"And now you hear the music, but the words don't sound too clear …"
"Inner City Blues" by Sixto Rodriguez
Former Baltimorean Craig Strydom has spent more than two decades searching for Sugar Man. And even though the music journalist tracked his elusive subject to a Detroit tenement in 1997, in many ways, he's still looking.
Sugar Man is the nickname for Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singer-songwriter who was living in dire poverty in the U.S. without ever knowing that his music was being used to fight apartheid halfway around the world. His compelling and improbable story of resurrection is chronicled in a film that just opened at the Charles Theatre.
Exactly how Strydom, one of two fans who refused to let their hero stay lost, located Rodriguez is a key part of "Searching for Sugar Man." It's fair to say that the sleuthing methods used by Strydom and music store owner Stephen Segerman were as desperate as they were ingenious.
"In South Africa, Rodriguez was bigger than the Beatles, bigger than the Rolling Stones, bigger than Elvis Presley," says Strydom, 48, who grew up in Cape Town. He returned to South Africa temporarily last month after 13 years in Baltimore, where he worked for the advertising firm IMRE.
Rodriguez's first album, "Cold Fact," was as popular in South Africa as the Beatles' "Abbey Road," Strydom says.
"But no one knew anything about him," he says. "There were all kinds of rumors. So I decided on a whim to see what I could find out."
Perhaps because the documentary tells a real-life story, it poses as many questions as it answers about the uneasy relationship between creativity and popular success, about the enigmatic artist, and about possible skulduggery within the music industry.
Clues to the first can possibly be gleaned from the recent flood of publicity surrounding the documentary. In the past two weeks alone, Rodriguez has been interviewed on CNN and performed on "The Late Show with David Letterman," who raved about the film. "Searching for Sugar Man" won an audience award at Sundance. The word "Oscar" is being bandied about.
Hints to the musician can be found, perhaps, by watching Rodriguez perform live. On Thursday, he will play a concert at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington.
But it's the case of the mysterious vanishing royalty checks that most intrigues Strydom.
"The little man gets shafted, sons and moneys drafted … "
Rodriguez's "The Establishment Blues"
If Rodriguez's records went platinum in South Africa, why, Strydom wants to know, did the artist never receive even one penny of the royalties due him? Who got rich off Rodriguez's songs, while the man who wrote them was raising three little girls in homes that at times lacked a bathroom?
"No one's really gotten to the bottom of the money yet," Strydom says.
"It is a thorn in my side. When I try to call telephone numbers that are disconnected the next day, when the moneymen shut the interviews down, it was like a red flag to a bull. It's an unfinished story, and I'm thinking of taking another look at it."
In 1970, Rodriguez was poised for stardom. He wrote his own songs, and the lyrics were evocative, elliptical and politically charged.
"A lot of people thought he was going to be the next Bob Dylan," first-time director Malik Bendjelloul says over the phone. He spent four years putting together "Searching for Sugar Man" at his kitchen table on a budget of $1 million.
Clarence Avant, former chairman of the board of Motown Records, is quoted in the documentary as saying that Rodriguez was among the five most memorable artists with whom he's worked — a list that includes Michael Jackson and Miles Davis.
Rodriguez recorded two albums for Sussex Records. "Cold Fact" was released in 1970, and "Coming from Reality" was issued the next year. Both sank without a trace in the U.S. The musician was dropped by the label two weeks before Christmas.
"I was too disappointed to be disappointed," the 71-year-old Rodriguez says now. "In the music business, there's a lot of criticism and rejection. If you embrace it, you'll be better off when the adjustment comes."
"And you claim you got something going, something you call unique …"
—Rodriguez's "Crucify Your Mind"
It's not clear why Rodriguez's music failed to catch on in America. In the movie, some speculate that in the 1970s, musicians with Latino surnames were expected to specialize in salsa, not songs challenging authority. Music industry executives even tried to persuade the singer to adopt the name of "Rod Riguez." He refused.
But the problem went deeper. Fans attend live performances partly because they're seeking a connection with the performers, and Rodriguez didn't provide one.
He performed with his back to the audience. Day and night, he wore enormous black shades.
Even while helping publicize the film, Rodriguez seems at a loss when confronted with questions that require him to tap into his emotions. For instance, he was asked how it felt to learn that his music was a big hit in South Africa.
"Oh, jeez," he says, then falls silent. After a moment, he launches into a stream-of-consciousness speech that touches upon Voltaire, Barack Obama, the Berlin Wall and Social Security.
"If I sound political," he says, "it's because I am."
It's not that Rodriguez is evasive; it's that this smart man, who earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from a Michigan college, seems to not completely grasp the nature of the response expected of him. But he's on the spot, so he gamely makes his best guess.
As Bendjelloul puts it: "Rodriguez doesn't engage emotionally with questions. When we were shooting the film, he wanted to do one brief take, and that was it. In four years, I had four interviews with him. I saw it, in a way, as part of his genius. He speaks in his songs. That's where his true voice is."
To support himself, Rodriguez did manual labor for a demolition company. At times, that meant carrying large appliances such as refrigerators on his back. He had no car, so he braved Michigan's ferocious winters on foot.
In the film, Rodriguez's longtime employer says he was perceived as being one step up from a street person. But even then, Rodriguez's work ethic never wavered. Once, his employer recalls, Rodriguez showed up for his construction job wearing a tuxedo. It was his way of showing respect.
"Well, just climb up on my music, and my songs will set you free …"
—Rodriguez's "Climb Up on My Music"
Meanwhile, and without the artist knowing, bootleg copies of Rodriguez's two albums had been smuggled into South Africa, where the anti-authoritarian lyrics were a call to arms to the post-hippie generation. Though some songs were banned, the albums went platinum — and are still selling.
"Rodriguez wrote protest songs that just resonated with the youth in South Africa" says Strydom, "especially those who, like me, were white and born into the role of the oppressor. The albums inspired us to rebel against a very bad and harmful and wrong political system."
By the 1990s, the albums had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. If anything, their popularity was increased by the mystery surrounding the musician. The albums not only contained zero biographical information about the artist, the song credits didn't even agree about his name. And after 1971, Rodriguez inexplicably dropped out of sight.
Why, the South African fans wondered, were there no new albums or songs, and no tours? Perhaps the artist was dead. One rumor had him shooting himself in the head on stage while reciting his own epitaph.
"According to another rumor, he had died in jail after murdering his wife," Strydom says. "Still another rumor said he was blind."
Strydom had no experience as a detective or investigative journalist, but he didn't let that stop him. In 1996, he began trying to locate Rodriguez. After nine months, 72 phone calls, 45 faxes and 142 emails all ended in dead ends, Strydom was out of leads. In desperation, he began mining Rodriguez's symbol-laden verse for clues.
"It was crazy," Strydom acknowledges. "I started looking at the albums almost as if they were codes. The deeper you go into it, the more you turn over words as if they were rocks, the denser and richer the songs become. It's one thing to write an article and quite another to write an article that becomes a journey."
Strydom is one of those people who are as comfortable crossing continents as they are crossing the street. (He moved to the U.S. for the first time in 2000 and hopes to return to this country permanently in a year or two after helping wrap up family business in South Africa.)
Because one of Rodriguez' songs mentioned Amsterdam, Strydom visited the Netherlands. Ditto for London, where "Coming from Reality" was recorded.
During his research, Strydom met record store owner Segerman, who was as obsessed with finding Rodriguez as he was. Segerman launched a website called "The Great Rodriguez Hunt" and put the artist's photograph on a virtual milk carton.
"Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o'clock this morn …"
—Rodriguez's "Inner City Blues"
Strydom stumbled upon this lyric, did some research and learned that Dearborn is a city outside Detroit.
"I'd almost given up," he says. "That was my big breakthrough."
A phone call to London produced a private number for Michigan-based musician Mike Theodore, who co-produced "Cold Fact."
"At first, he thought it was a crank call," Strydom says. "Then he told me that Rodriguez was alive and well and living in Detroit."
Within a few days, both Strydom and Segerman had spoken over the phone to their idol. Plans were made for a six-concert tour of South Africa in 1998.
Footage from those concerts shows auditoriums crammed with thousands of fans waving their arms in the air, roaring Rodriguez's name.
But just as the artist accepted his poverty with aplomb, so too he seems unfazed by his newfound success. He treats the stage as his natural habitat. Without fanfare, he walks out, adjusts his microphone and begins to strum his guitar, as though he'd never been away.
If you go
The singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $25 and can be bought by calling 800-745-3000 or at the box office. For details, go to http://www.sixthandi.org.
Getting an earful
Want to hear the music behind the man? Check out the movie soundtrack, or Rodriguez's two albums, which have been reissued by Light in the Attic Records. More information can be found on the artist's official fan site, sugarman.org:
• "Cold Fact," originally released March 1970 by Sussex Records.
• "Coming from Reality," originally released in November 1971 by Sussex Records.
• "Searching for Sugar Man (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)," July 2012, Sony Legacy Recordings.