Rodriguez
Rodriguez Contributed

A rags to riches tale of musical brilliance

"IT'S a little grotesque, to be honest," Rodríguez says quietly.

Detroit-born singer-songwriter was talking about the remarkable transformation in his career - a rags to riches story he finds as hard to fully accept as he does to believe.

"It's just that it seems so out of proportion," he says.

Like the words in the songs that have made him famous, it is just an honest observation.

There is not a hint of bitterness, though he has suffered for his art. And most of the royalties for perhaps 30 years of record sales, mysteriously, have never flowed his way.

Comic Woody Allen once said, "They've called me a wunderkind, an instant star, and they're right - it's only taken me 20 years of blood, sweat and tears to get here".

Rodriguez's road is a little more bizarre and pitted, and it has taken him almost 40.

 

IN 1970 and 1971, he recorded two albums for a small record company in his hometown.

The music was acoustic and lush with a Latin tinge, and jammed with observations from the fringe.

They should have been immediate hits, but were not.

Even in the age of counter-culture, with its free love and protest marches, songs that spoke frankly about why drugs were being taken and asked questions about sex were far too confronting for America.

But not in the antipodes. The albums were underground hits in Australia and New Zealand.

But by 1981, despite tours Down Under, his career seemed to have sputtered and burned out.

Back home, Rodriguez took on labouring jobs and raised a family as he tried to keep his music dreams alive.

Somehow, he also studied for and earned a Bachelor of Arts majoring, unsurprisingly, in philosophy.

"It took me 10 years to do the four-year degree," he says proudly. "Worth every minute."

On the other side of the world, his two albums were taking on lives of their own.

Tens of thousands, attracted by Rodriguez's keen eye, earthy bluntness and sweet understanding of a melody, chilled them.

This was real music. Genuine music. And it arrived in South Africa and took hold.

Rodriguez knew nothing about it.

 

THE 70-year-old still lives in a little house in Detroit, as he has for most of his life. He has no phone, so he walks over to the home of one of his two daughters to talk when he has to.

The youngest of six children, he was christened Jesus, but called Sixto by the family. So, what does he prefer?

He laughs.

"What would you like to call me?" Another laugh, then adds quickly, "Rodriguez. My name is Rodriguez."

He is the son of Mexican immigrants who moved to the US in the 1920s.

By the time he was born in 1942, his father had settled the family in Detroit, "Motor City" about 300km east of Chicago, on the Great Lakes.

"My family, we're indigenous people from San Luis Potosí in Central Mexico," he told New Yorker late last year.

"My father moved to Detroit because the automobile companies were paying great wages.

"My dad, he was my role model - my mum died when I was three - and the way we honour our parents is remembering their heritage.

"You know Mexicans sing together, they embrace when they meet.

"So there was a family guitar that was laying around and I learned how to play it."

Rodriguez grew up came in the protest era, hanging on the words of songs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Barry McGuire.

He soaked up the atmosphere, and still describes himself, rather poetically, as "musico-politico". But he has never been one to just talk.

Despite savage financial constraints, he has run unsuccessfully for mayor and councilman in the Detroit City Council.

The first time, his name was mis-spelt on the ballot paper.

Between work, study and family, "there was always the music", he says.

But he did not know the impact of his music until one of his daughters googled his name in 1998.

 

ACCORDING to folklore, Rodriguez's albums were first brought to South Africa by a girl who had been working in Australia. She gave them as a gift to her boyfriend.

Be that as it may, the music slowly took hold there, consistently charting through the 1990s.

His music was revered, mentioned in hushed tones in the same breath as Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

The dark, satanic rumour mills churned too. Rodriguez had died, according to them.

Of course, that only made him more popular.

While Rodriguez and his family looked in stunned disbelief at a computer screen in 1998, moves were afoot by

South African fans to see if he really was dead.

It is that search that has been documented by Search for Sugar Man, the feature-length documentary that won an Academy Award in Hollywood this week.

Rodriguez watched the Oscars at home on TV.

"He's genuinely a humble man," the film's producer, Simon Chinn, told an interviewer after he received the award.

"He doesn't regard this (film) as his ... he regards it as (director Malik Bendjelloul's) ...

"He doesn't want to take credit for it."

That would not be Rodriguez's style, anyway.

And he is busy. He has just finished tours of South Africa, Europe and the United States.

He has three albums - his first two albums as well as the soundtrack to the documentary - in the Billboard Top 100 album list, and is planning to record a new one, for which he has written 30-or-so songs.

"And I'm looking forward to Byron Bay," he said. He will play with Australian band The Break, which features some old friends.

"I've known the guys from Midnight Oil for years. We crossed paths touring - I've been to their shows, they've been to mine," he said.

The Break features three members of the Oils. "It should be a blast."



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