Documentary: Searching for Sugar Man

By Scott Kara

The hit doco Waiting for Sugar Man tells how obscure 70s folk singer Rodriguez became an international star - without him knowing. From somewhere on the comeback trail.

Sixto Rodriguez is enjoying fame, 40 years on. Photo / Barry Brecheisen
Sixto Rodriguez is enjoying fame, 40 years on. Photo / Barry Brecheisen

Sixto Rodriguez - or Rodriguez for short - didn't set himself on fire in the early 1970s as one story goes.

Nor did he pick up a gun from his guitar case and shoot himself on stage after playing one of his biting but beautiful folk-rock songs, which is another of the myths surrounding the man.

Because the Mexican-American singer/songwriter from Detroit is alive and well and on the phone to TimeOut from Minneapolis, on his way to a record shop performance, then a radio interview.

"I'm doing music. You know, playing rock 'n' roll," he laughs.

So Rodriguez is back doing what he loves most, which is a stark contrast to much of the past 40 years.

You see, back in the early 70s he recorded tough-talking folk-rock albums Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971), the former including his signature song, Sugarman and the fearsome fuzz of Only Good For Conversation.

And even four decades on the songs still sound potent and electrifying.

But the albums flopped in the United States, and he ditched his recording career and turned to renovation and restoration work to support his family while also attending university and even running for mayor of Detroit at one stage.

However, little did Rodriguez know, his music had made a big impact in Australia, New Zealand and especially South Africa, where he became a phenomenon and where many of the myths about him came about. But more on that later.

Because recently Rodriguez' music has been having a worldwide renaissance. American rapper Nas sampled Sugarman and British DJ David Holmes included the song on a mix album in the early 2000s, but it was in 2009, when Seattle-based record label Light in the Attic reissued Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, that a wider audience started listening to Rodriguez again.

And now, with the release of the feature-length documentary, Searching For Sugarman, which screened at this year's film festival and opens on general release in New Zealand on Thursday, his story is finally being told.

He admits, albeit in his typically wry and deadbeat way, that his life has changed because of this increased interest in his music.

"Oh totally. I'm able to get room service. You know, that kind of thing," says the 70-year-old. "I've seen the film over 40 times," he continues with a chuckle, "and my favourite bits are when my daughters come on the screen, because they are film stars now, you know."

He's proud of his family, and he's happy with his lot, which is why he genuinely has no regrets - or grudges for that matter - about his music not being more popular first time round.

When asked if it's frustrating that American audiences are only getting into his music now, he's diplomatic.

"We're doing gigs around the States, so they are waking up to my music career, and the film has people excited even more."

Then, on one of the many tangents he diverts to during our conversation, he starts talking excitedly about playing four 3000-seat sold-out shows in London.

I put it to him that perhaps America wasn't ready for a Mexican Bob Dylan back then.

"I chose the folk song as a genre in music to talk about this social realism. There was a lot of turbulence in America. The Vietnam War. There were a lot of things happening. Change.

"There were riots," he says referring to Detroit's infamous 12th Street Riot in July 1967.

"Those were the [President] Nixon years, and they appointed who was head of the communications division, and they were the ones who decided what the radio did, and I discussed things that were more political rather than the boy-girl stuff."

Rodriguez puts the failure of the albums down to a distribution and promotion problem at record company Sussex Records, which was run by Clarence Avant, who is staunch and defensive in the documentary when questioned about royalties from the Rodriguez albums.

Not that sales and money seem to worry Rodriguez today.

"When you have a product, how do you get it to the market? We haven't got to the bottom of that question either. But we will. We will," he jokes.

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez - also known as Jesus Rodriguez - was discovered in a dingy Detroit bar in the late 60s by record producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey. At the time, Motor City, as it is known, was heaving with all sorts of music from Motown acts like psychedelic-era Temptations to the rowdier and heavier MC5 and the Stooges.

Rodriguez was far more low-key, playing everywhere from gay bars to a regular haunt known as Sewer By the Sea.

"They were small places. Really dark. They're pretty much gone these days," he reflects.

Back then he played with his back to the audience and many Detroit locals from the time - some of whom are interviewed in the documentary - thought he was a street person as he roamed from venue to venue with his guitar on his back.

Theodore and Coffey believed his straight-talking social commentary about everything from drug dealing, riots, and desperate times on the bread line were some of the greatest songs of the era.

He was also poetic, with lines like, "while the rain drank Champagne, My Estonian archangel came and got me wasted", from 1971's Cause.

The producers recorded 12 songs for Cold Fact and, a year later, Coming From Reality, with the beautiful I Think Of You on it, was also released.

But while Rodriguez faded into obscurity in his homeland, he was a hit elsewhere, most notably in apartheid-era South Africa, which is where the film Searching For Sugarman has its origins.

The film follows the story of two South African fans who set out to find out what really happened to their hero - and along the way it also tells the fascinating and mysterious story of Rodriguez.

The story goes that a bootleg copy of Cold Fact made its way into South Africa, and by the mid-70s both his albums were getting good airplay and clocking up strong sales. It was the social and political foundation of his songs that struck a chord with many people in South Africa who were agitating against the apartheid regime.

"When you confront society and police brutality, and those kinds of issues, they are felt all around the world," says Rodriguez, who is declared a "rebel icon" in the film.

It was his father, Ramon, who was his first musical inspiration. And as well as teaching him to play, his father also taught him the power of music and the emotional intensity that songs have.

"I would hear him play and I'd hear him sing, and the Mexican people too, they sing together. It's all about music - the salvation of life."

Who: Rodriguez
What: Searching For Sugar Man, in cinemas October 11. Feature-length documentary about the life and times of Mexican-American folk rock singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez.
Essential listening: Cold Fact (1970); Coming From Reality (1971)

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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