How is it possible that a musician whose talent is claimed to have rivalled Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in the 70’s be a commercial flop and barely sell a single record?
The acclaimed music documentary Searching for Sugarman tells the unbelievable story of American folk musician Sixto Rodriguez. Soon after releasing his debut records, ‘Cold Fact’ (1970) and ‘Coming from Reality’ (1971) Rodriguez was dropped by his label and vanished from society, rumoured to have dramatically committed suicide on stage after being deemed a musical failure.
In a bizarre twist of fate, a bootleg copy of ‘Cold Fact’ was smuggled into South Africa where Rodriguez unknowingly became a cult legend and the influential voice for South African youth rallying against apartheid. The film focuses on the determination of two of his biggest South African fans to unravel the uncanny mystery of what really happened to Rodriguez.
Years later, Rodriguez was found alive and well in Detroit, working in the construction industry. Upon discovering his astonishing story he was able to enjoy some fame in his native country and years later toured worldwide to sell out concerts. It’s hard to believe that the man who lived most of his life thinking himself a musical failure was unknowingly an international phenomenon.
Listening to ‘Cold Fact’ on repeat for the hundredth time, I decided to do a bit of research for myself and when I discovered Rodriguez was touring the UK I could barely contain my excitement. This was always going to be special. The sell out gig at the Roundhouse, Camden was packed with loyal supporters and a strong South African contingent. The atmosphere was electric as the crowd waited with baited breath to see this remarkable performer live for the first time.
Staggering on to the stage with help from his crew, Rodriguez, now 70, still looks every bit the rock star with his trademark black shoulder length hair, dark glasses and black leather trousers.
The gig got off to a shaky start, with the acoustics from the band completely overpowering Rodriguez’s barely audible voice. You could sense the crowd’s deflation that we may only see a shadow of the figure he once was.
Fortunately this was only an acoustic glitch. After five painstaking minutes fixing the microphone, the gig soon recovered and the crowd lifted as he sang favourites ‘Sugarman’, ‘I Wonder’ and ‘The Establishment Blues ‘– renowned as the anthem for South Africans during apartheid.
His music is a unique blend of rock, folk, soul and blues and takes inspiration from subjects of his own personal angst and his political and social inclinations. Rodriguez has come a long way since the early days in the 60’s performing in Detroit where he sang with his back turned to the audience.
Despite his newfound fame and fortune (most of which he donates to charity), Rodriguez is still refreshingly humble and grounded. “I love you Rodriguez!!!!!” the crowd bellows, Rodriguez returns “I know it’s the alcohol saying that, but thanks – I love you too”.
The gig closed with Rodriguez taking the spotlight in a moving acoustic performance. Rodriguez may have aged but his unwavering voice is timeless.
After listening to his story, it’s hard to believe that Rodriguez is not negative or bitter about his new-found fame. But he’s man that’s never felt sorry for himself and humbly reflects on his life in the 70’s: “I was ready for the world, but the world wasn’t ready for me”. Well Rodriguez, it may have taken a while but we are definitely ready for you now! This is one rock star story with a happy ending.
Click here for more information about Rodriguez and Searching For Sugarman.
Lisa Holmen @lisa_eatsworld www.lisaeatsworld.wordpress.com