With his ’71 album
reissued this week and a tour starting tonight, the cult icon is hitting a new
– third – career peak.
BY FRED MILLS
“I’m at the top of the line, man. I mean, things are
Sixto Rodriguez chuckles softly, almost self-deprecatingly,
as if he doesn’t want to come across as cocky or excessively proud. “Cocky” is
definitely not a term anyone who’s ever met or talked to the 66-year old
Detroit musician will associate with him, although on the “proud” count he’d be
entitled: his 1971 album Coming From
Reality was just reissued by Light In The Attic, arriving on the heels of
last year’s acclaimed reissue of 1970 debut Cold
Fact and additionally marking a burst of performing activity that will
include a pair of weeklong American tours (one of the east coast, one on the
west) as well as a trip overseas for a series of European and U.K. dates.
Considering that until the Cold Fact re-release, Rodriguez had been absent from the American
music scene for nearly four decades – well, yeah. He should feel proud.
For those who just wandered in, the capsule Rodriguez story
reads like this: Despite recording his first album with a host of Motown
heavies and cutting his second one over in England with producer Steve Rowland
(Pretty Things, the Cure) and the likes of Chris Spedding on guitar, the
songwriter was unable to make any commercial inroads, so he essentially walked
away from the music business in the mid ‘70s to raise a family and earn a
living. Meanwhile, through a series of unlikely coincidences, the two records,
each stuffed to the gills with a heady blend of soul, pop, garage, folkrock,
Dylanesque lyrical reveries, and more, found audiences in both Australia/New
Zealand and South Africa, and after a journalist tracked him down to inform him
that he had been selling thousands of albums overseas, Rodriguez was able to
tour successfully and resume his performing career, first Down Under in 1979-81
and then again in South Africa in 1998. Lightning struck a third time in 2008
when Light In The Attic introduced him to North American audiences, and since
then he’s toured intermittently, appearing in selected cities with a succession
of backing bands who learn his material prior to his arrival.
You can read more about all this, along with a review of
Rodriguez’ concert this past January in Asheville,
North Carolina, HERE. As I put it
in that review, in speaking to Rodriguez after the show I noticed how he “seemed
like an exceedingly happy man, caught up in a moment of triumph and vindication
that, some four decades earlier, he’d probably reckoned would never come.”
Meanwhile, there’s the matter of the new reissue and the
tour. Rolling Stone just gave Coming From Reality a glowing review in
the latest issue of the magazine, while over at the Light In The Attic site it’s officially Rodriguez Week, and on a daily basis the label has been rolling
out everything from free MP3s to links to a Rodriguez interview to an audio
interview with original album producer Rowland. Additionally, this week
Daytrotter posted their Rodriguez session featuring free downloads of his
in-studio performances of four Cold Fact songs, while Amoeba Music has posted video footage of a Rodriguez interview
plus four songs he did last year at their San
Francisco store backed up by The Fresh And Onlys.
The first leg of the tour starts tonight in Chicago
and will take in Detroit, Washington,
and NYC (full itinerary, below). The latter three dates, incidentally, will
feature most of the same musicians who backed up Rodriguez in Asheville
in January, and the Philadelphia
stop will be accompanied by a taping for NPR’s World Café.
BLURT caught up with Rodriguez by phone from his home in Detroit a few days before
the tour commenced. Soft-spoken, but with an underlying intensity that surfaced
whenever certain topics – war, politics, the government, how humans treat one
another – were broached, he seemed genuinely flattered at an interviewer’s
interest in him. (Oddly respectful, too: at several points he addressed me as
“sir” or “Mr. Mills,” and towards the end, following a humorous exchange, he
told me loved the way I laughed.)
But as suggested by the quote at the beginning of this
article, Rodriguez is also very aware that people are interested in him and his music – as far as he’s
concerned, his time is definitely now.
Methinks the man has earned it, too.
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. I talked to the Asheville
musicians who’ll be backing you up on some of your shows and they said they’d
been very busy rehearsing.
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
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. I
have to say, 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? [Note: the reissue also includes three
bonus songs not on the original album, recorded in Detroit in ’72.]
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
[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
What are some of your
favorite songs on the album?
I just got three stars from Rolling Stone this week for the album, and they pick out “A Most
Disgusting Song,” which 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
Lullaby – Lifestyles“:
America gains another
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…]
Back then, 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
When you walked away
from the music industry, was it just disillusionment over the albums not
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.
Any recording plans?
Not at this moment. Light in the Attic has put me up here
like this, so the thing is that’s what I’m working on. I’ll show [the Cold Fact and Coming From Reality] songs first; that’s the plan.
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
That’s it. There you go.
What did you mean by
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
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 info, music sample, etc. on MySpace: www.myspace.com/rodriguezsugarman
website w/comprehensive story, discography, etc.: http://www.sugarman.org
Rodriguez Tour Dates:
Fri, May 08 Schubas Tavern, Chicago IL
Sat, May 09 Magic Stick, Detroit MI
Wed, May 13 Rock and Roll Hotel, Washington DC
Thu, May 14 Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia PA
Fri, May 15 Bowery Ballroom, New York NY
Fri., May 29 Paradiso, Amsterdam , Netherlands
Sat. May 30 Whelans, Dublin, Ireland
Mon, Jun 1 Nouveau Casino, Paris, France
Wed, Jun 3 Circolo Degli Artisti, Rome, Italy
Sat, Jun 6 Barbican, London, UK
Mon, Jun 22 Richard’s On Richards Cabaret, Vancouver BC
Tue, Jun 23 The Triple Door, Seattle WA
Wed, Jun 24 Doug Fir Lounge, Portland OR
Fri, Jun 26 Slim’s, San Francisco CA
Sat, Jun 27 El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles CA
Sat, July 12, Les Ardentes Festival, Liege, Belgium