Rodriguez - The Myths and The Mystery

"I began playing at 16 on a family guitar
and it altered my life." - Rodriguez, 1997

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Mail &Guardian, Friday 20th February 1998

Fact: Rodriguez lives
by Craig Bartholomew

Craig Bartholomew trackeddown Rodriguez, who is alive, well, living in Detroit and planning to tourSouth Africa next month.

"Thanks foryour time, and you can thank me for mine, and after that's said, forgetit!" were the poignant last words spoken, live on stage, beforeblowing his head off. That, at least, was one of the rumours. Others claimedhe murdered his wife and was now in jail. Some said he was blind ("openthe window and listen to the news"). Most of those asked werequite sure he was dead, perhaps because of the numerous references to drugson both albums. A cold fact!
It was this anomaly -- one that just kept on selling albums -- that spurredme to find the truth, and as a bonus, the man behind the truth, Sixto Rodriguez.In 1972 the album Cold Fact was released inthe United States by a folk singer known only as Rodriguez. It sold sobadly that it was deleted. When released in South Africa though, it didso well that the record company released his earlier "no-hit"album Coming From Reality, disguisedand renamed After The Fact. And then came 24 long years of nothing.No new albums, no music videos, no tours, no publicity -- only rumours.
In 1996 I determined to find the man, dead or alive. After nine months,72 telephone calls, 45 faxes, 142 e-mails, long nights reading throughencyclopedias, music books, dead ends, loose ends and fag ends I reachedhim. "Yes ... it is I, Sixto [Seez-to] Rodriguez," said the voiceon the other end of the telephone.
Finding out just where he'd been in all this time was not an easy task.He is a private man and has his "own concept of the universe".For someone who once sang, "The mayorhides the crime rate ... the public forgets the vote date," itwas surprising he had actually run for mayor of Detroit seven times. Andalthough he hasn't released any albums since 1974 he still plays and sings,has toured Australia twice, has fathered two daughters.He still has long hair, is fit and is bringing out a new album. What'smore, he'll be in South Africa next month.
I spoke to him recently by phone.
Rodriguez: So, tell me about yourself!
CB: I was born in Kimberley, a very dry and dusty mining town witha mentality to match, and literally hours after my last school exam, Igot the hell out.
R: Next question ... How do they celebrate a diamond festival?
CB: Hey! Who's doing this interview?
R: Okay, I like to tell people that I was born on Michigan Avenue,five blocks from the centre of Detroit.
CB: I've had a hard time in South Africa convincing people thatyou are alive and kicking. Why do you think this impression exists?
R: Imaginations working overtime. Your personal intervention, though,has energised my tour to South Africa.
CB: In A Most Disgusting Songyou say you've "played faggot bars, hooker bars, motorcycle funerals,opera houses, concert halls". Are you still playing?
R: I am working on a project with Mike Theodore at the moment (produceron the 1972 Cold Fact album).
CB: Do you think everyone is in some way an artist?
R: Yes, art is in all of us. We all have a talent. It is up to usto listen and draw within ourselves and pull out the words, the form orsome creative action.
CB: Your family's from Mexico, are they not?
R: Yeah, immigrated to the US in the 1920s.
CB: This reminds me of one of my favourite pieces, a song by PatMetheny called Sueño con Mexico.
R: Yes, "I dream with Mexico". I've heard the piece. Overlappingguitars. In my opinion, the guitar is central in popular music. Guitarshave evolved, changed shape, become electrified. It is one of the mostunifying language tools in the world. I'd be lost without one.
CB: Your daughter Eva says she has fond memories of you and yourbrothers sitting on your father's porch jamming and singing Mexican music,James Taylor, Billy Joel, Hank Williams and others. What's your earliestmusical memory?
R: I began playing at 16 on a family guitar and it altered my life.
CB: There's something wonderful about trying to understand a newculture. Tell me about your summer with American Indians.
R: It was a great summer. We went swimming in Grand Bend and topow-wows (a magical Indian ceremony) throughout Michigan. As far back as1974 I was involved in organising an American-Indian pow-wow at Wayne StateUniversity Campus.
CB:... where you studied philosophy?
R: Yes, but to get back to American Indians ... theirs is a vibrantand natural culture.
CB: What is the significance of the little grey shoe on the ComingFrom Reality album cover [released in South Africa as After TheFact].
R: The shoe had no real meaning. The photographer, Hal Wilson, camein from New York. We walked around Detroit and saw the house. Debris waslaying around and the shoe was nearby. I took it and placed it beside mine.We only took seven shots for the album cover. Milton Sincoff designed thecover with Buddha Records and we said at the time: if the album doesn'tmake it, the cover will!
CB: In your music you mention names like JaneS Piddy, Molly MacDonald andWilllie Thompson. Who are they?
R: The people are fictional. I tapped on the writer's poetic licencegiving them names and shape. Almost as a caricature works for the visualartist.
CB: Coming From Reality was recordedBritain, yet I could not find one single copy there.
R: We spent 30 wonderful days recording the Reality album.We stayed in Belgravia, London. I really don't know what happened withthe distribution, though.
CB: Why was your masterpiece, Cold Fact,largely ignored in the US?
R: "Masterpiece"? You're too kind. It was the first productreleased on the Sussex label owned by Clarence Avant [today's Motown head].It's all right that it happened this way.
CB: What is your viewon drugs such as cannabis, as in your song SugarMan?
R: Clearly alcohol is a much more destructive substance. Weed isa natural substance. Less harmful and helpful in some cases. The way Isee it is when the law catches up with reality, change will come. There'sa group in Michigan called Normal trying to "decriminalise" dopeand a guy on the West Coast running for governor of California who producesthe substance for medical purposes.
CB: I heard that there's some link between you and the band MidnightOil?
R: I feel that Midnight Oil is a top band. I first watched themperform in 1981. I witnessed their powerful stage performance at past twoin the morning in the freezing cold of the Australian wind. It was so coldthat as Peter Garrett performed steam was rising from his head. It wasalmost phantom-like. He is musical, political and international. I alsolove the Stones. For me, Mick Jagger is king, but Peter Garrett is alsohigh on the list of music aristocracy. I've been lucky to have been backstagewith Midnight Oil on several occasions. We were on the same bill in Australiain 1981 ... it was a trip!
CB: Detroit is a city of soul music. Strange that you got your firstrecording break there?
R: There is a wide range of labels that pick up on Detroit talents.From a macro perspective, I feel we live in the age of sound like the BronzeAge or Stone Age. Today, we are all given so many clues about life throughsound.

Reprinted here with kind permission from Sophie Perryer at Mail & Guardian

See the original interview at the Mail& Guardian archive.

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