With the news of the Searching for Sugar Man documentary director’s death still fresh, we pay tribute.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: The music and film worlds were deeply saddened this week to learn Sweden’s Malik Bendjelloul, the Oscar-winning director of the 2012 Searching for Sugar Man documentary about folksinger Rodriguez, had died Tuesday (May 13). His brother Johar later confirmed to CNN that the cause of death was suicide, indicating Bendjelloul “had been struggling with depression for a short period of time.” No other details were disclosed and the family asked for privacy.
Onstage in Chicago a couple of days later, Rodriguez expressed his sorrow, according to Chicago Tribune reviewer Bob Gendron, who wrote that Rodriguez “addressed the reported suicide the way he handled everything else Wednesday at a near-capacity Chicago Theatre — with class and modesty. ‘He will be sorely missed,’ Rodriguez solemnly stated. ‘Sweden has lost a favorite son there. So have the States.’”
The past few years should have been reason to cheer for Bendjelloul, and most likely they were, not the least reason being the acclaim heaped upon the man for his film. Even more gratifying must have been the part the director played in restarting—or at least significantly expanding—Sixto Rodriguez’ musical career. Put briefly, first-time filmmaker Bendjelloul, a Swedish TV director/producer, happened to be in South Africa doing research for Swedish TV in 2006 when he encountered a local journalist, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman. The writer had originally uncovered the story about Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter from the early ‘70s who had issued a couple of poor-selling albums before dropping out of the music business, only to learn many years later that not only were his records highly prized among collectors but that he had somehow become legendary –Dylan-like, almost—in South Africa. Fascinated, Bendjelloul commenced work on his documentary, which took him from Cape Town to Detroit and beyond. Upon its completion the film was submitted to Sundance where it got tapped to open the 2012 festival, and the rest is history. To further stoke the fires, Light In the Attic had reissued both 1970’s Cold Fact and its 1971 follow-up, Coming From Reality, with Sony/Legacy subsequently teaming with LITA to release the Searching For Sugar Man soundtrack LP and CD. (There’s a fascinating NPR “Weekend Edition” broadcast from a couple of years ago that features both Rodriguez and Bendjelloul talking about the film and the artist’s long strange trip to date. Meanwhile, there’s an earlier, somewhat briefer TV documentary titled Dead Men Don’t Tour, directed by Tonia Selley and first broadcast in 2001, that’s a chronicle of Rodriguez’ 1998 triumphant tour of South Africa; as with the Sugar Man film, it touches upon the disappearance and rediscovery of the songwriter, although it’s the riveting live footage that’s the calling card.)
In 2009 I was fortunate enough to interview Rodriguez from his home in Detroit around the time of the Coming From Reality reissue. I’d also been able to spend a little time with him and his daughter following a concert in January of that year in Asheville, NC, and both times he was soft-spoken and self-deprecating, reflective at times as befits someone who grew up in an era of great social, political and cultural turmoil. At the same time, there was an underlying intensity to him that surfaced whenever certain topics — war, politics, the government, how humans treat one another — were broached. Still, he seemed oddly respectful, too: at several points he addressed me as “sir” or “Mr. Mills,” and towards the end, following a humorous exchange, he told he loved the way I laughed. Genuinely appreciative of all the good fortune that had been coming his way of late and was excited to be making the touring rounds again regularly. At the time of our conversation he was preparing for another East Coast tour using several of the same musicians who’d backed in him in Asheville. (Go here to watch several videos from the Asheville show.)
As the man, then 66, himself put it succinctly, chuckling softly, “I’m at the top of the line, man. I mean, things are happening!”
BLURT: So — how are you preparing for this tour? You’ll be touring more extensively, at least in terms of the U.S., than ever before.
RODRIGUEZ: See, we’re all working at it, so I think it’s in the air, you know? Busy at our craft. Yeah, I practiced with a drummer last night and we went through a lot of material. The other day I practiced with this other guy too — so I’m getting ready. I’m having a great time with this. It’s totally — it’s a great time for me, and the thing is, it doesn’t happen every week, so I’m serious at it. I gotta take this chance. It’s like Eminem says, you get just one opportunity, so don’t blow it. [laughs]
Seize the moment – or like the old ‘60s saying, seize the day.
Yes, exactly. Until I see the band again, we each just practice on our own. And then when I hook up [with them] it’s like… waiting for a love! Something like that, very much so. I’m glad to hear the band is getting ready — and really, my stuff is simple. But we’re all very serious at it.
Even though you can get back together with groups musicians when you return to their towns or regions, do you ever wish you had a permanent touring band to play with?
Well, my style is that I’m a musical slut! [laughs] I do it like this because that’s how I am. Cheap drinks and all! But yeah, I have to do it like this — air flights [and expenses], all that. And I enjoy meeting new musicians too. But once I could guarantee a band, then we’re in. But right now this is how I’m doing it. And I’m going to do the European tour – Amsterdam, Dublin, Rome, Paris, London — with a Swedish band. I’ve worked with them and I’m lucky that I have. So if we all just hang in tight and close, I think something can happen. And I hope they all hold with me. I’m out there, you know? I got my amp in the wind. So that’s the way this is going for me. I’m not a band; I’m a single, a solo.
You’ve been through this whole rediscovery thing three times now: first in Australia and New Zealand, then South Africa, and now America. Does this create any anxiety for you — does it turn your world upside down each time it happens?
I’m as nervous as a clock, so I reach for the rum or the brandy. But yeah, you do get nervous; you’re reading me just right. So I have a “cheer.” And then when I see them after the show, the fans and the fanbase and the band, we’ll go out and party. Of course, last time we partied until four in the morning, so I’m cutting down the parties on this tour! Just an hour. Because it gets intense. We’re going to get up [each morning] at 11 a.m. and then out of that city. It’s getting so very busy.
Onstage you don’t betray any nervousness. In fact, you appear pretty relaxed…
That’s just the way I perform. I have my eyes closed, I’m listening to the band, and trying to remember my lyrics and trying to find the microphone. So in a way, I’m almost in a trance when I’m up there. I’m getting better at it — better at ending songs and stuff like that. But I don’t want to be so manicured and sharp that it loses something. You know what I mean? So right now, you’re watching me as I develop. The thing is, you have to prepare, and be prepared. So that’s the other thing, why I’m practicing [at home], so when we hook up we’ll knock it out.
Let me ask you a few things about Coming From Reality. It’s as strong as Cold Fact, but in a totally different way, with a completely different sound for most of the songs. How did it come about that you shipped all the way off to London to do the album?
Well, the guy who ran my label, Clarence Avant, I thought it was him who was the hero of my career. But it actually turns out to be another guy, Neil Bogart, from Buddha Records. [Buddha distributed Rodriguez’ record label, Sussex.]He wrote a letter to Clarence and said that this guy in London wants to record the second album, a guy named Steve Rowland. So it was like, I dunno, inner city meets Hollywood! [laughs] I mean, he’s full production, one of these guys right at home [in the studio].
One thing about Coming From Reality that people might catch, for example: we have a Stradivarius on those tunes, a full violin section, cello and viola. So it’s a major kind of difference and approach [from Cold Fact]. I just worked with the rhythm section on Cold Fact, but I went over to London — and there they are! The strings; Chris Spedding is on guitar; bongos [by Tony Carr of Magna Carta and Donovan’s band]; and the drummer is imitating a lot of different styles.
What are some of your favorite songs on the album?
“A Most Disgusting Song” [is] one of my favorites. That was a quick song [to record]. That one, and also “To Whom It May Concern.” Those are very different things. One’s a kind of poppy ballad, and the other one’s more of just getting down on guitar. Gritty.
“Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyles” is also very different sounding, with the lush string suite for the first section of the song.
Oh yeah. Sandra and Eva are my daughters — I have another daughter named Regan — so that’s what “Sandrevan” is. “Sandra” and “Eva.” One day they were sleeping and I was playing guitar and just jumped into this song because, the thing is, it was so nice to have them with me. So I wanted to call it “Sandrevan Lullaby,” trying to crush words in together trying to think of a title. A real seventies thing I guess — I understand I do belong to the old century, but I like to think of myself as contemporary. I’m today, you know?
“Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyles” was also a general thing of the day. We were in the middle of a war and stuff. I think that peace is harder; war is easy. There’s going to be war, but peace will come. And they say the system’s gonna fall through too, or if not the system, the ideas within the system. They’re always asking, is the world gonna end? No, they are gonna end. The world’s gonna go on. So if I could rewrite that, I’d say those ideas of that are gonna go.
From “Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyles”:
America gains another pound
Only time will bring some people around
Idols and flags are slowly melting
Another shower of rice
To pair it for some will suffice
The mouthful asks for second helpings
Moonshine pours through my window
The night puts its laughter away
Clouds that pierce the illusion
That tomorrow would be as yesterday…
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as a teenager my consciousness was expanding with the times, and it seems like a lot of the topics and lyrical concerns on both your albums were very much attuned to the era and what a lot of us were going through.
That word — “consciousness.” That’s a bigger word than I’ve heard in a long time. That’s a bigger thing. When you reach that, you can’t go back. You see, most songs are boy-girl themes, and I’m happy to do a ballad, but there are other words, too, that will prove more [useful] in awakening our collective consciousness.
When you walked away from the music industry, was it just disillusionment over the albums not selling?
They were totally not commercial successes. I just had to go, hey, there’s gas, there’s the electric, water bills, and taxes and insurance… So that’s what really pulled me away from the music industry. I never left music, though. I never left that.
Have you continued to write songs over the years?
Oh, yes sir. Oh yeah. Like I said, I was jamming with the cats. And when we jam, I do a lot of covers – “Here, try this…” But I do write new stuff. I think at my practices it’s 40 to 60 per cent new material.
How would you like to be remembered? What would you want on your gravestone?
Wow. You are hitting right into my heart. Um… how would I want to be remembered? That’s too tough a question! [laughs] Can I refrain from that one? Because sometimes I don’t have that answer. It’s like when you asked your loved one a question and they don’t have the answer for it. So… I’ll work on it!
Fair enough. I saw a great quote of yours from a few years ago. You said, “Life ain’t chronological. Some older people appear to be younger, and some younger people appear to be older.”
That’s it. There you go.
What did you mean by that?
It’s just that I think some people grow up a lot quicker and reach that consciousness earlier. And other people are, um, a little spoiled — I don’t know if that’s the right word — and I want to get away from people with those prejudices and their hates and their fears.
I’ve been around the world in three weeks, man. I went to Rotterdam and then to Australia, for example. And here’s my synopsis about the world: there’s enough for everyone, and in fact, too much for anyone. And here they are, fighting for this, fighting for that. I want to say, “Stop fighting, guys.”
That is sometimes the role of the artist, to make observations and then let people think about it all.
Yeah, that’s what it is. Usually my observations are like, “Hey man…” But what do I know? I can’t do anything about it. But yes, I can speak to it.
RODRIGUEZ LIVE IN ASHEVILLE JANUARY 10, 2009
In a way, it was the culmination of an amazing year for Rodriguez — a twinned triumph of deferred artistry and rooting for the underdog that left both artist and fans in mild states of shock at how wonderfully things turned out. These are my people, you imagined the performer thinking, as he peered out through his shades at audience packing Asheville, NC, venue the Grey Eagle on January 10. This is our music, we collectively thought, sensing a connection to both the songs and the man who wrote them, as we smiled right back at him and pumped our fists to express that feeling of triumph.
Still, I’ve been attending gigs long enough (nearly 40 years) to know how a disproportionate level of anticipation can undermine a concertgoing experience, although I didn’t necessarily downgrade my expectations either, and I did allow myself the usual luxury of pre-show ritual, i.e., playing Cold Fact a zillion times over the course of a couple of days leading up to the show. But I also reminded myself that “performer” has not been Rodriguez’s full-time occupation for some time, and that the whole pickup-backing-band factor can be a substantial wild card.
On that latter count, as it turned out I needn’t have worried. A couple of months ago when the show’s promoters, Mark Capon and Matt Schnable (who also operate Asheville indie CD and vinyl emporium, Harvest Records), booked Rodriguez, they were surely mindful of that same wild card aspect and as a result were determined to ensure that this rarer-than-rare concert — Rodriguez, though open to bookings, doesn’t have a regular tour itinerary — didn’t turn into some sort of embarrassing Chuck-Berry-flummoxes-local-pickup-band debacle. Capon took it upon himself to assume bass chores; on drums was Drew Wallace (ex-Guyana Punchline); on piano and keys, Kim Roney; and on guitar, Greg Cartwright, of Reigning Sound/Oblivians fame, who had opened the show with a solo set. They also lined up a three-man horn section: Derrick Johnson, Jacob Rodriguez and Ben Hovey, on trombone, sax and trumpet. The ensemble duly bore down to learn the material — if you’ve heard Cold Fact you know that while some of the songs are straightforward, others have some tricky, complex arrangements — and awaited Rodriguez’s arrival in Asheville.
By 10:15 this evening the club was impressively filled — the door person confirmed later that they’d almost reached the 550 capacity — and although this was certainly due in part to the Rodriguez feature in the weekly paper and some local radio coverage of the event, after talking to a number of people to find out how they’d heard about Rodriguez, I began to realize that this was a true word-of-mouth phenomenon sparked by the Harvest Records guys and passed along the grapevine simultaneously by curiosity seekers and folks who’d heard Cold Fact.
The band filed onstage and adjusted their instruments, then Rodriguez emerged from the dressing room, dressed head-to-toe in black (boots, jeans, shirt, under-vest and shades) and appearing utterly relaxed. Standing at the mic and smiling at the audience, he adjusted the brim of his trademark fedora (black, natch) as he joked about being from Detroit and having a mayor who got sent to jail. He strapped on his hollow body electric guitar, nodded to the band, then started into the strummy, loping sunshine pop of “Inner City Blues” (not the Marvin Gaye song, it’s one of the standouts on Cold Fact, a song about hopelessness tempered by hope and leavened by the cynicism wrought by the events of the late ‘60s). The horns left the stage during the next song, “Only Good For Conversation,” one of the more overtly psychedelic numbers on the album; as Rodriguez chopped at his guitar and spat out his brutally direct lyrics (“My statue’s got a concrete heart/ But you’re the coldest bitch I know”), Cartwright peeled off steely Jeff Beck-styled leads and the rhythm section churned purposefully. The Dylanesque “Crucify Your Mind” followed, with the horns returning to provide a stately, soulful edge.
Just three tracks in, and the Grey Eagle crowd was pressing against the stage and whooping with delight — won over, totally. What’s even more remarkable is how quickly the musicians locked in together: no tentativeness, no frowns or puzzled glances exchanged, no flubbed riffs or awkward transitions that I detected. A few songs later Rodriguez, beaming broadly, would glance at the other musicians and announce, “I love this band!” He obviously meant it, too.
And so it went. Among the highlights were “I Wonder,” strummy and boasting a signature, irresistible Motown bass whomp that Capon rendered deftly as Wallace provided a jaunty, skittering sideways beat (“This song asks a question,” Rodriguez said, by way of intro); and “Sugarman,” which elicited immediate shouts of recognition and singing along from the crowd the moment Rodriguez began (“This song is a descriptive song”), and with Cartwright and Roney recreating the eerie, Joe Meek-styled background noises it bordered on note-perfect. It’s worth noting that while the musicians had completely mastered the material’s arrangements, the performances were anything but static. Cartwright in particular contributed some inspired side flourishes (fuzz guitar, etc.) and Roney’s keyboard fills, frequently in synch with the horns, lent texture and colors around the edges.
Also featured were two songs from Coming From Reality that slotted seamlessly in with the Cold Fact material: “I Think Of You” and “To Whom It May Concern” — the latter, with its piano filigrees and a striking guitar solo from Cartwright, proved to be one of the poppier, almost overtly commercial, numbers of the evening. And a third non-Cold Fact song, “Can’t Get Away” was an unexpected treat: anthemic and boasting a soaring melody, its propulsive choogle vibe gradually ensnared the audience until the entire room appeared to be pumping along in tandem. (Originally from a ’77 Australian anthology, At His Best, “Can’t Get Away” is a bonus track on the Coming From Reality reissue.)
Well before the end of the show Rodriguez had worked up a sweat, eventually shedding his outer shirt to reveal a trim, solid, vest-clad torso; for a 66 year old man he’s fitter than most, with long, muscular arms plus large, nimble hands like Richie Havens. And his voice: nearly as clear and resonant as it is on the album, hints of Dylan, Donovan and Arthur Lee all informing his delivery while still uniquely Rodriguez; you’d be hard pressed to apply the old “ravages of age” argument to this particular survivor of the ‘60s/’70s. Smiling continuously, his love of the material was palpable; his enthusiasm for the performance, infectious. This natural, easygoing charisma had the effect of tugging the audience into his aura, to the point where we were no longer pulling for an underdog with a compelling comeback story — we were cheering and singing along because he was that fucking good, period.
After he departed the stage the crowd stomped and clapped and demanded an encore, and when Cartwright came out to the microphone to egg folks on, there was a pinch-me look on the guitarist’s face. Rodriguez returned, this time with a young lady in tow that he introduced as his daughter Regan; then she and Cartwright both left, leaving just Rodriguez and his guitar alone under drawn-low, intimate lighting. He eased into the gentle, John Lennonesque “Jane S. Piddy” that also closes Cold Fact, and I could swear I saw some of the onlookers tearing up. Confident in delivery and acknowledging our response, Rodriguez made it clear that he was moved by the events of the past hour or so. The fact that he played on the night of what’s supposed to be the largest, brightest full moon that will occur in 2009 didn’t hurt matters, either. Under the lunar spell, both artist and audience shared a musical moment that, though brief, will linger in memory for a very long time.
Afterwards, I corralled a still-grinning Cartwright who stated flatly, “That might be the most fun I ever had.” He pulled me into the dressing room to introduce me to Rodriguez and Regan prior to the musician going back out to the club, where a large contingent of fans awaited to get their CDs and posters signed. Both father and daughter were impressed not only by the Grey Eagle crowd but by the city in general, and Rodriguez talked a little about how amazed he was at his backing musicians — “We could do the entire East Coast!” he marveled — and how gratifying it was to have them put so much effort into learning the material.
With a playful lilt to his voice that’s as genuine and affecting as his singing style, he seemed like an exceedingly happy man, caught up in a moment of triumph and vindication that, some four decades earlier, he’d reckoned would never come.
Rodriguez is currently on tour – dates at Rodriguez-music.com.
Searching For Sugar Man film: http://www.sonyclassics.com/searchingforsugarman/