(A&M 1971) -
South Africa was a very different place in 1971 when Cold Factwas modestly unleashed on the Southern hemisphere. Back then, nobody hadheard of Rodriguez. Abba was storming the charts, TV hadn't arrived (godforbid, it was too corruptive according to the dominees) and our currentPresident was in jail. Music was played on turn-tables, Cliff Richard wason tour and the Hippie era hadn't quite made it South. Violence and crimewas something that happened in the townships, South African musicians weregaining modest international success and Sundays were spent at church.
"Sugar man, won't you hurry 'cos I'm tiredof these scenes".
Against this backdrop, an album with lyrics suchas these must've seemed years ahead of it's time and could only have capturedthe imaginations of a lost generation of South Africans. Over the nexttwenty five years, waves of disco, punk, new-wave, grunge and electronicmusic (in addition to our own ethnic music) served as soundtrack to thecountry's turbulent history. Yet through it all an astonishingly simplefolk album from a hitherto unknown singer crept into the hearts of many,occupying a unique place unparalleled elsewhere in the vast world of music.
The Legend unfolded on it's own. Rodriguez dropped out of sight, lost inthe haze of hippiness, and the profound lyrics left behind on Cold Factwere the only clues we had to invent the mystery and myth.
That has all been settled now, and the remarkable reappearance of thislong-forgotten Hispanic American is a celebration of the enduring popularityof this album. Since it's re-release on CD in 1991 by Polygram South Africa,it has sold a incredible 60 000 copies, encompassing several generationsof fans from all quarters.
Soon you know I'll leave you, and I'll neverlook behind, 'cause I was born for the purpose that crucifies your mind.
Like other Americans before him, notably Morrisonand Dylan, Rodriguez was a hopeless romantic, inspired and troubled bythe changing world around him. His lyrics were deep and poetic, yet itwas the simple acoustic accompaniment that lent the album so much timelessappeal. Cold Fact opens with the ultra trippy Sugar Man, which maywell have been straight out of an acid trip. "Sugar man met a falsefriend on a lonely dusty road, lost my heart, when I found it, it had turnedto dead black coal" suggests just where exactly the inspiration camefrom as he goes on to list jumpers, coke and sweet Mary Jane. More thanany other Rodriguez song, it is Sugar Man which personifies the artistin the minds of those who have always wondered. The eerie moog synthesizer,whistling in the background, the lazy and simple guitar chords and thedreamy nasal voice place the listener firmly in an era of fantasy. It setsa perfect tone for the album and the myth.
By contrast, Only Good For Conversation is nothing short ofdisturbing with it's grinding power riffs and vocal echo. In fact it isa good indication of the irony and sarcasm that Rodriguez layers thicklythroughout the album. "My statue's got a concrete heart, but you'rethe coldest bitch I know" shows just how blunt the singer could be.
The moon.... is hanging.... in a purple... sky.
At times, his music was simple and beautiful, hislyrics pure poetry. Lovesickness was often the theme, but it was alwaysfrom the lips of a troubled soul. In Crucify Your Mind, one of thealbums most subtle songs, one gets the impression he's begging like a scornedlover. In fact, he's competing for a girls attention, but is sidelinedby the lure of narcotics, and the boys who push them - one of many referencesthroughout the album. "Was it a huntsman or a player that made youpay the cost, that now assumes relaxed position and prostitutes your loss,were you tortured by your own thirst in those pleasures that you seek,that makes you Tom the curious, that makes you James the weak" heasks. The appeal of Rodriguez, is his ability to state common emotionsso beautifully. Always cynical and often sarcastic, he later makes a similarjibe "and don't try to enchant me with your manner of dress, for amonkey in silk is a monkey no less" in the song Like Janis.
Drifting, drowning, in a purple sea of doubt, you wanna hear she lovesyou but the words don't fit the mouth.
At times, the songwriter on this album - whoeverhe may be - is a desperate character and it's not surprising, sifting throughthese lyrics, that rumours of taking his own life abounded. In JaneS Piddy his self pity of lost love is heartbreaking. From the abovelyric he goes on to describe himself "you're a loser, a rebel, a causewithout". Similar poignancy emerges in the short and simple finaltrack on the original side one, Forget It. At no point, doesRodriguez ever seem happy. All these clues lend credence to the incrediblemyth that fell into the void that his disappearance left.
I wonder how many times you've had sex, I wonderdo you know who will be next, I wonder, I wonder, wonder I do.
It is at his most obsessive, Rodriguez is best known. The simple lyricsfrom I Wonder mean many different things to many different people,and yet they are all sung in unison, at the end of disco's, around campfires or in a beat up old combi, with the same feeling that summed up thecuriosity across South Africa throughout the seventies and eighties. Hesays, in two and half minutes, what many young men and woman would loveto say to each but never find the courage. Again, in Hate Street Dialogue,the same simple guitar makes you imagine you're sitting around a campfirein an Indian reserve, listening to some one's home grown ditties. "Woman,please be gone, you've stayed here much too long", he chided melodically.It's the simpleness that is so alluring.
Gommorah is a nursery rhyme, you won't findin the book.
It's written on your city's face just stop and take a look.
Perhaps it is the social conscience that has such important role on thisalbum, and most significantly suggest what sort of person Rodriguez wasand is. He has managed, throughout the album, to make it clear that theworld around him just isn't quite right. "The baby's sleeping whilstit's mother sighs" from Rich Folks Hoax is innocent enough,but all the time it is seen through the eyes of a working class Mexicanimmigrant, trapped in the motor industry that encompassed his hometown- Detroit. More than anything, it is this character that best describesthe man who had disappeared for 25 years. In using school children forthe chorus of Gommorah, Rodriguez effectively demonstrates the ironyof inner city life, as he runs through the countless problems on the streetin his neighbourhood, drugs, prostitution, runaway kids and bemused richfolk tourists. His working class vitriol emerges on Rich Folks Hoaxand The Establishment Blues where he states matter-of-factly that"The Mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates" and "littleman gets shafted, sons and moneys drafted". Not surprisingly it emerged,upon his rediscovery, that Rodriguez now has his own political aspirations,having run for mayor eight times! His views on the wealth disparities betweenrich and poor in the worlds most prosperous country are never far fromthe tip of his pen.
Don't say any more, just walk out the door,I'll get along fine you'll see.
Sixto Rodriguez (as we now know him) has moved on, we all do. The album(and it's predecessor, Coming From Reality)never quite cracked the vast American market, and the artist hung up hisguitar and talent to concentrate on other ambitions. The albums producers(and Rodriguez's backing musicians), Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey emersedthemselves in the vibrant Motown scene that was emerging at the time andthe later went on to work with Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and JacksonFive.
In South Africa it's hard to imagine that a cult figure of such importanceshould belong exclusively to us. To a lesser extent he is known in Australia,New Zealand and Zimbabwe. Importantly, what remains is a character thatdidn't really exist at all, but was created out of a time and place, spurredon by our own imagination. Cold Fact documents, with astonishing effectiveness,a turbulent America at the tail end of the sixties. The numerous drug references,the cynical tone, the frustrated lover, the disillusionment and inner cityblues were a world around Rodriguez, one that he had a poetic eye for.
"Sometimes the fantasy is better left alive, it's as unbelievable to meas it is to you” stated his daughter upon their discovery of a wholefan base at the tip of Africa. And that way it will remain, he is a deeplyprivate person and indeed we have a fantasy that would probably be shattered.Perhaps we all took him a little too seriously when the needle scratchedoff those old pieces of Vinyl with the final words;
thanks for your time , then you can thank me for mine and after that'ssaid, forget it".
- Andrew Bond, London, April 1998
This review was written especially for this website.