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Fact: Rodriguez lives

Craig Bartholomew tracked down Rodriguez, who is alive, well, living in Detroit and planning to tour South Africa next month

‘Thanks for your time, and you can thank me for mine, and after that’s said, forget it!” were the poignant last words spoken, live on stage, before blowing his head off. That, at least, was one of the rumours. Others claimed he murdered his wife and was now in jail. Some said he was blind (“open the window and listen to the news”). Most of those asked were quite sure he was dead, perhaps because of the numerous references to drugs on both albums. A cold fact!

It was this anomaly – one that just kept on selling albums – that spurred me to find the truth, and as a bonus, the man behind the truth, Sixto Rodriguez.

In 1972 the album Cold Fact was released in the United States by a folk singer known only as Rodriguez. It sold so badly that it was deleted. When released in South Africa though, it did so well that the record company released his earlier “no-hit” album Coming from Reality, disguised and renamed After the Fact. And then came 24 long years of nothing. No new albums, no music videos, no tours, no publicity – only rumours.

In 1996 I determined to find the man, dead or alive. After nine months, 72 telephone calls, 45 faxes, 142 e-mails, long nights reading through encyclopaedias, music books, dead ends, loose ends and fag ends I reached him. “Yes … it is I, Sixto [Seez- to] Rodriguez,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone.

Finding out just where he’d been in all this time was not an easy task. He is a private man and has his “own concept of the universe”. For someone who once sang, “The mayor hides the crime rate … the public forgets the vote date,” it was surprising he had actually run for mayor of Detroit seven times. And although he hasn’t released any albums since 1974 he still plays and sings, has toured Australia twice, has fathered two daughters. He still has long hair, is fit and is bringing out a new album. What’s more, he’ll be in South Africa next month.

I spoke to him recently by phone.

Rodriguez: So, tell me about yourself?

CB: I was born in Kimberley, a very dry and dusty mining town with a mentality to match, and literally hours after my last school exam, I got the hell out.

R: Next question … How do they celebrate a diamond festival?

CB: Hey! Who’s doing this interview?

R: Okay, I like to tell people that I was born on Michigan Avenue, five blocks from the centre of Detroit.

CB: I’ve had a hard time in South Africa convincing people that you are alive and kicking. Why do you think this impression exists?

R: Imaginations working overtime. Your personal intervention, though, has energised my tour to South Africa.

CB: In A Most Disgusting Song you say you’ve “played faggot bars, hooker bars, motorcycle funerals, opera houses, concert halls and even half-way houses”. Are you still playing?

R: I am working on a project with Mike Theodore at the moment [producer on the 1972 Cold Fact album].

CB: Do you think everyone is in some way an artist?

R: Yes, art is in all of us. We all have a talent. It is up to us to listen and draw within ourselves and pull out the words, the form or some creative action.

CB: Your family’s from Mexico, are they not?

R: Yeah, immigrated to the US in the 1920s.

CB: This reminds me of one of my favourite pieces, a song by Pat Metheny called Sueo con Mexico.

R: Yes, “I dream with Mexico”. I’ve heard the piece. Overlapping guitars. In my opinion, the guitar is central in popular music. Guitars have evolved, changed shape, become electrified. It is one of the most unifying language tools in the world. I’d be lost without one.

CB: Your daughter Eva says she has fond memories of you and your brothers sitting on your father’s porch jamming and singing Mexican music, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Hank Williams and others. What’s your earliest musical memory?

R: I began playing at 16 on a family guitar and it altered my life.

CB: There’s something wonderful about trying to understand a new culture. Tell me about your summer with American Indians.

R: It was a great summer. We went swimming in Grand Bend and to pow-wows [a magical Indian ceremony] throughout Michigan. As far back as 1974 I was involved in organising an American-Indian pow-wow at Wayne State University Campus.

CB: … where you studied philosophy?

R: Yes, but to get back to American Indians … theirs is a vibrant and natural culture.

CB: What is the significance of the little grey shoe on the Coming from Reality album cover [released in South Africa as After the Fact].

R: The shoe had no real meaning. The photographer, Hal Wilson, came in from New York. We walked around Detroit and saw the house. Debris was laying around and the shoe was nearby. I took it and placed it beside mine. We only took seven shots for the album cover. Milton Sincoff designed the cover with Buddha Records and we said at the time: if the album doesn’t make it, the cover will!

CB: In your music you mention names like Jane S Piddy, Molly MacDonald and Willlie Thompson. Who are they?

R: The people are fictional. I tapped on the writer’s poetic licence giving them names and shape. Almost as a caricature works for the visual artist.

CB: Coming from Reality was recorded in Britain, yet I could not find one single copy there.

R: We spent 30 wonderful days recording the Reality album. We stayed in Belgravia, London. I really don’t know what happened with the distribution, though.

CB: Why was your masterpiece, Cold Fact, largely ignored in the US?

R: “Masterpiece”? You’re too kind. It was the first product released on the Sussex label, owned by Clarence Avant [today’s Motown head]. It’s all right that it happened this way.

CB: What is your view on drugs such as cannabis, as in your song Sugar Man?

R: Clearly alcohol is a much more destructive substance. Weed is a natural substance. Less harmful and helpful in some cases. The way I see it is when the law catches up with reality, change will come. There’s a group in Michigan called Normal trying to “decriminalise” dope and a guy on the West Coast running for governor of California who produces the substance for medical purposes.

CB: I heard that there’s some link between you and the band Midnight Oil?

R: I feel that Midnight Oil is a top band. I first watched them perform in 1981. I witnessed their powerful stage performance at past two in the morning in the freezing cold of the Australian wind. It was so cold that as Peter Garrett performed steam was rising from his head. It was almost phantom-like. He is musical, political and international. I also love the Stones. For me, Mick Jagger is king, but Peter Garrett is also high on the list of musical aristocracy. I’ve been lucky to have been backstage with Midnight Oil on several occasions. We were on the same bill in Australia in 1981 … it was a trip!

CB: Detroit is a city of soul music. Strange that you got your first recording break there?

R: There is a wide range of labels that pick up on Detroit talents. From a macro perspective, I feel we live in the age of sound. Like the Bronze Age or Stone Age. Today, we are all given so many clues about life through sound.

— Rodriguez will play at the Bellville Velodrome in Cape Town on March 6 and 7; at the Standard Bank Arena in Johannesburg on March 9 and 10 and at the Village Green in Durban on March 13 and 14

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