He was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a record album that didn’t sell where it counted. Sixto Rodriguez was one of the New Bob Dylans in the 1970s, but also a complete unknown. Then he unintentionally inspired a generation in a foreign country, and then he got gone.
How gone? Face-on-a-milk-carton gone. “Maybe today, I’ll slip away,” the shadowy troubadour had sung. “And you can keep your own symbols of success, then I’ll pursue my own happiness.”
Rodriguez is the compelling subject of a new documentary by the Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul. A pleasing fix, Searching for Sugar Man is a lost-and-found film about pursuits – one of them abandoned, and one not.
The title comes from one of Rodriguez’s songs, Sugar Man, which concerned a drug purveyor, likely in Detroit, where the singer-songwriter lived. Bendjelloul sets a gritty urban scene, first off using Detroit music legend Dennis Coffey to tell the story of Rodriguez, discovered on a misty night in a smoke-shrouded bar called The Sewer in 1968.
Rodriguez, a timid and poetic son of a Mexican immigrant, was remembered as a performer who wore sunglasses at night, and who played in shadows with his back to the audience. He eventually recorded a pair of albums: 1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming From Reality. His music was strummy, melodically catchy, lyrically frank and brashly protested in a Dylanish way – “woke up this morning with an ache in my head; I splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed/ I opened up the window to listen to the news, but all I heard was the establishment’s blues.”
Though Rodriguez had his boosters – Clarence Avant, who would later become chairman of Motown, claims in the film that “Bob Dylan was mild compared to this guy” – his music didn’t sell. And that might have been the end of the story, if not for the strange success of Rodriquez in South Africa, a repressed, censoring nation.
Like an invasive species accidentally introduced into a new habitat, Cold Fact found its way into the hands of young, white, anti-Apartheid South Africans , who found inspiration in Rodriguez’s gritty anthems. (According to one of the film’s interviewees, the typical LP collection of a white South African liberal of that era included copies of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact.)
Pre-Google, Rodriguez was in obscurity, however; it was even speculated that he’d committed suicide on stage. A few people set about to fill in the blanks, their search being the narrative arc to the well-plotted documentary.
In some ways, Searching For Sugar Man finds its subject. In other ways it does not. Rodriguez, who only casually pursued fame, is re-discovered, but not fully uncovered. That is as it should be.