Rodriguez - The Myths and The Mystery

"Success is sweet for the Sugar Man"

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Daily Telegraph (London), 28 August 2003

Success is sweet for the Sugar Man

Ben Thompson on the singer-songwriter who became a celebrity - without knowing about it.

A new single out next week is the title page to a compelling story of artistic virtue ultimately rewarded. Spanning five decades and almost as many continents, it's a story that leads from the hippie underground of the 1960s to a 21st century building site in Detroit, via the war-torn border country of apartheid South Africa.

As recorded by the Free Association, the group created by Belfast-born DJ and "Ocean's Eleven" soundtrack composer David Holmes, "Sugar Man" is a woozy slab of symphonic pop. At first, the addictive chorus of "Silver magic ships, you carry/jumpers, coke, sweet mary jane" suggests a common-or-garden drug mantra, but the tune twists and turns into unexpected shapes of regret and foreboding, which elevate it far above the average hymn to chemical indulgence.

The growl backing vocals come from the song's author, the enigmatic and extravagantly talented singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, whose superb 1968 [actually 1969] original featured on last year's acclaimed Holmes compilation "Come Get It, I Got It".

'We didn't think of this as a cover version, more as a means of bringing attention to the original,' insists Holmes (who had paid $100 for his copy of the album it came from). 'That was why we had to have Sixto on the track, even though he insisted on driving to New York to record it because he didn't want to risk taking his guitar on the plane.'

Rodriguez was born the sixth child (hence that distinctive first name) of a poor Mexican-American family, in Michigan in 1942. "Cold Fact" and "After The Fact", the brace of albums he recorded for Buddah Records' offshoot Sussex in the late 60s, stand among the very finest work of that illustrious musical era (and are surely due a long overdue UK CD reissue). A righteous cynicism to match Bob Dylan at his best, the Beatles' melodious sense of mischief and a witty, discursive vocal style that was all his own- Rodriguez, it seemed, had it all. Everything, that is, except commercial success.

Even as his career was drawing to a premature close in America, Rodriguez's unique brand of anti-establishment cool ('This system's gonna fall soon/ to an angry young tune') began to find a ready audience overseas. First in Australasia and then in South Africa, where his wry hedonistic lyrics struck a particular chord with that land's often forgotten counter-culture.

'For the guys who had to go and fight on the border in the 70s,' explains South African super-fan Stephen Segerman (who was one of them). 'Rodriguez was to South African soldiers what Hendrix was to the Americans in Vietnam.'

Unbeknown to the man himself (by that time working on a building site in Detroit), Rodriguez's legend continued to grow throughout the 80s and 90s until his daughter Eva idly typed in the family name on the internet and was shocked to discover a website (co-founded by Segerman) called "The Great Rodriguez Hunt" - 'expressing this great interest in my father's music,' his other daughter Regan remembers, 'but thinking he was dead.' Two triumphant South African stadium tours, a live album and a TV documentary, resonantly called "Dead Men Don't Tour" followed.

Admirably unfazed by swapping obscurity in his homeland for rock messiah in a country he had never visited, Rodriguez enjoyed seeing his face staring back at him from every telegraph pole in Johannesburg, then returned to his $10-an-hour labouring job in Detroit.

It is here that I finally got to talk to Rodriguez on the telephone. After an impassioned discourse from the impact of drugs on Coleridge's "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" to how much he enjoyed seeing Nirvana play live, he came to a philosophical conclusion, 'Life ain't chronological,' he said. 'Some older people appear to be younger and some younger people appear to be older: that's the gist of it.'

"Sugar Man" is released by 13 Amp/Mercury on Monday [1st September 2003].

Original article is here...

Read more about cover versions of Rodriguez songs here...

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