Rodriguez Robbed

Crooked children, yellow chalk
writing on the concrete walk
Their King died
Drinking from a Judas cup
looking down but seeing up
Sweet red wine
‘Cos Papa don’t allow no new ideas here
And now you hear the music
but the words don’t sound too clear

–Sixto Rodríguez, Inner City Blues

I owned four vinyl copies of Cold Fact, Rodríguez’s first album, replacing each one as it became worn out from almost constant play. The CD version now has pride of place in my collection.
We watched the documentary about Rodríguez last night, Searching for Sugar Man. The film explored the possible reasons why Rodríguez was so popular in South Africa, but bombed in his own country—the U.S.A.—and almost everywhere else. In South Africa he was more popular than Elvis Presley (who he?) and the Doors, but in the U.S.A. no one had heard of him. Perhaps, as the film suggests, his subversive lyrics found resonance amongst a repressed population in a police state (this doesn’t explain why he was also successful in Australia); or perhaps his music just ‘went viral’ here—at first it was only available on bootleg casettes before being picked up and marketed by A&M records.

A point only tangentially covered in the film was the issue of royalties. Mr Rodríguez was not aware that his album had gone platinum in South Africa and Australia. He was working in Detroit as a casual labourer on construction sites when he was ‘discovered’ in 1997 by South African journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom and fan Steven “Sugar” Segerman. It had been thought that he had committed suicide years before.

The question is: who trousered his money? Why did he not receive a penny of the royalties that were due to him? He has been described by film critic Roger Ebert as a “secular saint”, a man who doesn’t seem to care about money at all, but that does not absolve the record company executives who cynically robbed him. Even though he won’t initiate it himself, I hope some law enforcement agency takes the trouble to investigate this crime, and make an example of the perpetrators.

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places
So don’t tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going

–Sixto Rodríguez, Rich Folks Hoax

Update: Record sales have taken off following the Oscar win. It seems Mr Rodriguez is going to pursue his royalties.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

20 Responses to Rodriguez Robbed

  1. Beechmount says:

    Amen to everything you said. I too have never heard of him, which isn’t so strange, my country being unfortunate enough to border on the US of A, where killing children has become the chosen sport of nutters and owning an assault rifle is a must for right-wing gun crazy idiots.

    What’s popular in the US as for music, generally tend to become popular here in Canada, the reverse of which is also true.

    • Do yourself a favour: either buy legally or download illegally (he isn’t going to get any of your money in either case) ‘Cold Fact’. Give it a careful listen, then invite your friends around to share your joy and astonishment. He deserves wider recognition.

  2. Con-Tester says:

    Cold Fact is without a doubt an undiscovered classic of the singer/songwriter genre. I defy anyone who hasn’t heard it to give it three whirls and not get hooked on Rodriguez’ captivating evocations and hooky melodies.

    Another rumour that I heard sometime around the early 90s was that when Cold Fact went ballistic here in SA in the mid-70s, Rodriguez was serving time in jail on a marijuana bust, something which seemed plausible in view of his anti-establishment views. And allegedly US law is such that any artist’s royalties accrue to their Department of Corrections over the period of the artist’s incarceration. However, it seems to have been just a rumour because I can’t find any reliable sources that corroborate it.

    In SA it was the track I Wonder, released as a single here that went all the way to #1 IIRC, that provoked the ire of our erstwhile infamous (and mentally deranged) Censor Board. Their Calvinistic attitude must have given them apoplexy when Rodriguez sang the lines, “I wonder how many times you’ve had sex; and I wonder, do you know who’ll be next.” Strong corrupting stuff indeed for purple-rinse tannies and fire-n-brimstone dominees!

    • Yes, absolutely. If you haven’t seen the movie Searching for Sugar Man, I highly recommend it. It’s almost like a fairy tale–a marvellous gilded coach masquerading as a pumpkin briefly revealed for what it really is, then relapsing into pumpkinhood again.

      I don’t understand how his talent failed to gain recognition in his own country, or why it gained traction here. We aren’t more discerning than anyone else, but in this instance we got it right. His albums have been re-released in the US now on the back of the movie, and I hope the new generation appreciates him more than his countrymen did in the past.

      Searching for Sugar Man has been nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. We’ll find out on 24th February whether or not it wins. I’m holding thumbs.

    • Con-Tester says:

      The only vaguely sensible explanation I can offer for Rodriguez’ SA success is that we had conscription in those heady, sweaty days and the emergence of an avant garde radio station catering for national servicemen’s musical requests. National Service, barracks plus cassettes and home taping made for a perfect memetic Petri dish. Cold Fact is replete with touches of rebellion and disdain for the establishment, and the singer’s bitter vignettes about shallow women and lost love would no doubt have struck a chord (!) with serving draftees’ sense of isolation. With servicemen’s musical requests enjoying priority, widespread airplay was virtually guaranteed in addition to how easily music was spread around in the confines of the barracks, either by being played by someone or by being taped for a friend.

      Perhaps his lesser success in Australia was the result of a somewhat similar musical void at that time. The early and mid-70s weren’t exactly a roiling cauldron of artistic innovation.

      And you claim you got something going
      Something you call ‘unique’
      But I’ve seen your self-pity showing
      As the tears rolled down your cheeks.

      And you assume you got something to offer
      Secrets shiny and new
      But how much of you is repetition
      That you didn’t whisper to him too?

      –Rodriguez, Crucify Your Mind

      • No, no! Not Forces Favourites with Esme Everard! Oh, the horror! I had hitherto managed to forget that. There was a young lady (who was, coincidentally, my corporal’s sister) who thought I was the sexiest creature in the universe. she kept sending me requests (usually ABBA). I had to hide on Sunday afternoons.

      • Con-Tester says:

        I was actually thinking of the incipient Radio 5 (now 5FM) which was kicked off by a few former LM Radio DJs in late ’75 or early ’76, right about the time Rodriguez really started taking off here. I certainly remember hearing some of his songs being played fairly often on request by that venerable music station. The emergence of Radio 5 also marked the first stirrings that SA’s white youth was not unequivocally enchanted with the country’s leadership. In fact, it’s my view that Radio 5 paved the way for the later widespread subversions by local artists, especially musicians, which permeated the 80s, as witnessed by their being banned at the drop of a dischord. 😉

        I don’t remember irritating Esmé Everard ever playing any of Rodriguez’ material. She was anything but avant-garde. It would be considerably more accurate to label her a Nat stooge with her on-air glib comforts and ingratiating manner towards servicemen and their girlfriends, although she may actually have been sincere since she did occasionally visit the boys on the border. I myself never saw her though.

  3. We couldn’t get Radio 5 or Capital Radio in Nothern Namibia; we were stuck with Esme. I think the DJs at 5 were John Berks and (nitty gritty gruesome) David Gresham? Funnily enough, the first time I heard Rodriguez was, I’m fairly sure, on an SABC English service show called ‘Going Gooding’ with Malcolm Gooding which went out on Saturday nights. He used to play a lot of stuff that later became frowned upon by the powers-that-were.

    • Con-Tester says:

      I got my first copy from a maatjie during basics at Voortrekkerhoogte. It was on a TDK C60 cassette tape that someone else later liberated from me. I eventually bought my own vinyl copy (for R3.49, IIRC) and made cassette copies for myself and others. I still have that record but the sleeve bears the scars of a fish moth attack.

      And wasn’t SA vinyl just utterly dreadful? Like breakfast cereal, all snap, crackle and pop, especially distracting in any music other than loud fast rock.

  4. Con-Tester says:

    Mark Widdicombe observes:

    Rodríguez was so popular in South Africa, but bombed in his own country—the U.S.A.—and almost everywhere else. In South Africa he was more popular than Elvis Presley (who he?) and the Doors, but in the U.S.A. no one had heard of him.

    I’ve thought further about this mystery while listening to Cold Fact again several times attended by intense bouts of spot-the-influence. (I haven’t seen Searching for Sugar Man yet, so I don’t know how deeply the film contemplates question.) I now strongly suspect that when the album was first released, Rodriguez was simply dismissed by several influential US music critics as just another Bob Dylan clone (with sporadic flashes of Arlo Guthrie), and so any possible interest in him got nipped in the bud. DJs tended to take their cues from what critics wrote in Rolling Stone and music distribution wasn’t what it is today.

    Not too long before the release of Cold Fact, Dylan had discovered electricity and done some of his best stuff — the captivatingly quirky Blonde on Blonde, the unexpectedly incongruous John Wesley Harding and the monumental Highway 61 Revisited — so it seems to me that there was a perhaps over-eager readiness to sideline anyone who showed even the vaguest pretensions towards emulating Dylan. If my suspicion is correct, interest in Rodriguez was prematurely and reflexively cauterised. Listen to Like Janis. To me, the song proves conclusively that Rodriguez could do Dylan at least as well as Dylan himself, be it lyrically, musically, stylistically, poetically or by any other measure of artistic merit. Even the title is more Dylan than Dylan. The rest of Cold Fact contains subtleties, such as the occasional nod to psychedelia, that push the envelope of what Dylan had done or was doing at about the same time.

    So, if there’s any substance to my reflections, it’s that Rodriguez was, very unfairly, ignored elsewhere contingent on certain critics’ fickleness, and that his musical wizardry filled the hole in South Africa that was left by local radio stations not playing Dylan’s more recent material at that time.

  5. Keltic. says:

    Just listened to this album. Whilst a good singer with excellent delivery, the Dylan influence is obvious, and at times unashamedly so. The big difference though : Dylans songs and lyrics are ten times better, Nevertheless, as an album, and piece of artifax, Cold Fact is worth its place in anyone’s record collection.

  6. Rob Cain says:

    In Australia’s biggest cities Melbourne and Sydney in the early 70’s every house you went to with a decent current album collection had Rodriguez. At least one or sometimes both albums. Even if they only had a dozen or so classics sitting there to play you would see Neil Young, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Stones, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, a Dylan, Byrds, Beatles White Album, maybe some old Easybeats and whatever but Rodriguez was there 90% of the time too. He could have toured Australia for decades on the strength of it.

    If Sixto’s daughters or relatives read this – get a great lawyer and achieve some justice.

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