In the spirit of full disclosure, those who have no idea what Carlos Guitarlos represented to the Hollywood Blues Rock scene of the 1980s may well find Straight From the Heart a bit, well, unwashed and unfinished like studio rough tracks. The work, while vivid, has the unpredictable edge of a homeless man who has bounced in and out of addictions and hospitals over the past two decades. That’s been Carlos’ life pretty much until he got clean and quit drinking. But for those who remember Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs (in which Carlos Guitarlos played guitar), Straight From the Heart isn’t just a potent comeback of sorts – it’s reason to rejoice that the man is alive and still able to make good and competent music.
At one time, Top Jimmy (James Konceck) was called L.A.’s greatest Blues singer. Carlos was right behind him, weighing in at around 300 pounds and pumping out some of the most violent Blues licks ever to be heard at the Cathay de Grande, the Hollywood pit where the hard-drinking and drugging Pigs were known as the band to see. The down side: Konceck (immortalized in the Van Halen tribute Top Jimmy) eventually died of liver failure while Carlos Guitarlos spent the last several years drifting in and out of flops in San Francisco, his health shot. For coin, he busked on the street with a borrowed axe and a battery powered amp.
The up side: the hard years have given Carlos an authenticity he never had as a young Blues-Punk lightning rod; the pieces fall into place for him on Straight From the Heart. With backing help from a cast that includes Mike Watt, Dave Alvin, and John Doe there are seventeen songs written by Guitarlos, most of them averaging between two and three minutes in length. It all kicks off with “Damn’ Atchafalaya,” a hardcore romp in the Alt. Country tradition with just a pinch of Louisiana seasoning. Based on handfuls of fat guitar tones and infectious lowland harmonies, there is an immediate sense of being in the hands of a master storyteller. Carlos’ voice strains, but the band is enthusiastic and sets the pace for the rest of the record. “The Love I Want” sneaks in with the sweet, dark truths of a man looking up from the bottom at things he knows he wants but can no longer comprehend, while “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” is that song’s retort. Basted in testosterone, the vocals seem to ask Do I measure up? The guitar’s spare high-tension licks say Yes, I damn well do. It’s a Fab T-bird rave up with Pete Mazich on Hammond B3 and a full horn attack. Then, on the soul-filled autobiographical “Straight From the Heart,” the CD’s title cut, it’s not hard at all to believe Carlos when he sings “It’s one, spit in the wind/ Two strikes I can’t win/You’ve been callin’ me, callin’ me, callin’ me/ To come back again.”
“Easyrider” is a fun country Blues shuffle, nothing more and nothing less, while the slightly out-of-tune “Sea of My Troubles” fails to grab attention. “Poppin’ and Bumpin'” features Dave Alvin, and sounds it. Two distinct guitar tones, Alvin’s reverby twang and Carlos’ dark rumble chase each other around the track like a shot of peppermint schnapps after a night of drinking cheap beer. “Keep My Hot Tamales Warm” contains dozens of footnotes to the Blues masters, while “Two Tavern Town” sets up John Doe and Carlos in a saint-meets-devil dichotomy. “Dance With Your Baby” is pure Texas Blues magic: “What’s it gonna take to make you move/You just gonna stand around here takin’ up room?” The horns punch and Carlos scrubs a solo out of the fretboard, his pick heavy on the strings. “Everybody’s Got the Blues” is a jubilant romp in a funhouse full of mirrors, but “The Drought Song” is the best Blues tune on the CD. It lives up to a San Francisco Bay Guardian story in which they once called Carlos “a hell of a Blues player.”
“The Drought Song” is bookended by “Women and Whiskey.” Here, the playing is superior and the voice carries the sand of many nights spent hunched over a bar top. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” would have been a fine place to end the album; it is the kicker, the command performance in which Carlos’ guitar shoots bullets and Tom Fabre’s sax bats cleanup. With grit and texture on loan from T-Bone Walker, this song is Carlos’ masterwork. But there’s more – “When the Pain Stops Killing Me” trifles by comparison and hits a little below the self-indulgence belt. Still and all, it holds a listener’s attention. It is about the bottom, the very rock bottom they say you have to hit before you can get better. It is a place Carlos Guitarlos knows only too well.
But the bottom, such as it is, appears to be in the past now. The last time I saw Carlos, he was in relatively high spirits (read: something bordering on the aggressive). He had recently moved south to Los Angeles, and he told me that a film about the story of his life was going into production.
“Who’s gonna play you?” I asked.
“I dunno – that guy, what’s his name? Band…Ban…”
“You mean Banderas? Antonio Banderas? That guy?”
“Yeah. I think so. Who is he?,” Carlos wanted to know. “Is he pretty good lookin?”