He has been called the greatest '70s rock star who never was. A Chicano Bob Dylan. More improbable, the 70-year-old street bard from Detroit is considered a founding father of South African progressive rock. At the very least, he's one of the most unlikely comeback artists in music history.
Sixto Rodriguez, a man whose life has been shrouded in question marks, myths and might-have-beens, thought his music had fallen into a black hole of obscurity. He spent three decades as a construction worker in Detroit after he was dropped by his record label in the 1970s.
Now, he's the star of "Searching for Sugar Man," a documentary recounting his stranger-than-fiction life saga that was the surprise hit of last winter's Sundance Film Festival and opened July 20 in New York.
When Rodriguez showed up last month to perform at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, it was as if some pop-culture Lazarus had materialized onstage. Resplendent in an electric-turquoise suit, caressing his Yamaha guitar and sporting sunglasses to shield his faltering eyesight, he launched into a musical lament with the unshowy confidence of a man used to working a crowd.
"I know I am on a dead-end street in a city without a heart," Rodriguez wailed in his knowing, weather-beaten tenor to the roomful of friends, music-biz insiders and the simply curious. "When the odds are all against you, how can you win?"
Against all odds, Rodriguez has become a reborn rock artist, touring the world and playing gigs this summer with the likes of Van Morrison and The Kinks' Ray Davies. He'll be on "Late Show With David Letterman" in mid-August and at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan Aug. 31. Last week, timed to the film's arrival in theaters, Sony Legacy releases the "Searching for Sugar Man" soundtrack with Rodriguez's music.
Sitting down to lunch at the Mondrian Hotel the day before his Grammy Museum appearance, Rodriguez expressed surprise and pleasure over his recent reversal of fortune. Neither fazed nor blase about the sudden media spotlight, he's as outwardly shy as he is unfailingly humble and polite. He still sees himself as a working man, an artist-activist who spent his life doing manual labor, once ran for mayor of Detroit and believes in music's power to make a better world.
"During the '70s, late '60s, I thought there'd be a revolution, but now I think it's just caving on its own," said Rodriguez, who often speaks in rapid-fire soliloquies, hopscotching from subject to subject. "I always like to say that Solomon was a musician and David was a musician and music itself is a cultural force. It's a celebration of life."
Wearing a modish black suit over his lean frame in the 80-degree heat and surrounded by a poolside throng of toned, tanned bodies, Rodriguez brought to mind a sturdy '72 Plymouth parked by a row of shiny new Mini Coopers.
Resurrecting 'a dead man'
"Searching for Sugar Man," named for one of Rodriguez's biting urban ballads about a corner drug dealer, tells the mind-bending tale of how the singer, forgotten in his homeland, became a rock idol in apartheid-era South Africa in the mid-1970s. In that isolated pariah state, Rodriguez's sexually frank, anti-establishment songs were embraced by a faction of liberal, white Afrikaner youth who were opposed to the country's racist, repressive regime. At his peak in South Africa, Rodriguez was as popular as the Beatles and more revered than the Rolling Stones.
The twist is that Rodriguez was unaware of his fame until 20 years later.
"It was the resurrection of a dead man," said Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish director of "Sugar Man."
As the documentary from Sony Pictures Classics relates, Rodriguez was a long shot ever to make it in the music biz. The only thing he really had, after all, was talent.
The son of immigrants from Mexico's Jalisco state, he and his sister were raised in Michigan by their father after their mother died when Rodriguez was 3. Their father stressed self-sufficiency and self-worth. "He had this saying," Rodriguez recalled. " 'It's not a shame to be poor.' "
After teaching himself to play guitar and compose, Rodriguez began playing divey Detroit bars, where his enigmatic presence and haunting tunes first attracted an underground following. Along the way, someone suggested he change his name to Rod Riguez, "to make him sound more American," said Bendjelloul, the son of an Algerian immigrant father and a Swedish mother. "Maybe he would have had more success if he did, but he said, 'No, I'm Rodriguez.' "
Rodriguez crafted Rust Belt sketches of hookers and barflies and of ordinary hardworking people trying to get by. Mixing tenderness, slow-burning outrage and sardonic humor, he distilled his feelings about events like the Vietnam War, the 1970 Kent State student massacre and the despair of the American ghetto into bleakly beautiful melodies laced with punchy commentary.
Though hailed by a few prescient critics as a masterpiece of psychedelic lyricism and funky urban grit, "Cold Fact" flopped, as did its follow-up, "Coming From Reality," produced by veteran hit-maker Steve Rowland.
"I'd had a lot of records that weren't as good as this one that had made it," Rowland said. "And I couldn't understand it."
The 'Wonder' of it all
Unknown to Rowland or Rodriguez, however, bootleg copies of "Cold Fact" found their way into South Africa during the mid-1970s. And one of its songs, the casually rebellious "I Wonder," which probed the gap between the promises and realities of personal fulfillment in the swinging '70s, became an anthem of liberation for young Afrikaners weaned on strict Calvinist morality.
"It allowed us to free our minds and start thinking differently," said Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, a Cape Town record store owner who helped build Rodriguez's South African base.
And those fans just keep coming. Among those in the Grammy audience last month were two admiring peers, Ben Gibbard of the indie-rock band Death Cab For Cutie and Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris, who paid tribute to Rodriguez by jamming with him onstage. One reason Rodriguez is enjoying a redemption, according to Gibbard, may be because his bluesy paeans to blue-collar lives, with titles like "Rich Folks Hoax" and "Crucify Your Mind," never went out of style.
"They resonate today because not a lot has changed," Gibbard said. "The rich get richer, the poor get poorer."
For all his recent success, Rodriguez seems to hold his new celebrity status at a contemplative distance. And although he has enough new material to release a third album, he isn't in a hurry.
"I'm a grandpa," he said, explaining how he has made peace with his life's abrupt reversals of fate. "My film, it's basically a rags-to-riches story. And the thing is, it's better than a riches-to-rags story.
"Searching for Sugarman" opens Friday at the Angelika New York, 18 W. Houston St., Manhattan. The film runs through Aug. 2. Call 212-995-2570 or visit angelikafilm center.com for more info. "Sugarman" also runs through Aug. 2 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 1886 Broadway. Call 212-757-2280 for more information.
"Searching for Sugarman," the soundtrack, is in stores now.
WHO Sixto Rodriguez
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Aug. 31, Highline Ballroom, 431 W. 16th St., Manhattan
INFO $20 in advance, $25 day of; 866-468-7619, ticketweb.com