July 26, 2012 -- 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.”
Although many of his songs lament lost love or playfully recall San Francisco hippies, his best work is dead serious. “Establishment Blues,” which trades on the talking blues style Bob Dylan used in a song like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” rails on about how “everybody’s protesting” and “the little man gets shafted,” while “Rich Folks Hoax” sounds like a prequel to an Occupy Wall Street poetry slam.
But Rodriguez hasn’t moved on. He is a living memory of the legendary violence and tumult of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and wants to make sure it’s not forgotten. “I was inspired by songs like Neil Young’s ‘Ohio,’ which was about how at Kent State University, on the orders of the governor, they shot into the crowd of students because they were protesting against the war,” he says, like it happened last week. “People were resisting the draft and going to Canada and the cities were in riots and ablaze, and the assassinations that happened to Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy…”
You have a laundry list of stuff to ask him, such as what was it like to come out of Detroit, the hardcore music city that produced Motown, Iggy Pop, and Mitch Ryder? Or what did you think about Nas sampling you singing “Sugar Man” on “You’re Da Man”? Did you ever meet the Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco?
Instead, he presses on with his agenda, which is to relate the turmoil of the past to what he sees as its unresolved after-effects. “I am voting for Obama,” he muses, “because I can’t relate to a governor’s son, the privileged class, they’re so removed from the people. Industrialization has quite clearly polluted the environment, and [then there’s] fracking; they’re looking for oil and the more damage they do to the earth…the earth is going to survive, it’s the people that aren’t.”
Rodriguez realizes you can’t stop him, so he draws a deep breath and spits the last of it out, pointing his finger straight at the tape recorder on the table between you. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s I thought there was going to be a revolution in America, but now I don’t think it’s needed anymore, the system is going to cave in on its own and what’s going to bring it down is nepotism, cronyism, greed and corruption!”
Now that we knew where we stood, we were momentarily free to get to more personal things, like the backstory. “My family, we’re indigenous people from San Luis Potosí in Central Mexico,” he says with pride. “My father moved to Detroit and brought all of us because the automobile companies were paying great wages. My dad, he was my role model--my mom died when I was three--and the way we honor our parents is remembering their heritage. You know Mexicans sing together, they embrace when they meet. So there was a family guitar that was laying around and I learned how to play it.”
Even though he has become the darling of indie rockers and white South Africans, Rodriguez wants to make sure everyone knows he’s down with being Latino. He praises the legacy of the Olmecs and Aztecs, the naturalism of indigenous cultures, even how he brought his daughters to see the Diego Rivera murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts. “I don’t say this often, but ¡Viva la Raza!” he says, looking pleased with himself.
He admits that he once tried to imitate José Feliciano’s chord changes (after all, the Puerto Rican singer’s infamous re-interpretation of the Star Spangled Banner happened at the 1968 World Series in Detroit), and was a fan of Latino rockers like Ritchie Valens and garage-rock legends Question Mark and the Mysterians.
Still, the mystery of Rodriguez is why he was never ranked with his real peers, Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon by the American record-buying public, or the radio stations that fed their heads. While Bob Dylan made a facsimile of working-class folk music for middle-class college kids, Rodriguez made music that perhaps too clearly evoked the sadness of a city that became the leading edge of a national recession.
You suggest that maybe some of his strongest songs, “Sugar Man,” “Hate Street Dialog,” and “Inner City Blues,” were so stark and uncompromising that they just weren’t “hit” material.
“I don’t have the answer to that, Mr. Morales,” he says, as if he were reflecting on the despair of many difficult years. “I did the best with the material that I could…I was too disappointed to be disappointed, I went ahead and went back to work and helped raise my family.”
As he says this, you can tell that he is immensely proud of and attached to his daughters, who appear in the film, accompanying him on his triumphant return to South Africa in 1998. One of them, Eva, a former US army helicopter pilot, wound up settling there with her young son.
But then his eyes light up when he goes on to talk about his legendary failed runs for city council and even mayor in his hometown after disappearing from the music scene. “They tried to throw me off the ballot, too, and I paid $42 and I went to the court of appeals,” he says, that warrior spirit ready to go to battle again. “The thing is, it’s a struggle, and it’s continuing. But I think that we are ready to struggle, and we have to learn from our histories!”
At the moment, Rodriguez says he has no plans for either running for office or making a new recording, but he has been gigging with increasing frequency since his 1998 South Africa tour. He is embarking on a tour July 29 that will take him to cities like Washington, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and London. He’s hoping the documentary exposes his music to an even wider audience.
You have only one thought as you leave him, waving goodbye as if he were about to disappear behind the purple haze spewing from a rock concert fog machine: Rodriguez, el trovador del barrio, for President.