Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Shaman and his Shocking Secret Success (Music Review of "Searching for Sugarman" Soundtrack)

If the soaring, searing songs by Sixto Rodriguez sound to you like a suppressed secret from a bygone era...well, you'd be right on the money. And money is exactly what Rodriguez spurns in his songs and did not earn much of in his lifetime, seemingly owing to some clandestine conspiracy on the part of rapacious record execs and racially unenlightened music lovers. For even though black musicians had broken through to and were embraced by the mainstream, a Mexican-American during the late 60s in 70s trying to make it in the music biz was a rare thing indeed, and the Hispanic presence in the US just wasn't pervasive as it is today.

The beautiful and redeeming irony is, Rodriguez (unknowingly) enjoyed Elvis-like celebrity in 1970s South Africa, where his protest lyrics resonated deeply with white liberals aching to dismantle the horrific institution known as Apartheid, which brutally oppressed the black majority race.

Meanwhile in the paradoxical parallel universe known as the US and A, Sixto's albums were busy bombing, sending Rodriguez back into the bleak shadows of Detroit car factories whence he emerged. A timid and reclusive type, instead of seizing on the successes in Australia and New Zealand that he enjoyed a few years after his US failures, and using those to propel some semblance of well-merited esteem in his home country, Rodriquez retreated into oblivion, resigning himself to the the monotonous thrum of hard labor over the euphonious strum of a guitar.

And then the internet happened. And the rest is history...and Rodriguez receives the news of his covert acclaim with humility rather than histrionics. For it had been MY work that had could have earned me a possibly vastly better life than the one I ended up leading, I would be hysterical with rage. Especially considering that it seems a record company was the foil that obstructed Rodriguez's wider renown. Aren't record companies supposed to facilitate success? Or am I being naive?

So the songs on this soundtrack, which are culled from his two albums, "Cold Fact" and "Coming from Reality," harbor the kind of universal quality that one associates with the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, John Lennon, et al. All the facile cliches apply: Iconic, anthemic, prophetic...and yet for decades the majority of Americans and the world, really, were denied access to the songs that could have enriched their lives. Whereas Dylan et al were permitted to spread their influence far and wide, Rodriguez, through forces outside of his control, could not touch as many lives with his timeless tunes, even though they were every bit as good (and in fact way better) than Dylan's. The songs marry traditional folk and blues with flourishes of Motown - and yet really it's his poetic-polemical lyrics and haunting vocal delivery that are the hooks of Rodriguez's shamanistic persona.

If it's true that Sussex Records cheated Rodriguez out of his South African royalties, then it's Sussex Records who is culpable for suppressing the surreptitious success of Rodriguez, and Sussex Records who is to blame for neglecting to cultivate his fame elsewhere. For even though Rodriguez scorned the love of money in his songs and as manifested by his meek lifestyle, money could have been the ticket for Rodriguez to build on his South African and Down Under successes. Had he had access to the money that was rightfully his, maybe he could have started his own label and promoted himself correctly - and in turn ascended to the adulation that he so richly deserved in his time.
Indeed, lyrics in "Crucify Your Mind" seem to foretell Rodriguez's failure:
"Was it a huntsman or a player
That made you pay the cost
That now assumes relaxed positions
And prostitutes your loss?"
The last line is particularly salient.

At least, however, Rodriguez's failures have been partially redeemed by his current recognition that the movie, "Searching for Sugar Man," has generated. Of course, for 40 years Rodriguez had to break his back when his musical talents could have eased things for him had record company greed not impeded his way...and again, his lyrics (in "Cause") foreshadows this scenario:

"Cause they told me everybody's got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them"
Of course, even if Rodriguez does not betray any bitterness in his demeanor, he does have a dark sense of humor about life:
"Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?"
And once again, he prophesies his failures ("I'll Slip Away"), but does not nourish resentment:
"And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I'll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I'll go mend all my shattered dreams"

And then he slips away.
But now he's been resurrected, and at 70 years old, Rodriguez finally gotten his due, and the world is all the wealthier for it.

Video links:

Sugarman at YouTube



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