Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Working-Class Hero Is Something To Be

“Searching for Sugar Man,” Documentary by Malik Bendjelloul, 2012

This British/Swedish documentary is a heartbreaker.  Sixto Rodriquez made two albums of political folk music in the early 70s, only to disappear in Detroit.  He became a huge star in South Africa (and Australia) but his records sold almost nothing in the U.S. after being issued by a small black-owned Detroit label, Sussex.  As it was explained, who cared about a Latino guy who sang psychedelic folk music?  But in South Africa he was known as “Rodriquez” – much as we know that Memphis boy as “Elvis.” 

Rodriquez was so big in South Africa because at the time young white South Africans were waking to the fact that apartheid was corrupt and the Afrikaner dictatorship smothering.  Rodriquez’s songs talked of rebellion, sex, bad jobs, a repressive government and became anthems of sort to South African youth, rising in the charts, to the point where every liberal household had a copy, and they were played at every party.  His lyrics are reminiscent of the '60s political Dylan before ‘Blonde on Blonde,’ but sung by a sweeter, clearer and more soulful voice.  Some say sounding more like Dyland crossed with Donovan.  Rodriquez has more soul in his voice than 99% of folk singers because, I think, he's grounded and real.  No mechanical crap or fake reality.  The apartheid regime had a strict policy of censorship and coupled with international sanctions, did a job of cutting off the whole population from world culture.  So Rodriquez became an underground sensation.  His albums encouraged a new generation of Afrikaner rockers and folk singers to become public. 

The film focuses on two Cape Town white South Africans who decide to track down what happened to Rodriquez and also to ‘follow the money.’  They had been huge fans in their youth – one ended up running a record store; the other was a journalist.  The rumor in South Africa was Rodriquez had killed himself on-stage in some dramatic way.  In the late 1990s they put up a web-site, asking for information.  In the process they find the producer of those Sussex recordings who their information shows received the money from Rodriquez' hit records.  He laughs at them and surreptitiously threatens them about money from ‘so long ago.’ 

Eventually they receive an e-mail from one of Rodriquez’s daughters.  Incredulously, they ask her how Rodriquez died.  She replies – “He’s alive and living in Detroit.”  They are dumbfounded – sort of like being told Elvis is still in south Memphis, just a lot older.  Or Jim Morrison is living in the Faubourg St. Germain. 

Rodriquez is the real thing, boyo.  He’s still a ‘deconstruction worker’ in the slums of Detroit, gutting and tearing down old houses and buildings as part of a demolition crew.  He still lives in the same house near downtown.  He made very little money doing this, but he’s been doing it since the early 70s.  At the time he was a man of mystery, playing in dumpy clubs with his back to the audience, like Miles Davis or Robert Johnson facing his corner.  Many thought he was homeless.  No one knew what happened to him except his 3 daughters.  They talk about his run for mayor; his political activism; his taking them to museums and educational events.  To this day, Rodriquez is a working-class hero, in the best and most real, John Lennon, sense.  Rodriquez is a modest man, liking his work, not intent on being famous.  But it happened.

Rodriquez never knew he was big in SA or Australia, because evidently he never got any royalties.  They invite Rodriquez to Cape Town for a concert.  He arrives at the airport with his daughters, who expect some weird reception and a concert at a small low-key club.  Instead two limos pull up.  They think they are for someone else and step aside so the important people can get to the doors.  The limos are for them.  The concert in a huge hall is sold out – 20,000 screaming fans.  Rodriquez plays with local musicians who already know all his songs.  His voice is still just as good.  Journalists thought that someone was playing a trick, faking his return to life to make money.  The minute he starts singing, they all know he is the real deal.

His two albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality” move up the charts once again – even a bit in the U.S. which is so hostile to political music.  Rodriquez has come back to his real home – which is South Africa evidently.  He gives any money earned on a series of concerts away to his family and friends, and continues to work tearing out buildings and living in the city.  Modest, political, unassuming – and talented. 

(Read other reviews about music, “Laurel Canyon,” “Let Us Now Praise the Dead,” “Just Kids” and “In Search of the Blues,” all reviewed below. Also specifically on political music, “33 Revolutions Per Minute: The History of Protest Songs.”  Rodriquez should be mentioned there, but he’s not.)

Red Frog
June 19, 2013

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