WASHINGTON — In a synagogue around the corner from the Washington convention center where AIPAC is holding its annual policy conference, a resurrected protest singer of Mexican descent from Detroit, clad in leather pants, a white straw boater and aviator goggles, is playing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Sixto Rodriguez, who assumed he’d died as a folk-rock musician when his two albums tanked in the US almost 50 years ago, but whose records, completely unbeknownst to him, were actually alive, selling extremely well, and fueling anti-apartheid passion in South Africa, has belatedly received his due fame in the past few years thanks to the beyond-implausible sequence of events documented in the Oscar-winning “Searching for Sugar Man.”
On Saturday night, as part of his latest American tour, the now 75-year-old Rodriguez played a solo concert for a full house of several hundred at Washington DC’s historic “sixth&i” synagogue — a place, its website proclaims, that celebrates “the unexpected places where Jewish and secular culture meet.”
And, indeed, it was more than a little unexpected to see Rodriguez, seated on what looked like an office chair in front of the holy ark, bustling through his repertoire of anti-establishment songs, and a handful of covers of which “Happy Days…” was emphatically the most improbable, as his particular brand of worshipers swayed along in the sanctuary downstairs, and the overflow crowd upstairs clapped and danced beneath the stained glass windows in what was once presumably the women’s gallery.
Rodriguez, it should be made clear, was thoroughly comfortable in the sacred surroundings. An Israeli once booked him on a tour of Australia, he remarked early on, glancing at the two giant menorahs with which he shared the stage, “so I’m familiar with some of these symbols around me.”
Clearly no longer in the best of health, he was helped on and off stage, and the singing and guitar-playing were anything but effortless. Yet Rodriguez was comfortable, nonetheless, pacing himself, musing at length between songs, and playfully switching hats four or five times. “You’re an easy crowd,” he said happily when the first such change of headgear was enthusiastically applauded.
An intermittent would-be politician — he’s run in vain for office numerous times in Detroit — he weighed in gently on gun control: “We have to raise the age for owning an assault weapon a lot higher. To about 40. Forty-five, even…” He took a stance against drugs: “Sugar Man” — his best-known tune — “is a descriptive song not a prescriptive song,” he said. “Be smart. Don’t start.” He urged more women to run for office. He implored that we protect the land and the kids.
And since this was Washington, DC, after all, he said he had to tell us “how I feel about the white guy in the house” — a nice formulation, don’t you think? “I’ve thought,” he said in his soft, hesitant, deadly way, “why doesn’t everybody just leave, and he’ll wake up and be alone…”
Rodriguez wanted us to know that he’s not unpatriotic. Five members of his family have served in the military, including one of his three daughters who is a helicopter pilot and fought in Desert Storm. “But if anyone wants a political stance today, start with the Ten Commandments,” he advised, from his perfect vantage point beneath the two tablets themselves, as depicted atop that sixth&i ark. Suddenly the venue was absolutely appropriate. “Thou shalt not kill,” Rodriguez intoned. “It’s not kill or be killed. It’s live and let live.”
The venue was intimate, and the audience warm and receptive — except for the man who boorishly demanded, about two-thirds of the way through the show, “Are you going to play ‘Sugar Man‘?” But Rodriguez was entirely unfazed. “Your wish is my command,” he assented politely, changed glasses and hat, and strummed as instructed.
Receiving his recognition 40 years and more after it would truly have changed his life, Rodriguez is never going to be a wealthy man now. “I have not received any royalties,” he said, referring to those two albums that made other people a fair amount of money. “Still true.”
But in his twilight, he has found his comfort zone, at once feisty and self-deprecating. He told us his upcoming London Royal Albert Hall concert had sold out, so they’ve added a second show. And then he punctured his own ego by declaring, “I want everyone here tonight to know that I want to be treated like an ordinary legend.”
He also said he’d be putting out some new material soon. Well, that’s been rumored for years. For now, it was a rare pleasure to hear him play the familiar stuff, and especially to try to catch those between-song advisories.
When he was gone, waving as he was helped from the stage, a distinctly surreal evening was completed when the security guard shouted a reminder to the departing crowds that it was illegal for us to take our half-finished beers out into the streets. “Make sure all your drinks are finished before you leave the sanctuary,” she cautioned firmly. A warning, like the quietly passionate protest music that preceded it, not heard very often in a Jewish house of prayer.