The Best Story You’ve Never Heard: Searching For Sugar Man
“Searching For Sugar Man” is the unlikely story of Rodriguez- or Sixto Rodriguez- or Jesus Rodriguez. Although a man by many names, he has few cultural references. In all instances, it’s the story of a late 1960’s musician who released two albums in America with little to no fanfare, quit professional music in 1973, and went back to full-time work on demolition jobs in his hometown of Detroit. Unbeknownst to him, he was enjoying a parallel universe career in South Africa as a musician in the ranks of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimmy Hendrix.
The story of South Africa goes that in some whim of fate, Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact was brought into the country, possibly by an American girl visiting her boyfriend, possibly not. Either way, its revolutionary, folky songs took hold in the Apartheid-shackled country and became the soundtrack of a young generation. It was bootlegged out to the masses and later went on to sell roughly a half a million records in South Africa alone.
There are likely many factors why the album sold so well, among them the context of the songs, which resonated with a country that was on the brink of revolution, the fact that the record was banned by the South African government (only adding to it’s allure), and the lack of access to information on Rodriguez. One of the main reasons why no one in South Africa ever tried to track him down was due to wild rumors of Rodriguez reading three depressive lines from one of his songs, raising a gun to his head and shooting himself on stage; or better yet, burning himself alive in front of an appalled audience—all only adding to the mystique and enigma around him.
On Wednesday July 18th, the New York Times held a special screening of the film “Searching For Sugar Man” by Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul. The film follows two South African music enthusiasts who assumed the daunting task of tracking down Rodriguez to find out what happened to their psych-rock icon. They were looking for a man they knew nothing about, who was on a label that had folded some twenty years before, in a time when the Internet was barely a household word. They found him by latching onto a breadcrumb-of-a-song lyric referencing Dearborn, Michigan.
They found that Rodriguez was, in fact, not dead, but alive and well in Detroit doing construction work. And here he is at the screening, coming out onto the stage, steadied by a young assistant, stooped over from years of hard labor, but looking every bit the rock star in an outfit of all black, motorcycle boots, flared pants and a blazer lined with black velvet. As he sat alongside Bendjelloul during his interview with the New York Times chief popular music critic, Jon Pareles, he looked something like a sage warrior. His demeanor was reserved, polite, thoughtful, but intensely powerful and commanding. His knees were locked together as if he were trying to hide from the crowd, but the conversation he was having suggesting nothing but a wise, confident and meditative person.
Referencing Woody Guthrie, The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon”, and explaining his thoughts on electronic music, Rodriguez noted, “I didn’t think the drum machine would make it, but it did. I like electronic music. I like how they dance to it, it’s so different than rock n’ roll.”
The film provides satisfying juxtapositions by interviewing Rodriguez’s blue-collar construction buddies, intersected with quotables from the slightly obsessive music enthusiasts in South African exclaiming, “Rodriguez is alive!” I myself like to picture mid 1970’s house parties where teenagers, high on weed, contemplate this mysterious man’s story, and meanwhile, he is somewhere in Detroit carrying a refrigerator out of an abandoned building on his back. These are the things that happen in a parallel universe – stories that are so fantastic they seem fabricated.
On the subway on the way home from the screening, I pull the complimentary “Searching For Sugar Man” soundtrack CD out of my bag. A man with an indiscernible accent leans over and says, “Can I ask you a question? Did you see this movie, ‘Searching For Sugar Man’?” He went on to describe it as one of the most touching and inspiring films he had ever seen. I had to agree.
As I sit in a bar in Greenpoint writing these notes, Joy Division is playing in the background and I watch as several people in the bar, from the patrons to the bartender, sing along. And I think to myself, it’s likely that Rodriguez will never be played in the trendy cafes of Brooklyn while young people sing along, but then again, maybe it will. Because as Jon Pareles said in his interview with Rodriguez, “That’s the most interesting part about music, you never know what is going to be popular.”
Searching For Sugar Man opens in NY and LA on Thursday, July 26, 2012.