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Rodriguez’s story is one in a million. Probably literally.
The little-known folk singer—-who performs tonight at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue—-released two albums in the early ’70s that both flopped. Though it’s unclear how a copy of his first record, Cold Fact, made it to South Africa, and became one of the best-known albums of the era.
Liberal, white South Africans were drawn to its anti-establishment messages. But they knew very little about the man named Sixto Rodriguez, and rumors circulated that he had burned himself alive or shot himself on stage. So a motivated music journalist, along with a huge fan, ventured out to set the record straight. Much to their surprise, Rodriguez was still around, living and working in his hometown of Detroit.
Life in the inner city informed Rodriguez’s lyrics. His song “Sugar Man” describes a drug-induced escape from life. (“Sugar man, won’t you hurry/cause I’m tired of these scenes./For a blue coin, won’t you bring back/all those colors to my dreams?/Silver magic ships you carry/jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane…”) And songs like “The Establishment Blues” explain just why such an escape might be needed. “Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected/politicians using, people they’ve been abusing/the mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river/and you tell me that this is where it’s at.”
“I know this city,” says Rodriguez. “I’m from Detroit, and there’s a lot to be proud of from here. The unions were strong here…they got equal pay for people. They developed a middle class, [an] arsenal of democracy. It did a lot…It’s undergoing change. Just like any place…and the young bloods, they’re seeing the turning over of a paradigm of—-a big shift there. It’s turning upside down…so it’s an exciting time for the young bloods and for myself because it’s—-you’re seeing it switch over at the turn of the century, so to speak.” These days, he’s critical of modern-day Detroit yet deeply invested in its dichotomous history and character. He now satirically calls it “the holy city.”
Although Rodriguez mostly gave up on a career in music in the 1970s after being dropped by Sussex Records, he had spurts of activity: He toured in Australia in 1979 and 1981. And in the 1990s, after he was found by his South African admirers, he embarked on a sold-out South African tour.
The story was chronicled in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which has brought him to the attention of many new American fans—-of his generation, and several subsequent. And now, at age 70, Rodriguez is on a U.S. tour.
The film meditates on Rodriguez’s two lives: fame in South Africa, anonymity in the U.S. Asked how he’s reconciled those different experiences, he says, “…the thing is, I do feel that now—-that I was there without being there. You know, through the music. That’s kind of unusual, kind of altered self almost. It’s kind of interesting—-it’s a world over there for me. I try to go back, very often…[it’s] so hard to explain the doubleness.”
Still, Rodriguez very much remains a product of his hometown—-and the tumultuous era during which he recorded. “I describe myself as a musical political,” he says, pointing to some of the songs that defined his young adulthood. “‘I am a Rock’ by Paul Simon, ‘Eve of Destruction,’ Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War,’ ‘Ohio’ by Neil Young…it helped us get through, and it helped me get through that time, psychically… So I think that’s one thing music can do. It guides you through that era, and so, it was a pretty chaotic time.”
He’s kept his social-justice fervor. In conversation, Rodriquez hops from region to region, noting injustices all over the world. But even he has trouble discussing uncomfortable subjects like race and power in the United States. Though he was “born and bred” in Detroit, Rodriguez is of Mexican heritage. Some believe that this may have contributed to his lack of mainstream success in the US. He acknowledges societal bias based on ethnicity, but maintains that, “There’s only one race.”
So while it’s hard to know what the mysterious artist known as Rodriguez was like in the ’70s, it feels like he hasn’t changed much. He’s been called an inner-city prophet, a poet of the concrete jungle. Maybe that’s why he sees his late-career stateside success as a gift, not an irony.
Someone recently told Rodriguez that his story is a phenomenon. “I think that’s pretty much the word,” he says. “There’s some magic in this thing.”
Rodriguez performs at 7 p.m. at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. The show is now sold out.