On a spring day Carlos Ayala is presented with an upside-down pineapple cake. He is surrounded by friends and family in his backyard in Highland Park, his beard is white and children are running around with a pair of dogs. There are two candles in the cake and a small plastic sign that reads HAPPY BIRTHDAY.
Someone asks Ayala what he's going to wish for.
He barks, "That's not how that works," in his usual gruff voice. His stage name, Carlos Guitarlos, has followed him around for decades, though here he is just Carlos. When Ayala played with the band Top Jimmy and The Rhythm Pigs in the 1980s, the Los Angeles punk scene embraced the group's brand of blues and roots rock at venues like Al's Bar and Cathay de Grande. The Rhythm Pigs were a party band with a rough reputation and often times venues refused to book them. That reputation followed Ayala for some time. Though if anyone is surprised about Ayala's survival of that time it's Ayala himself, today in his backyard at his 64th birthday party.
"I must be a Beatle by now," he says to everyone at the party.
Eleven years ago the L.A. Times found Ayala busking in San Francisco, where he lived in a single occupancy room with enough room for a bed. He often fell asleep with a guitar in his arms and a guitar case full of money. He got by with the busking and went on to record his first album "Straight From the Heart" in 2003 with help from his nephew.
A few weeks before that upside-down cake and his 64th birthday party, I met Ayala for the first time. He immediately directed me to his backyard and played a personal three hour concert, punctuated with anecdotes about growing up in Cypress Park, getting into fights with gang members for being different from the rest of the boys in the hood and playing with The Mothers of Invention by accident.
"There used to be these things called 'Be Ins' in the 70s. Sort of like 'Love Ins,' gatherings for kids and people with guitars," he says. "Well, I started jamming on stage and then a full band jumped up for my last song and it was Zappa's guys."
There are countless musicians in Los Angeles who go on about their craft, who spell out what they have planned for their future and how important their music is to the masses. Ayala is full of the same stuff, but he backs up every statement with a song, he goes into Clapton, Beatles or blues standards that are so obscure that he blanks for a few seconds before he continues with the song.
"I have good discipline in that I'll play every day and can take a song I've never thought of recording and just record it," he says in his white shirt, blue jeans and beige Stetson hat.
"Look at that," he says holding up his hands side by side. "That's what a hand should look like and that's my club, a claw from resting the guitar neck on it for so many years. A true guitarist's hand."
Ayala is a fan of the "long hello," where he launches into anecdotes about places, people and songs that only he can hear or picture. Though he tries his best to paint a vivid picture with detailed directions on how to get there, with various nicknames for people who live along the way. He has foresight to pronounce his thoughts in long explanations of who he is and how he's gotten here. He's full of vinegar and other times with hot air.
"I have a pornographic memory," he jokes, and proudly states on March 18, 1960 at 3:15 p.m. after arriving home from Aragon Elementary School his mother presented him with his first guitar.
There are two versions of Ayala's life story:
One is that Carlos Guitarlos is a natural performer. That Ayala is no more and only Carlos Guitarlos remains, someone who is so steeped in technique and ability to pull songs out of thin air it's a damn wonder that he's not on famous (or infamous). This version glosses over the drugs and heavy partying and neglects to mention the divorce. Or the diabetes. The death of his friend musician Top Jimmy from alcohol abuse at 46. Or the decision to leave Los Angeles and follow his daughter and ex-wife to San Francisco. This version ends with him saying, "This is a one man band, unsigned."
The other version is the long hello.
"I thought he was an obnoxious asshole," says musician Richard Aeilts, or Dig the Pig, who met Ayala when they both played in The Rhythm Pigs. "He almost got into it with the Atomic Cafe's unofficial bouncer (a former Japanese boxing champion)."
"He's a bit less of the overbearing obnoxious a-hole of his youth," Aeilts adds, "Carlos has an endearing quality somehow. A sensitive soul buried within a hard scrabble Highland Park Chicano who doesn't speak Spanish."
Los Angeles photographer Gary Leonard has known Ayala since the 1980s when he covered the punk scene and also photographed Ayala's daughter, Eloise, after her birth.
"Carlos was the way he needed to be for that time," says Leonard, noting Ayala often acted as the doorman at Al's Bar with his guitar slung around his back and swaggered about the threshold.
"That time in L.A. was a really special time. There were people who defined it by their presence. They defined that scene."
That scene was a dizzying time for many people strung out on cocaine, passing out along the Sunset Strip with bottles in their hands. Drinking would later claim Top Jimmy, but at the time the band played and partied without much concern for their well-being.
"We used to chase the stuff off stage during our sets," says Ayala, referring to cocaine.
Today Ayala plays with two other musicians, drummer Adam Steinberg and bassist Will Mack, who occupy corners at rib joints. They play as The Carlos Guitarlos Trio, though it's not a band name he cares for. He is without a manager. His brand of rhythm and blues is scratchy; a weathered sound flecking his voice box. It's the voice of a musician who doesn't necessarily fit in any one genre. On his 2010 self-released album "The Innocent Remains" Ayala covers a Robert Johnson song, "Rambling On My Mind." On that track he is a force of nature, his voice hoarse, howling like an apparition, the guitar playing is frayed, wild, like a man who has lost plenty.
Ayala has recorded with John Doe of X, Mike Watt and Dave Alvin of The Blasters. Though Ayala is not shy recording alone, boasting that everything they do he can probably do in time. He understands music theory, but can't explain it without picking up an instrument and playing every note of a song on guitar, then on bass, then slapping his hand on the side of a nearby table.
In his backyard he plays melody and sings harmonies, he announces sections to songs, "Ba ba ba ba - Bass! Da da da da Drums! Hey are you listening? Na na na Keys! This is where the guitar gets away, but comes back. Na na na Guitar!"
His neighbor's dog barks through the fence. Birds are singing. His girlfriend Cheryl smiles from a window in the house that they share.
"I've got at least six thousand songs in my vault," he says pointing to his head under a beige Stetson.
Without a manager Ayala books gigs himself. He mentions how other musicians are part of some type of show, where a machine pulls out their name, and travels along the line to their manager.
"That's not for me. I could do that, be part of the show. Play what they want. But it's just not my thing."
Ayala's nephew, Damon Ayala, helped Carlos in 2003 with his comeback, but stopped representing the Carlos Guitarlos band in 2007.
"I refrained from using the word manager, at least in his presence, because, as you may know, he is unmanageable," says Damon.
Most people know Ayala's preference for getting things done his way. His home is crowded with instruments, posters, song books. He is always playing an instrument, either on the phone or in conversation with a friend. His bed is situated in his living room in front of the television, guitar cases in one corner. There's a 1967 1443-Silvertone Long scale bass that he makes me write down. He's paid for the special cable package to watch the Dodgers at home. He has a special relationship with the voice app on his phone, shouting out entire sentences for everyone to hear: "YOU CAN CALL THE PHARMACY FOR ME IF THE MEDICATION IS READY. JUST GIVE THEM MY NAME, BIRTHDAY AND HOW HANDSOME I AM."
At his birthday party, I ask Ayala a question about all the nicknames he gives out and he has a story that does not correspond to what someone said about the same nickname. I say he might have it wrong.
His daughter, Eloise shouts, "Ha, see that. Someone doesn't buy your bullshit."
But Ayala goes on with his story no matter what anyone else has to say.
Ramon Ayala, Carlos' older brother, remarks that things haven't changed.
"I remember Carlos always being very bold, always having to get things done his way. He's determined. Talented, determined. A bit stubborn. Who isn't?"
When Ayala moved back to Los Angeles from San Francisco all of his possessions could fit into the trunk of a car. Now Ayala's home in Highland Park, just a few miles from where he grew up, is packed with instruments.
Ayala says, "I've got enough money for my guitars and enough to bury me."
Top Image: Carlos Ayala | Photo: Nathan Solis
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