- Reporters Desk
Melina Paris, Music Columnist
Singer and songwriter rock musician Sixto Rodriguez released his two albums and disappeared from the music scene back in the 1970s, few took notice in the states. Wild stories of his death circulated, like the artist setting himself on fire while performing or pulling a gun to his head and shooting himself at the end of a song. He was even rumored to be dead. But no one knew for sure.
Though his music was relatively unknown in North America, his two albums became major hits in South Africa and Australia attracting diehard fans in both countries.
A couple of those fans were Stephen Segerman and music journalist, Craig Bartholomew Strydom. They set out on a journey to find the truth behind Sixto’s “death,” how it happened and why. Their investigation turned into an Academy Award winning documentary entitled, Searching for Sugar Man. The Grand Vision foundation as part of its Reel Rockumentuary film series featured the Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary at the Warner Grand May 4.
Cold Hard Fact was Sixto’s biggest album Segerman said. The second one, Coming from Reality, is believed to have sold half a million copies in South Africa, where Rodriguez became a cult figure.
According to the film, Segerman’s epiphany came while he was speaking to a girl who immigrated to the United States but returned to South Africa. She asked where in South Africa she could buy Rodriguez’s albums. She searched all over the States but could not find them. A man who was bigger in South Africa than Elvis was in the states and she couldn’t get his albums? This set Segerman to thinking, “How this could be?”
The air of mystery around Rodriguez and his picture on his album cover, sitting Indian style in dark sunglasses and long hair was all anyone had to go on. No one knew where he had lived, where he was from, he had never been in the news. He was an enigma. Rumors of his death just added more fodder to the legend. So, Segerman set out to find out some facts on Rodriguez.
“In the 1970’s in South Africa it was the height of Apartheid,” explained Segerman, describing Rodriguez’s effect on South Africa. “South African kids never even heard the word anti-establishment until Rodriguez’s song, ‘Anti Establishment Blues,’” Segerman said. “It let us know it was okay to be angry with your society. In the mid 1970s in every white, liberal, middle class household in South Africa you always found three albums: The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Rodriguez’s Cold Hard Fact.”
During that time no foreign acts could visit South Africa, it was an isolated country with sanctions imposed by outside governments. Publishing anything contrary to apartheid would get a writer prosecuted and jailed. The majority of whites were against these policies but they had no voice to express their feelings.
One telling way the government imposed censorship was through “brutal destruction,” as one worker from The Archive of Censored Material in South Africa said. Rodriguez’s albums are housed there. In the film they showed songs the government suppressed on LPs by placing a sticker on the label of the record that said, “avoid” and then used an instrument to scratch the specific track so it could not possibly be played. They did this to Rodriguez’s hit “Sugar Man.”
“Because every means was used to keep apartheid from ending this album had lyrics that set us free as oppressed people,” Bartholomew said. “It gave people permission to free their minds and start thinking differently”.
Segerman began his search with Rodriguez’s Coming from Reality album. There was nothing to say who this man was so he looked deeply into the lyrics for clues with only a few geographical references.
He dissected lines like, “I was born in a troubled city in Rock ’n’ Roll, U.S.A.” and “Walking in the shadow of the tallest building,”
To Segerman’s thought process, he wondered what city wasn’t troubled at that time in the United States and could Rock-n-Roll U.S.A. be Detroit? Could he have been in New York with the tallest buildings in the country?
In 1996 a South African record label released Rodriguez’s Coming from Reality for the first time on CD. They asked Segermen, who they knew was a big fan to co-write the liner notes.
“There are no concrete cold facts known about Rodriguez, any ‘musicologist detectives’ out there?” was part of what he wrote.
Segerman even set up a website called, “The Great Rodriguez Hunt” with a picture of Rodriguez on a milk carton on the site.
Strydom came across that album and read those liner notes. Years earlier he considered writing a story on whatever happened to Rodriguez. He took it as invitation thinking, “Maybe it’s me.”
From this point in the film things start to come together for this pair of Rodriguez detectives. They finally meet; compare notes and Strydom started following the money trail to lead him in his search. He travelled to all the places Rodriguez sung about including Dearborn, Mich., which led him to Clarence Avant, the head of Motown, when Rodriguez released his albums.
Bendjelloul’s film took me through these two men’s meticulous journey with rapt attention. There are clips and photographs of a handsome young Rodriguez, always in dark sunglasses except for a handful of times, when you can peer at his large brown eyes. His folk music and penetrating lyrics is the soundtrack and the film shows the beautiful seaside of South Africa and uses old home movie clips depicting the times that the young generation there was so enamored with Rodriguez. His music is infectious with great orchestral qualities and thought provoking lyrics, just like any of the best seasoned musicians. Bob Dylan comes to mind but Rodriguez has a crisper sound with rich harmonies. These are very good albums.
If you have not yet seen this Oscar-winning film I suggest you do. It’s available online and even in the few existing video stores. You will be pleased to discover Rodriguez.
The documentary’s director, Malik Bendjellou died May 13 in Stockholm, Sweden. The cause of death has not been confirmed. Suicide is suspected.