Finding Rodriguez and recognising talent fallen along the way

The Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank on Saturday night was packed. The stage oddly sparse and brightly lit.

The band entered and took up their place and then a man, all in black with long, black hair, was led out on stage. And Sixto Rodriguez began to play.

Rodriguez is the regularly forgotten man. Discovered in 1970 and signed to Sussex Records, he produced two albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). Then he faded into obscurity and was lost.

The world was different then. Countries with similar cultural roots were isolated from each other. Music from the US – then as now the dominant cultural exporter – could find fertile ground far from home. Who can explain why country music is so popular in Lesotho, the isolated mountain kingdom in the centre of South Africa? Why does rap /hip-hop have so many fans on the Cape Flats?

Rodriguez became a cultural icon in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe. These are small markets, though, and there are insufficient album sales to sustain a life. In 1979 and 1981 Rodriguez toured Australia. Then he disappeared again.

In 1998, the Cultural Boycott over, he was rediscovered and toured South Africa. The rediscovery is the subject of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. And then America discovered Rodriguez.

And so here we have the portrait of a man, standing on a stage at the grand age of 70, having had fame thrust upon him when he least expected it.

South Africans are enjoying taking the credit for “finding” Rodriguez and keeping his spirit alive. I imagine Australians are somewhat miffed at not sharing the spotlight.

But this isn’t really about who kept the memory going. It is about the man.

I imagine, if you love music, then you too must have forgotten albums that you dust off, hold and play every now and then. They’re from bands and musicians you believed had the talent, music and ability to become superstars. Then they didn’t.

These were people who may have produced two or three albums, sweated through noisy clubs, played student gigs, toured relentlessly. People who did everything required to gain attention and airplay but mainstream success never came.

Consider that, if an album costs you $6, then the musicians don’t make much off each album. They could have 100,000 dedicated fans and still earn barely enough to pay their rent.

Cross some threshold, though, and fans don’t stop in the millions, they shoot up to the tens of millions. The difference between a musician who catches the imagination and one who does not is not measured in skill or quality of songs. It’s simply the numbers.

Those who win are wealthy beyond the spending of it. Those who don’t have given their all. They have sacrificed the time that the rest of us were gaining an education and working our first jobs. What are they left with when all they can put on a job application is “spent the last ten years touring with my band” and the recruiter has never heard of them?

In the UK there is a long-running comedy/music quiz called Never Mind the Buzzcocks. A regular slot in the show calls for an identity parade where some musician from the past 30 years is placed in a row with four similarly-dressed people. Panelists must then figure out if they recognise this faded star.

The “joke” is that we do remember the song – some one-hit-wonder bit of flim-flam – but we don’t remember the singer. At least the song is remembered.

For Rodriguez even that much was not true. He was a demolition worker earning little and working hard. His life was drawing to its end, and then a movie and a confusing sort of recognition.

Is it the music? I don’t know. I bought Cold Fact in 1992, my first year in university and shortly after the CD album was released in South Africa (it was a tape or LP before that). Sugar Man was the song of every student party. The rest of the album is similarly deep. Folk rock resonant with sadness, frustration and not a little anger directed at the status quo.

I don’t know if my contemporaries were listening to the lyrics or simply, in the words of Sir Thomas Beecham, simply liked the sound it made.

Listening to the music performed live 20 years later and it is still good. Rodriquez is different, of course. “Sugar Man is descriptive, not prescriptive. Give me hugs, not drugs,” he says, nervously.

When he takes off his jacket revealing the shoulders and arms of a retired builder, there are whistles. “I know it’s all bullshit, but keep it coming,” he says.

I’ve watched interviews with some of the punk musicians of the ’70s who hit it big and are still millionaires now. They are still angry and vengeful. Their wealth seems to have isolated them from maturing or moving on from the rage that got them started.

Rodriguez has had no such luxury. His music is haunting, filled with melancholy. The message is still there, but as statement, not demand. Music is descriptive and people take it as such.

Rodriguez, releasing these songs today, probably wouldn’t make it this time either. The world has moved on. Such introspection and compassion for that which divides us is not really in favour. Anger, rage, pontification and punditry; these are the terms of our time.

An old man, singing songs about drugs, poverty, wealth and urban decay with empathy and compassion is a quiet place. Sadly, for Rodriquez, a man who genuinely loves music and his songs, it still isn’t about the music and the message.

But it is a symbol and a message we do need. Because we do recognise the pain and sacrifice of the artist. We do recognise that our buying choices have consequences for those – equally worthy – we don’t support. And so, as a symbol of all those talented artists who fall along the way and are forgotten, we recognise Rodriguez. We love him for never having given up or given himself away.

We honour him.

It’s a heavy load for one man to bear, but Rodriguez has borne a great deal with nobility, grace and good humour; he’ll just have to bear a little more.

Thank-you Rodriguez for hanging in there, and thank-you too to all the artists – musicians, writers, actors, film-makers, visual-artists – I’ve loved through the years but never quite made it to the top.

2 replies »

  1. Excellent, Gavin. Loved this paragraph: “These were people who may have produced two or three albums, sweated through noisy clubs, played student gigs, toured relentlessly. People who did everything required to gain attention and airplay but mainstream success never came.”

    Beautiful delineation of a lost talent found….many thanks….