Rodriguez - The Myths and The Mystery

"... Who Is Rodriguez?"

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Mojo August 2002

Buried Treasure: From Detroit Outcast to Down Under Cult Star
by Tim Forster

Ask the question "Who is Rodriguez?" of any Australian or South African music fan and there will probably be more than a glimmer of recognition. Ask any American and you'll almost certainly draw a blank. In the musical melting pot of the late '60s Detroit, many artists lost their audience somewhere between Motown and the MC5, yet few would have expected one of Michigan's forgotten sons to find fame halfway across the world - least of all Rodriguez himself.

Born in 1942 to Mexican immigrant parents (as their sixth child he was christened Sixto), a profoundly working-class, Spanish-speaking upbringing gave Rodriguez an early insight into life as an outsider, a theme that would inform much of his songwriting - tales of social alienation, drug induced paranoia and doomed relationships. He started his career in music "playing when I was about 17. I think it was a way to escape and get out into the world. I've always been solo; it's the easier career, and you don't have to depend on other people..."

An early folk-rock single for the local Impact label, I'll Slip Away was doomed by the company's bankruptcy, but in 1969 he signed to the new Buddah offshoot Sussex. Cold Fact was its first release. Overseen by staff producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey (later of the Detroit Guitar Band), its opening track, a distinctly bitter-tasting track Sugar Man, set the tone. Over a subtle backing of guitar, brass and electronic effects, Rodriguez reeled off a list of pharmaceuticals - silver magic ships, jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane - before delivering a stark message: "Sugar man, met a false friend/On a lonely dusty road/Lost my heart when I found it/It had turned to jet black coal..."

Although the pace was briefly lifted by raucous fuzz-rocker Only Good For Conversation, the album's sparse production gave prominence to Sixto's acoustic guitar and haunting vocals. Establishment Blues, a soapbox rant of rhyming couplets, almost parodied the protest song ("Gun sales are soaring/Housewives find life boring/Divorce the only answer/Smoking causes cancer") while Inner City Blues - a title that pipped Marvin Gaye by six months - pitched the runaway girl in the city against her suburban parents ("The curfew's set for eight/Will it ever be straight/I doubt it"). Against this harsh backdrop only the lascivious sing-along I Wonder managed to sound up-beat.

Yet if Cold Fact was short on happy endings, that was scarcely surprising - the singer was simply writing about what he saw around him. Surprisingly, Rodriguez recalls a certain amount of pressure to make the LP still more controversial. "Mike Theodore said, 'Can you add these two songs [Gommorah and Hate Street Dialogue] to it?' And I said Sure! But I fixed the words. I said, If I talked like that I couldn't even go back home! How could I refuse? I was just getting out there..."

Despite a favourable review in Billboard, the album never troubled its charts. Sussex, meanwhile struck gold with Bill Withers, and although they financed one further LP - Coming From Reality, recorded at London's Lansdowne Studios - it fared no better than Cold Fact. Rodriguez quit music to raise a family and, apart from a brief, unsuccessful foray into politics, just seemed to disappear...

Yet the most extraordinary phase of his career had only just begun. Festival Records, the label that had launched The Bee Gees, imported Cold Fact to Australia. After rapidly selling out, the LP was picked up by A&M the following year and won a cult following among the disaffected youth of New Zealand and South Africa. By the start of the '80s, Rodriguez was touring with Midnight Oil. A decade on, when the album was issued on CD, it went platinum. After slipping into temporary obscurity once more - during which increasingly bizarre rumours circulated about his 'demise' - he recently travelled to South Africa for two sell-out stadium tours. A subsequent live album became his first release in almost 30 years.

Back in Detroit Rodriguez is unerringly modest about his achievements. "Was I an angry young man? When I compare my work to today's music - like Metallica, Rage Against The Machine and rap - I just say: Where was the outrage?"

Discover more at:

(Thanks to John Samson and Stephan Forster for info and scans)

The above article is based on one Tim originally wrote in January 2001. Read it below...

January 2001

Cold Fact - Sixto Rodriguez
by Tim Forster

Until recently a mysterious figure, Sixto Rodriguez was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1942 to Mexican immigrant parents - his first name chosen because he was their sixth child. Possessed of an distinctive voice, Rodriguez was a singer / songwriter steeped in the folk and blues traditions of his times and comparisons with Dylan and Donovan are inevitable and not undeserved. However, a profoundly working class upbringing in this industrial - and musical - heartland helped to make his work quite unique.

I'll Slip Away In April 1967 he recorded five original songs for the local Impact label. The A-side of the resulting single, 'I'll Slip Away' (later re-cut in the mid 70s), was an atmospheric number with considerable commercial potential, the B-side, 'You'd Like To Admit It', a contrasting folk-rocker in which the singer berated an ex-girlfriend for going off with a 'hick'. Unfortunately it became Impact's penultimate release before the label went under. Of the remaining tracks 'Forget It' would later be re-recorded for his first LP and 'To Whom It May Concern' for the second, but the intriguingly titled 'That Discotheque' remains unreleased in any form.

Undaunted, two years later Rodriguez found himself signed to the newly founded Hollywood label, Sussex (Bill Withers' first label), and the classic 'Cold Fact' LP emerged as their first release. Recorded in 1969 and skilfully produced by two other Impact refugees, Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, it opened with the trippy but dark 'Sugar Man'. Over a subtle backing of acoustic guitar and electronic effects Rodriguez's lyrics were starkly honest:

"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. / Silver magic ships you carry / Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane / Sugarman, you're the answer / That makes my question disappear / Sugarman, 'cos I'm weary / Of those double games I hear."

The themes of many other songs on the album can be gleaned from the titles alone: 'Crucify Your Mind' (drugs), 'This Is Not A Song, It's An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues', 'Inner City Blues' and 'Rich Folks Hoax' (social unrest and political apathy), but there were also beautiful, bittersweet love songs in 'Forget It' and 'Jane S. Piddy'. Rumour has it (although Rodriguez has denied the connection) that 'Like Janis' was inspired by Janis Joplin. The brutally direct 'Only Good For Conversation' stands out as a great fuzz rocker, but for the most part the album gives prominence to Rodriguez's acoustic guitar and powerful lyrics.

'Coming From Reality', which was recorded at London's Lansdowne Studios, came in a striking die-cut gatefold sleeve. However, despite featuring some excellent musicianship - especially the lead guitar work courtesy of ace session man Chris Spedding - it somehow contrived to be less interesting than its predecessor. The most immediately striking tracks are undoubtedly those where the band is in full flight - 'Climb Up On My Music' and 'Heikki's Suburban Bus Tour' for instance - but the more restrained acoustic numbers repay repeated listening. 'Sandrevan Lullaby - Lifestyles' (the title is a conflation of the names of Rodriguez's two daughters) and 'Cause' were both subtly orchestrated and their lyrics echoed the dark emotional themes of the debut album.

Three further tracks recorded in the mid-seventies - a new version of the Impact single 'I'll Slip Away', 'Can't Get Away' and 'Street Boy' - were each the equal of any of his previous works, but none were released at the time. After neither album made any impact in the States, Rodriguez seemed to simply disappear. That, however, was really only the beginning of the most extraordinary phase of his career. When, in 1970, some enterprising folk at Festival Records imported 400 copies of 'Cold Fact' to Australia they rapidly sold out. The LP was subsequently issued by A&M in 1971 and as its fame spread it gradually acquired a cult following amongst the disaffected youth both there and in countries like New Zealand and South Africa. When it was finally issued on CD in those markets it went platinum and Rodriguez was so well known by the beginning of the 80s that he even toured Australia with Midnight Oil. After disappearing into temporary obscurity once more - during which increasingly bizarre rumours circulated about his demise - he recently returned to South Africa for a sell-out stadium tour. Both albums have subsequently been reissued in all formats in those countries, while a CD 'Rodriguez: At His Best' (Blue Goose VPCD 6748) collects together highlights from both LPs and adds the three unreleased mid-seventies tracks for good measure. The A-side of the Impact single, meanwhile, is available on 'The Best Of Impact Records' (Collectables CD COL 5883).

This article originally published online at:
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