Forgotten in the U.S., lionized in South Africa, a singer-songwriter regains the spotlight in an Oscar- nominated documentary
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
"I was ready for the world," says Sixto Rodriguez, "but maybe the world wasn't ready for me."
The astonishing, four-decade-long saga of how the music world caught up to Rodriguez (who has always performed and recorded using just his last name) is the story of the film "Searching for Sugar Man," which came out of nowhere to widespread acclaim last year. The movie was recently nominated for the "Best Documentary" Academy Award and is being released this week on DVD and Blu-ray.
As told by first-time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, the Rodriguez story is almost beyond belief. He recorded two albums of his folk-soul-rock protest songs for the Sussex label (best known as the home of Bill Withers) in the early 1970s, which flopped commercially and led to his being dropped from the roster. Rodriguez remained in his native Detroit and returned to a humble life as a construction worker.
In the meantime, though, bootleg copies of his albums found their way to South Africa and became part of the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement. While the singer toiled in obscurity in his home country, he was considered the commercial and artistic equal of Bob Dylan or Paul Simon halfway around the world. A legend soon spread that Rodriguez was so invisible in public because he was dead -- of a drug overdose, or as the result of a dramatic onstage suicide.
A few South African music fans and journalists set out to discover what really happened to their hero, which culminated when they eventually located Rodriguez in Detroit and brought him to their country for a triumphant, rise-from-the-ashes tour in 1998. It was their quest that inspired Swedish television producer Bendjelloul to pursue the story and, over the course of four years, make the film.
"I thought the story was pretty good, but it took two years to see that it was something bigger," says the director. "Even when it was 90 percent finished, the main funder told me it wasn't good enough for the big screen. But whenever I told the story to friends, they were moved, so I thought maybe it had some powerful, fairy-tale qualities."
Some have criticized the film for simplifying Rodriguez's miraculous trajectory by not including elements like several tours of Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s (at one point opening for local heroes Midnight Oil) or the uses of his songs on soundtracks and as a sample on a Nas album. Bendjelloul, though, points out that "Searching for Sugar Man" isn't really a Rodriguez biography so much as the story of "two fans looking for this dead superstar who find out the truth -- it's told from this distinct point of view of the South African fans, through their eyes, and until halfway through the movie, you don't actually know if he's dead or alive."
Bing: More on Rodriguez
When the director finally contacted Rodriguez, the singer proved a reluctant subject. "I went to film him every year for four years and each time got 10 or 15 minutes," he says. "He was always kind and warm, but it was like he was allergic to the camera." Rodriguez points out that he only talks in the movie for eight minutes ("but I did my own stunts!"), and that he has now seen it over 40 times. "My daughters are in the movie," he says, "so that's the highlight for me."
Since "Searching for Sugar Man" came out, Rodriguez has appeared everywhere from "60 Minutes" to "Late Show With David Letterman," and he is about to go back out for another international touring swing. The soundtrack album, ironically, reached No. 1 on Billboard's "Heatseekers" chart, for top new artists. In a telephone conversation the morning after he appeared on "The Tonight Show," he bubbled with enthusiasm about playing his song "Can't Get Away" backed by a full orchestra. "Music is a living art," he said, "and you can color it to recreate it in any way."
Asked how it feels to receive this kind of recognition for songs recorded so long ago, Sixto Rodriguez responds with almost-comic understatement. "Of course when you're writing, you're conscious of the market you're trying to reach," he says. "But sometimes it can just take a while to resound."
MSN Music: Why do you think people have responded so strongly to this story?
Sixto Rodriguez: It's definitely a fairy-tale kind of story -- some people have called it a phenomenon -- to have these 40-year-old songs surfacing like this. I'm a solid 70, so to reach this at this date is pretty amazing. But I guess it's a statement that it's never too early, and never too late.
Usually when music resounds big, it's a song with a boy-girl theme, but mine are about social issues. Boy-girl themes are OK, too, and I can write a ballad, and jazz and classical are about proficiency on an instrument. All of it is good, but I approach a song where you can talk about other things, real things. And the listener for that is there.
As you say, these songs are 40 years old. Is it different for you to sing them now? Do they have other meanings or layers at this stage of your life?
I'm definitely a different person, I'm a grandfather -- and grandpa's kicking ass! But it all has validity and relevance; wars, police brutality, government repression, collective bargaining. I'm a power-to-the-people guy.
In the '60s and '70s there was a lot of music like Neil Young with "Ohio," Bob Dylan "Masters of War," "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire, and that music was helpful for people -- and for me, too -- to get through those times, and to question their leadership.
With all this spotlight on you, do you have plans to make new music?
Oh, yeah, I'm writing, I'll try to get into the studio maybe in six months, but now there's so much happening. I've been touring with the film all year, and now we're starting again. I'm going to Glastonbury, Coachella, to South Africa in February and Australia in March, and the music part has kept me going. To a lot of people, this is new stuff, so they want to know "Can he do it? Can he still perform it?" And also, now I know they're listening, so anything new that I present has to be great.
Do you spend much time thinking about what would have been different if your music had been more popular in the States back when it was released?
Well, I may not have been as prepared as I am now. I'm more seasoned, all of these experiences have calmed me down. We all want to be something, and we become what we're seeking in ourselves. I met Donovan at Sundance, and he's more Donovan now than he was when he was becoming Donovan. I'm more mature now, more developed.
But at the same time, I better get it while I can. So we're pursuing these events and they're treating me very nicely. We go out for two or three weeks and then I go back home and regroup. I'm still in the same house, still based out of Detroit -- like they say, you gotta be from somewhere!
Who are your favorite musicians, and who do you consider influences on your work?
There's different styles of writing, and they're all good. The guitar is central to my musical experience, so that's what I listen for -- "How did they get that sound?" And I like poetry, all the expressions. It all has value. If you can make them dance, or sing, or play your song, all of that is good.
As far as rock 'n' roll as an occupation to pursue, the Stones are at the top of the chain. They started in '62 and grew up with their fans, so that's why I think they reached that place. And someone like Leonard Cohen, as far as his vocal timbre, and also his poetry.
What are your thoughts about the Oscar nomination? What does it mean to get this kind of recognition?
Isn't that crazy? I can't phrase it in a sentence. It's been quite a journey -- you could call it an odyssey -- to have gone to these places, not having the knowledge of them before. I do need to thank the fans in South Africa and Australia who started it all. I got to have that realization of what's on the other side of the mountain. And that's something we all should have.
Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.
Whoops! I saw the "60 Minutes" segment on him and forgot about it. I'll be looking in on YouTube to hear some of Rodriguez' work again. Taste is taste most anywhere, by and large and so far, it looks like the South African audience for years knew something the rest of us didn't.
Too bad the late Arthur Lee(Love), who had a bigger following in Britain for years, didn't get this kind of attention in his last years with us. His work was still in print, but no heavy promotion and no go-round with the press on his last big tour.