterness common to many ex-addicts, he cracks self-deprecating jokes and surrounds himself with supportive players for his live shows; locally, he relies on nimble-fingered guitarist David Black to fire his original sets of “American music.” Facing down mortality has seemingly emboldened Guitarlos’ already fearless performances — at a recent House of Blues show, other musicians on the bill came away with more than a little respect for his chops and spirit. “He was awesome,” declares Mike Stinson.
As fun as Guitarlos’ bawdy rockers are, it’s the uncharacteristically prayer-like “Straight From the Heart” that haunts: “Lord, won’t you help me, I’m falling again … Help me make a new start/ It’s been years and years since we talked just as friends/ Straight from the heart…”
“It IS a prayer,” Guitarlos says, happy to be laughing. “I almost croaked.”