JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Rodriguez: An Unexpected, Enduring Legacy

By:  | published on May 29, 2008

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez: photo courtesy of Sugarman.orgFew American cities have faced a colder dose of reality over the years than Detroit. Motown had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation last year, is home to a crippled American automotive industry, and just endured a tawdry scandal that forced its mayor out of office and into jail for 99 days. Residents can’t even look to sports for refuge, as the Detroit Lions just became the first team in NFL history to go winless in a 16-game season.

One of Detroit’s native sons, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, has been traveling the country in recent months, singing about a nation troubled by inner-city blues and the horrors of war. The singer has recorded two aptly titled albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, both chock-full of urban folk songs that knock you on your heels with their shrewd mix of biting lyrics and breezy melodies. On tracks like “Establishment Blues”, Rodriguez pulls no punches: “The mayor hides the crime rate / Council woman hesitates / Public gets irate but forgets the vote date / Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining / Everyone’s protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting / You’re not like all of the rest.”

But here’s the rub: The power of Rodriguez’s songs is dwarfed only by the almost inconceivable arc of his career. While Rodriguez’s music is grounded in grim reality, his story has a bit of magic in it. The 66-year-old singer, born to Mexican immigrants in July of 1942, recorded his only two albums some 40 years ago, as poverty overtook Detroit and the Vietnam War galvanized the protest generation. The albums flopped, and Rodriguez had long since abandoned his aspirations for musical stardom, focused instead on “living reality” as he puts it—earning a living and raising a family. As far as he knew, his music career was over.

Little did he know that a Rodriguez phenomenon had materialized halfway around the world. Through pre-Napster bootlegging and a variety of international licensing deals, Rodriguez’s albums had reached Cape Town, South Africa in the mid-1970s, where they found an audience in the young men required to serve stints in the Apartheid-era Afrikaner military. The men gravitated towards Rodriguez’s counterculture message, particularly one provocative line from the song “I Wonder”: “I wonder / How many times you had sex / And I wonder / Do you know who’ll be next?”

His popularity in South Africa exploded, and it remains unrivaled there. Word of Rodriguez and his superb music spread in recent years, and Seattle-based indie label Light in the Attic re-released Cold Fact in the US in August of 2008, and did the same for Coming from Reality this May. Rodriguez has performed live in a handful of cities in recent months, his first American shows in four decades.

“This is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll stories of the last 30 years,” says Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who is in the midst of making a documentary about Rodriguez’s improbable journey. “This guy didn’t know at all that he was one of the most famous artists ever in South Africa. He was literally more famous than the Rolling Stones there, and he had no idea.”

Bendjelloul’s company, Hysteria Film, has dubbed the project “The Only One Who Didn’t Know,” and expects to release it in the US by early 2010. He stumbled on the project while hunting for stories in South Africa, where he met Craig Bartholomew, the man largely responsible for cracking what had become an almost iconic mystery there.

While Rodriguez’s music career died a short death, South Africans believed he had done the same. So little was known about the Detroit singer that he was assumed dead, with the rumor mill in Cape Town rampant with the various ways by which he’d met his maker. One version had him killing himself on stage, either by shooting himself or setting himself ablaze. Another had him committing suicide in prison while serving time for murdering his girlfriend, while still another had him succumbing to a heroin overdose.

“This story has everything—mystery, revelation, resurrection—it’s unbelievable,” Bendjelloul says.

The story begins along Cass Avenue alongside the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit, which Rodriguez considered his turf. According to Motown legend Dennis Coffey, who co-produced Cold Fact with fellow Detroit stalwart Mike Theodore, meeting up with Rodriguez back then was an event unto itself. “He’d say, ‘Meet me at the corner,’” Coffey says. “In the summertime, he might have one of those canvas bags of wine on his shoulder.”

The mix of academic libraries and cheap saloons around Wayne State—where the White Stripes would play their first show decades later—was the perfect launching pad for an artist like Rodriguez. His music is literate and biting, soaring and grimy. “He was the angry street poet before the rapper,” Theodore says. “But he did it with a velvet touch instead of with a switchblade knife. His words hit you in the face, but his music just soothed you.”

Theodore and Coffey first encountered Rodriguez through Harry Balk, the head of a label called Impact Records, which released Rodriguez’s debut single. The duo arranged the first recording session. The single flopped, with Balk eventually shutting down Impact and moving on to head Motown’s Rare Earth subsidiary.

Soon after, Theodore and Coffey had set up their own Theo-Coff Productions team and were working with Motown’s finest, with Coffey notably lending his wah-wah guitar grooves to the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” The pair had aligned with Clarence Avant’s fledgling Sussex Records, serving as both producers and talent scouts, and their interest in Rodriguez was reignited when they saw him perform at the Sewer by the Sea, a gritty bar along the Detroit River that had an old trapdoor for rum-running during prohibition. Rodriguez sat facing the wall, his back to the audience as he performed a mix of covers and originals, playing an acoustic guitar and slapping it for a backbeat.

“You just had to say to yourself, ‘What is going on here?’” Theodore says of Rodriguez’s odd choice to sing to the wall. “But his songs immediately captured you. The music was just strange enough to fit into everything.”

Avant decided to launch Sussex with the release of Cold Fact in March 1970, and producers Coffey and Theodore were sure they’d helmed a hit record. But then the unexpected happened: Virtually nothing. Sussex didn’t have the juice to push a non-R&B/soul record into the radio marketplace, and Rodriguez didn’t have the zeal for touring that might have been required for an unknown artist. “In those days, he could be a little eccentric,” Coffey says.

Cold Fact tanked, and the following year, Coming from Reality did the same. Theodore is at a loss for why the albums didn’t reach a wider audience. “Sometimes there’s no set formula,” Theodore says. “You can put all the money in the world behind a record and it’s still not going to go. But it should have been a hit in its time.”

Rodriguez is unperturbed, however. “There is always a great possibility that we ain’t gonna make it, and I knew that,” he says matter-of-factly. “There are no guarantees here. You do this because you want to do this. I hoped to have done better, but that wasn’t the case with me.”

With his music career in shambles in 1971, Rodriguez decided to get “back to living.” He enrolled at Wayne State University—eventually getting his BA in philosophy in 1981—and took manual labor jobs, mostly demolition and home renovation. He also worked at a gas station for a time, and got politically active, running for office eight times over the years, including a few mayoral races.

He focused on earning a living for his family. He had three daughters, one of whom would later become a major force in his revival as a musician. Regan Rodriguez didn’t hear her father’s music until she was eight years old, nearly two decades after he recorded it. She was immediately drawn to his love songs, like “Silver Words.” Now a project coordinator at Wayne State’s library, Regan has taken on the role of manager for her dad, booking live shows and helping him take advantage of his globe-spanning resurgence.

“For years, I didn’t even have a phone line,” Rodriguez says. “She’s done so much for me. I owe her quite a lot.”

As a young girl, Regan was struck by how different her father was from other dads. “He wore all black and sunglasses, while everyone else’s fathers were wearing khaki pants and button-down shirts. It was always pretty unusual.”

The singer also didn’t hesitate to inject reality into the marvels of youth. When Regan developed a fascination with Care Bears as a little girl, her father quickly burst that bubble, telling her that people were doing the voices of her beloved bears. The pair took the bus a lot together, and Rodriguez schooled his daughter on things like the cost of living and the need to be street smart, especially in Detroit.

While Rodriguez was busy being an eccentric but devoted dad, his music was finding an audience in Australia and New Zealand, so much so that Rodriguez was brought Down Under for a series of well-received dates in 1979, and a full-blown tour two years later with Aussie political rockers Midnight Oil. The tours gave Rodriguez a nice boost and a reason to keep up his playing chops, but little hint at what was to come more than 15 years later.

Fueled by the frank talk of sex in “I Wonder” and the music’s anti-establishment bent, young soldiers in repressive Apartheid-era South Africa had fallen in love with Rodriguez. “This guy was selling records galore overseas and no one really had any idea,” Theodore says. Bartholomew, a Johannesburg-based freelance journalist, couldn’t shake the assumed demise of the man and set out to find out the truth. In 1997, he found a phone number for Theodore, who had never let the Rodriguez candle burn out, always looking for artists to cover his material or a label willing to put out a new Rodriguez album. Theodore told Bartholomew that Rodriguez was alive and well.

Within a year, Rodriguez was playing six shows at 5,000-capacity arenas and packing the house at every one. The tour yielded a concert album, Live Fact. He would return in 2001 and 2004 for equally successful treks. Also, Photo by Zohar LindenbaumBritish DJ and producer David Holmes, best-known for his work on the soundtracks for the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy, discovered Cold Fact in a New York record store. He included “Sugar Man”, Rodriguez’s resplendent take on dope dealers, on his 2002 mix album, Come Get It I Got It, and with the vocal help of Rodriguez himself, the tune was re-recorded with an orchestra for Holmes’ Free Association project in 2003 (David Holmes Presents the Free Association).

Matt Sullivan, head of Light in the Attic Records, heard Holmes’ mix and was struck by “Sugar Man.” He set about securing the rights to reissue Cold Fact, and did so in 2008, landing it on a host of best-of-2008 lists. Light in the Attic has since re-issued Coming from Reality. “It’s almost like he’s got the next album in the can,” Theodore quips.

Sullivan is in the midst of lining up more live dates for his budding 66-year-old star. “He’s getting up there,” Regan says of her father. “We have a limited time, and we’re all real conscious of that. We’re trying to do as much as possible.”

Rodriguez himself is basking in the moment and not worrying about what’s on the horizon. He says he occasionally works on some new riffs and concepts for songs, but remains focused on performing his two-decades-old albums for a new audience. At each of the live shows he’s done in the US in recent months, he has been backed by young, local musicians he calls “young bloods” who are eager to learn his music quickly. “I need to make sure I don’t get distracted,” he says when asked about possible new material. He recites Tony Bennett’s famous quote when the jazz singer was asked if he ever got sick of singing songs like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” “Tony said, ‘Those songs gave me the keys to the world.’ I feel the same way.”

That being said, Rodriguez is still dialed in on modern-day reality, wryly noting that election law requires him to gather only 580 signatures to get on the ballot for the next mayoral election. Recently, the San Francisco Bay Area was in the midst of a series of protests over the shooting of an unarmed, restrained 22-year-old black man by a police officer for the local train system. “There’s a different kind of policing going on in this country,” he says. “Everybody’s getting some authority and taking it too seriously. I wish some of my lyrics weren’t still as relevant as they are.”

Coffey agrees. He recently listened to Cold Fact with Gil Bridges, the longtime frontman for Motown rock band Rare Earth, and the pair was struck by how relevant the lyrics still are. “It doesn’t say too much for progress,” Coffey says.

But Rodriguez’s era-spanning relevance can’t be laid solely at the feet of lack of progress. “His music is timeless,” Theodore says. “It goes to show that original art is a gift to the future. Here is an original piece from Rodriguez that is getting a whole new day in a whole new generation. It’s about time. He got cheated cosmically the first time around.”

Listen: “Sugar Man” [at youtube.com]

– See more at: http://www.crawdaddyarchive.com/index.php/2008/05/29/rodriguez-an-unexpected-enduring-legacy/2/#sthash.tXoVBBd6.dpuf