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Sugar Man’s Sweet Kiss

Imagine a shy man dressed in black, guitar slung over his shoulder, making his way to a waterside bar of questionable repute. There sits a motley crew of down-on-their-luck, up-on-their-illusions, out-with conventionality types. Wearing crumpled shirts, they spin tall tales and while away hours “drinking the detergents/That cannot remove their hurts.” His eyes shielded by trademark ebony sun glasses, this man’s soft voice slices seamlessly through the smoke and mirrors and haze of just another evening. Having completed what he regarded as his final soliloquy, imagine that this man then reaches down, lifts a gun to his head and pulls the lethal trigger.

Memory of this man fades. The bar where he ostensibly killed himself is gone. His records cannot be found. Yet this forgotten and forlorn man has become, astonishingly, a figure of legend halfway around the world. His bootlegged music echoes in the ears of youthful rebels, haunting lyrics seared into the consciousness of a generation.

This man was not an imagining. He actually lived, born in 1942, a few blocks from the center of downtown Detroit. Sixto Díaz Rodríguez was the sixth son of a hard-luck Chicano family. He is now destined — largely because of an unusually evocative documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul — to be forever known simply as Rodríguez.

“Good only for pick and shovel”

A Spanish jazz age pop tune, “The Hooked One,” bemoaned the extent to which Mexican Americans were moulded into proletarians. “Here they say I’m a camel/And good only for pick and shovel.” This lament continued, with worry registered that second generation Chicanos, ground down in the mill of acculturation, would forget their Hispanic heritage.

Rodríguez grew up in a Wolverine State snarl of coerced proletarianization and generational assimilation. His parents came to Michigan from Mexico in the 1920s, when work in fields and factories might be found. It was anything but easy, however. Rodríguez’s mother died when he was three. His father, unable to care for all of his children, reluctantly put Rodríguez in an orphanage. By this time, Mexican-Americans in Detroit carried the marks of class degradation on their bodies. They did the roughest and most poorly remunerated labour, often without the protections and securities of the newly established mass-production trade unions.

Rodríguez’s radicalism

The 1960s formed Rodríguez. “When I was writing those songs,” he told one journalist, “it seemed like a revolution was coming in America. Young men were burning their draft cards, the cities were ablaze with anger.”

Detroit’s tumultuous times: 1967–9. Race riots, wildcat strikes, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Students for a Democratic Society manifestoes, anti-Vietnam War protests, marches, cries to “bring the war home.” Two Rodríguez albums surfaced out of the mayhem: Cold Fact (1971) and Coming from Reality (1972). Both were released by Sussex Records, a label owned by future Motown mogul Charles Avant.

Rodríguez’s razor’s edge is evident in “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: or, The Establishment Blues,” lyrics slicing through the entire edifice of capitalist political economy:

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.

As “The mayor hides the crime rate” and the electorate forgets “the vote date,” Rodríguez listens “to the news.” All he hears is “the Establishment’s blues.” Class grievance animates this searing commentary, as in the song “Cause,” which opens with the line: “I lost my job two weeks before Christmas.”

Rodríguez fused this class-ordered anti-capitalist sensibility with recognition of 1960s youthful rebelliousness. “I Wonder” gestured to a generation emerging out of the confines of sexual repression and double standards, recognizing newfound freedoms: “I wonder how many times you’ve had sex/I wonder do you know who’ll be next.” The sterile promise of desolate suburbs and the arbitrary authority of the patriarchal family are pilloried in “Inner City Blues.”

In what has become his signature piece, “Sugar Man,” Rodríguez provides a complicating commentary on drugs, acknowledging the mind-altering attractions of “jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.” But he did this by underscoring, as well, how drugs fed the appetite of apathy:

While the Mafia provides your drugs, Your government will provide the shrugs, And your national guard will supply the slugs, So they all sit satisfied.

Early 1970s: Rodríguez eclipsed

Rodríguez failed to make it big. The albums died. Sussex Records dropped Rodríguez from their failing label. What happened?

One answer was that Rodríguez had fallen victim to the commonplace practices of the music industry of the time. There is truth enough in this, especially when Rodríguez’s uniquely outsider class–race place is factored into the equation. But there was another dimension to Rodríguez’s artistic disappearance. Rodríguez’s music was too late by a few years in a time when everything was moving so fast. He was uncompromising in his class-edged critique of capitalist power. This was increasingly less likely to be embraced as a more sceptical and reticent 1970s unravelled the tight knots of a youthful, defiant politics of intransigence associated with the generation of ’68. At the same time, “Woodstock Nation,” with its message of “peace and love,” was having trouble holding its head above a demoralizing demise. Too many “bad trips” shred the promise of an alternative, leaving the counterculture in nihilistic tatters.

Disco was around the corner.

The multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class

As Rodríguez left the music scene in 1974, he returned to a working class he had never really left. He laboured at the decrepit Dodge Main Chrysler plant for a time, but the antiquated factory was eventually wound down. What was on offer as Detroit work in this period was then reduced to the dust and drudgery of demolition, rebuilding houses burned out in 1967’s riot, or renovating domiciles that had been left to rot. It was backbreaking, largely unwanted toil on the lowest rung of the non-unionized construction industry.

The working class that Rodríguez embraces and symbolizes looks rather different in Searching for Sugar Man than conventional wisdom suggests. It is not so much fractured along racial and ethnic fault lines as it is a rainbow formation. Mexicantown, a Detroit neighbourhood not a stone’s throw away from where Rodríguez lived for 40 years, is now 50 percent Latino, 25 percent African-American, 20 percent white and 5 percent Arab.

Rodríguez’s wife, and the mother of his daughters, is of European and Native American ancestry. This makes Rodríguez’s children white, aboriginal and Mexican, or, to put it differently, quintessentially “American.”

Two of Rodríguez’s white co-workers talk of their work relationships with him in Searching for Sugar Man. Their astonishment that Rodríguez is a musician of mythical stature in other parts of the world, and their regard for his fundamental humanity, is generous and genuine, articulate and animated, always good-humoured and sometimes quite hilarious. This multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class élan, visible in so many Detroit watering holes at shift changes and on Friday nights, is a welcome reminder that not all workers conform to Archie Bunker-like caricatures.

Globalization from the bottom up

How did the Rodríguez revival happen? Answering this question entails excavating a kind of globalization from the bottom up.

Cold Fact found its way to South Africa in the early 1970s. The isolations and repressive containments of the apartheid regime boomeranged culturally, nurturing already-existing strains of rebelliousness among white youth and making it possible for an underground mythology to envelop an artist whom no one knew and who had dropped off the radar screen of the international music scene.

Rodríguez in 1970s South Africa personified drugs, sex and rock-and-roll, as well as an unmistakable oppositional undercurrent. A Mexican-American, he occupied uniquely accessible ground in the racially charged atmosphere of a South Africa in which conflict seemed invariably ordered along a black–white axis.

Soon this cult figure was taking on the trappings of an Elvis, surpassing in influence the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But who was he? Where was he? What was he doing? No answers. He must be dead or in jail. There was wild speculation about grotesque onstage suicides, drugs and criminal behaviour. Rodríguez, never made familiar, wasn’t going to be forgotten, even if he could not be found. His listeners aged, but Rodríguez defined a part of them, constituting a “soundtrack to their lives.” Some had tattoos of his album covers sketched into their upper arms. Eventually, in the late 1990s, a journalist, Craig Bartholemew, and a hardcore fan, Stephen “Sugar Man” Segerman, began a methodical South African attempt to track down the phantom singer-songwriter. They launched a website, complete with a milk cartoon drawing of a “lost” Rodríguez.

Rodríguez’s daughter Eva (now married to a South African) happened onto “Sugar Man” on the internet. She sent an email: He lives! From there, things snowballed.

A series of hugely successful 1998 South African concerts were arranged, memorialized in a 2001 TV documentary, “Dead Men Don’t Tour.” Rodríguez was resurrected. Light in the Attic Records re-released his albums, starting in 2008, paying Rodríguez royalties for the first time.

As this was unfolding, Swedish documentary film director Bendjelloul went on a six-month global backpacking walkabout, searching for something he could sink his cinematic teeth into. What he heard of Rodríguez in South Africa seemed a fairy tale already scripted. Bendjelloul spent four years of his life on the film, scrounging funding where he could, financing production, in part, by self-sacrifice.

The kiss of life

All of this — South African tours, record releases and documentary film — means that Rodríguez is now finally widely known outside of South Africa and Australia (where he has also had a longstanding and committed following). The man formerly, and once again, known as Rodríguez has taken all of this in his peculiarly awkward, but nonetheless gracious, stride. “I’m a lucky man,” he says, grateful for what he does have, rather than resentful of what he never rightfully received.

When asked about the Rip Van Winkle-like nature of his story, Rodríguez replies, obviously bemused: “Yes, I suppose it does have a magical twist to it. But I was never asleep.” He is insistent that “the issues are as urgent today as when I first wrote those songs.” Rodríguez does not give us blueprints of how to organize resistance, as he would be the first to acknowledge. But as a poetic and metaphorical voice, his contribution is made in assurances that “this system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune/And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

In “Cause” Rodríguez declares, “The sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I’ve never tasted.” Searching for Sugar Man is a precious gift. It gives anyone interested in social justice and a better world a very sweet, lingering kiss, one whose taste will last.

Canadian Dimension January/February 2013

This article appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW to get a refreshing and provocative alternative delivered to your door 6 times a year for up to 50% off the newsstand price.

2 comments

  • Thank you for a great, comprehensive article about an incredible artist!

    #1. Posted by stacy fortier on March 17th 2013 at 10:43pm

  • Magnificent article!

    I am one of the South Africans who grew up with ‘Sugar Man’ and ‘I Wonder’ ...

    We all thought he was world famous ... never ever questioning the ‘obvious’!

    He was/is like Bach is to classical music: some do not like Mozart, others might find Beethoven too much - but if you do not like Bach there is something wrong with you!

    So some loved Bob Dylan, others hated him, some preferred the Moody Blues to the Beatles - buy why would one not love Rodriguez!?

    #2. Posted by Gabri Rigotti in South Africa on March 19th 2013 at 4:41pm

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