Rodriguez: The Question Is the Answer

“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 of my dreams…”
–Sugar Man, from the album “Cold Fact”

Going back to the Ragtime era, every great American city – and cities like London, Paris, and Berlin – had popular music clubs, the music fitting the tenor of the times. In my New York green and salad college days, jazz and folk ruled. Today, country, rock, punk, and rap are added to the mix.

One pays handsomely to see the greats perform at famous temples of jazz like the Blue Note. However, every great city also has a circuit of inexpensive “underground” music locales that are out of the way – sometimes far, far out – geographically and artistically. These spaces are often situated in the back of neighborhood bars or are literally underground. Local groups play and sing for meager money on a makeshift stage, with mediocre mixing and miking, to micro audiences. Heartbreakingly, few of these people ever escape the alternative scene.

Motown Detroit of the 1970s thrived with stellar performers. Befitting the city’s impoverished, decaying state, the local club circuit featured gritty clubs that made Manhattan’s grungiest dives look like the Rainbow Room. It was from nightclubs like The Sewer, on the edge of Detroit’s decrepit waterfront, that word began to spread about an oddball singer/guitarist named – Rodriguez.

He was notoriously elusive, this Rodriguez. In a city replete with African American musicians, his name drew attention: Clearly, he was Latino, but of what extraction? The prevailing rumor was that he was Mexican, but no one knew much more about his origins, where he lived, or indeed if he had any fixed abode. Perhaps he drifted from shelter to shelter. If you were lucky enough to catch a performance, he was invariably tucked in a corner, turned away from the audience. His behavior didn’t seem arrogant, just another aspect of his elusiveness.

His voice had a unique, honey-sweet purity. His melodies were disarmingly simple, with a distinctive harmonic hook. He lamented broken hearts, urban ills, the desolate harshness of poor folks’ lives. These things were already being addressed by stars like Dylan, Seeger, Ochs, and their many trite imitators. But the love and protest songs of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez were never mawkish. His lyrics could be allusive, but he was never self-consciously obscure like Dylan at his esoteric, narcissistic worst. Rodriguez’s words came from his heart and spoke unerringly to yours.

Despite his obscurity, several major recording producers got to hear him and were blown away, and he was signed up by Sussex Records, a label headed by former Motown Records director Clarence Avant. His debut album, “Cold Fact,” was released in 1970 in the United States to a rave Billboard review and bafflingly poor sales. His second collection, “Coming From Reality,” released in 1973, went unplugged and unpurchased. In 1975, Sussex canceled his contract. Desultory appearances followed, here and abroad, over the new few years. Then he dropped off the American map.

“The mayor hides the crime rate
Council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date …
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”
–This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or The Establishment Blues, “Cold Fact”

Dismissed at home, Rodriguez’s music gained popularity in Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and – especially – South Africa. By the 1970s, South Africa had evolved into a rogue fascist state, having amputated itself from the world lest its proto-Nazi ideology (particularly its obsession with racial purity) be contaminated. In turn, the country was deemed a pariah, cut off from liberal political and cultural influences.

Formidable surveillance of citizens and media by the police and military was omnipresent. The dire, often deadly punishments routinely meted out to black protesters were infamous even then. It wasn’t as widely known that white dissenters could be imprisoned for 3 years on the slimmest cause. Most of the middle class white opposition was thoroughly intimidated and voiced their opposition privately.

Despite massive censorship, American and European rock and folk stars were familiar to South African’s young people. Most liberally inclined households owned Beatles, Elvis, and Dylan recordings. But Rodriguez’s songs exerted the most powerful sway over a new generation disaffected by not only the state’s ideology but also its joyless puritanism.

Rodriguez became that generation’s voice. His music spurred the formation of underground protest bands, first performing secretly, then to growing public recognition. He implicitly factored in the eventual overthrow of the apartheid regime. The “Cold Fact” cover picture became iconic: Rodriguez sat Buddha-like in a floating sphere, guitar across his lap, wearing a loopy straw porkpie, and smiling inscrutably behind incredibly cool shades.

Yet, virtually nothing was known of him. His status as urban legend was further enriched by the received truth that he had ended an unsatisfying concert by immolating himself, or blowing out his brains.

[SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the film, you may want to stop here as the plot and themes are explored below in detail.]

In 1991, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a Capetown record store owner and devotee (hence, the nickname), supplied liner notes for Cold Fact’s South African CD release and asked whether any “musicologist” could discover Rodriguez’s fate. In 1996, journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom took up the challenge. In 1996, he traced the trail of proceeds from three South African companies that had picked up Rodriguez’s album rights in the 1980s, back to the now-defunct Sussex label.

It was quite easily discovered that Rodriguez was living in Detroit, still demolishing houses as he had been doing for years. He knew nothing of his South African fame. Nor had he apparently received royalties from the several hundred thousand albums sold there.

The journalist wrote his story, and there matters lay in the states and South Africa until 1997, when Segerman received a call out of the blue from the singer’s oldest daughter, Eva. She had visited a fan website and had seen her father’s picture on the side of a milk carton. She wanted Segerman to know that Rodriguez was truly off the carton but wasn’t sure if he wanted to be contacted. Then, in the wee hours, Segerman’s wife jolted him awake and handed him the phone with a stunned whisper: “It’s Him!!!!!” And it was.

I’m about halfway into this piece, which matches the period elapsed before the viewer actually sees today’s Rodriguez in Malik Bendjelloul’s deeply satisfying documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.” Recounting his first Rodriguez encounter, producer Dennis Coffey says he walked out of Detroit’s run-down, mist-shrouded waterfront into The Sewer. It was so dense with smoke that he barely could see Rodriguez, back turned, hunched over his guitar in the habitual corner. “It was like a Sherlock Holmes story,” he said. Even knowing Rodriguez’s backstory, the viewer is riveted by this young director’s visual and narrative mastery, as he proceeds to Sherlock the artist’s mystery.

The film shifts adroitly between past and contemporary Detroit and Capetown. Shots of the Motor City’s desolate, blighted streets alternate with images of Capetown’s bustling modernity. The viewer encounters people who knew Rodriguez (none of them well), or only knew of him. It’s an improbable assortment of bartenders, writers, fellow construction workers, old and young South African fans, and music industry people, including Clarence Avant. (In a scathing coup de cinema, Avant’s glibly mellow reminiscences suddenly give way to repellant belligerence when he’s asked about the vanished royalties.)

The divergent descriptions are reminiscent of the ancient tale of the blind men tasked to describe an elephant. Each report was based on the part each touched; none had the whole. Of Rodriguez himself, we see only old photos or blurred living shadows.

Questions proliferate and suspense mounts with every new fragment of the puzzle. From what wellsprings did such a striking talent spring? How could it go so unappreciated here, and then be so revered in apartheid’s terrible elsewhere? Borrowing Virginia Woolf’s felicitous phrase, what was the cotton wool of Rodriguez’s everyday life? Will Rodriguez’s literal wake-up call to Segerman lead us to the answers the viewer is yearning for by now?

The interview after a shot of Rodriguez opening the window of his shabby house intimates the opening up of his identity. He’s youthful, quietly charismatic, and quite handsome. (He bears an intriguing resemblance to actor James Edward Olmos.) He harbors not a jot of bitterness about his eclipse, is happy about his South African fame, and doesn’t seem inclined to pursue it.

He enjoys his daily arduous labor and listens to music but isn’t writing anything new. He’s studied philosophy, expressed his abiding concern for the poor with an unsuccessful mayoral bid. Otherwise, he deftly turns away deeper probing with eerie diffidence, light years beyond mere shyness or naiveté.

The rousing concert scenes are interpolated with brief sequences in which his daughters – Eva, Regan, Susan – supply a few more tantalizing details. Eva most resembles him physically and gives the impression that she most shares his politics and perhaps his engrained spirituality as well. They all respect his talent, his rugged work ethic, and his activism. Also, his daughters commend him for fostering their dignity amid grievous poverty and for insisting that they had as much right as did the more fortunate to visit museums and libraries (“our day care centers”).

Yet, a distinct coolness tempers their praise. Little is forthcoming about their current relationship with him, and just one quick reference was made to their mother. What lies behind Eva’s cryptic remark to Segerman that “Sometimes a fantasy is better left alive …”? The film’s after titles state that Rodriguez still lives and works in Detroit exactly as before. He’s returned several times to South Africa and currently is the midst of a U.S. tour. It’s no surprise that he’s given most of his earnings to family and causes. After all, this is the man who sleeps on the couch of his hotel, not wanting to burden the maid with making his bed.

So – what finally are the answers to the legion of questions about Rodriguez’s life and times? Unlike others with unfairly compromised early careers who struggled on to eventual recognition, did he give up and give in, and then catch a serendipitous break a decade later in a far-off fascist state, whose youth were uniquely attuned to a stilled American voice? Does Rodriguez embody a unique fusion of artistic genius and political visionary? Is he a secular saint, a lyrical Gandhi? Or a possibly troubled, immensely gifted semirecluse?

“The question is the answer” goes a Zen aphorism. At base, Rodriguez’s labyrinthine artistic and personal conundrums defy any facile explanations. Whether unconsciously or by design, he’s uncannily seamless. Director Malik Bendjelloul’s potent art resides precisely in mirroring his subject’s essential unknownness (and, arguably, unknowingness). He accomplishes this seamlessly, such that “Searching for Sugar Man” becomes what it beholds.

The director has been criticized for omitting details that would have rendered Rodriguez less opaque. But that’s exactly the point. The seductive promise of that opening window through which Rodriguez is first seen is an illusion, part of a larger, necessary illusion. It appears to viewers that the film is unfolding chronologically, like a thrilling Sherlock Holmes mystery. It actually has been painstaking assembled after the fact, to create the potent impression of unassailable reality.

The late psychoanalyst Dr. Marshall Edelson once wrote: “Poetry is the least utterance that will suffice.” Magically sufficient is this lovely film’s utterance.

Originally published on Clinical Psychiatry News

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