Beware: If you don’t know the story of Rodriguez and you’ve been interested in the documentary “Searching For Sugar Man”, go see the movie first. It’s rare for a documentary to have spoilers, but people who are in the dark about Rodriguez (which is most people) might be in for a surprise if they saw this movie. However, I can’t think what would motivate someone who didn’t know Rodriguez to see the movie so I might have just wasted a paragraph.
My wife and I have been excited about this movie for a long time. She came to Rodriguez the way she comes to 99% of new music...me. I came to Rodriguez the way I come to about 25% of new music...my brother. He gave me his first record (Cold Fact) and told me the story and it kind of sat on my iPod for a while (as most things do). When I finally sat down and listened to it, I was captivated. From that point on, any time we had people over to play games, Cold Fact was a go-to record for me to put on. It’s not so intrusive that you can’t talk over it, but it’s so good that eventually someone at the table says “What is this?” and then I can launch into the tale of Rodriguez.
The short and sweet version goes like this. A working class guy in the 60’s writes some songs. He’s very Dylan-esque. Some record producers see him in a bar. They cut a record with him. It sells very few copies. They cut a second record. It sells even less. He goes back to doing construction and odd jobs. Unbeknownst to him, in South Africa, the anti-establishment message of his music has become the soundtrack to the anti-Apartheid movement. He’s considered an equal to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in South Africa, however, no one knows much about him. Rumors of his death by onstage suicide begin to circulate. 30 years later, a South African music writer and a record store owner set out to learn everything they can about Rodriguez and they find out he’s still alive and living in Detroit, still working the same odd jobs to make ends meet. They convince him to come to South Africa where he plays 5 sold out arena shows. He learns he’s sold half a million dollars and that his South African record distributors had never been able to track him down for royalties (believing the rumors of his death to be true). But Rodriguez ain’t mad. He’s not all that interested in his new found popularity. He plays shows because he likes it, giving most of the money he earns away to friends and family and continues to work odd jobs when he’s not playing. He’s happy with his life the way it is. For him, music is fun and it doesn’t matter if he makes money on it. He doesn’t need it. And there you have it, the tale of Sixto Rodriguez.
Saturday my wife and I went to see the movie. It was really great and very touching. It made think a lot about how the story of Rodriguez can be looked at as a metaphor for the story of Detroit. Rodriguez is a working class guy with a brilliant musician inside. Detroit is a working class town where amazing art is happening all the time. No one paid any attention to Rodriguez. No one pays any attention to Detroit (at least not positive attention). Rodriguez doesn’t care about being famous or rich, he just wants to play his music and he hopes you like it. Detroiters don’t really care about fame or fortune, they just want to do their thing and they hope you’ll like it. Rodriguez is a perfect representation of what Detroit is all about. Detroiters find something they want to do and they try it. Who cares if they fail, it’s not like things could get worse and who knows, one day, the story of Detroit could be the backbone of a movement and Detroit could get discovered for what it truly is.
Needless to say, seek out both of Rodriguez’s albums, go see him live if you get the chance, and if you can find a screening, go see this movie. And the next time you’re trying to decide where to go on vacation, consider Detroit. You haven’t had a hot dog until you’ve had a Lafayette Coney. You’ll thank me later.