The Sunday Independant, 8th March 1998
In search of Rodriguez:
from hooker bars to opera houses
Craig Bartholomew tracks down Sixto Rodriguez, the second
generation Mexican who, with his 70s album Cold Fact, radicalised
South African youth. What he found was Gandhi with a guitar.
It's five o'clock as I wait at Cape Town international airport for a man I think I know well but have never met, one Sixto Rodriguez - mythical guru and serendipitous soothsayer of the 70's "hey man wow!" generation, and creator of the long-selling cult album, Cold Fact - A man once lost, but now found. Every time an airport announcement is made, fate's fat fingers play an arpeggio up my spine. The simple problem is that I have no idea what to expect, especially after a death such as his. Never before has one man died so many times in as many ways, and still survived. Not to mention being blind, murdering his wife (at least twice) and all that while performing a host of other heinous crimes - in rumour at least.
What, therefore, would pass through the metal detector at customs? The Bionic man? A walking resurrection? Or simply an impostor? The personal quest that had led to this moment - as I now loiter on the terminal - all began in 1996 when, after browsing through the liner notes of the newly released "Coming from Reality" CD (originally released as After the Fact in 1974), I stumbled across the words which asked if there were "any musicology detectives out there" to find the man, dead or alive. Even though I had already been seduced by the poetry of the man with lines like "It started out with butterflies on a velvet afternoon", it was the line, "How many times can you wake up in this comic book and still plant flowers?" that made me commit to the search. Without realising it, this line had struck a sympathetic chord with the new, yet-to-be identified, Generation X.
My first stop, naturally, was the record company. Not even they could not tell me the fate of the one artist that had never made it to the deletion bin, even after 26 years of solid sales. (Who cares when you're coining it?). Next, I climbed into his music and scrounged between the words, searching in vain for even just one single clue, a hint, a mere trace of where the man could be hiding. Many little leads led me nowhere. In "A Most Disgusting Song", for example, he sang of playing every kind of gig there is to play: From faggot bars to hooker bars, to motorcycle funerals, to opera houses, to concert halls and even halfway houses. He referred to a host of characters almost by name: a girl who has never been chaste; a bearded school boy with wooden eyes; a man who is shorter than himself; and even a teacher who will kiss you in French! But nowhere could I find a direct reference to a town or place that could have blown his cover. Rumour had it that Polygram did not even possess the master tapes to his music, pressing the "Coming From Reality" CD from a good vinyl copy of the album (quite audible, if you listens carefully, is the sheer proof of analogue decay - static, scratches and even a cat's paw.)
Then, finally after a nine-month long search comprising 72 telephone calls, 45 faxes, and over 140 e-mails, I managed to trace Mike Theodore, the credited arranger of the Cold Fact album. With this breakthrough, it barely took a week before a voice on the other side of the line answered, nonchalantly, "Yes, it is I, Rodriguez, so tell me about yourself?" Then, slowly but surely, the information I had so long sought, started to trickle in. Born in Detroit, this second generation Mexican single-handedly, without even realising it, changed the way South African youth saw things by releasing his album Cold Fact in 1972 (it flopped practically everywhere else). While hippies around the world hummed "ommmm..." in yoga-like poses, the seventies youth of South Africa chose only one mantra to represent their generation, "I wonder, how many times you've had sex". This was not surprising from a country where simply thinking evil thoughts led to swearing which led to smoking which led to drinking which then led to Dagga which led to hard drugs and which finally led to satanism. And before you knew it, you were dead.
Prevalent on the album, was a philosophy that decried the anomalies of social reality, and which the youth bought into whole-heartedly. It was this cynicism - parents called it 'hate-mail on a record' ("but don't bother to buy insurance, because you've already died"), or 'poetry concealed as vinyl' ("the wind splashed in my face, can smell a trace of thunder") that actually set the youth free. A simple honesty which became the axiom on which they would base their thinking. A young Mexican who sang unashamedly about drugs and life on the streets (My Estonian Archangel came and got me wasted). Ironically, the man who once sang the words, "the mayor hides the crime rate, the public forgets the vote date", has actually run for political office on no less than seven occasions, and fathered three daughters and a son (Brian's note: the son, Aaron, is actually his first wife's from her second husband).
A 1972 brochure on Detroit referred to the young political candidate 'revolutionary absurdist, a creative anarchist, and even a leftist guitarist?' Furthermore, it states that he is legendary at "always brewing or perpetrating something". Like his Heikki's Bus Tour no. 2, a guided busload of Inner City wildmen who careened out to the environs to take snapshots of the natives and to communicate. Strange as it may seem, Rodriguez has recorded only 25 songs in his lifetime and had no idea he was even famous here. Finally at quarter past five - with only the mental picture of Rodriguez seated cross-legged in the pearl bubble off Cold Fact - I spot a youthful, well-built man who looks no more than 40. I am at first not sure that this is he but when I see the guitar, I know it is. Suddenly, all the words he ever sung rush before me in cool colour psychedelia. Unreal-surreal! Poetic-myopic! And as my senses rollercoaster-ride in sympathy with the part of my brain that deals with reason, a warm hand shakes mine. "Hi", he says unassumingly. As we walk off, I realise that this is the most humble artist I have ever met.
Gandhi with guitar.
A man who, after all is said and done, would probably prefer to leave the past behind him and someone who, it transpires, has the problem that every time he opens the door to get the milk, fame tries to creep in.