Unlikely return for Rodriguez
Sixto Rodriguez.

He has been called the greatest 70s rock star who never was. A Chicano Bob Dylan. More improbably, the 70-year-old street bard from Detroit is considered a founding father of South African progressive rock. At the least, he's one of the most unlikely comeback artists in music history.

Sixto Rodriguez, a man whose life has been shrouded in question marks, myths and might-have- beens, thought his music had fallen into a black hole of obscurity. He spent three decades as a construction worker in Detroit after he was dropped by his record label in the 70s.

Now he's the star of Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary recounting his stranger-than- fiction life saga that was the surprise hit of last year's Sundance Film Festival and opens PIAF's Lotterywest Festival Films program on Sunday.

When Rodriguez showed up earlier this year to perform at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, it was as if some pop- culture Lazarus had materialised on stage.

Resplendent in an electric-turquoise suit, caressing his Yamaha guitar and sporting sunglasses to shield his faltering eyesight, he launched into a musical lament with the unshowy confidence of a man used to working a crowd.

"I know I am on a dead- end street in a city without a heart," Rodriguez wailed in his knowing, weather- beaten tenor to the roomful of friends, music biz insiders and the simply curious. "When the odds are all against you, how can you win?"

Against all odds, Rodriguez has become a reborn rock artist, touring the world and playing gigs this year with the likes of Van Morrison and the Kinks' Ray Davies.

Talking the day before his Grammy Museum appearance, Rodriguez expressed surprise and pleasure over his recent reversal of fortune. Neither fazed nor blase about the sudden media spotlight, he's as outwardly shy as he is unfailingly humble and polite. He still sees himself as a working man, an artist-activist who spent his life doing manual labour, once ran for mayor of Detroit, and believes in music's power to make a better world.

"I always like to say Solomon was a musician and David was a musician and music itself is a cultural force. It's a celebration of life," he said.

Searching for Sugar Man, named for one of Rodriguez' biting urban ballads about a corner drug dealer, tells the mind-bending tale of how the singer, forgotten in his homeland, became a rock idol in apartheid-era South Africa in the mid-1970s. In that isolated pariah state, Rodriguez' sexually frank, anti-establishment songs were embraced by a faction of liberal white Afrikaner youth who were opposed to the country's racist regime. At his peak in South Africa, Rodriguez was as popular as the Beatles and more revered than the Rolling Stones.

The twist is that Rodriguez was unaware of his fame until 20 years later. "It was the resurrection of a dead man," said Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish director of Searching for Sugar Man.

As the documentary from Sony Pictures Classics relates, Rodriguez was a long shot ever to make it in the music business. The only thing he really had, after all, was talent.

The son of immigrants from Mexico's Jalisco State, he and his sister were raised in Michigan by their father after their mother died when Rodriguez was three years old. Their father stressed self- sufficiency and self-worth. "He had this saying," Rodriguez recalled. "It's not a shame to be poor."

After teaching himself to play guitar and compose, Rodriguez began playing "divey" Detroit bars, where his enigmatic presence and haunting tunes first attracted an underground following.

Along the way, someone suggested he change his name to Rod Riguez, "to make him sound more American," Bendjelloul said. "Maybe he would have had more success if he did but he said 'No, I'm Rodriguez'."

"He was on the streets all the time, walking around . . . and observing," said Dennis Coffey, a top Motown and jazz session guitarist who spotted Rodriguez playing at a Detroit bar, the Sewer, in the late 60s and co-produced his first album, Cold Fact.

"That's what I think made him so special with what he wrote about because he lived it and he saw it."

Rodriguez crafted Rust Belt sketches of hookers and barflies and of ordinary hardworking people. Mixing tenderness, slow- burning outrage and sardonic humour, he distilled his feelings about events like the Vietnam War, the 1970 Kent State student massacre, and the despair of the American ghetto, into bleakly beautiful melodies.

Though hailed by a few prescient critics as a masterpiece of psychedelic lyricism and funky urban grit, Cold Fact flopped, as did its follow-up, Coming From Reality. Unknown to Rodriguez, however, bootleg copies of Cold Fact found their way into South Africa during the mid-1970s. And one of its songs, the casually rebellious I Wonder, became an anthem of liberation for young Afrikaners weaned on strict Calvinist morality.

"It allowed us to free our minds and start thinking differently," said Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, a Cape Town record store owner who helped build Rodriguez' South African fan base. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Rodriguez was raising three daughters and earning a college degree in philosophy. In 1998, Segerman and other obsessive followers, with the aid of some intrepid journalists, went online and found Rodriguez.

They told him of his celebrity and flew him to Cape Town. There, Rodriguez played several sold-out concerts before tens of thousands of ecstatic fans.

Some of these concerts are captured on film in Sugar Man. Bendjelloul had stumbled on Rodriguez' tale in 2006 while on a six-month African story-seeking safari for Swedish TV.

The West Australian

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