Looking for Rodriguez
One muddy, corduroy coated morning in September,I set off in search of the mythical guru, musician, poet, prophet and creatorof the long selling, 1972 cult album, Cold Fact.In other words I was looking for Jesus Rodriguez.
With only fragments of information garnered mostlyfrom the lyrics, I embarked on what would end up being a nine-month longdetective-style inquiry on a subject reeking of conspiracy. An initialcall to Polygram revealed nothing. A call to RPM, an earlier Rodriguezdistributor, revealed less. Bizarrely, both carried no biography on oneof their most successful artists (approximately 60 000 units sold in thelast five years) in South Africa.
I started canvassing CD stores in the hope thatthey might yield a lead or two. Everyone had heard of Rodriguez, and infact, "I even sold a copy today", quipped a salesperson not oldenough to have been around in '72, but that was it
Next I grilled my friends. Their responses werevaried: Rodriguez died of a heroin overdose; Rodriguez burnt to death,live on stage; Rodriguez went to jail for murdering his wife; and the mostcommon response: Rodriguez blew he head off while reciting his own epitaph:Thanks for your time, and you can thank me for mine, and after that'ssaid, forget it!
Climb up on my music, exclaimed Rodriguez, andmy songs will set you free. When Cold Fact was released in S.A. in '72,no-one was free. Not the masses, then ruled by a minority. And not theminority then, and probably still, ruled by mass inhibition. The countryhad not yet received television, a two-year military service became mandatoryand censorship ensured that not a nipple was in sight. It came as no surprisethen that when Cold Fact hit the record racks, it became a hit, simplybecause it contained a phrase which would muddy the country's sexuallychaste waters and serve as a mantra to the youth: I wonder, how manytimes you've had sex ...
In the early seventies, Hillbrow led the way asa fashionable, cosmopolitan haunt. Words like zol, dagga and buttons madetheir entry into everyday language and so did the need to smoke some. Thenalong came a man called Rodriguez who was able to mirror this need to befree, one who sang praises to his drug dealer in the song Sugarman, claimingthat: you're the answer that makes my questions disappear. Unashamedly,he sang about Silver Magic Ships, Jumpers, Coke and Sweet Mary Jane inslang references to narcotics. (Both albums are riddled with drug references).And more than this, he sang of something new to S.A.: Disillusionment ofcrowded city life, dwindling job opportunities, slums and ghettos-a statehe called the Inner City Blues, and a precursor in mindset to Punk whichwould soon follow.
A third call to Polygram finally produced a lead,the telephone and fax number of Michael Trayllor in Century City, California,lawyer to either the Rodriguez estate, or to Rodriguez himself (On thatmatter, the record company was extraordinarily vague). A fax went off requestinginformation. No reply was forthcoming. A day later the author actuallycalled but received only a curt pre-recorded message. The number you havedialled has changed, please consult your local directory. In spite of licensingagreements and royalties, these numbers were all Polygram had.
Wilderness, a sleepy S.A. coastal village, theauthor embarks on a new course, the library of the nineties. With childlikeoptimism he types in a range of relevant words, from Rodriguez throughto the desperate U.S. Births and Deaths. But to no avail. The sun is upbut still the Net knows nothing-spewing out only the succinct: No matchingwords found.
Next, to ascertain the artists origin he scrupulouslybegan to dissect the lyrics: In one song Rodriguez sings of being bornnear the world's tallest building, possibly a reference to New York; London,the liner notes state, was where Coming from Reality was made; And in Can'tGet Away, he sings of being in Amsterdam.
Back in Johannesburg, Q-magazine, New Musical Expressand a host of other publications, including the world's leading music encyclopediasmake no mention of Rodriguez. And not even a request to Shawn Phillipshimself, who recorded 2nd contribution in London at about the time of ComingFrom Reality, reveals anything new. Notable, however, is the location ofthe Cold Fact recording; Detroit, the city which spawned not Folk Music,but rather the predominantly black sounds of Motown.
Months later in Cape Town the author meets Stephen"Sugar" Segerman, the person pivotal, with André Bakkesand Andy Harrod, in persuading Polygram to re-release the so-called lostalbum, Coming From Relity, retitled as After The Fact. Rumours have itthat since no Master tapes could be found, a reasonably un-scratched vinylversion was located and used as the Master. On listening one can hear withdigital precision, sheer proof of analogue decay-static, scratches andeven a cat's paw. Nonetheless, the album is well received.
Richard Armstrong of Ace Records in London providesthe next breakthrough. As a distributor of the Mike Theodore and DennisCoffey catalogue (two names listed on Cold Fact), it seemed like a goodplace to ask. Several calls later and the author had in his possessionlike a secret code, Mike Theodore's number in Morriston, Michigan.
It started out with butterflies on a velvetafternoon, sound the words to It Started Out So Nice, demanding thequestion: Poet or prophet? With lyrics like, the night puts its laughteraway, it would be hard to view Rodriguez as being anything less thana poet. His prose-like lyrics function well without music and are cuttingand frank. In both albums barely a taboo of the day is left untouched-noteven religion walks away unscathed. Yet, at times he becomes the 'prophet',seemingly prophesying on a morbid and dark future with lines like. Inthe third millennium, the crowded madness came, crooked shadows roamedthrough the night, the wizards overplayed their hand, and elsewhere,in spine-chilling fashion: all things in common suddenly grew strange,not unlike the Book of Revelations.
Probably the biggest question, if one reads betweenthe lyrics, is why, not unlike Vincent van Gogh, he seemed obsessed withescape-an exit from what he saw as a socially ill society, seeming to relyon the temporary respite that narcotics offer. In It Started Out So Nice,he poses exactly such a question: How many times can you wake up inthis comic book and still plant flowers, while in Can't Get Away, hesings of a force that torments him, that even in his hotel in Amsterdam,he finds inescapable. Not surprisingly, most who know Cold Fact, assumeimmediately that he must be dead.
"Jesus is alive!", said Mike Theodoreearly one Tuesday morning, "but he ain't the man you're looking for."My heart skipped a beat. "Jesus is only the brother. The one you'relooking for is Sixto-the principle solo artist known as ... Rodriguez!"
Nine months had come down to this one moment.
"Wait", I said, "the one who's voicewe hear on Cold Fact, the one you call Sixto, is he still alive?"
"Alive and kicking", said Mike, surprisedat me even asking. But more surprising was that Theodore, and Rodriguezhimself. I would later discover, had no idea that these albums sold asthey did in S.A. let alone the cult status achieved-a strange phenomenasince most royalty statements include the country of origin.
Mystified, I listened on:
Rodriguez, Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffeyand producer Mike Theodore, all from Detroit, recorded Cold Fact in 1972 (actually 1969)at Sussex Records, a label then owned by one Clarence Avant, a great believerin Rodriguez and today's head of a Motown.
"But then", I asked puzzled, "howcome most of the songs are credited to Jesus and not Sixto."
"That", he said after a long pause, "wasa political move."
Hoping to prompt some explanation of 'political',I mentioned the 'drug, jail and fire' theories.
"Well", he refuted, "there's political... and there's political."
"Will Jesus ... er Sixto speak to me?",I asked, hoping against hope.
"If Sixto wants to speak to you, then he will."
"Did you actually tell him I called?'
"Yeh, it's personal you know. We're tryingto ascertain that status of each album ... in fact, we're in touch withClarence Avant as we speak."
"Does Rodriguez own the rights to his songs?"
"Did he play Woodstock?"
"No, but he did tour Australia. Lots of moneyof his was being held there at one time."
"What is he doing today?"
"Same as before, playing music ..."
"But he won't talk to me."
A pregnant pause. "Well, let me just say this... he's quite a recluse." With my heart pounding, I replaced thereceiver.
After what seemed like a lifetime, I sat next tothe telephone, hollow in a state of anti-climax. With many a cold factat my disposal, I found myself teetering at the edge of the truth, yetnowhere close to it. What actually drove someone like Rodriguez on suchan intense search into the void? What prompted a 23-year long absence fromrecording. And, more importantly, where the hell is he?
Craig's original draft of this article was written in June 1997 and titled Climb Up On My Music.He did some revisions and it then became Looking For Jesus. The editor of Directions changed it slightly and called it Looking For Rodriguez.
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