Rodriguez- Coming In From The Cold- Better Late than Never

by Lee Gonnella on February 14, 2013

Imagine a songwriter who writes socially conscious songs that change the way people think, actually inspires them.  Imagine he comes along at a critical time in a certain counties history, sells hundreds of thousands of records, and his work becomes the seed that helps induce great changes in human rights. Imagine the place is South Africa at the end of Apartheid.  The beloved songwriter, whose records are incredibly well known, is sadly not around to witness these world-changing events, as he is dead, allegedly in some kind of bizarre on-stage suicide in years prior.

Now imagine an older man who lives alone in an old house, in the battered downtown of Detroit, Michigan. He owns no car, and is often seen walking the streets, a guitar on his back.  He’s been around for so long that he’s almost invisible.  He lives a very simple and humble life and is mostly un-noticed.  There was a time though,  about 40 years ago, when he had plenty to say……

Sixto Rodriguez,  known simply as “Rodriguez” on his records, never set himself on fire during a concert.  He didn’t shoot himself on stage, or shoot-up and die, as the many rumors surrounding his alleged death suggested.  He was quite simply doing what he always had done…..living in his home in Detroit and working lower wage jobs when he could get them.  His songs addressed the challenges of working-class poor and minorities, and were drawn from his own personal experiences.  He had no idea there was any interest in the 2 records he’d made in the 1970’s, nor that they’d both  been re-issued several times in South Africa.  There’s nothing to really compare his story to…. I try to imagine a forgotten Zimmy,  shuffling around Cape town with fond memories of the times he spent making those first two records.  It doesn’t make any sense.

In 1998, two big things happened that eventually brought Rodriguez and South Africa together physically.  First, “Sugar Man”, one of Rodriguez’s most loved songs, was covered and made a hit by the band Just Jinjer.  Then, Rodriguez’s adult daughter stumbled onto a South African radio stations web-page that was dedicated to her father.  There on a simulated milk-carton, was her father, one of the folk heroes to a generation of South Africans!

From there, it didn’t take long until Rodriguez finally made his rendezvous with the fame that had somehow eluded him for so many years.  Sold-out tours followed, first in South Africa & Australia, and more recently here in the USA.  Rodriquez has been on 60 minutes, Leno & Letterman, and is the subject of the Sundance award winning film, “Searching for Sugar Man“, which is now available on DVD.

“Searching For Sugar Man” is a fantastic story, a classic case of truth out doing fiction.  Rodriguez himself, a noble and caring man, makes the story even more amazing, because by the end of it, you can’t imagine anyone more deserving.  He is so genuinely gracious,  still the same down-to-earth guy who was happy to clean construction sites in Detroit.

Not surprisingly, Rodriguez never received any payments from any of the record companies who sold his records overseas.  Rodriquez himself seems unfazed by the injustice of this.  That he carries no bitterness for this speaks volumes for the way he carries himself.  He made those records because he had something to say, and he’s happy that his message was heard, somewhere.

It’s also no surprise that the  people who were involved with Rodiguez’s first two albums, all compared him to Bob Dylan, mainly for the lyrical content and Rodriguez’s ability to take on social injustice in song.  Like early Beatles songs, and most great Creedence songs, Rodriquez’s best songs are quite simply, easy for 5 or 10 thousand people to sing along to.

As I listen to  songs like “Sugar Man” and “I Wonder”, it seems  unbelievable that Rodriguez didn’t make it big here at home in the 70’s.  There’s a triumphant moment in the film, where Rodriguez and his daughter fly over to South Africa for the first series of concerts. They are hoping for at least a modest turnout, hoping not to lose money on the tour. Instead, they are mobbed by thousands of fans at the airport.  When Rodriguez steps to the mic to sing at the first show of an entirely sold out theatre, the fans know all the words to every song!

This was a completely uplifting movie.   “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality“, Rodriguez’s 2 original albums, still stand up today.  The songs are crafty and smart, and have a message.  Treat people, including yourself, fairly.  You never know that old man standing behind you in the grocery store might be…

Rodriguez is currently touring South Africa & Australia, but is playing across the USA  in April, including shows in New York, Arizona, and California.  If you can’t see him live, at least there’s this wonderful documentary that will make you wish you could.

Murray Hickling February 15, 2013 at 9:57 am

A great tribute to a wonderful human being.Well Done!

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