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Rags to Rags: The Lost Tale of Detroit’s Sugar Man aka Sixto Rodriguez


Writing isn't necessarily an option for me. In this case, it is a matter of bounden duty. To find something remarkable and make no remark is to completely defy human constitution. This is my remark. It must be as complete and thorough as can be managed so that you might understand its importance. It concerns a particular era in time and a man of that time, both of which I am very passionate for many reasons. But most importantly, it concerns us all as human beings living, breathing, and sharing this planet as well as the responsibility we hold for one another.
               It was the early 1960’s and America was in an uproar; steeped in communist terror and the threat of nuclear war abroad, while facing racial tensions and the fight of equality-for-all at home (1). The common folk found their voice in 1962 with a freewheeling young man and his meek guitar. Bob Dylan’s vociferant voice and observant eye took The Song further than could possibly have been imagined. It sparked a movement that swept the nation into a realization that they were free to let their voices be heard and change things for the better or lie on the tracks and die trying (2).
               Yet somewhere, with all the focus on war, politics, and equality the people seemed to lose sight of themselves, and a deeper problem was brewing. Their own standard of living; the measures of their so-called virtuous way of life was being lost to the excesses that their great rise above reprieve had worked to relieve them from. The great urban centers of America were sinking more and more into drug ridden, promiscuous slums and the great Folk voices from which the people had relied on were already on a slow decline. It was becoming a Dorian Gray (3) scenario—this grotesque thing was growing with a false sense of beauty and grandeur; a malformity that no politician or march can change, only self-recognition and action on an individual basis (4).
In 2006 I was working a record shop in Beaverton, Oregon. I was sorting rubbish vinyl from the gems; all the Barbra Streisands and Jimmy Buffetts from the Beatles and so on. My co-worker walked through the front door and approached me with his CD player and eager anticipation written on his face. He knew and appreciated my hunger for precious artifacts and he was full of them. His headphones were buzzing with fresh new sounds as he handed them to me. I pulled them over my ears and what I heard sonically sculpted my renascence. Now, if I may digress; working in a record shop was an intimidating concept because I was presented with so much music it was positively dizzying. I was expected to know my stuff. If I confused Howlin’ Wolf with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, I was absolutely done for. But this was different from all of that—here was something truly imperative and utterly essential for any so-called "music aficionado". “What is this…Who is this?” I stuttered. “Where did it come from!?” I stammered and stumbled. My words were gushing out as he shushed me sharply and whispered, “Just listen”:

Garbage ain't collected, women ain't protected.
Politicians using, people they've been abusing.
The mafia's getting bigger, like pollution in the river,
And you tell me that this is where it's at.

Woke up this morning with an ache in my head,
Splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed,
Opened the window to listen to the news,
But all I heard was the Establishment's 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.

The pope digs population, freedom from taxation.
Teeny Bops are up tight, drinking at a stoplight.
Miniskirt is flirting, I can't stop so I'm hurting.
Spinster sells her hopeless chest.

Adultery plays the kitchen, bigot cops non-fiction.
The little man gets shafted, sons and monies drafted.
Living by a time piece, new war in the far-east.
Can you pass the Rorschach test?

It's a hassle, it’s an educated guess.
Well, frankly I couldn't care less. (5)

Such an incredible amount was said in such a short span of time. My soul was set ablaze. Here was a man that spoke the words that the great musical minds of the time wouldn’t dare. George Harrison saw this very same decline in humanity but chose to distance himself from it all rather than speak his mind (6). I was lost at sea, dying of thirst; I couldn’t go on without answers. I demanded to know who this great Redeemer was. He responded with one very simple name that I wouldn’t soon forget.
               This prodigy was Rodriguez (7). He grew into the turbulent scenery of the sixties and witnessed the worst that his community, Detroit, Michigan had endured. His father was among the hard working lower-class, but he didn’t neglect to pass along his very intimate fondness for music. Rodriguez held an ecstatic love for the English language. With that, he acquired a strong, clear, independent mind with an ear for music, and true vision. He felt compelled to speak to the people and bring to light all the ugliness, but he needed a canvas by which to convey his words and ideas. He took up everything his father had imparted unto him and found the dim spotlight in 1970 with words that suited his manner of pity and contempt for the status quo in his city (8).
               What he produced was a twelve-track commentary on the state of the country; Cold Fact hit the shelves under the Sussex label. Everyone and everything of everyday life was sonically sculpted into the vinyl, exactly as he saw it. None were spared from his no-nonsense lyrical gunfire in pieces such as “This Is Not a Song, It's An Outburst (The Establishment Blues)” where shots echoed in every direction. The scathing “Rich Folks Hoax” displayed Rodriguez’s verbal breath of fire:

               The priest is preaching from a shallow grave,
               He counts his money, then he paints you saved.
               Talking to the young folks.
               Young folks share the same jokes,
               But they meet in older places.

               The sun is shining, as it's always done.
               Coffin dust is the fate of everyone.
               Talking 'bout the rich folks,
               The poor create the rich hoax,
               And only late breast-fed fools believe it.

               So don't tell me about your success,
               Nor your recipes for my happiness.
               Smoke in bed,
               I never could digest,
               Those illusions you claim to have going. (9)

He sought not to make friends or kiss anybody’s ass, but to open eyes and make a difference in the mentality of his beloved country. The rich, the poor, the middle-class; they all succumbed to the same sins and contributed to their inefficiencies.
               The words behind Cold Fact are like poetic daggers. Perhaps the deepest penetrating of all is the very first track, “Sugar Man”. Behind the narrative of a junky begging for his fix is a swirl of colorful psychedelic texture weaving through the song that makes it very alluring, almost like a lullaby. The use of panoramic stereo, which was very innovative for its time, is put to full use and creates dissonance with the subject. The lyrics create lustrous images, sculpting a mold for them to rest in but once viewed in hindsight, it warrants discomfort and the subject will want to pass it off as pure unsettling fiction. The song has a beautifully mellow composition; Rodriguez’s acoustic guitar crawls across the moog synthesizer, whipping around the head and whistling straight through the eardrums; the subject is rocked into a euphoric complacency. Reminiscent of the all-consuming addiction, it’s the cold fact of drug-use.


               Rodriguez borrowed none whatsoever from his Hispanic roots. Instead he waded into the psychedelic all-embracing folk-rock stylings of the sixties which were precisely what suited his delivery. With so much inspiration from musicians of that period stemming from psychedelic drugs, it would seem hypocritical if Rodriguez achieved this nearly perfect album under the influence of mind altering psychedelics. He maintained, however, that he had “never done hard drugs. [He] always preferred wine [him]self” (8). He didn’t owe any guitar melody or musical revelation to the ashes of a joint or the peak of an LSD trip.
His rapid fire rapping leaves the impression of a well-bred Bob Dylan crossed with the wild and spontaneous wordplay of a Nighthawks at the Diner (10) era Tom Waits. It all leaves a deep impression of the beat (11) spirit, not what so ever an impoverished Hispanic immigrant from the slums of Detroit. The real surprise though is the scope of his album considering it was his first real offering. The appreciation Rodriguez has for the art of a skillfully written, hard hitting folk song is obvious and yet, here are firm nods to both Jazz and Hard Rock, acoustic and electric guitar, horn sections, string arrangements and keyboards. Had this man been given more canvas, there is absolutely no telling what he could have done with it.
               Yet, as is the story with any musician in the budding of their career, Rodriguez walked away from Cold Fact with only lukewarm reception and moderate sales. He pushed on and recorded his second album, Coming From Reality in 1971 with an even broader scope but it failed to make a splash. The Sussex label folded in 1975 and Blue Goose Music in Australia bought the rights to his unsold albums. Slowly but surely, his songs began to gain radio airplay in Australia as well as various neighboring countries like New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and to a massive degree, South Africa where Cold Fact went platinum numerous times over. In light of this unexpected success, Rodriguez toured Australia but succumbed, again, to the hard times. His family needed him and he was in no place to leave them on their own. His music, however, continued to spread with furious pungency.
He unashamedly embraced a life of modesty in Detroit. When the time seemed right, he ran for a small public office position—only fitting for a man that wanted to make a legitimate difference in whatever small way he could. He gave it his best shot, but alas, politics are another game best left to the angry big-dogs (8).


Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to him, his albums were gaining cult status in South Africa. The whole of Cold Fact had become the symbol of anti-apartheid revolution and as unspoken a part of anyone’s musical collection as Abbey Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water through illegal trading. He assumed a mortal shade of Christ—he was the people's promise of absolution. His words spoke to the masses with a matter-of-factness that was unheard of, and so upsetting to the status quo that they were outlawed, which made his music all-the-more enticing (12). “His working-class vitriol emerge[d] on ‘Rich Folks Hoax’ and ‘The Establishment Blues’ where he state[d] matter-of-factly that ‘The Mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates’ and ‘little man gets shafted, sons and moneys drafted’” (13).
His two albums were released on CD for the first time in 1991 in South Africa and needless to say, they dominated the market. It wasn’t until 1998 that his daughter accidentally stumbled upon a website dedicated to her father that he had learned about any of his fame (his music now having gone five-times platinum in Australia). He had yet to see any profits or royalties from any of his music (14).
               The website his daughter stumbled upon was run by two South Africans that were hard and determined to separate fact from fiction. Rumor was floating around the Southern hemisphere that he’d committed suicide after the final show of his last tour in the seventies by lighting himself on fire before his fans, among other stranger tales. But “after several months chasing false leads, [Craig Bartholomew and Stephen Segerman] received a startled email from his daughter: ‘Do you really want to know about my father?’” (12). What followed from that point on was a whirlwind of shock and awe for Rodriguez. To find that his music had not only survived, but had been the inspiration behind radical positive social change for nearly four decades was more than he could have ever hoped for. He played his first-ever South African tour in 1998 for sold out stadiums and a documentary Dead Men Don't Tour: Rodriguez in South Africa was later assembled to document the epic scope of the event.
               Is the music still alive in Rodriguez, forty years later? While his untapped fame was wondrous, life as a musician is a ship he let sail long ago, but his love for it hadn’t dissipated one bit. His ultimate goal at this stage in his life was to live quietly and happily amongst his children and downtrodden Detroit brethren. “’My story [wasn't] a rags to riches story,’ Rodriguez [said], ‘it [was] rags to rags and I’m glad about that. Where other people [have lived] in an artificial world, I feel [I've lived] in the real world. And nothing beats reality’” (8). He hadn’t discounted the possibility of playing shows here and there, which is very fortunate for the world because Malik Bendjelloul hadn't given up hope that the world might recognize his significance. He had compiled forty-year’s worth of video and history for the world in his documentary Searching for Sugar Man released worldwide throughout 2012. It received rave reviews across the board and Rodriguez felt the tremors when he attended the Sundance film festival. He took to the stage after the screening and the crowd was in a fury.  "’You're one of the most beautiful songwriters I've ever heard, on par with Dylan,’ said a man [in the crowd], imploring him to play, as others around [him] shouted out, ‘No, better!’”. He couldn't ignore the demand any longer; it was time to play some music (15).


               He scheduled a very comprehensive tour for a then-seventy year old man. With the tour came plenty of media coverage including 20/20, an American primetime expose program (16). Shows were selling out quickly—it seemed that all of a sudden, everyone wanted a taste of “The Sugar Man”, but could he handle all of this at once? I was soon to find out.
               An experience I never fathomed possible was on the brink. Rodriguez scheduled a stop in Portland, Oregon. This man who I placed so far above the "legends" was playing a modest venue in my native Pacific northwest. It didn't end there. Before the October show, he surprised us all with an incredibly humble gesture—a private acoustic set at Music Millennium. It was there that the sheer scope of his newfound fame was revealed. It started as a modest line of five—grew to twenty—soon the line wrapped around two corners of the building. Every single person was there for one man—every single person utterly shocked by the turnout, as if their precious secret was a secret no-more. Nobody was surprised more than I. Six years ago this would doubtlessly have been an extremely slight turnout...or so I figured. Perhaps the world was more in tune than I gave it credit for. Most intriguing was the vast assortment of people; upper-class, middle-class, lower-class, punks, hippies, metal-heads, hipsters, jocks, grandmothers and grandfathers—it was baffling. There was an understanding shared by everyone there. This was special.
As the hour struck three the crowd filed in; a very tight fit. After what seemed like another half-hour of restlessness and suffocation, the lights dimmed and there he was; like a reincarnation of The Man in Black (17), he slowly shuffled through the valley of cd, shaking hands and graciously thanking his fans. His long and sable-black hair masked what wasn't already hidden by his impenetrable sunglasses. He was a walking silhouette; the crooked shadow of a man; a leader of the people.
               He grabbed the small hand of a child and led him up a flight of stairs to the studio, his father followed suit with a smile. They were given the VIP treatment that all giddy youngsters longed for. If I were any less rational, I would have been jealous but this event in itself was a gift that not many artists would trouble themselves with. He grabbed his guitar and tuned it quietly. His hand was worn, cracked and crinkled, looking as if it had lifted a thousand cinder blocks while it strummed chords that were familiar to everyone—these quiet reverberations brought the building to its knees with anticipation. He grinned nervously and began his set. It was here that any doubts lingering in my mind about his abilities were turned to dust. The music is still very much within him and it is every bit as poignant today as it was forty years ago, if not more so. We need his words and his music, now more than ever.
Society walks a ceaseless line bordering on self-destruction; therefore it is in a constant need of recalibration and reconsideration. Artistic expression is our most invaluable tool in self-reflection and some of the world’s greatest minds hold an affinity to the arts, so it is there that mankind would naturally look to for direction. Rodriguez harkens from a cold but factual place that nobody can turn away from. He comes from reality and he hopes to help everybody live there more soundly and rationally.



















Annotated Bibliography

1. A detailed account of the trials and tribulations of the sixties decade.
"The Turbulent Sixties." The Turbulent Sixties. Pearson, 1995-2010. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .

2. A detailed history of the importance of the Folk Revival.
Ruehl, Kim. "All About the Folk Revival." History of the Folk Revival. About.com, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray was a novel written by Oscar Wilde. It details a young man, Dorian Gray, that is admired for his beauty. He sells his soul by which terms, he will remain forever young while a portrait of himself ages with the passing of years. He pursues a life of debauchery and with each sin, the portrait grows more grotesque.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.

4. A detailed account of the sixties drug culture.
Karatoprak, Emre. "All about the Sixties: Psychedelic Pop Culture of the 60's / Sex, Drugs and Rock'n Roll." All about the Sixties: Psychedelic Pop Culture of the 60's / Sex, Drugs and Rock'n Roll. Blogspot, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .

5. “This Is Not A Song, It's An Outburst (The Establishment Blues)”
Rodriguez, Sixto, perf. "This Is Not A Song, It's An Outburst (The Establishment Blues)."Cold Fact. Rodriguez. Sussex, 1970. Vinyl recording.

6. George Harrison was disenchanted by his fans and followers in San Francisco and from there on distanced himself from drug culture and began a period of self-improvement.
The Beatles Anthology. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. Print.

7. Rodriguez was named Sixto being the sixth child in the family.
"Sixto Rodriguez - Searching For Sugar Man." Voices of East Anglia. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .

8. An interview with Sixto Rodriguez detailing his life and music.
Delingpole, James. "Sixto Rodriguez interview: The Rock 'n' Roll Lord Lucan." The Telegraph 11Aug. 2009. 23 Nov. 2012 .

9. “Rich Folks Hoax”
Rodriguez, Sixto, perf. "Rich Folks Hoax." Cold Fact. Rodriguez. Sussex, 1970. Vinyl recording.

10. Nighthawks at the Diner is one of Tom Waits’ first albums, comprised of mellow jazz and spoken-word vocals concerning inner-city life, booze and heartache.
Waits, Tom. Nighthawks at the Diner. Elektra/Asylum, 1975. Vinyl recording.

11. The Beat generation was primarily concerned with fighting social conformity and embracing the impoverished with poetry. They are said to be the pioneers of hallucinogens as a writing tool.
"A Brief Guide to the Beat Poets." Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 1997. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. .

12. An article focused on Rodriguez’s legend and supposed “return from the dead”.
Petridis, Alexis. "The singer who came back from the dead." The Guardian. 06 Oct. 2005. Guardian News and Media. 25 Nov. 2012 .

13. Rodriguez’ homepage and central hub for interviews and reviews.
Bond, Andrew. "SugarMan.org." SugarMan.org - All the Facts. Sixto Rodriguez, Apr. 1998. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .

14. An in-depth overview of Rodriguez’s success in South Africa and other countries.
Rubin, Mike. "Singer-Songwriter Rodriguez on New Documentary About His Secret Success." Rollingstone.com. Rolling Stone Magazine, 26 July 2012. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .

15. A recount of the Sundance Film Festival and the massive success behind the Searching for Sugar Man screening.
Yuan, Jada. "Sundance: The Electrifying Search for Sugar Man." Vulture.com. 21 Jan. 2012. 25 May 2012 .

16. ABC News’ interview and recount of Rodriguez and his story.
Morales, Ed. "The Story of Rodriguez, the Greatest Mexican American Rock Legend You Never Heard of." ABC News. ABC News Network, 26 July 2012. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .

17. The Man in Black was one of the late Johnny Cash’s pseudonyms.
Graham, Billy. "Johnny Cash Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. .

Article made by Hunter Gatherer/2012
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2012

4 comments:

Ian Juul said...

I was a young kid in Zimbabwe in the late 1970's and early 1980's and lived in a Boarding School (a safe school away from home due to a civil war within Rhodesia, then Zimbabwe) where we listened to Rodriguez pretty much every day on our old turn-table with a stack of 'hand-me-down' vinyls.

Rodriguez and COLD FACT was an awesome LP and ALL teenage kids knew those song words backwards. Many an afternoon were spent listening to COLD FACT.

The era of that time is significant, as we were just young experiencing heavy social unrest and a civil war, away from home, often scared and bullied at school.

In that era we formed life-long friends and a 'brotherhood' which still stands between us to this day.

I then moved to South Africa in 1982 where COLD FACT was also a 'cult' LP at high school and again in that country similar social unrest and another war was in progress.

Now seeing Rodriguez get some belated recognition is absolutely heart-warming and spiritually awesome for humanity. It also brings additional tears and resurfaces deeply buried emotions from that era for many Zimbabwians and South Africans.

Hunter Gatherer said...

Thank you Ian Juul for reading, I am so glad that he's been recognized by so many such as yourself. Your comment was heartwarming and I truly appreciate you taking the time. It's with people like you that I know Rodriguez will never be forgotten!

Rock on brother!
Nicholas.

zahra said...

Nicholas---you are to be commended on your beautiful and exquisite writing about "Sugarman". You are one of the best writers I have ever read. Thank you so much for your sublime piece of work---you summed up Rodriguez' story with excellence. I will share your story with as many people that I can. Again, thank you; I enjoyed it so much!!!
California, USA

Anonymous said...

Great article. I first heard Rodriguez in 1979 when a friend lent me a vinyl of Cold Fact. I was a fourteen year old kid in Zimbabwe, it was the height of the civil war and his music blew me away. Everybody listened to that album and knew it backwards. Not long after that I started playing guitar and his songs formed the soundtrack of my teen years.
I cried when I hear about "Searching for Sugarman" and the success that Rodriguez is finally enjoying.
What a great heart and what a great songwriter. Too good and too pure to go unrecognised forever.