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In an undated handout photo, the singer-songwriter Rodriguez in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, the film charts the unusual career of Rodriguez, whose music became very popular in South Africa without his knowing. (HAL WILSON/NYT)
In an undated handout photo, the singer-songwriter Rodriguez in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, the film charts the unusual career of Rodriguez, whose music became very popular in South Africa without his knowing. (HAL WILSON/NYT)

Interview

Sixto Rodriguez: Soldiers made love to his music Add to ...

Sixto Rodriguez, the Dylanish Detroit-based troubadour who all but disappeared after releasing a pair of albums in the early 1970s (Cold Fact and Coming From Reality), has been rediscovered after nearly 30 years. The subject of the feature documentary Searching for Sugar Man talks about his career revival and late-in-life acclaim.

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You released a pair of albums in the early 1970s, but they didn’t sell in the United States. More than one industry heavyweight was surprised by your lack of commercial success. How did it feel to have your best work go relatively unnoticed?

There are no guarantees in the music field. There’s a lot of rejection, a lot of criticism and a lot of disappointment. You have to be prepared for that. And after 1973, it just wasn’t happening for me.

Where did you go?

I went back to school, and I went back to work, mostly manual labour, to try to make a living. It took me 10 years to get a four-year degree, but I graduated. I also ran for office in Detroit. It’s all verifiable.

You were once hailed as the Chicano Bob Dylan. Is that an accurate description?

In the ’60s and ’70s, a protest song was a genre in music. And so I chose that to describe the things that were in my environment. And they’re still in our environment. You have Syria and Darfur. You have government oppression. You have police brutality here. The issues are still there.

How did you feel when you were told that your music had inspired a generation of white South Africans, and that you were a hero among the anti-Apartheid movement?

You know, I was sceptical about the whole thing. I hadn’t known anything about the album selling in South Africa, and I didn’t really know anything about Apartheid, outside the headlines. But eventually I did discover what the parallels were, in relation to the Vietnam War protests here. South African soldiers, who served through conscription, exchanged cassettes. One soldier told me “we made love to your music, and we made war to your music.”

In I’ll Slip Away, you sing that others can keep their symbols of success, but that you would pursue your own happiness. What is that happiness, and did you achieve it?

Well, I wanted to do then what I’m doing now. I wanted to do something in the music field. And so here it is. It’s occurred, the thing I wanted to do.

Do you still write music?

I play guitar and I’m always trying to find out the latest kinds of riffs. I put ideas down, but I haven’t finished anything.

Likely many people are only now discovering your two albums from the 1970s. That should give you a little time before you need to come up with new material, right?

In the current issue of Esquire, I Wonder has been picked as the song of the month. And it’s a 42-year-old song.

That’s hardly a bullet on the charts.

No, it’s not [he laughs]. I know that I belong to an old century. But it certainly feels good, the achievement of hanging on so long. I’m a solid 70. I’ve done the 1940s, the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, the zeroes, and now I’m working on the ’10s , just like everyone else. I’m happy to be on board.

Searching for Sugar Man opens Aug. 10.

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