An elderly man in a black fedora and heavy sunglasses shuffles hesitantly along a Detroit sidewalk. The wrong side of 70, his eyesight poor, the man’s sloped shoulders suggest decades of hard labor.
His name is Sixto Rodriguez, and he has indeed spent most of his life struggling to provide for his family by taking poorly paid jobs on local building sites. But he’s also a rock star — at times “bigger than Elvis” in Australia, New Zealand and especially South Africa, where he’s sold hundreds of thousands of records — and has been since the 1970s.
Makes no sense? Welcome to the modern Cinderella story of Rodriguez, an extraordinary saga whose singer-songwriter protagonist was denied a lifetime of fame and adulation through a combination of inadequate communication, some likely financial cynicism, and plenty of unfortunate geography. Meet the poet who moved a generation of young people more than 40 years ago but enjoyed their acclaim only when they and he had passed middle age.
‘Like the Nelson Mandela of music, Rodriguez has emerged from half-a-lifetime of hard labor with a smile on his face and happiness in his heart’
Finally, it’s all turning out well for Rodriguez. His records are selling. The concert bookings are stacking up. He’s earning the royalties due to him. He no longer has to worry much about money. And remarkably, says Stephen Segerman, the 58-year-old Cape Town record store owner who is central to this most improbable of musical rediscoveries, Rodriguez is quite contented with the way his life has panned out. In this Cinderella story, it took the prince 40 years to arrive with the magic slipper. And yet, “like the Nelson Mandela of music,” says Segerman, “Rodriguez has emerged from half-a-lifetime of hard labor with a smile on his face and happiness in his heart.”
Rehabilitation with an Oscar
While many Israelis were rooting for “The Gatekeepers” — the superb documentary in which six usually tight-lipped former Shin Bet security chiefs grappled garrulously on camera with the dilemmas they faced while trying to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorism — it was a film called “Searching for Sugar Man” that took this year’s best documentary Oscar. And understandably so.
“The Gatekeepers” is essential viewing for Israelis and those who care about this country, but its content is hardly universal. Of the other Oscar nominees, one was about AIDS, another focused on rape, and a third was the raw Palestinian propaganda movie “5 Broken Cameras,” ironically submitted as an Israeli entry. And then there was “Searching for Sugar Man” — an implausible-but true, heart-tugging tale of redemption. “We thought we had a good chance,” says Segerman dryly on the phone from his home at the southern tip of Africa.
It was Segerman and a few other enthusiasts who wrought the revival of Rodriguez, closing the circle that is so poignantly traced in “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Like most musically inclined young South Africans, Segerman says, he grew up with The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Rodriguez, the staples of any self-respecting record collection. Rodriguez came across as a musician with a touch of Dylan, Leonard Cohen and, to these ears, a little of Neil Diamond about him. An urban poet whose songs were filled with lyrics about protest and bigoted cops, “politicians using, people they’re abusing,” Rodriguez’s songs tapped into the mindset of anti-apartheid activists. “This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune, and that’s a concrete cold fact,” he sang. But his appeal was even broader.
“We’ve been accused of claiming in the movie that Rodriguez’s music brought down apartheid. We didn’t, and it didn’t,” says Segerman.
Rodriguez was listened to by everyone in South Africa, he clarifies — “the anti-apartheid activists, the fascists, the security police. The music’s powerful. It’s simple, intelligent and beautifully made. Dylan was intelligent, but his music didn’t sound like this. His music pulls people in from a couple of angles. Housewives doing the ironing were singing his songs.” Russian troops fighting with Cubans against the South African army in Angola in the “South African Border War,” Sugarman says, “were listening to Rodriguez.”
Like most musically inclined young South Africans, again, Segerman assumed that Rodriguez’s two early-1970s albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality,” had been as big in the US as they were in South Africa, where they sold a reported 500,000 copies. And he had been devastated to hear rumors that Rodriguez was dead, that he had committed suicide — setting himself ablaze on stage, in some accounts.
Unlike other fans, though, Segerman decided to find out more. In 1997, he set up a website called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt.” As detailed in the movie, he eventually made contact with Rodriguez, who proved to be alive and living, as he always had been, in Detroit. Through all those intervening years — unthinkably, in the Internet era — Rodriguez knew nothing of his fame, and had received none of its rewards.
He’d had his shot at the big time — “Cold Fact” was produced by and recorded with some of Motown’s most skilled veterans, and he was flown to London to record “Coming from Reality” — and missed. He’d been “beyond disappointed,” he would later tell interviewers. But what could he do?
Twenty-seven years after those albums came out, Segerman and others arranged for Rodriguez to play a concert tour in South Africa. Typically, he assumed the limousine waiting for him at the airport was for somebody else. When he first came on stage, the thousands in the audience — struggling to believe he was truly there among them –cheered so long and so loud that he couldn’t start playing for several minutes. This was their idol, an icon who they’d been told was dead, now risen and returned. It was the second coming of Rodriguez.
But when those 1998 concerts were over, recalls Segerman, Rodriguez went back to Detroit “and that was that.” The film recounts that he showed his construction site boss the clippings from the South African newspapers reviewing the concerts he’d played for crowds of 5,000 a night. Who, otherwise, would have believed him?
True fame has arrived for Rodriguez only now, in the run-up to the Oscars and since, after Swedish film-maker Malik Bendjelloul immortalized him in “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Segerman describes Bendjelloul’s work on the movie as “a labor of love.” Bendjelloul wrote it, directed it, created the elegant animation that so elevates it, wrote the soundtrack, and “put it together on his Mac,” reducing himself to poverty in the process. They had filmed with no crew to speak of in South Africa and Detroit, with Segerman acting as location manager and driver, and Bendjelloul assisted by a single colleague, camerawoman Camilla Skagerström.
They submitted the film to January 2012’s Sundance Film Festival, and that, says Segerman, is when this crazy, magical mystery tour” really began.
The film was not merely accepted, which, to its creators, was surprising enough. It was chosen to open the festival, with a screening at 9.30 on Sunday morning.
“We were waiting outside — me, Malik and Rodriguez — and people were grumbling as they passed about having to go to a screening that early. They brought us into the theater a few minutes before the end, to be ready for a Q and A. And when the film finished, the whole place stood up and started cheering and shouting and clapping.
“Then Malik went up and got a standing ovation. I went up. The same. And Malik said ‘I’ve got a guest here from Detroit.’ And here was this guy that first of all, they never knew existed. Then they hear he’s alive. And now he’s here in the room with them. And Americans know everything. But they didn’t know about him.”
After Sundance, the film began picking up awards at festivals everywhere. Then came the Oscar nomination. Segerman was seated “up in the gods” at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theater last month watching; he has no producer’s credit, so he wasn’t due a statue. “This time, not just the 170 documentary experts but all 6,000 Academy members voted for best documentary. I knew that would be good for us.” When we won, he says, “It was the cherry on the cake.” He pauses. “But it is a very big cake.”
‘He’s not a chatty dude’
Rodriguez, Segerman chuckles, is “so big in America now that it’s ridiculous.” In America and beyond: As I write these lines, “Cold Fact” is #24 on Amazon.com’s music charts. “But he’s still happy, unchanged, anything but bitter,” he says.
There’s talk of a third album — which Segerman isn’t sure is a good idea unless Rodriguez has plenty of good new songs — and of a feature film, with Johnny Depp’s name mentioned for the title role. “They’ll make it into a Hollywood glossy,” Segerman says.
Why did Rodriguez’s record company never tell him it was selling truckloads of his records? Why was he deprived his lifetime of fame and adulation? What happened to the money — the royalties from all those sales? The film follows the money, and points fairly clearly toward a possible culprit. But, says Segerman, Rodriguez “hasn’t pushed the button” to set in motion any kind of legal battle. “Everything’s legitimate now. He’s getting what’s due to him from the new sales. And he’s fine with that.”
With all those hard years working, when he could have enjoyed his success, Segerman says, his tale “would be tragic, except that he’s really a happy guy.”
“He got married and divorced and re-married. It’s a big happy family. He’s a loner, but he loves all of them. His priority is to make sure they are all taken care of. He’s a poet. He’s a stable guy.”
Is Rodriguez still well enough to enjoy his rebirth? “His eyesight is pretty bad,” says Segerman. “But he’s strong. He looks fragile, but that’s because he can’t see too well. Put him in front of a mike and he’ll play all night. He’s in good health.”
Asked in a recent “60 Minutes” feature whether he’d be buying a Ferrari with his new income, one of Rodriguez’s daughters laughed at the absurdity of the notion. She just wished, she said, that he’d get himself a new pair of glasses.
In the many interviews he’s giving these days, Rodriguez comes across as unassuming, self-effacing, gracious and, given those lyrics he wrote more than 40 years ago, surprisingly inarticulate. “Yeah, you wouldn’t have a conversation with him like the one we’ve been having,” Segerman acknowledges. “He’d say, ‘Well, maybe.’ There’d be a few brief phrases. That’s all. He’s not a chatty dude. He did his talking in his music.” And for most of his lifetime, he assumed that nobody had been listening.
When I first call Segerman, in his store on the eve of Passover, I ask him whether he sees some Passover element in the story — a tale of salvation, perhaps, or liberation. He sounds fairly unconvinced, and also pretty busy: “It’s berserk in here these days. People are buying CDs, the DVD of the movie, asking for autographs. People just want to come in and say hi. It’s the coolest thing, a positive, happy, feel-good story.”
Later, though, when he speaks at length from his home, Segerman says, “The Rodriguez story is seen as a parable in the United States. It’s resonating far beyond the music and the movie. It’s about humility and goodness and looking after your family. He’s becoming a minor prophet.
“Here’s the Pesach connection,” says Segerman: “Bread is matza, just all puffed up. Rodriguez is the matza — basic, all humility.”