[Throwback is a weekly (Thursday, natch) segment where we share a song or album from the past that we wouldn't otherwise have the occasion to discuss. We usually try to focus on the new, the fresh, and the undiscovered music here at DUL. This series gives us a chance to share songs and artists that we enjoy from other eras. They might be well-known classics, they might be hidden gems. They might be from 1969, or 1999, or even 1929. Who knows? There's lot of music out there, and this lets us share a small slice of what we like.]
Words by Brendan
As I mentioned last week, we’re starting a new weekly series to spotlight songs from eras past (both recent and distant). I’ve been meaning to talk about this particular artist, Rodriguez (aka Sixto Díaz Rodríguez and Jesús Rodríguez), since watching a documentary about him a few weeks ago. Lo and behold, Rodriguez‘s name came up in an interview with WHY? posted earlier today and I realized, “Hey, I better talk about this now!” So here we are.
Here’s the short version of the story: Rodriguez lived in Detroit and recorded two outstanding “hidden gem” albums in the 1970s but they sold very poorly in the US. (Think Bob Dylan meets Nick Drake for their sound.) The small record label folded and the man went back to his daily life. He learned in the late 70s that the albums sold well in Australia and did tours there in 1979 and 1981, then faded back into obscurity. Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to him, his albums went platinum in South Africa and were even used for anti-Apartheid protests. But South Africans thought (due to widespread rumors) that Rodriguez was dead, that he’d killed himself onstage years ago. A couple of guys weren’t sure and, through much sleuthing, managed to get a hold of Rodriguez in the late 90s. He was still in Detroit, working in construction. He toured South Africa several times, playing to thousands of fans, and rekindled a music career. A Swedish director made a documentary about this last year, and the film—Searching for Sugarman—won the Academy Award for “Best Documentary” back in February.
It’s almost unbelievable, but that’s the story! Read on for more about Rodriguez and his music, some songs to stream, and some excerpts from the film…
I heard about this film a few months back when the Academy Awards happened. I saw some postings to the effect of, “Hey, isn’t it cool that a documentary about a musician actually got recognized”. So I requested the DVD from the local library … and promptly forgot about it. Four months later, the request was fulfilled. That’s how many people were on the waiting list for this movie! And for damn good reasons, too. Not only is Rodriguez a great musician who deserves way more recognition than he got for years (and more, even, than he’s getting now in his “resurgence”), but this film is beautiful and well done. I described the gist above, but here’s the trailer:
It’s also interesting to think and learn about why Rodriguez was so appealing in South Africa, but not here in the USA. What was different? Was it bad timing? Well, Apartheid and a censorship-heavy government had something to do with it, as noted by longtime South African fan and part-star of Searching for Sugar Man, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, in the bio on Rodriguez‘s website:
By the ’80′s, many homes in South Africa that had a turntable and a taste for quality pop-rock from artists like Dylan and The Beatles, had a copy of ‘Cold Fact’. Rodriguez first came to fans’ attention through the shock that greeted the line in ‘I Wonder’ that asked: “I wonder how many times you’ve had sex”. That song and that specific lyric were considered very controversial and provocative in those dark, conservative years in ’70′s Apartheid-era South Africa. This situation ensured that his songs received no radio play, but copies of ‘Cold Fact’ sold consistently, hooking new fans to this strange folk singer.
Musically, Rodriguez‘s songs are built around his distinct voice, an orchestral approach to pop-rock and arrangements, and his well-written lyrics teetering between wide-open emotional hardship and Dylan-esque, seemingly nonsensical metaphors and imagery. Nowhere is all of this more prevalent than on “Crucify Your Mind”, easily my favorite Rodriguez track. (See below.) The sounds are somewhat sparse but incredibly catchy: those tinkly xylophone notes, the intermitten bass slaps, the brass “wah-wahs”, and so on. It all adds up to something really special, particularly with those lyrics that I’m singing along with all day while still trying to make sense of.
Rodriguez / “Crucify Your Mind” / Cold Fact 
Other noteworthy songs of his include “Cause” (the tear-jerker about, presumably, his actual life that hooks you from the opening line), “I Wonder” (the sing-along chorus song that resonated so much with the anti-Apartheid folks), “Can’t Get Away” (a folk-blues tune, if I’ve ever heard one), “This is not a song, it’s an outburst (or, The Establishment Blues)” (pretty self-explanatory, but better), and so on and so forth. They’re all awesome. And, of course, it behooves me to recommend the titular track for the documentary film, “Sugar Man”, which just so happens to have been sampled by Nas on Stillmatic back in 2001. (Crazy, eh?)
Check out the film, and check out Rodriguez‘s albums. The soundtrack to the film is entirely composed of tracks from his two albums, plus three unreleased tracks from an as-of-yet-unfinished third album, so if you want a good introduction, dig that. I guarantee you’ll love it all.
Buy Cold Fact : Insound / Amazon / iTunes / Discogs
Buy Coming From Reality : / Amazon / iTunes / Discogs
Buy Searching For Sugar Man: Soundtrack : Insound / Amazon / iTunes / Discogs
Rodriguez on the web: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Insound
Filed under: Throwback