In 1968 two producers went to a downtown Detroit bar to see an unknown recording artist – a charismatic
Mexican-American singer/songwriter named Rodriguez, who had attracted a local following with his mysterious presence, soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics. They were immediately bewitched by the singer, and thought they had found a musical folk hero in the purest sense – an artist who reminded them of a Chicano Bob Dylan, perhaps even greater. They had worked with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but they believed the album they subsequently produced with Rodriguez – Cold Fact – was the masterpiece of their producing careers.
Despite good reviews, Cold Fact was a commercial disaster and marked the end of Rodriguez’s recording career before it had even started. Rodriguez sank back into obscurity. All that trailed him were stories of his escalating depression, and eventually he fell so far off the music industry’s radar that when it was rumored he had committed suicide, there was no conclusive report of exactly how and why. Of all the stories that circulated about his death, the most sensational – and the most widely accepted – was that Rodriguez had set himself ablaze on stage 4 having delivered these final lyrics: “But thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine and after that’s said, forget it.” The album’s sales never revived, the label folded and Rodriguez’s music seemed destined for oblivion.
The mystery surrounding the artist's death helped secure Rodriguez's place in rock legend and Cold Fact quickly became the anthem of the white resistance in Apartheid-era South Africa. Over the next two decades Rodriguez became a household name in the country and Cold Fact went platinum.
A story like this is even more interesting urban rock legend than Brian Wilsons Smile or “Paul Is Dead”. What’s more, the music was amazing. The lyrics invoke the feeling a generation had felt upon first hearing Dylan in 1961. But for whatever reason, it didn’t catch on. There are a million stories of great musicians who were either too far ahead of the times or too far behind the times who just never struck stardom in popular culture and in many ways that is the story of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. He was a charismatic and mysterious artist. As those two producers, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore dubbed him and his music, “it was hippie soul”. But by 1970 when Cold Fact was released the hippie movement was fading and Dylan had gone electric. Pop music was embracing the sing-songwriter whose tunes weren’t about struggle or social messages. They were about falling in love or pretty mountains and nature. The album was an enigma. A fusion of gritty, soulful, street wise psychedelia. It was politically challenging the establishment and holding a mirror up to social ills. It also had a druggy, off handed delivery of these messages. One publication dubbed it “Lysergic Gutter Poetry”. The world wasn’t ready for it. Not the pop world anyhow.
But, if you take the time to listen, Rodriguez was writing lyrics that stood up to the best folk music of the century. When you hear “Crucify Your Mind”, it sounds like the best that Dylan ever wrote. “Sugar Man” is a tale of life in the real inner city. Music like this, and a tale like this won’t die.
Even though there was a second album, Coming from Reality Rodriguez faded from the scene but, as stated above, the album found it’s way around the world and became a rallying point in another social struggle against injustice.
When this story, both the Detroit side and the Apartheid era, pre-Mandela reached Stockholm based film maker Malik Bendjelloul he couldn’t leave it alone. His subjects had included Kraftwerk, Bjork, Sting, Elton John, Madonna and many other super stars. Some of his short film documentaries were turned into full link feature films such a Men Who Stare At Goats (George Clooney) and The Terminal (Tom Hanks). eventually, he found financing, production and filming for the movie. That evolution was nearly as fascinating as Rodriguez himself, who is very much still alive, Stage 4 self-emollition legends aside.
The Soundtrack contains 14 songs from both albums and the movie itself debuted at the Tribeca film Festival on April 24. It’ll open in New York and Los Angles on July 27th and hit other markets in August. For a complete listing of show venues check the films website.
Additionally, Rodriguez himself is touring through the month of November. Venues and tickets can be found here: http://sugarman.org/performances.html
In retrospect, it is an amazing story and very topical. here is a Mexican American folk singer from inner city Detroit where Motown started. And his music fueled a socio-political movement in South Africa. On that basis alone, he should be declared a UN Ambassador at large. “I describe myself as ‘musico-politico’, Rodriguez aid recently. “I was born and bred in Detroit, four blocks from the city center. back then, I was inf;luenced by urban sounds that were going on around me all the time. Music is art and art is a cultural force. As far as my work from Detroit comparing to South African Apartheid, the similarities echo. The placards of the 1970s in the United States read things like: We Want Jobs and Stop The War – I was looking at music from a working class perspective that was relevant, as it turns out, to the kids in South Africa.”
Get the sound track or either of the two original albums which were reissued in 2008. And check out the show times for the movie. It is of historical note and maybe as relevant today with social challenges the world faces with immigration, joblessness and political clashes that Rodriguez music seems still to confront.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved