/ 24 August 2023

The bittersweet taste left by Sugar Man

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Photo by Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images

The most famous thing about Sixto Rodriguez was that he wasn’t famous — except, remarkably, for a time in South Africa, of all places. Why was that?

I have a theory — or at least part of a theory. It was because the blessed apartheid-era SABC banned his album Cold Fact. And they did so because — horrors! — the opening track was about drugs. The first song on Rodriguez’s first album was indeed all about drugs. It was called Sugar Man and it had one of those weird, wild, discordant mid-sections clearly designed to simulate the experience of being high. 

And having banned the song, it became, for South Africans of a certain strata at a certain time, instantly desirable. Natch. It was an easy way to express a small rebellion against the big stuff and the small stuff: the calamity into which SA was headed at the time and the mindless thought-control machine into which we had all been thrust, which accompanied the growing calamity.

But here’s the thing, the mandarins of public taste at the SABC didn’t take the time to actually listen to the song, which was not an unequivocal endorsement of drug-taking by any means. You get the sense of a soul torn between the mind-bending allure of drugs and their deceit and false promises. 

At one point, Rodriguez seems to be extolling how drugs allow you to escape the unrelenting hardship, complexity and duplicity of those cold facts: “Sugar Man you’re the answer/ That makes my questions disappear. Sugar Man ‘cos I’m weary/ Of those double games l hear.” 

But in others, he wonders: “Sugar Man met a false friend/ On a lonely dusty road. Lost my heart when I found it/ It had turned to dead black coal.”

And, in a sense, that struggle was the leitmotif of his life — an incessant desire to escape reality, and yet, an equally powerful critique of himself for having done so. Take for example his song Crucify Your Mind: “Were you tortured by your own thirst/ In those pleasures that you seek/ That made you Tom the curious/ That makes you James the weak?”  

What an unusual and fabulous set of lines. The critique, and pleasures, the weakness — it’s all there crucifying his mind. And when it came to a reality from which to escape, Rodriguez had more reasons than most. 

He was the sixth child of Mexican immigrant, working-class parents. His mother died when he was three and many of his songs reflect on the alienation of the inner-city poor. He made, typically, several quixotic attempts to become a city councillor in his home city of Detroit, where he lived for years in a derelict house he bought for $50.

And yet to cast him as a victim would be an injustice; he accepted without visible rancour his failed attempt to be a professional musician becoming instead an ordinary construction worker, just as he accepted with enormous grace discovering his weird popularity in South Africa. 

In the last years of his life, he kept coming back to this country. I’m told that concert organisers made sure they could reach his hotel room from the outside with a ladder in case they needed to rouse him from a druggy stupor to go and play a gig. Yet the joy he brought to that little following so far away was just magnificent. 

There is a wonderful moment in the film about his rediscovery, Searching for Sugar Man, which brings all of this together so brilliantly, where Rodreguez walks out on stage for the first time at the awful Good Hope Centre hall in Cape Town and the crowd doesn’t even let him sing. The man, thought by many to be dead, was greeted with 10 minutes of cheers; they just wanted to meet him, to know he was real, alive and actually there. 

Rodriguez, many biographies have told us, had a  “lifelong struggle with drugs”. Personally, I don’t think he struggled much; I think he kinda liked them. He belonged to a generation that was full of experimentation with new mores and drugs were a part of it. 

His banning by the SABC was a typical demonstration of the poles of popular opinion of the time. On the one hand; the Calvinist killjoys and on the other, the rebellious, creative, freedom lovers. In this sense, it’s not actually a surprise that he became an icon in SA at that peculiar moment in time in the turbulent 1970s and 1980s. He encapsulated it. 

There has been so much written over the years about drugs and music; it’s a topic that has never gone away. The anti-drug lobby has always claimed that popular music bears at least some responsibility for expanded drug use. So many songs have hidden or double-entendre drug references from way back: Itchycoo Park, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Gold Dust Woman — there are too many to name. And, of course, others are very direct: Cocaine by JJ Cale, Heroin by Lou Reed. 

And an amazing proportion of popular music indeed includes drug references. If you include alcohol, by some measures, about 30% of country music — country music! — references intoxicating drugs. The increase in drug use certainly grew during the popular music period. But, as we know, correlation is not causation. Lots of drug songs are sorrowful laments and warnings against using drugs, like The Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young. 

Drugs are also blamed for Rodriguez’s low output. He essentially put out two albums in the early 1970s, and that’s it. The three remaining were live albums of the same songs. But I suspect, or at least I would hope to believe, it wasn’t the drugs at all, it was just his personality. He never truly aspired to be a rock star, in the full sense. He was immensely modest, which is one of the reasons why he got lost and had to be found again.

And so now, like his first recorded song, I’ll Slip Away, he has just slipped away at the age of 81. As the song itself makes plain: “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.” 

His charm wasn’t just that he was a great treasure, lost and found, but that he was brave enough and unusual enough to be an accidental and reluctant artist. And don’t we all need more of that in our lives these days?