Meeting Rodriguez, dressed head to toe in black and wearing sunglasses seemingly designed to protect him from the glare of a Western sunset, is like meeting a super-hip uncle you never knew you had. He presents the crinkled hand that looks like it has lifted a thousand cinder blocks and strummed endless gentle guitar chords, and smiles broadly.
“Oh, I can tell this is going to be good; anything you want to know, Mr. Morales,” he says and it confuses you, because the only people who call you Mr. Morales are usually several years younger than you.
“I’m a solid 70,” says Rodriguez, whose point of view hasn’t aged in over 40 years. “That gives me a lot of hindsight, you know, because they’re trying to sell the young bloods on this idea that history is cyclical, that’s just the way it is. But that’s not the way it is.”
Already this is getting a little heavy. You’re here to do a straightforward interview with the greatest undiscovered Mexican American rock story in history, a troubadour from Detroit who played holes in the wall like the Sewer until he was discovered and signed to a record contract on the Sussex label, run by Clarence Avant, known by some as “the Godfather of Black Music.” His two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, were instant classics that should have put him in the same singer/songwriter pantheon as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed. They were elaborately produced, highly atmospheric recordings made with Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey, whose claim to fame was being the first white solo act to perform his music on Soul Train.
But there was no fame and fortune for Rodriguez, whose first name happens to be Sixto. Instead, unbeknownst to him, he became a cult figure in South Africa, where he was so idolized as an anti-authoritarian prophet that Cold Fact became the soundtrack for an anti-apartheid youth culture that eventually saw that racist system’s end in the 1990s. The story of how his dedicated South African fans tracked him down and found he was living in obscurity, gutting rotting houses in ragged neighborhoods of Detroit is narrated in Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary by Swedish director Malik Bedejoul, which will premiere Friday, July 27 in New York and Los Angeles (with a national rollout to follow).
Rodriguez has just come back from the tony Hamptons Film Festival where Alec Baldwin introduced him to a growing new wave of Rodriguez fans. Even though he has been touring since his triumphant 1998 tour of South Africa, the eccentric singer is fully aware that he is about to be exposed to the biggest audience he has ever had. “These people are high rollers,” he murmurs about his new promoters. But rather than talk about the eerie charm of his largely undiscovered music, he insists on focusing on the political message.
“I describe myself as a musico-politico,” he rhymes. “The social realism of ‘ Establishment Blues’ or ‘Like Janis,’ are what I chose to use to express what was happening in the US and what was happening to me personally.”