Searching For Sugar Man
The music business is unjust. Everyone knows that. Some seemingly mediocre (or worse) acts seem to survive or even thrive just by stubbornly persisting (take your pick of any example that comes to mind), while other super-talented genius-level artists get ignored and vanish (or worse) or never get heard at all. But sometimes in the 21st century it feels like over time the arc of music fanhood bends toward righteousness, or something like that. Take the strange and unlikely story of the singer and songwriter Rodriguez.
Rodriguez recorded an excellent album called Cold Fact in 1969. A follow up, Coming From Reality, was released in 1971. Then he was mostly forgotten in America, if you can say that about someone who was mostly ignored at the time. But his poetic protest-tinged rock tunes — which run the spectrum from folky to soft to gritty and hard — had ardent fans among collectors and in pockets around the globe.
He was born Sixto Rodriguez, the child of Mexican parents, in Detroit. (Over the years different promoters tried to bill him as "Rod Riguez," but he performs under the name Rodriguez.) Though he remained in Detroit after releasing his two records — raising a family, finishing up school, making a living doing repairs — his music took on a life of its own in places like Australia, where he toured in 1979, and South Africa where he performed in 1998. In 2008 the wonderful archive-minded label Light in the Attic re-issued Cold Fact, with interviews and bonus tracks. A re-issue of Coming From Reality followed. And now Rodriguez is experiencing an even bigger surge of renewed interest with the release of Searching For Sugar Man, a documentary about his career and rediscovery, focusing particularly on the unlikely afterlife his music experienced in South Africa.
Rodriguez, who just turned 70 in 2012, spoke with us by phone from New York City, last summer, right where he was preparing for events and performances associated with the movie's release. I asked him about how his life has changed over the recent years — with the re-issues, the renewed concert schedules and now the documentary.
"It seems to change all the time," he said. "Now it's really quite a change."
For an artist who was basically neglected and overlooked by his label in the first part of his career, Rodriguez was thrilled by the way Sony Pictures Classics had treated him for the documentary and soundtrack. He seems like a remarkably good-natured dude, with a bit of the hippie poet and blissful elder coming through in his Detroit accent. This unexpected late-career interest in his work only adds to his good feeling.
"It is a dream come true," he says. "There's no other explanation for it."
Joking about a recent write-up in Esquire Magazine and elsewhere, Rodriguez said "I'm still getting late reviews."
While Rodriguez doesn't have stacks and stacks of unrecorded songs, or boxes of unreleased material, he says he never stopped playing and studying music. And he never entirely gave up on his art and his career, though things were sleepy at times. "It's something I've wanted but something in a sense I've forgotten about," he says.
One of the reasons listeners didn't forget his work — and one of the reasons promoters may not have known what to do with it at the time of its release — was that he spoke of things like sex, drugs and corruption with surprising candor and plainness. ("While the Mafia provides your drugs, your government will provide the shrugs, and the National Guard will provide the slugs," goes the lyric to "A Most Disgusting Song.") I don't think it's an exaggeration to place Rodriguez on a level with the best of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Donovan. The fact that he only released two records makes it difficult to assess his talent over the long haul, but who cares? There's not a non-great song on Cold Fact. That's a rare achievement. As Searching For Sugar Man demonstrates, thousands of listeners in South Africa felt the same way.
Rodriguez's career fits nicely into the overall story of Detroit music, with its working-class grit and urban sophistication. Detroit is the city of the MC5, Motown, Jack White, Bob Seger and Eminem. "You gotta be from somewhere," says Rodriguez. He might not have been embraced as a hometown hero, but Searching For Sugar Man, which is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category, could change that. "There's not much happening for me in Detroit," he says.
If there's not much happening for him in the Motor City, Rodriguez is getting to play festivals in Europe and elsewhere, sharing bills with Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and other giants. He's been asked to open shows for Animal Collective. But he's mostly focused on just trying to put on a good show. In addition to his name and his forthright lyrics, early promoters found his performance style to be a challenge: he was known to turn his back to the audience, seeming remote and perhaps intimidating.
"I've got my eyes closed half the time," he says. "I'm more focused on delivering a song than eyeballing the audience. I'm still learning my craft."
He has had plenty of chances to run through some material and practice his chops in front of the ideal audiences, playing folk festivals around the world since last summer. When asked to describe his music — which has hard fuzzed-out edges and softer acoustic touches — Rodriguez says he gravitates toward protest songs that have "more of the realness of the world." (You can hear it in the way he leapfrogs from everyday issues and political concerns in a song like "This Is Not A Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues" in which he sings "The mayor hides the crime rate/Councilwoman hesitates/ The public gets irate, but forgets the vote date … Garbage ain't collected/Women ain't protected.")
Rodriguez, an avid newspaper reader and student of philosophy, says the music is about people and poetry more than it is about generic designations. "They term it folksy, but it's a working song."
And just because it's mellow doesn't mean there aren't on-the-job hazards.
"Sometimes I bump into the microphone," says Rodriguez, "or I swing my guitar into the bass player."