On an unseasonably warm fall evening, the enigmatic singer-songwriter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez and his band of three took the stage at The Space at Westbury, before a crowd of enthusiastic fans. Having celebrated his 75th birthday this summer, the iconic folk artist isn’t as steady on his feet, relying on some help getting to center stage and the seat that awaited him. To his right was a small table that held two glasses as well as a number of hats, which he changed as the mood struck him throughout his set.
Rodriguez has a fascinating backstory. Playing small dives in the Motor City of Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rodriguez, as he was known, was a mystery. Full of political statements and thoughtful lyrics, he strummed a guitar at venues like Sewer on the Sea with his back to the audience. Bursting with quiet charisma, thoughtful phrases and uber talent, Rodriguez bowled over record label execs who had high hopes for his work: Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971). He remained a puzzle to locals who thought that this handsome drifter might be a homeless person, as he always seemed to appear and vanish. Even label reps were never invited to meet him at his house, but always on a different gritty street corner of Detroit. Coming From Reality was released in November 1971 and in truly prophetic form, the first line from Rodriguez's song "Cause" seemed to predict what befell him next: "Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas..." Two weeks before Christmas of 1971, Rodriguez was dropped by his record label and seemed to just fade into the woodwork.
In South Africa, during the height of oppression and apartheid, a copy of Rodriguez's Cold Fact made its way into the culture, hitting a cult status fervor. It hit a nerve with the youth who were struck by his songs like "This is Not a Song: It's an Outburst: Or the Establishment Blues." Becoming an anthem for people who had begun to rebel, in a culture where television and radio were stringently controlled by the government and where musicians were not allowed to play concerts, Rodriguez became as big to South Africans as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The radio stations were so strictly watched by the government that when it deemed a song not fit to be played on air, the word "AVOID" was not only stamped on the album cover next to the track listing but to ensure that it would never be played, a sharp object was used to physically scratch that track out on the actual album so it could not be played. Songs like Rodriguez's "I Wonder," which features the lyrics "I wonder how many times you had sex," was censored and not deemed possible to go on air in a society and time when things like sex was not openly discussed. His song "Sugar Man" refers to various drugs. This sort of banning incited even more musicians and young people to listen to Rodriguez and spread the word among friends. His albums became a staple in most houses, next to the family turntable.
As much as the citizens of South Africa loved Rodriguez, they were hard pressed to find out any information about him. Urban myths about gruesome onstage suicides back in the States were prevalent and ranged from him finishing up a bad set and shooting himself in the head, to going out in a blaze of glory after dousing himself with gasoline on stage. Researching him was futile until a record store owner and a music journalist teamed up, sharing their own search info with one another, turning up lots of dead ends and closed doors. When a website created in search of Rodriguez happened to draw the attention of Rodriguez's daughter, the next chapter was revealed, bringing the decades-older Rodriguez the recognition that had eluded him all those years.
"Searching for Sugar Man," directed by Malik Bendejelloul, a Stockholm-based director, producer and editor who has worked on many music-based documentaries, is the riveting story of the humble beginnings of Rodriguez's career and amazing journey that two fans took to find him. The film came out in 2012 and took the Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards. Rodriguez didn’t attend the awards. Displaying his true nature, he opted not to go as he felt that appearing on stage might take the spotlight away from the film makers. In a tragic twist of events, Bendejelloul took his own life a year later, stepping in front of a high speed subway in Stockholm, Sweden after battling depression.
Since “Searching for Sugar Man” came out, Rodriguez has been touring and delighting fans who have been introduced to his talents thanks to the documentary. His fan base hits all demographics and this was clearly reflected by the audience in attendance at the stately venue. With Jesse Ingalls on bass, London-based Ed Coonagh on lead guitar and Toronto native Blake Manning on drums, Rodriguez was the oldest of the musicians on stage but age did not hinder his playing ability. Thrilling the crowd with favorites like “Inner City Blues,” “Crucify Your Mind” and “I Think of You,” the performances often turned into sing-alongs with the audience harmonizing along with Rodriguez.
Never one to shy away from politics, Rodriguez stayed true to his opinions. At one point, when someone yelled out, “Rodriguez for President,” the singer responded with a sly, “Mr. President, tsk, tsk, tsk.” When a request for “Forget It’ came early in his show, Rodriguez said with a smirk, “That’s too soon, man” but obliged by playing it as the last song of the set. Open to requests, at one point, he responded to one with a simple,” Your wish is my command. To hear is to obey.”
When the band broke into “I Wonder,” a fan in the second row started to wave a canvas over her head in victory, in which she had painted those two words. Covers of “Your Song” by Elton John and “Dead End Street” by Lou Rawls as well as “Someone to Love” by Jefferson Airplane and “I Only Have Eyes for You” by Warren Haynes were all well received. When he finished the well-known “Sugar Man” he elaborated,” It’s a prescriptive song, not a descriptive song. Stay off drugs.”
After leaving the stage, the crowd stood applauding until he and the band returned for a solid set of encores including “Light by Fire” by the Doors, “On the Street Where You Live,” by Vic Damone and “I’m Gonna Live Til I Die” by Frank Sinatra. Clad in a red tank top and a satisfied smile on his face, Rodriguez looked as pleased by the evening as the crowd was by the show.
Photo Credit: Christine Connallon