Sixto Rodriguez, Secret Rock Star Behind Searching for Sugar Man

The musician, subject of a new documentary, was a manual laborer in Detroit — and, unbeknownst to him, a cultural touchstone in South Africa

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Who were the most important American songwriters after Woodstock? Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Rodriguez. Everyone knew that where I was growing up, among the malcontent teenagers of white suburbia in apartheid South Africa in the 1970s. What’s that you say? Who’s Rodriguez? Don’t be stupid. Rodriguez. You know, the Mexican guy with the hat and the sunglasses — “I Wonder,” “Sugarman,” “Crucify Your Mind”…

It was only upon arriving in the United States in the early ’90s that I realized that nobody here had ever heard of Sixto Rodriguez, whose debut album Cold Fact we’d considered one of the most important of all time, owned on vinyl or cassette copy by every white South African who’d ever smoked a joint or entertained a dissident thought about the horrors of the apartheid system — or simply wondered what the hell was the point of charging around the bush in an army uniform, fighting Namibian liberation fighters on the border with Angola.

In the years before Al Gore invented his space-shrinking, time-accelerating Internet, things took a while to reach South Africa. Movies — those that could get past the puritanical censors — opened six months after they’d been taken off screens in the U.S. Rolling Stone magazine came by boat, usually about nine months late. There was no such things as television until 1975, the Calvinist apartheid elders having convinced themselves that the immoral medium would prove to be their undoing. But Rodriguez, somehow, made it through.

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What we didn’t know, of course, was that his career had been stillborn in America, neither of his two albums selling in any significant number, before he was dropped by his label. “I stopped chasing the music dream back in ’74,” he says with a wry smile, sitting in a Manhattan hotel, hours after an appearance on Imus in the Morning — and two days after making his network TV musical debut on Letterman. “I left the music scene, and started working on construction sites. Doing demolition, renovation, filling up bags, some roofing.”

But if he’s suddenly in heavy demand by the entertainment industry, it’s not for his facility with a sledgehammer or a roofing hatchet. His life has become an improbable urban fairytale thanks to Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul’s extraordinary documentary that earned rave reviews at Sundance for capturing the parallel lives of Sixto Rodriguez.

“A man who lives his whole life as a construction worker, doing really hard work, in Detroit, unaware that in another part of the world, he’s more famous than Elvis Presley,” Bendjelloul told CNN. “It was the most beautiful story I ever heard in my life.”

David Letterman agrees, as he gushed about the movie on his show last week. So, too, have Roger Ebert, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Jonah Hill — even Lance Armstrong. Having made a splash at Sundance, the movie is currently in art house showings around the U.S. after being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, igniting talk of an Oscar nomination. It’s not hard to see why Rodriguez’ tale captures the imagination: A man whose haunting voice and poetic musings might have made him the new, new thing in the early ’70s instead literally disappears for decades, just another could’a-been-a-contender musician scraping by on the margins of the working class, while in faraway South Africa — unbeknownst to him — his albums are selling like hotcakes, and he’s bigger than Elvis, although he’s not getting a penny in royalties.

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It’s the collision of those two worlds — when his most dedicated South African fans discovered that Rodriguez, in fact, had not committed suicide on stage as local rock legend had it, but was alive and well and living in Detroit — that triggers the magic of the movie, and leads to the quiet, unassuming troubadour showing up on Letterman to sing the hauntingly beautiful dystopic ballads he first performed in the dive bars of Detroit four decades ago.

A Rip Van Winkle tale for the music industry?

“Yes, I suppose it does have a magical twist to it,” he laughs. “But I was never asleep.”

No, he was working, doing back-breaking physical labor, mostly demolition, and raising his daughters to transcend the shackles that a life on the cusp of poverty might have imposed. And fighting the good fight for people like himself.

In his enthusiasm to share ideas — he still uses Woodstock-era phrases like “Now dig this” — Rodriguez doesn’t want to dwell too much on the past; he has plenty to say about the present and future.

“I’m a musical political,” he says repeatedly. “I sing about social issues, not the boy-girl stuff.” His sense of the pervasive injustice around him shaped the lyrics he penned and performed in the early ’70s, and when the music thing didn’t work out, he shrugged, and walked away — legend has it that he walks everywhere in that most automotive of cities in which he has always lived — but also took up the fight of the working poor in politics, running twice for mayor of Detroit, and also for city council and state representative.

Bendjelloul’s film finds Rodriguez, at 70, shambling along the streets of today’s Detroit — a blighted post-industrial urban landscape where the American dream has long-since turned into a nightmare. But, he notes, it’s not that different from the Detroit in which he began performing his poetic tunes in the early ’70s. “The issues are as urgent today as when I first wrote these songs,” he says.

It’s tempting to think of Rodriguez as a kind of street preacher, speaking up for the hungry and the homeless, prophesying doom for a society that ignores their plight. But he’s far too soft-spoken and polite for that. More like a street theologian, in fact, quietly dispensing wisdom laced with nuggets from all of humanity’s book learning and from his own hard-bitten experience. He’s not going to shout to get your attention; he’ll speak quietly — but you’ll know you’re missing something if you’re not paying attention.

In a conversation that covers everything from Syria and the citizen journalism of Zapruder to Plato and Lenny Bruce, Emile Durkheim and Nietzsche, religion and revolution, Rodriguez offers this recurring nugget of dissident wisdom: “Beware of current truths.” His own life certainly testifies to their fluidity.

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Rodriguez had taken in his stride the disappointments of his treatment at the hands of a music industry which, back in the ’70s, had little enthusiasm for a politically strident working-class Latino musician whose music sounded more like Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” than like Santana or Tito Puente. Having lost his mother at age 3 and spent a number of years living in an orphanage and seeing his father only on Sundays, he wasn’t expecting an easy life. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he says of his days in the orphanage. “I had my father, a lot of the kids there didn’t have any parents.”

And rather than bitterness over being snubbed and then cheated out of his royalties, he is grateful for his changing fate. “I’m a lucky man,” he smiles, recounting the 2008 re-release of Cold Fact by Light in the Attic Records, and the phone call that had come a few years earlier, like a bolt from the blue, telling him that in South Africa, he was a rock star and inviting him to tour — a fact that left his workmates on the construction sites of Detroit a little gobsmacked.

Although his music was giving voice to those living at the margins and his politics are unashamedly those of social justice for the working poor, it was the embrace of his work by the children of white privilege in apartheid South Africa that gave Rodriguez a second chance. “Thanks for keeping me alive,” the film shows him shouting to a rapturous crowd of thousands of mostly white people, many of them no longer youths, on his debut concert in South Africa in 1998. It was to young white suburbanites, many of them Afrikaans, for whom he represented an improbable icon of transgressive anti-establishment thinking with frank songs about drugs, sex and the hypocrisy of the men in power. Those songs had an electric effect on many of them, prompting a dissident doubt about the regime that kept a country in chains. What the Velvet Underground were to Vaclav Havel and his generation of Czech dissidents, Rodriguez was to many young Afrikaners who by the early ’80s began to break with the regime that ruled in their name.

The South Africa he visits today — his daughter Eva lives there, now, having married a man she met on her father’s first tour — is hardly free of the poverty and despair described in his songs, despite the ANC having been in power for 18 years. On the morning we meet, South African police have shot dead 34 striking mineworkers in an incident horrifically reminiscent of the apartheid era. “People there are still demonstrating for the basics, like water, electricity, a decent wage…”

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And he sees a connection: “When I was writing those songs, it seemed like a revolution was coming in America. Young men were burning their draft cards, the cities were ablaze with anger.” Now, he thinks, “there won’t be a revolution, the system will simply collapse under the weight of its own greed, corruption and bigotry.”

He’s working on new material, he allows, driven by the same concerns. “This time, of course, I’ll be protected over the royalties,” he notes, wryly. Record labels no longer decide the fate of artists, and the crevasse in the global pop-culture into which he fell back in the ’70s has been eliminated by the Internet — the same vehicle that could turn a Cape Town art-school act like Die Antwoord into an international phenomenon, thanks largely to YouTube.

Rodriguez is enjoying the recognition created by a film that has captured the imagination of the entertainment industry, and he’s playing a few gigs in support of it. But don’t expect a new album any time soon, he cautions. If his own life has taught him anything at all through his story, it’s that there’s no need to rush.