“So you wanna know the secret of life?” the singer-songwriter Rodriguez asked a captivated audience at Joe’s Pub in New York in April. “All you gotta do is just keep breathing in and out. That’s the important secret; don’t forget that.”
Besides the bonus stand-up routine, more than half of the Detroit musician’s set that night was covers – including Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” Little Willie John’s “Fever” and Midnight Oil’s “Redneck Wonderland” – but it was Rodriguez’s own material, virtually unknown on these shores for over 40 years, that drew the packed crowd. Dutifully, he rewarded their perseverance with riveting performances of seven songs (including “Sugar Man,” a wildly imagistic love letter of sorts by a junkie to his dealer) from his 1970 debut album Cold Fact, considered by some to be one of rock’s lost classics.
After four decades of almost complete obscurity, however, Rodriguez is now the subject of the new documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which generated a rapturous response earlier this year at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. Besides bringing attention to some outstanding and unjustly overlooked music, Searching for Sugar Man is ultimately a remarkable tale of artistic resilience and rebirth.
Born 70 years ago in Detroit, Sixto Rodriguez was the child of Mexican immigrants who came to the Motor City to work in its auto factories. He released two compelling albums of psychedelic protest songs and orchestral folk-pop, 1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming From Reality, on the Sussex label (an imprint of Buddah Records most famous as the original home of Bill Withers). Rodriguez was not without his ardent supporters – Sussex founder Clarence Avant, who would later become chairman of Motown, claimed that “Bob Dylan was mild compared to this guy” – but both albums sold poorly and sank without a trace. The musician was ultimately dropped by the record company. Abandoning music almost entirely, he raised a family in Detroit while working as a day laborer renovating houses and later dabbled in political activism, running unsuccessfully for various city offices in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, however, bootleg recordings of his music had circulated extensively in Australia and especially South Africa, where his songs – particularly the sexually frank “I Wonder” – provided inspiration for the Afrikaner anti-apartheid protest movement. According to Stephen Segerman, one of the film’s interviewees, in every white liberal South African’s record collection of that era were copies of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact. Searching for Sugar Man‘s director Malik Bendjelloul asserts that in South Africa, Rodriguez’s popularity rivaled that of the Rolling Stones, and a South African edition of Cold Fact reportedly managed to go multi-platinum. (Bendjelloul estimates that this is probably closer to 500,000 copies.) However, Rodriguez was completely unaware of his international notoriety and never received any royalties.
“I thought it was by far the best story I ever heard in my life; there was nothing I could even compare it to,” Bendjelloul tells Rolling Stone. He first encountered Rodriguez’s unlikely tale of South African fame during a research trip to Africa in 2006 and was “completely blown away.” Originally intending to make a 10-minute segment about Rodriguez for Swedish TV, Bendjelloul instead spent “every single cent and every single second of my life for four years to make this film.”
Searching for Sugar Man chronicles the efforts of Segerman and another of Rodriguez’s most fervent South African fans to find out how their hero had met his bitter end. Rumors had persisted that, frustrated with his complete lack of success, Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage in front of an abusive American audience. Thanks to some leads provided via a then-new invention called the Internet, the neophyte detectives were shocked to discover that Rodriguez wasn’t dead at all but in fact alive and well in Detroit, which led them to set up a triumphant 1998 South African tour where he played to sold-out arenas and finally came face-to-face with an adoring public.
Thanks to the film, Rodriguez’s remarkable South African second act is now getting an American update. In addition to the documentary, which is released nationally by Sony Pictures Classics this week, both of his Sussex albums have been reissued by Light in the Attic and a soundtrack of songs from the film has just come out on Sony. A national tour is imminent and he’s scheduled to appear on The Late Show With David Letterman in August. “It’s an opportunity to reach a wider audience,” Rodriguez tells Rolling Stone. “A lot of people don’t know my material. To them, it’s new. I wrote these pieces, under 30 songs, and they have gotten some longevity that I didn’t think was going to happen at all. I thought I’d sell some records and play bigger rooms, but now it’s global.”
It is also timeless, he notes. “Solomon was a musician,” he says, “and David was a musician, so it’s a profession that I take seriously.”