Currently riding a
crest of newfound attention thanks to the recently released documentary film
about his unlikely career, the Sugar Man himself arrived at Columbus’
Wexner Center for the Arts on November 1 – and
he was out to mix a little mischief into his music.
Text & Photo by Steven Rosen
At age 70, Sixto Rodriguez has become an American folk hero.
The two politically trenchant folk-rock-blues albums that the Detroit
singer-guitarist put out in 1970 and 1971, overlooked in their time and long
out of print, are now reissued and healthy sellers. The documentary Searching for Sugar Man, chronicling how
he became popular in South
Africa without ever knowing it, has been a
surprise hit and is favored for an Academy Award nomination. And CBS 60 Minutes
even profiled him.
So he has emerged from decades of working as a laborer in
Detroit to start touring the U.S. If the hushed, reverent, sold-out crowd at
Columbus’ Wexner Center is any indication, he is being welcomed with the kind
of awe and respect that once met rediscovered musicians like Dock Boggs or
Mance Lipscomb during the great blues and folk revival of the early 1960s. He
is the wise elder, returned from exile.
So how did Rodriguez – who comes across as shy and quietly
self-effacing in the movie and on the 60 Minutes segment – accept this adulation? Weirdly. Here’s an example:
“Let me tell you my Mickey Mouse joke,” he said from the
bare stage, holding what appeared to be, and what sounded like, an amplified
acoustic guitar but had the sleek body of an electric. He then recounted how
Mickey and Minnie went to a marriage counselor, who told Mickey it would be
wrong to divorce her just for being dumb. “I didn’t say she was stupid,” Mickey
replied in Rodriguez’s joke. “I said she was fucking Goofy.” Long laughter
So much for that all that folk-hero-worship stuff. Rodriguez
is out to mix in a little mischief with his music. He also has his quirks.
Considering that his own music has a rockin’, talking-blues quality that shows
the influence of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or early Donovan, you might
think he’d cover a song or two by his peers.
He does do covers, but they are either standards like “Just
One of Those Things” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” or jazzy, soulful oldies
like Lou Rawls’ “Dead End Street” and Little Willie John’s “Fever.” (He gave
John, who was from Detroit and who recorded for nearby Cincinnati’s King
Records, credit as a local hero, which the Columbus audience appreciated.
Rodriguez’s resonant, slightly weathered and highly
expressive voice was well-suited for these songs, as was his guitar work, and I
see a Rodriguez Does Standards album
in his future.
But until then, he also gave people what they came for –
songs that the Sugar Man movie has
made well-known, forty years after they were recorded and promptly overlooked the first time around. (Light in the
Attic, a Seattle
label, did get the ball rolling first by reissuing Rodriguez’s Cold Fact and Coming From Reality in 2008-2009.)
At the Wexner, he played “Sugar Man,” “Crucify Your
Mind,” “I Wonder,” “Like Janis” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or,
the Establishment Blues” to a crowd who took the song’s worth and renown, as a
concrete cold fact. Rodriguez now has a canon.
His set was short, about an hour with no encore. He did not
radically change his songs or use them for improvisation, which was too bad as
a stretched-out “I Wonder” would have been quite a crowd-pleaser with its
With his long black hair, hat and shades, wearing a suit
over a sleeveless, V-neck black muscle shirt, he had remarkable stage presence.
He removed the jacket about halfway through, revealing a physique that could
make him the envy of any AARP gathering.
And he is very relaxed on stage. While he needed guidance to
get up the steps onto it in the darkened room, he held the spotlight
confidently. He developed an easygoing repartee fairly quickly, and some of his
comments had a provocative edge and bite. For instance, he offered to tell the
crowd the secret of life (“breathe in
and out”) and the mystery of life (“you never know when it will end”).
Rodriguez’s comeback fits into a larger narrative about this
year’s resilience and reemergence of Detroit in American life. Bettye LaVette,
although she now lives in New Jersey, has showed on Thankful N’ Thoughtful that it’s never too late for an overlooked
Detroit R&B singer of the 1960s to find her audience. The documentary Detropia has been a hit, often following
Sugar Man into art houses. The Tigers
made the World Series. And President Obama’s rescue of the auto industry turned
out to be the key issue (in Ohio) that got him – and his progressive, hopeful
view of America – reelected against the reactionary Republicans.
Rodriguez fits into that narrative, yet he’s not really
having it. He sees the city through his activist eyes – he once ran for mayor.
He told the crowd that “only when I left Detroit did I learn people smiled.” He
also decried political corruption in
the city. Someone shouted for him to run
for mayor again, and he responded like he’d consider it.
He ended the show with heartfelt thanks and a “power to the
people” fist. And he made his way to the merchandise booth, where his newfound
fans were lined up awaiting him.