Times, Wednesday, 4th March 1998
THE SUGARMAN IS BACK
Rodriguez flies in from seventies
I have seen The Sugarman in the flesh and he is
real. Yup, true testimony to the fact that Mister Cold Fact is indeed the
walking, talking and soon-to-be singing version of the hippy that made
us so happy during the 1970s. Rodriguez is alive, folks, and what's more,
he still knows all the words to all the songs that we know all the words
Group hug, anybody?
It's easy to get cynical and supercilious about a period in our lives when
we wore bell-bottoms and burnt incense. There was an innocence which characterised
the pre-crack era, an earnestness that went with the politics and an enthusiasm
that swept it all along. Squeaky-clean, perhaps, in retrospect, but genuine
all the same. Rodriguez, street poet and serious guitar-strummer, encapsulated
much of it on his two albums Cold Fact and After the Fact, records which
lashed out stridently at the system, spoke about sex and nonchalantly discussed
drugs. They were perfect for a generation of repressed yet desperately-seeking-excitement
South Africans who took the man and his music to their hearts and never
quite let him go. And now, just like bell-bottoms, he's back. In Cape Town,
this time around. And he's going to perform all the material on his (only)
two albums, especially for us. Basically, nobody else has wanted to hear
his stuff anyway. Rodriguez, soft-spoken and gentle-mannered, admits this
quite freely. "I've never even played a gig in America, my home country.
I've jammed informally with friends, yes, but never a formal concert. Nobody
was ever interested in my music," he smiles. It was only in South
Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia that the albums ever sold well. "I'm
quite overwhelmed with the response in Cape Town so far," admits Rodriguez,
referring to the adulation that has surfaced since his arrival this week.
And the questions on every fan's lips? "Where
have you been all this time?", followed by "So when is the next
album due?" The answers are simple. "I've been working on my
conciousness for the past 20 years, and on an arts degree (majoring in
philosophy) for the past decade. It took me so long (for the degree) because
I was busy with other things in between," explains Rodriguez. "I've
been mainly based in Detroit, which is where I was born and raised."
And, unsurprisingly for a songwriter who has commented so strongly on corruption,
social inequalities and urban decay, he has stood for political office
seven times, all in Detroit, and all as an independent candidate. "I
ran for mayor twice, for state representative twice and for the city council
three times," he admits. And, yes, he has been working on other material.
"I've always concentrated on social issues, because I've always found
it easiest to write about things that upset me. But I can (and have) explored
the boy-girl theme in music and I enjoy writing ballads too," Rodriguez
said. "I have a producer now and I've got some songs lined up. This
time around, in South Africa, I'm purely going to do my old material. But
you can be sure that when something new comes out I'll be right back here
promoting it," he said enthusiastically. Rodriguez finds Cape Town
"a great change" to Detroit, for a lot of reasons. "Detroit
is an urban industrial area, and although I was born there (to Mexican
parents in 1942), I can really appreciate the contrast. Very much so,"
he says with feeling. Likewise, many Capetonians appreciate his visit.
Equally much so. The years may have passed, but the essential emotions
associated with Rodriguez and his passionate, politically-rousing material
still sit nostalgically in our pockets. Bell-bottomed or otherwise.