The Prophet Finds an AUdience

Searching For Sugarman – Sixto Rodriguez

As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, Indian-style, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger, hailing from the peyote and cactus lands of desert dreams.

The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Hate Street Dialogue” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Consider the prophet-tinged lyrics of The Establishment Blues,” sung with the clipped cadence of Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere. The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez has dropped the Sixto; he’s just Rodriguez now. The music itself is less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It sounds like a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won but he’s all right after all. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, like his preceding LP this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.

But this is only Act I of the story. Let’s fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which is the subject of this review. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonates with young people disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact is a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” is for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto is “bigger than Elvis.”

But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. A consensus develops that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.

In the 1990s, apartheid ends, Sixto’s music is released on compact disc, and a quest begins to solve the mystery of his death once and for all by two of his fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist. They find him via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame.

...the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Sixto Rodriguez – Searching For Sugarman

If you feel I’ve shared too much, then you better avoid the trailer, which neatly summarizes the entire story in two minutes. Needless to say, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a fantastic musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful to the end for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Instead of an aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). Rodriguez had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away”, recorded after the dismal reception of “Coming From Reality” and unreleased for many years:

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then Ill go mend all my shattered dreams.”

There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.

Even though it won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award for best international documentary at Sundance, you’ll have some difficulty finding “Searching for Sugar Man” at your local theater. It’s strictly limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and even there, playing in just a handful of theaters. For everyone else, we’re left with Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, comic book idols that aren’t telling us a damn thing about how to live gracefully. You’ve got to look hard for real life heroes. You won’t find them soaring or swinging over the Manhattan skyline. But you might hear one singing about the truths of living. You only have to find the music and listen closely.