(A&M 1971) -
South Africa was a very different place in 1971 when Cold Fact
was modestly unleashed on the Southern hemisphere. Back then, nobody had
heard of Rodriguez. Abba was storming the charts, TV hadn’t arrived (god
forbid, it was too corruptive according to the dominees) and our current
President was in jail. Music was played on turn-tables, Cliff Richard was
on tour and the Hippie era hadn’t quite made it South. Violence and crime
was something that happened in the townships, South African musicians were
gaining modest international success and Sundays were spent at church.
"Sugar man, won’t you hurry ‘cos I’m tired
of these scenes".
Against this backdrop, an album with lyrics such
as these must’ve seemed years ahead of it’s time and could only have captured
the imaginations of a lost generation of South Africans. Over the next
twenty five years, waves of disco, punk, new-wave, grunge and electronic
music (in addition to our own ethnic music) served as soundtrack to the
country’s turbulent history. Yet through it all an astonishingly simple
folk album from a hitherto unknown singer crept into the hearts of many,
occupying a unique place unparalleled elsewhere in the vast world of music.
The Legend unfolded on it’s own. Rodriguez dropped out of sight, lost in
the haze of hippiness, and the profound lyrics left behind on Cold Fact
were the only clues we had to invent the mystery and myth.
That has all been settled now, and the remarkable reappearance of this
long-forgotten Hispanic American is a celebration of the enduring popularity
of this album. Since it’s re-release on CD in 1991 by Polygram South Africa,
it has sold a incredible 60 000 copies, encompassing several generations
of fans from all quarters.
Soon you know I’ll leave you, and I’ll never
look behind, ‘cause I was born for the purpose that crucifies your mind.
Like other Americans before him, notably Morrison
and Dylan, Rodriguez was a hopeless romantic, inspired and troubled by
the changing world around him. His lyrics were deep and poetic, yet it
was the simple acoustic accompaniment that lent the album so much timeless
appeal. Cold Fact opens with the ultra trippy Sugar Man, which may
well have been straight out of an acid trip. "Sugar man met a false
friend on a lonely dusty road, lost my heart, when I found it, it had turned
to dead black coal" suggests just where exactly the inspiration came
from as he goes on to list jumpers, coke and sweet Mary Jane. More than
any other Rodriguez song, it is Sugar Man which personifies the artist
in the minds of those who have always wondered. The eerie moog synthesizer,
whistling in the background, the lazy and simple guitar chords and the
dreamy nasal voice place the listener firmly in an era of fantasy. It sets
a perfect tone for the album and the myth.
By contrast, Only Good For Conversation is nothing short of
disturbing with it’s grinding power riffs and vocal echo. In fact it is
a good indication of the irony and sarcasm that Rodriguez layers thickly
throughout the album. "My statue’s got a concrete heart, but you’re
the coldest bitch I know" shows just how blunt the singer could be.
The moon.... is hanging.... in a purple... sky.
At times, his music was simple and beautiful, his
lyrics pure poetry. Lovesickness was often the theme, but it was always
from the lips of a troubled soul. In Crucify Your Mind, one of the
albums most subtle songs, one gets the impression he’s begging like a scorned
lover. In fact, he’s competing for a girls attention, but is sidelined
by the lure of narcotics, and the boys who push them - one of many references
throughout the album. "Was it a huntsman or a player that made you
pay the cost, that now assumes relaxed position and prostitutes your loss,
were you tortured by your own thirst in those pleasures that you seek,
that makes you Tom the curious, that makes you James the weak" he
asks. The appeal of Rodriguez, is his ability to state common emotions
so beautifully. Always cynical and often sarcastic, he later makes a similar
jibe "and don’t try to enchant me with your manner of dress, for a
monkey in silk is a monkey no less" in the song Like Janis.
Drifting, drowning, in a purple sea of doubt, you wanna hear she loves
you but the words don’t fit the mouth.
At times, the songwriter on this album - whoever
he may be - is a desperate character and it’s not surprising, sifting through
these lyrics, that rumours of taking his own life abounded. In Jane
S Piddy his self pity of lost love is heartbreaking. From the above
lyric he goes on to describe himself "you’re a loser, a rebel, a cause
without". Similar poignancy emerges in the short and simple final
track on the original side one, Forget It. At no point, does
Rodriguez ever seem happy. All these clues lend credence to the incredible
myth that fell into the void that his disappearance left.
I wonder how many times you’ve had sex, I wonder
do you know who will be next, I wonder, I wonder, wonder I do.
It is at his most obsessive, Rodriguez is best known. The simple lyrics
from I Wonder mean many different things to many different people,
and yet they are all sung in unison, at the end of disco’s, around camp
fires or in a beat up old combi, with the same feeling that summed up the
curiosity across South Africa throughout the seventies and eighties. He
says, in two and half minutes, what many young men and woman would love
to say to each but never find the courage. Again, in Hate Street Dialogue,
the same simple guitar makes you imagine you’re sitting around a campfire
in an Indian reserve, listening to some one’s home grown ditties. "Woman,
please be gone, you’ve stayed here much too long", he chided melodically.
It’s the simpleness that is so alluring.
Gommorah is a nursery rhyme, you won’t find
in the book.
It’s written on your city’s face just stop and take a look.
Perhaps it is the social conscience that has such important role on this
album, and most significantly suggest what sort of person Rodriguez was
and is. He has managed, throughout the album, to make it clear that the
world around him just isn’t quite right. "The baby’s sleeping whilst
it’s mother sighs" from Rich Folks Hoax is innocent enough,
but all the time it is seen through the eyes of a working class Mexican
immigrant, trapped in the motor industry that encompassed his hometown
- Detroit. More than anything, it is this character that best describes
the man who had disappeared for 25 years. In using school children for
the chorus of Gommorah, Rodriguez effectively demonstrates the irony
of inner city life, as he runs through the countless problems on the street
in his neighbourhood, drugs, prostitution, runaway kids and bemused rich
folk tourists. His working class vitriol emerges on Rich Folks Hoax
and The Establishment Blues where he states matter-of-factly that
"The Mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates" and "little
man gets shafted, sons and moneys drafted". Not surprisingly it emerged,
upon his rediscovery, that Rodriguez now has his own political aspirations,
having run for mayor eight times! His views on the wealth disparities between
rich and poor in the worlds most prosperous country are never far from
the tip of his pen.
Don’t say any more, just walk out the door,
I’ll get along fine you’ll see.
Sixto Rodriguez (as we now know him) has moved on, we all do. The album
(and it’s predecessor, Coming From Reality)
never quite cracked the vast American market, and the artist hung up his
guitar and talent to concentrate on other ambitions. The albums producers
(and Rodriguez’s backing musicians), Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey emersed
themselves in the vibrant Motown scene that was emerging at the time and
the later went on to work with Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Jackson
In South Africa it’s hard to imagine that a cult figure of such importance
should belong exclusively to us. To a lesser extent he is known in Australia,
New Zealand and Zimbabwe. Importantly, what remains is a character that
didn’t really exist at all, but was created out of a time and place, spurred
on by our own imagination. Cold Fact documents, with astonishing effectiveness,
a turbulent America at the tail end of the sixties. The numerous drug references,
the cynical tone, the frustrated lover, the disillusionment and inner city
blues were a world around Rodriguez, one that he had a poetic eye for.
“Sometimes the fantasy is better left alive, it’s as unbelievable to me
as it is to you” stated his daughter upon their discovery of a whole
fan base at the tip of Africa. And that way it will remain, he is a deeply
private person and indeed we have a fantasy that would probably be shattered.
Perhaps we all took him a little too seriously when the needle scratched
off those old pieces of Vinyl with the final words;
thanks for your time , then you can thank me for mine and after that’s
said, forget it".
- Andrew Bond, London, April 1998
This review was written especially for this website.