While he was long forgotten in the US, Rodriguez was unwittingly achieving mythical status in South Africa. Decades later, he tells Fiona Shepherd about fame after 40 years in the wilderness
IN THE internet age, it seems inconceivable that an artist could be unaware of their own success or that fans would have no idea if their favourite singer was alive or dead. Nowadays you have to work pretty hard to be an enigma and, conversely, even the most neglected musician would struggle to languish in complete obscurity.
Which makes the tale of a Detroit protest singer who scraped a living in the United States while his music was providing hope to tens of thousands in apartheid-era South Africa sound all the more romantic. “It’s been described as a rock’n’roll fairytale,” says the protagonist, one Sixto Diaz Rodriguez.
As told by Searching For Sugarman, one of the most lauded music documentaries of recent times, the legend of Rodriguez is almost too good to be true – that a struggling singer/songwriter became a superstar in absentia halfway across the world when bootleg copies of his 1970 debut album, Cold Fact, were circulated by conscripts. Ironically, there were no cold, hard facts about the man on the tape, and so apocryphal stories began to circulate. Rodriguez had committed suicide in prison. He had set fire to himself on stage. No, he’d been electrocuted. Or was it a heroin overdose?
The mystery of Rodriguez was eventually solved through websites set up by a couple of South African fans, who embarked on the Great Rodriguez Hunt in the mid-1990s – including a good old-fashioned “have you seen this man?” milk carton campaign. Rodriguez was tracked down within a year, and invited to tour South Africa in 1998, where he sold out arenas all over the country.
Meanwhile, back in the States, one of his tracks was sampled by the rapper Nas. Another was featured in a mix by DJ David Holmes. Seattle-based indie label Light In The Attic, which specialises in dusting off forgotten gems from days of yore, also did their bit to popularise his music, re-issuing Cold Fact and its follow-up Coming From Reality in 2009, before Searching For Sugarman worked its charms on film audiences.
Now, at the age of 70, Rodriguez is enjoying the widest recognition of a long and stuttering career and he isn’t taking anything for granted. “Thanks for the opportunity,” are the first words out his mouth. Is he referring to his upcoming show at the Usher Hall? Apparently not, as he doesn’t seem to be aware that he is booked to play in Scotland. One gentle correction later and he declares: “I’ll be there, I’ll be happy.”
His interview style is rambling, but there are undeniable flashes of insight and intellect. When he lists his recent appearances and achievements, he does so not boastfully but with hearty appreciation, as if he can’t quite take it all in.
“I’ve been on The David Letterman Show with a 25-piece orchestra – it would have been a powerful performance without me,” he says. “Sony Legacy is behind the soundtrack [of Searching For Sugarman] and they’re going for a Grammy. Sony Pictures is going for the Oscar for documentary of the year. I’m going to play Carnegie Hall next year. I’m getting some offers. And so that has extended my music career.”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez was touted as the Latin Bob Dylan when he was first discovered and signed in the late 60s. Though his music is pastoral and psychedelic, it was coloured by the turbulence of the times, which were marked by Vietnam War protests, social deprivation and riots in his native Detroit. In the end, the predicted success proved elusive and it was The Stooges and The MC5 who would provide the definitive rock’n’roll soundtrack to that chaos and unrest. Rodriguez was dropped by his label in 1975 and apparently went to ground.
“I dropped out of the music scene – not out of music, that’s not something you drop,” he says. “I went back to school, got a degree [in philosophy], tried to make a living.” He took whatever manual work he could get, working in laundries, in demolition and in renovation, any odd jobs to see himself through university and support his family (he has three daughters). “But I kept practising. I think when folks see me perform, they’ll know that I practised.”
While he was forgotten at home and achieving mythical status in South Africa, he also enjoyed sporadic success down under, touring Australia a couple of times in the late 70s and early 80s. But it wasn’t enough to sustain any meaningful career.
Rodriguez also made unsuccessful bids to get into local government. He ran for Detroit City Council on an anti-police brutality ticket but, unlike Motown diva Martha Reeves, who sat on the council for four years until her recent return to showbiz, he didn’t secure enough votes to qualify for the run-off. Nevertheless, he remains, in his own words, “musical political”. “I knew this city when it had 21/2 million people; now it’s stagnating in that we have 800,000,” he says. “That’s quite a jump population wise. Nobody wants to live here. But you gotta be from somewhere. I’m critical but I think you can fix society. I feel more women should take leadership roles in society and be elected to office. It’s clear that the guys can’t do it. I hope it’s going to change in our country and flip over.”
Politics’ loss is music’s (re)gain. Rodriguez says he has been writing new material, though nothing has been published or recorded yet. Meanwhile, he is garnering a new generation of fans, keeping up with his favourite bands Wilco and Animal Collective, and exchanging covers with Paolo Nutini.
“Paolo Nutini is an outstanding artist,” he says warmly. “Not only does he have the good looks, but he has that charming Scottish accent, you hear that influence of environment. I can’t say enough about all the youngbloods, because that’s what rock’n’roll needs. I’m a solid 70 and I’m lucky to be in the game still. I call it my re-entry to music.” «
• Rodriguez plays the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 25 November. www.sugarman.org