As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger.
The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Inner City Blues,” “Rich Folks Hoax,” and “Hate Street Dialogue.” Though I’d been collecting sixties music for awhile, I’d never heard of him until a few years ago when a friend introduced me to “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Wow, I thought: the anthem that never found its revolution. Consider these prophet-tinged lyrics, sung with the clipped cadence of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:
Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.
Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere.
The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez had dropped the Sixto and the music on the second album was less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It’s the kind of album that gives solace on a lonely Sunday afternoon or late at night, drink in hand, wondering about life, how you got here and where you’re going. Listening to Sixto sing, you feel as if you are in the company of a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won and that failure, for all its ramifications, could be meaningful if examined in the proper light. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, just like his preceding LP, this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.
But this is only Act I of the story. Fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonated with young people there who were disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact was a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” was for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto was “bigger than Elvis.”
But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues were a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha ground the rumor mills. A consensus developed, that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.
In the 1990s, apartheid ended and Sixto’s music was released on compact disc, prompting Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist to embark on a quest to solve the mystery of Sixto’s death once and for all. They find him in a working class neighborhood in Detroit, via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue-collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame in South Africa.
Unraveling like a mystery, the filmmakers follow the characters in Sixto’s life— the producers of his two albums, the head of Sussex Records (Clarence Avant, who seems defensive about the residuals from South Africa album sales never finding their way to Rodriguez), his three daughters (one of whom contacts the sleuths after discovering their website, where Rodriguez’s image was photoshopped on a milk carton, under a “Missing” caption), his friends in construction, and finally to Sixto himself. About forty years older than when he dropped out of the scene, the dark glasses and folk rock fashions have not been discarded. He is still cool but there is something more to Sixto– humility, vulnerability, gentleness of spirit, character. There is no wistfulness, self-righteousness, or anger in him about lost opportunities. That we are there to listen at all makes him happy, as made clear in “Silver Words” on Coming from Reality:
That the angels in the skies
Were envious and surprised
That anyone as nice as you
Would chance on me
Spoiler aside, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s overlooked debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a wonderful musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same Detroit building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Never having become a folk music icon, he gets by all right as folk hero: instead of living the aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). He had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away,” recorded after the dismal reception of Coming From Reality and unreleased for many years:
And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams.
There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.