COLUMN SIX: Finding Sixto “Sugarman” Rodriguez

Sixto Rodriguez in performance last Friday at Toronto's Massey Hall. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

In February 2015 there was an immense snow storm. Pelham woke up to the better part of 30 centimetres of snow—school was cancelled, plows were outmatched, and I spent most of the morning helping my father dig out our driveway and sidewalk. Typically, unexpected time off is spiritually uplifting, but on this particular day I was supposed to attend a concert in Toronto, and so I was less than enthused by the dumping.

Early that morning I received a phone call from the friend with whom I was supposed to go to the show. The night before, his car had broken down, and he seemed more interested in staying in bed than in finding another method of transportation.

I was in something of a quandary. Getting to Toronto in that weather was in itself daunting enough, but another problem was that he had purchased the tickets, and technically he was the one who was required to pick them up at the box office. In the end, we decided that if I took his credit card and driver’s license, the resemblance would probably be sufficient to fool the ticket attendant. And by the afternoon the snow had stopped and driving to the GO station in Burlington wasn’t a problem.

At the time, I didn’t have much experience navigating Toronto, and when I first arrived I was disoriented. The sidewalks had been coated in salt, melting the snow into a pulpy slush that worked its way through the laces of my shoes and made the tops of the subway grates slick like black ice. As I stopped to enter a Tim Horton’s and get my bearings, a shirtless man came crashing out and sprinted down the street, flailing his arms and howling at some invisible devil.

Sitting at one of the tables inside were two men poring over tickets—evidently scalpers organizing their seats for the night’s hockey game. Surely, I thought, they would know how to get to Massey Hall. The two paused to think for minute after I had asked, their looks those of ones who had been to a place so often that the route was directionless to them. Eventually, apologetically, they gave me a series of complicated instructions, all of which I promptly forgot upon leaving the place.

I did finally find the venue without too much trouble, and when I went inside the box office to pick up the tickets I removed my glasses and left on my hat and scarf, all the better to resemble my friend’s ID. The attendant gave me the tickets.

Before the show, I made my way to the apartment of the friend whom I had requisitioned to replace the one whose identity I had permissibly stolen. We had been listening to the artist to whose show we were about to see when the shuffle began playing another singer. I hadn’t heard him before—the sound was at once distant yet strikingly familiar. Who was it? I asked. Sixto Rodriguez, I was told. Better known as just, “Rodriguez,” and better known still as “Sugar Man” in the documentary, Searching for Sugar Man.

Searching for Sugar Man begins in South Africa, where Rodriguez is one of the most popular artists around. In the 1970s and ‘80s, in the depths of Apartheid, bootlegged copies of his two albums were ubiquitous. His anti-establishment message was just what young South Africans were eager to hear after decades of enforced racial segregation.

But he released just two albums in the early ‘70s, and then dropped off the map. Rumours abounded, many of them gruesome. He had killed himself onstage, some said. Doused himself in gasoline and lit a match, or else pulled a revolver from his pocket and shot himself through the head. Whatever had happened to him, everyone thought, couldn’t have been good. Why else would a singer more popular that Elvis disappear from view.

Rodriguez did not kill himself. While he was incredibly popular in South Africa, his music was poorly promoted in North America. In Detroit, where he is from, he never played in any venue larger than bars and music halls.

“How many records do you think he sold in the US?” a music industry figure is asked in the film.

“About six,” he answers.

Having received no response, Rodriguez quit making music after those two albums. He returned to working construction in Detroit—demolition in particular—and living in a house that he bought for $50 dollars in a government sale. He took a philosophy degree at a university in Detroit and had three daughters.

In the late 1990s, Rodriguez’s eldest daughter came across a South African website devoted to her father. Before long, he was in contact with concert promoters there eager to arrange for a tour. He left his half-derelict home in Detroit and flew to South Africa, where he played shows to nearly 10,000 people.

The footage of his first show of that tour, in Cape Town, is striking. Rodriguez is off-stage, while the bassist plays the distinctive opening riff to, “I Wonder,” over and over again. Rodriguez walks out and the noise seemingly registers as high as the camera’s microphone is capable of recording. Shots of the crowd show people screaming, shaking their heads from side-to-side, their faces shining with sweat before the show has even begun. The bassist, who no doubt had never seen such a scene, stops playing, and just watches as Rodriguez stands at centre stage, gazing placidly at the frenzied crowd, soaking up decades of adulation in one stupendous dose. And then he starts to play.

Last Friday night at promptly 9 PM at Massey Hall, Sixto Rodriguez was helped on stage by two of his daughters. One held on to his right arm, and the other to his left, guiding him as he shuffled with small steps to his seat at the front. On a small table beside him, they placed two hats stacked on each other and two tightly-lidded paper cups filled with unidentified liquids. A technician handed him his guitar and helped him to loop it around one shoulder. Rodriguez pawed tentatively at the air, searching for the microphone. “Merci beaucoup,” he said. Members of the crowd could be forgiven if they thought, momentarily, that he might not know exactly where he was.

“Are they going to give him his pills first, before he plays?” said a man behind me But then, as if he had heard this comment all the way from the balcony, Rodriguez gave a soft laugh.

“Toronto, right?” Ignoring the hats that lay at his elbow, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a toque, holding it up triumphantly before stretching it over his hair and breaking into a broad smile. He then fingered a few chords on his guitar, slapped twice on the strings in what soon became clear was the sound man’s signal to turn on the amp, and broke into his opening song.

At 75, Rodriguez is an old man and he did not pretend to be otherwise. He played “Sugar Man” — perhaps his most famous song—in which he sings of, “Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.”

“That song is descriptive, not prescriptive,” he said. “‘Take hugs, not drugs. Be smart, don’t start.’ Listen to your parents, and you’ll be all right.

He is nearly blinded by glaucoma, and he wears thick goggles, much like those of a welder, to block distracting flashes that could slip through to his shrunken optical nerves. Bob Dylan, the singer to whom Rodriguez is most often compared, only bangs chords on the piano and no longer acknowledges the crowd, preferring to act as if he were doing nothing more than rehearsing in a basement. Rodriguez, for all his infirmity, was clearly pleased just to be in front of people. “We love you,” someone shouted.

“I know it’s just the drink talking,” he said. “But I love you right back.”

Searching for Sugar Man won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2013 (it is available on Netflix) though it does take some narrative liberties. Rodriguez was indeed unknown in North America, but he had achieved popularity in Australia and New Zealand comparable to that in South Africa. In the late 1970s, he went on a very successful tour in Australia, playing shows to nearly 15,000. He says that after he returned home from those runs, the phone stopped ringing. But this doesn’t really explain why he quit music, or where all the money from his record sales went—and Rodriguez isn’t much interested in clearing up the confusion.

When he finished playing “I Wonder” last Friday, he said, “The reason I stopped wondering is because I realized that I didn’t really want to know.”

Rodriguez sat down for the most of the show, moving only when the initial set was through and his daughters again helped him shuffle to the stage door. He returned for an encore, leaving his jacket backstage. Before the last song, he stood up, shakily, pushing his stool back with the heels of his boots. He held on to his guitar tightly, as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. He plays in a manner unlike anyone else I’ve seen, pulling and slapping upwards at the nylon strings with the pads of his fingers and striking down with all his nails at once. When it was all over, he pulled off his goggles and reached out expectantly for his band’s hands. They joined arms and bowed. 

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