The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Rodriguez Comes In From the Cold

Barney Hoskyns

The subject of spanking-new documentary Searching for Sugar Man, cult singer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez emerged from Detroit to become an unlikely superstar in South Africa. J. poet told his story in Alarm magazine in July 2008——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Rodriguez is on stage in a bar called The Sewer By The Sea. The club is filled with smoke, thick almost blinding smoke, as dense as the fog that's rolling in off of the Detroit River which flows by outside. As the freighters go by sounding their horns, the building shakes.

The year is 1965 and Rodriguez is bent over his guitar, deeply concentrating on every lick. He's pounding out a driving, funky rhythm, a hybrid of folk and funk, to a crowd that includes serious fans of his music and serious drinkers. The guitar is acoustic, but it's got a pickup that sends the sound to an Ampeg bass amp that gives the instrument a bottom that can compete with a noisy crowd and the horns of the passing ships.

As you move closer to the stage you see that Rodriguez is playing with his back to the audience a la Miles Davis, singing into a microphone that's set up between his face and the back wall of the stage. As you listen to his somehow familiar voice, you're transported into his world, an inner-city landscape peopled with smiling hustlers, indifferent priests, wild women, hippies, whores, runaways, drug dealers and drunks. His clear tenor voice has an edge that cuts through the night, a melodic, half sung, half spoken instrument that delivers his lyrics with a visceral punch.

In 1969, after years of live gigs honed his sound, Rodriguez finally cut an album — Cold Fact — for the Sussex label, a new logo run by producer/ impresario Clarence Avant, who later started Tabu Records and went on to become Chairman of Motown. Cold Fact and its follow up, Coming From Reality, were the first two albums released on Sussex. Rodriguez was going to be their flagship act, but the label soon went belly-up and the albums vanished, at least in the United States.

Cold Fact got some favorable press on its release and more than its share of rave reviews. Those who have heard Cold Fact will never forget it. Rodriguez has a unique tenor with a tough yet vulnerable quality that immediately captures your attention. He combines Donovan's sincerity, Dylan's grit, and his own dark, deadpan humor. His acoustic rhythm guitar is powerful, but subtle, while the backing band, assembled for the album by producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore included the Motown rhythm section of Andrew Smith, drums and Bob Babbitt, bass . Coffey plays electric lead guitar (he'd already contributed his psychedelic licks to the Temptations 'Cloud Nine' and 'Ball Of Confusion') and Theodore handles keys with backing vocalists that include Joyce Vincent and Telma Hopkins, later known as Dawn.

Theodore's inventive brass and string arrangements, played by real musicians, not synthesizers, are drenched in psychedelic funk, and while they add plenty of texture, they never detract from the vocals. 'Sugar Man' was the first single and sounds like an AM radio hit. It's the tale of a drug dealer with spooky organ fills and an echo heavy violin solo played backwards and overdubbed to give the track a druggy, whacked-out quality to compliment the understated vocal. 'This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst, or The Establishment Blues' is a clanking protest song delivered mostly by Rodriguez and his guitar. It brings to mind the early work of Dylan and PF Sloan, an avalanche of surrealist images that slowly build to a disillusioned climax. 'Forget It', a song to a departing lover, is a gentle blues wrapped in a romantic string arrangement and marked by a disdainful vocal that drips poison and honey. 'Inner City Blues' takes us to the street for a series of vignettes of lost people wandering through the poor side of town. 'Crucify Your Mind' is a moody portrait of a woman lost in the maze of her own illusions, full of insightful word play and compassion. Rippling marimba accents and subtle, soulful horns moan in the background.

"I never expected to hear a marimba on the album," Rodriguez says chuckling. "I had played these songs for the producers and when I heard what they did to them, it was quite a jump [from my guitar and vocal performances]. But the producer wanted to make sure we had a good product and the result was pretty far out. I didn't do it deliberately, I just wrote what I wrote. I knew I wasn't going to get airplay in the Bible Belt, but then the record company went bankrupt. It was a changing world back then, like it is today." Rodriguez, had struggled long and hard to get his music heard and had a family to support. When Sussex folded he went back to school, got a degree in philosophy and took various day jobs including years as a social worker.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, Cold Fact was released by Gallo Records and slowly became a phenomenon, as well known there as any Beatles album. It moved about 60,000 units on release but with only one follow up, 1976's Coming From Reality, his African fans assumed Rodriguez was dead. In the late '90s, a journalist who was writing a story about American artists who were popular in South Africa contacted South African record storeowner Stephen Segerman. He wanted to know if he knew anything about Rodriguez. After a long Internet search and hundreds of phone calls, they finally contacted Rodriguez and arranged for a South African tour. In 1998 Rodriguez got a hero's welcome on a debut tour that was a triumph. He was the subject of a TV documentary called Dead Men Don't Tour and then went on to sold out shows in Namibia, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand, although he still remains mostly unknown here in the States. That will hopefully change in August when Seattle's Light in the Attic records puts Cold Fact out in a newly-remastered CD edition.

"I played to a lot of empty rooms in the early days," Rodriguez says, sitting in his small Detroit home. He's in semi-darkness, surrounded by flickering candles; a storm just blew through Detroit and the power is out. "There's no light 'cause of the storm. A big thunderstorm's uprooting things this afternoon; power's out for 60,000 people, just like the good old days. (Rodriguez recorded part of Cold Fact during the 12th Street Riot in 1967.) I didn't think the lights would be out this long, but we'll see what prevails. It kinda reminds me of the old century."

Rodriguez doesn't want to talk about the stage fright that once made him play with his back to the audience, and when he speaks his narrative flow moves fluidly between past, present and future, and from subject to subject. "I only had a small audience at first, but enough to keep me going," he continues. "I got paid every night, sometimes I'd bring in a drummer or a sax player, but you make more money solo than being in a band and it's easier to control the situation. I was playing bars, clubs, and a lot of them don't exist any more. Now we have a lot of liquor stores in those places, but I can't hide on stage no more. I have horns and stuff and a lot of young musicians playing with me. I have about seven bands right now, all around the world. When I come to town, they build a band around me and it's a great feeling.

"I opened for Bo Diddley in Byron Bay in Australia last year. It's the first place that gets the sun in the Pacific and the birds there sing a whole tune, not just a little chirped part of a melody and it's a wonderful thing. I've been touring Namibia and Sweden, and did South Africa about four times. I never dreamed I was going to tour, and it's given me a lot of consciousness. I went around the world in three weeks one time and I can see mother earth has plenty for everyone. This stuff about running out of food is just propaganda being created by the press.

"I never made any money from my albums," he continues. "There seems to be some confusion about where it all went and it gets more convoluted when it goes international. I'd heard rumors that I was big in South Africa but till you get down there you can't imagine it. When I went down for my concerts in Cape Town in '98, the audience was sitting down but when I walked on stage, they all jumped up and ran to the stage. I expected to see some kind of third world disgruntled type scene, but it was all young fresh faces and they were cheering. I love the accent and attitude down there."

Rodriguez is still recovering from the shock of his rediscovery and its aftermath. Director Tonia Shelly filmed his first South African tour in 1998 for a documentary called Dead Men Don't Tour. An album, Live Fact, on Columbia's South African division followed. The record is doing well and he's getting paid. He's finally been able to quit his day job and live as a working musician. "It ain't a lot, but it's enough," he says philosophically. "I wrote 29 tunes back then and thanks to the South Africans, I'm finally making a living. Music wasn't a choice, it was something I had to do, but it's been a great ride."

With all the renewed interest, is he working on any new tunes. Rodriguez thinks for a moment. "You come across riffs and I got some new tunes, but right now this reissue thing is in front of me. Light In The Attic is putting out Cold Fact on CD. I don't want be like Prince. He confused people by putting out too much music at the same time, so I'm gonna do some touring behind this reissue. You know that story about Tony Bennett? They asked him if gets tired of singing 'I Left My Heart In San Francisco' and he said 'That song gave me the keys to the world.' So these tunes are from the last century, but they connect with the young bloods, the young people, and that's my base. Writing the songs is easy. Getting the product out in the US has been hard to do."

© j. poet, 2008

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