Music Africa Vol 3 No 1 1998 (March)
Just who exactly
by Andrew Bond
The mysterious background surrounding this enigmatic
sixties folk singer has puzzled South African fans for the past 25 years.
According to most, he disappeared after proclaiming "thanks for
your time, then you can thank me for mine and after that's said, forget
it" at the end of his unique album, Cold Fact. No one really knew
the truth about this cult figure until recently, that is, when the information
revolution of the internet helped Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew
Strydom reveal the startling news that he is indeed alive and well and
pursuing a political career in Detroit!
Sixto "Jesus" Rodriguez remains well entrenched in the lore of
South African music, due mainly to the well circulated second album of
his - Cold Fact (Brian's note: actually his first). Dipped sweetly
in the psychedelia and bohemia of the sixties, this album mingled simple
acoustic guitar with astonishing lyrics of inner city blues, hopeless romanticism
and general disillusionment. It was the appeal of "trippy" numbers
such as "Sugarman" and "I Wonder" that won the album
a place in the hearts of many South Africans. Remarkably, this Hispanic
American remains largely unknown elsewhere and, with the odd exceptions
in Australia, New Zealand and even Zimbabwe, became lost in the haziness
of the hippie era.
Like so many other talented musicians he faded into obscurity and the master
copies of his two albums disappeared in the process. The void was filled
with a mystery of intrigue that was so thorough that not even the local
distributors, Polygram, were able to truthfully comment. "He shot
himself on stage", "...committed suicide whilst in jail",
"wandered off into the hills and O.D'ed" were just some of the
more popular myths. Judging by his sublime lyrics, drugs and despair certainly
did play a part in musicians life, further than that very little was known
about this troubled musician. One certainty, however, was the existence
of an earlier album, "Coming From Reality", (actually his second album) which was incorrectly renamed "After
The Fact", when re-released in 1972 (actually 1976).
Twenty five years later Polygram South Africa enlisted
the help of record collectors Mad Andy Harrod and Stephen "Sugar"
Segerman (his real name) to track down a copy, which was subsequently remastered
and re-released on CD, satisfying a healthy demand from the public. A plea
for further clues on the sleeve notes prompted investigative journalist-at-large
Craig Bartholomew Strydom to track down the original producers of Cold
Fact, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore. They confirmed that Rodriguez was
still alive and put him in touch with the singer.
Strydom drew their attention to Sugar's website
- the "Great Rodriguez Hunt", and the breakthrough finally came. Praise for
the musician had been gathering on the website forum and in due course
a woman by the name of Eva Koller contacted the site claiming to be Rodriguez's
daughter. Telephone numbers were exchanged and shortly thereafter Sugar
received a late night phone call from Sixto Rodriguez himself. Sugar recalled
the moment: "I recognised the nasal voice immediately. He spoke with
a soft American accent and because the line was so clear we were able to
have a calm conversation despite the fact that I was practically dropping
the phone from sheer excitement". They spoke for more than 20 minutes.
No one was more surprised than Rodriguez to discover his cult status in
South Africa and plans are now under way for a tour in 1998, 17 years after
a successful tour of Australia and New Zealand was set to be his last.
Even the people at Polygram fell about themselves with laughter when they
heard the news.
The wave of speculation was finally settled. Sixto
Rodriguez is, in fact, a deeply private person, preferring not to elaborate
on his mysterious past. This explains why so little was ever known about
him and he even adopted the moniker "Jesus" Rodriguez, equally
advantageous for anonymity and publicity. "Sometimes the fantasy is
better left alive, it's as unbelievable to me as it is to you" commented
his daughter Eva, suggesting that Rodriguez's life was, perhaps, as tumulteous
as his home country was in the late 1960's. What is known however is that
he has spent most of his life in America's motor city, Detroit, amongst
a working class immigrant background. (His parents came to Michigan from
Mexico in the 1920's). He went on to graduate from Wayne State University
(Detroit) in 1981 with a degree in Philosophy, spent several years as a
teacher and has, most recently, run for several political positions, including
mayor of Detroit.