Rodriguez: A Poet for the People
On Thursday September 20, Detroit native Madonna was in Chicago performing her second of two shows at the United Center. She is a superstar of unimaginable magnitude where right at this moment one of her songs is being played right now. A decade before, there was a quiet poet from the streets of Detroit, who created two exquisite records, which captured the anguish of the times along with the essence of the intricacies and heart fluttering aesthetics of love. He made two records in the early 1970s and disappeared. His story is not unlike any other musician who got in the ring and gave it their best shot, but the story of Rodriguez did not end when his record label dropped him in 1972. Miraculously, despite minimal sales in the US, someone took the record Cold Fact on a trip to South Africa in the mid-1970s and it became a sensation. Over the next two decades, his two records sold over 500,000 copies in a country of less than forty million. More importantly, the songs spoke to the apartheid movement, became anthems for the people, opened up worlds, and altered viewpoints in a stroke of musical mastery. Sixto Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis and no one in South Africa knew anything about the man. This story is at the core of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The film unfolds in a superlative cinematic glory and despite knowing how it ended, I found myself in the theater sitting on the edge of my seat as I waited in anticipation for each scene. Just when I thought a mystery was solved, something new would emerge. Families were created, lives were changed, and through it all Sixto Rodriguez comes across as simply a man with an inherent and devastating talent that went largely unrecognized by the majority of the world until now. While Madonna performed to close to 15,000 people in the United Center, four miles north in the Lincoln Hall the man known as Rodriguez took to the stage in a mesmerizing performance where despite the audience being much smaller, each and every one of them was completely absorbed in the man and his music.
Everything about Rodriguez was shrouded in mystery earlier this year before the film was rolled out to cinemas worldwide. The mystery and intrigue has played a huge part of the marketing and buzz around the documentary and while I am confessing to you that he is alive, it does not mean the mystery train stopped with the revelation. If anything, watching him live and in concert was equally haunting. On the stage in Lincoln Hall, there was one spotlight and smoke is rising under it. Beneath it, Rodriguez was dressed meticulously in a black suit, playing a guitar and wearing a hat. He looks and sounds like a ghost- a spirit from the past who has come back to deliver his message. He was ahead of his time, disappeared into the night, and has now reappeared to make the wrongs of yesterday right. Maybe I am being a bit dramatic and letting my prose get away from me, but that is precisely what it felt like watching Rodriguez alone on a stage performing songs more than forty years old. His voice is still full of warmth and romantic sincerity. To see him on the stage is nothing short of a miracle and to think that if not for a five-star documentary and it's accompany soundtrack, I never would have known about the artist who goes by the name of Sixto Rodriguez.
There was no backing band and the stage was bare aside from a microphone and a stool to hold his water. Rodriguez came onstage with a guitar and opened his show with "This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues". He followed it quickly with "Like Janis", a word of warning to someone to put down their disguise. At the core of Rodriguez's music is a strong sense of self. This is why the Searching for Sugar Man soundtrack is such a revelation- it is like hearing Van Morrison or Bob Dylan for the first time. "I Wonder" did not have the dimensions of the studio cut, but it did not stop the crowd from singing along on a paean of discovery. Between each song, he tuned his guitar told quick quips ("Free love is too expensive") and curling smile jokes, ("Does anybody want to know the secret to life? All You have to do is breathe in and out"). He shifted between songs from the film and other songs that didn't make it into the film but are on Cold Fact and Coming From Reality - "You'd Like To Admit It", "Rich Folks Hoax" and "Forget It" provided unfurling snapshots into his mind several decades back. You could hear a pin drop in the room not for lack of familiarity but because no one there wanted to miss a single second. Besides his originals, he pulled out a tri of covers including a tender rendition of Peggy Lee's "Fever", a jolly "Like A Rolling Stone" and lastly a venerable "Blue Suede Shoes" which closed the sixty-five minute performance. If you venture out to see Rodriguez (and you should) it needs to be notes that you will not witness a bustling young artist reaching for the big time, but rather a man whose art has made it through to the other side. He does not sing these songs in defeat but as a man with more life experiences than most of us could ever imagine. As the film documents, he has not had an easy life, but has always made the best of it. Normally a set consisting of a little more than an hour would be a cause of concern, but there was not a single note or lyric that went wasted. He relished every opportunity. Looking at his hands caress and tune his guitar, you see a lifetime of struggle. The hands that wrote these stunning songs also fought hard in his community for justice. The very same hands did jobs no one else would dare so he could provide and educate his family making them feel that they had enough. His vocals may not have the range of his former youth, but they house a spirited existence. When he sang with upmost genuineness, the sold out crowd stood in rapt attention hanging on every word like he was a prophet speaking from the top of the mountain.
There may be those who do not seek out the live show or even the film, but the one item that is unforgiveable to overlook is the soundtrack for Searching for Sugar Man. He delicately treads waters between political forthrightness and lamenting love songs. Back in April, the soundtrack, in a plain sleeve with little biographical information and no pictures arrived in my mailbox. I was intrigued by the lack of information and simply decided to let the fourteen-song soundtrack do the talking. What I heard was a showstopper. The fourteen cuts on Searching for Sugar Man is an astonishing collection of songs that soar and coalesce into this perfect union of desolation and desire. He has a penchant for minute details that he takes and pairs with these lofty lyrics that make even the most tragic of circumstances feel beautiful. Rodriguez's voice is a thing of majesty as it treads inconceivable waters. Comparing his art to Dylan and Springsteen serves only as a tribute to substantiate the heights of his aptitude. The way "Sugar Man" fades into the darkness is eerie and haunting. It is as riveting as Dylan at his most primal. The way the track musically dissipates into space with such care that when his vocal comes through, it feels like a ghost reaching through to us from the other side. The orchestra tickles the lyrics with urgent poignancy. The third cut on the soundtrack (and the last song on his second album), "Cause" was unfortunately not performed at the Lincoln Hall show, but in the film and on album, it is a hymn of mournful and distressing times- it is one of the most emotionally draining songs that I have ever heard. There is a weariness and acute awareness of despair in his lyrics and through it all, there is a beacon of light shimmering through. "Cause" is a song that will strike you between the eyes as one of the most elegiac pieces of music you will ever hear.
"Crucify Your Mind", "I Think of You" and "Inner City Blues" were all aired at Lincoln Hall and the crowd responded ardently to each one often moving their lips along to every song. Every lyric that escaped was surrounded by a memory, a vision and a hope. The same sensation overcame me when I heard the soundtrack, when I saw the film and lastly when Rodriguez was mere feet in front of me- these songs made me feel like anything was possible. It is as if he was comforting me yet urging me to embrace the bright dreams within my reach as his echoey vocal sends chills down the spine. The soundtrack to Searching for Sugar Man is a five-star masterwork whose beauty and harsh truths will provide and harmonize your life like the arrival of a child. His songs are full of so much prosaic radiance it is hard to believe it took a documentary film to bring his name and music to the mainstream. The viewpoint of the narrator aches, yearns and wants a better tomorrow just like the rest of us. Rodriguez does not just capture the essence of the 1960s where tumult and injustice reigned supreme but right now, where we find ourselves faced with the same dilemmas. Because his music is so timeless, stunning and marvelous, the "Sugar Man" will now live on forever.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Rodriguez: A Poet for the People