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The mystery man of Motor City

January 30, 2013

One of the joys of being a music snob is when you encounter some reminder that you don’t know everything.

Such was the case recently when I saw the Oscar-nominated documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. I’m guessing many other music snobs reacted the same way. (*Spoiler alert – If you haven’t heard the story and want to experience something almost too stunning to be believed, don’t read on. Just watch the movie.)


Rodriguez’s debut album

In a nutshell, the movie chronicles the story of Detroit songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. The line in the film is that he sold about six records in the U.S., and you might say he disappeared in the intervening decades, although he never really appeared in the first place. His 1970 and 1971 records on Sussex attracted virtually no attention.

It’s tempting to draw some Nick Drake parallels. Brilliant folkie singer-songwriter that’s stuck in the shadows of popular culture, even at a time when singer-songwriters were finding success. Drake, however, at least was a known commodity among musicians and a small cult of fans, enough so that when his music finally garnered attention (thanks to a certain Volkswagen commercial), there was that accompanying sense of what took you so long.

Rodriguez was different. I don’t think anyone – me included – had even heard of this guy until the documentary premiered at Sundance – anyone outside of South Africa, that is. There he was huge and provided kind of soundtrack for white liberals in the anti-Apartheid movement. The fact South Africa was so cut off culturally from the rest of the world probably added another factor in why no one had heard of him. (Note: the film doesn’t get into this fact, but he apparently did a couple of tours of Australia, including one opening for Midnight Oil.)

Back in America, he was never promoted and was dropped from his label after the two records, despite his immense talent. Yes, his music is excellent. The Dylan comparisons aren’t that far off. There certainly was no reason he shouldn’t have been running in the same circles as Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, etc. The fact he lived in Detroit though was likely one factor for his anonymity. At the time, the Motor City was Motown and shit-heel proto-punk like the Stooges and the MC5 and hard rock like Bob Seger. While you can hear some of these influences, his music is still in the folk rock mould. I’m guessing if he’d lived in Laurel Canyon or Greenwich Village, he would have gained a much bigger following, even with the raw deal he got from the record business.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the movie comes courtesy of Clarence Avant of Sussex Records. It’s tempting to dismiss him as another greasy record exec, but Avant knows what a talent he had in Rodriquez. It’s also safe to assume that whatever royalties the South African record pressers sent to Avant are long gone, as is Sussex Records, which disappeared only a few years after Rodriguez last recorded.

Throughout the documentary, we’re treated to a bizarre story about a man unknown in his own country but a star in an isolated one on the other side of the world. Along the way, we hear wild rumours of his death and what he did to survive in Detroit after his unceremonious exit from the recording business. Actually, I should say “what he does,” as Rodriquez is alive and well, living a modest life and working in building demolition/reconstruction in Detroit, a city that needs a reconstruction more than any other. Thanks to the publicity from the film, Rodriguez’s career is getting a bit of a reconstruction.

Searching for Sugar Man is a story with a happy ending, but it is a happy ending that is earned, not forced. Rodriguez is a brilliant songwriter that has earned every dollar he’s made from the music world (or is making now) and many, like myself, are only finding him for the first time. Spend a couple of hours on this search, and you will feel all the sweeter for it.

From → Essays

One Comment
  1. YES! Jan + I discovered “Searching” on our XBMC channel. A die-hard fan of the man from Hibbing, I was sold right away on Rodriquez. But, Jan went for it too – insisting that the flock of ladies @ grand daughter Hazel’s recent baby shower listen to a few tracks. It’s fun to be decidedly uncool and find that you have unknowingly backed into a deep pool of cool.

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