The culture that nurtured the music of Sixto Rodriguez was already waning in 1970, when the Detroit folk-rock singer released his first album, Cold Fact. So it's appropriate that Rodriguez's music has been so dramatically taken out of its original context. If you follow pop music and want to visit certain twilight regions of its history, you probably know the story of how Rodriguez's two '70s albums became touchstones for a generation of fans in such far-flung outposts as South Africa and Australia. Cold Fact and its 1971 followup, Coming From Reality, made Rodriguez a star — a revered, mysterious figure — in those countries, but the records remained obscure in North America for 40 years. After all that time, Rodriguez became the subject of an acclaimed documentary film, last year's Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man, and the singer finally achieved the fame he deserved.
Searching for Sugar Man is a story of obsession — for his South African fans, Rodriguez was a voice from a violent, idealistic era, and such songs as "Sugar Man" and "I Wonder" seemed to comment on the repression of that country's apartheid policies. He was a star there, and his records were studied for clues as to the singer's whereabouts. Some of his fans believed he had killed himself, or had simply stepped off the map. In a mirror image of the way American blues enthusiasts had mythologized such '30s performers as Skip James — only to find them in the prosaic confines of Mississippi or Memphis — his overseas devotees eventually found Rodriguez at home in Detroit, where he had been all along.
As Searching for Sugar Man tells us, Rodriguez has been a humble, reluctant star — he has continued to lead a quiet life, though his recent success means he's making money from his music. The film won this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for its director, Malik Bendjelloul. It tells a fascinating story: Although Rodriguez's two albums didn't sell in North America, they became hits in South Africa, where they sold anywhere from 500,000 to a million copies. Some of those records appear to have been official releases, while others were bootlegs. Rodriguez has said in recent interviews that he's trying to figure out a way to recover royalties from those decades — he never got paid for any of it as he worked outside of music in Detroit.
When I interviewed him last fall as the film opened across the country, Rodriguez seemed concerned about the fate of the missing royalty money, but he spoke of other matters. He had recently played the Newport Folk Festival, and talked about the famous people who had come to see him: "Jackson Browne was in the audience, and let's see, we've had Bob Geldof in the audience," he said. Punctuating his rap with old-school catchphrases such as, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it," Rodriguez represented himself as a quintessential '60s-style hipster.
I think his music has aged well, even given the lack of perspective we revisionist fans display about such artifacts from rock's golden age. Released on a small label, Sussex, whose biggest star was singer Bill Withers, Cold Fact sounds today like slightly oblique folk-rock. Cut in Detroit with producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore and Motown bassist Bob Babbitt, the record adds horns and strange atmospherics to Rodriguez's acoustic-guitar playing.
Cold Fact's "This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues" is post-Bob Dylan folk-rock, and features lyrics about the shallowness of contemporary life. The establishment blues comprises divorce, smoking and pollution — all enemies of inner peace, and all conquered by young people and their "angry young tunes." Meanwhile, "Inner City Dialogue" tells the story of the disaffected citizens who are products of the streets, where pushers and other disruptive forces attempt to sway their minds.
With its modified blues shuffles and ricky-tick folk guitar licks, Cold Fact wasn't fated for huge success in 1970 — Rodriguez's singing was an idiosyncratic combination of the approaches of Dylan, Donovan and Arthur Lee. Cut in England with renowned session guitarist Chris Spedding, Coming From Reality was more of the same. Cold Fact sounds better to me, although I like the Lou Reed-style "Street Boy," one of the 1972 Detroit bonus tracks that ended up on the film's soundtrack.
Rodriguez has told interviewers he's working on a new record — a long-awaited follow-up to 1971's Coming From Reality. As his strange career suggests, it's never too late to attempt to breathe with the spirit of the times. He studiously hewed to the countercultural line of an era that had already begun to question its utopian aspirations, and that just means he was waiting for the circle to turn in his favor, one last time.