Searching for Sugar Man

See what I mean?

I first came into contact with the Artist Formerly and Currently Known as Rodriguez when his song “Sugar Man” appeared on David Holmes’ great mix CD Come Get It I Got It. It was an instant mind-blower, with its combination folky/psychedelic sound, dark druggy lyrics, and of course Rodriguez’s voice, a slightly sharper, more musical version of Dylan’s voice.

You couldn’t buy Rodriguez’s records at the time, at least in this country. I had never heard of the cat, and knew nothing about him, which I had in common with just about everyone. For instance, I had no idea that he was a superstar in South Africa — and neither did he, which is the crux of the story that forms the backbone of Searching for Sugar Man.

I finally just saw Sugar Man the movie after hearing about it for the better part of a year, and thankfully it lived up to the hype. The word “inspirational” gets thrown around too much, especially when it comes to movies, but it’s hard not to be moved by the story of Rodriguez (his first name, which he appears not to care for much, is “Sixto”; though for legal reasons many of his songs were credited to his brother Jesus, causing much confusion). In the early 70s he made a couple of albums that got some decent reviews, but no one bought them. (At one point in the movie an interviewer asks Clarence Avant, owner of Rodriguez’s original label, how many records he sold back in the day. Avant shrugs his shoulders and guesses, “Six?”) So after being dropped from Avant’s label, Rodriguez quit the music scene and went to work doing construction and renovation.

But the unheard music refused to die — instead, it went out into the world and lived a life of its own. As the movie relates, somehow a copy of Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact made it to South Africa and really struck a chord with people there — even becoming a part of the anti-apartheid movement for reasons that are still not clear to me, even though they are explained in the movie several times.

Perhaps the coolest part of this story is that Rodriguez the man goes on to live an entirely noble and productive life — working, raising three daughters, and remaining politically active — just not the kind of life that movies get made about. Meanwhile, after conquering South Africa, his music colonizes Australia, from where Rodriguez got the first inkling that he was remembered as an artist. The movie ignores Rodriguez’ Australian tours of 1979 and 81, choosing to focus on South Africa, where people thought he was dead — and he had no idea that he was more popular than Jesus  (or at least the Stones) — until 1998. That was when an article and website caught the attention of Rodriguez’s daughter Eva, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The footage of Rodriguez walking into a packed arena in Cape Town as the bassline of “I Wonder” plays is worth the price of admission by itself. I like to think that somehow, in some universe, every one of us gets to have this experience — where something we did a long time ago finds true appreciation and we finally get to be the star we always knew we were. Though again, it is clear from watching Rodriguez and hearing him talk that he always lived whatever life he was in to the fullest. He was always a star whether anyone was paying attention or not; he just happens to look cooler holding a guitar.