All words: Alan Pyke
If somebody told you there was a singer-songwriter whose producers thought he put Dylan to shame when he cut two records in the late ‘60s but you’d never heard of him, you wouldn’t believe it. Or you’d chalk it up to hipster douchebaggery and forget the whole thing. But Rodriguez is real. He became bigger than Elvis for white anti-Apartheid South Africans even as his records flopped in the States. Thanks to the contagious new documentary Searching for Sugar Man, you can see the whole story for yourself.
The doc has helped bring much-deserved attention to a man who’s been gutting houses for a living for four decades now, and you can see Rodriguez play on August 30 at Sixth & I Synagogue in D.C. if you’re so inclined. Which you will be if you go see this movie. Which is a thing you should do with 80 minutes of your life, if you have even a passing interest in music’s ability to seep through unlikely cracks in the world’s systems of control.
That uncanny and resilient capacity of musical expression is really the core of Sugar Man. So much time has passed since Rodriguez’s failure to catch on in the States that when Steve Rowland goes to play a tune from the record he produced, he’s reaching for a computer rather than a stereo. You see the screen reflected in Rowland’s sunglasses, and watch him try not to tear up at what he calls the saddest song he’s ever heard. The storied producer calls Rodriguez’s second album, “Coming From Reality,” the most memorable he ever worked on. He and the other impressive producers in the film are all mystified to this day that somebody they thought was sure to be a star never went anywhere. (Former Motown head Clarence Avant puts Rodriguez in the top five artists he ever worked with, and angrily quips that the first record probably sold six copies in the U.S. Most of Avant’s anger seems to come from the sense that he’s being accused to pocketing the theoretical South African royalties, which are left an open and underexplored question in the film.)
The movie starts by hinting at the impact of Rodriguez’s music and mystery on South African consciousness, before shifting almost immediately to 1968 Detroit. A couple producers go down to a riverside club called The Sewer to hear some guy with an electrifying voice and a lyrical gift. There’s mist and foghorns blowing off the river, and smoke filling the bar, and a strange man playing with his back to the audience, and somebody makes a Sherlock Holmes comparison. But almost as quickly as Rodriguez is discovered by these highly accomplished producers and shipped out to California to record a second record, he’s dropped by his label. Another musical career fails, another musician gets an honest job, the world spins on.
Except that first record somehow finds its way to South Africa, and hits the white middle-class politically-conscious youngsters of that country at the exact right moment. It’s the first exposure to the term “anti-establishment” those folks get. For millions of them, it’s the first major failure of the Apartheid regime’s tight control on information from the outside. And though it sells a half-million copies, by one interviewees estimate, not a penny gets back to Rodriguez, none of his new fans realize he isn’t a global star, and rumors of a dramatic on-stage suicide stop any of them from looking for him for thirty years.
The story of how a few intrepid music fiends go looking for him is infectious. The same technology that colors the Steve Rowland interview allows the fans to find the object of their adoration. And their dogged work and good luck revive a career that never should have been lost. It’s a miraculous story, beautifully told, and it’s helped put Rodriguez in the American concert halls where everyone he worked with thought he ought to be.