Monday, May 05, 2008

Rodriguez Just Won’t Die

A 55 year old Hispanic man in sleeveless tank top and dark glasses has an exchange with some Black labourers holding spades, in what seems to be the grounds of an institutional building; in an attempt to find some common ground he tells them that he too works with a spade back home. They stare at him with incomprehension because they have no clue who this man is and why a video crew are filming this silly scene. The Hispanic man is one Sixto Rodriguez, a former musician who gave up trying to make a living from his music way back in the Seventies when his native country more or less ignored him and the few albums he'd released there. Rodriguez (he is known just by his surname) is being filmed for a TV documentary of his first ever concert tour of South Africa in March 1998. In the Southern Hemisphere he is a cult figure of truly mythical proportions and his Seventies albums Cold Fact and After The Fact remain in print here and are easily found in almost any record store while elsewhere in the world his name means nothing.


There were two spin-offs from the tour. Firstly there was a concert recording souvenir of the tour, a CD ingeniously titled Live Fact, probably the first Rodriguez release anywhere in the world since the mid-Seventies. Secondly there was a made for TV documentary called 'Dead Men Don't Tour' that was shown on SABC3 on Thursday 5 July 2001


There were other township scenes in the documentary. Rodriguez was obviously given the standard tour of the real South Africa, the people on whose side he would have been back in the Seventies. All good and well, but it comes across as the cliché of the well-meaning foreigner coming into the country for a brief visit and insisting on seeing the squalor with which he identifies so that he can go back home feeling a great solidarity with the people whereas the people feel no solidarity with this man at all.


Fair enough, Rodriguez is entitled to see the conditions of the people whose struggle for freedom from oppression he probably fervently supported in his younger days when he had a brief music career in the early Seventies as a post-hippie, Dylanesque singer-songwriter with a couple of albums to his credit, none of which made a dent in the consciousness or wallets of the great American rock audience. Rodriguez lost his recording contract and as a conscientious man with a wife and chidden to support he packed away his rock star dreams along with his guitar and took up a blue collar job where he languished in obscurity for the next twenty five years or so, not even an entry in Rock Encyclopedias of the time much less current ones. He was just another talented musician who found that mere talent was not enough to give him the career success so many of his contemporaries enjoyed.


In the late Nineties in South Africa there was Craig Bartholomew a chubby, balding journalist and obsessive Rodriguez fan who made it his Herculean mission to track down an obscure, local cult musician of whom most rumours suggest that he was long dead. He managed to make contact with the cult object through the local record company who were still paying royalties to one of their perennial good little earners and eventually he obtained a phone number and phoned the very much alive cult figure who, not unnaturally, was totally incredulous that there was someone out there, for that matter a whole bunch of white rock fans in Africa, who was still interested in him and his music. One thing led seamlessly to another and a South African tour was set up for the legend who apparently was so far removed from the music business that he no longer owned a guitar. The promoter of the tour bought Rodriguez a new ax as a gesture of good faith and also brought his wife and two daughters to South Africa to keep him company.


The tour took in the major urban centres and everywhere Rodriguez played he was welcomed like a god returned to his people after a long absence. He filled 4000 seater venues (self-deprecatingly he tells us that he expected to play to audiences of about 800 or so; maybe that was the size of the largest audience he ever played to in his professional career) and received tumultuous, joyous ovations from rapturous audiences, a great many of whom are shown happily singing along to the famous tunes that are, to be sure, his greatest hits.


The documentary is full of little camera tricks probably informed by the digital age but mostly it is in the standard format of concert footage at various shows interspersed with interview clips, soundbites of musicians and other people involved in the project and soundbites of (mostly) young fans at the gigs telling us what a groovy legend old Rodriguez is.


The legendary thing is that he is a major cult figure in South Africa and his only other markets were Rhodesia (as it then was), Australia and New Zealand. In these countries he sold a fair wack of records back in the Seventies, and presumably still does, seeing as how both his albums are still in print here (there is this semi-apocryphal story of the CD pressing factory somewhere in Europe that only presses Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon and one might almost think that there is a CD pressing plant in South Africa that does nothing but press Rodriguez CD's for the market in the Southern Hemisphere) but in his native country he meant and means zip, diddley squat.


Why this is so is obviously a mystery. Cold Fact, the major player of the two albums, is a small gem of post-psychedelic folk rock with interesting lyrics and great tunes, tunes that one can easily sing along to or hum in the shower. A great pop album. My theory to explain the success over here has to do with the forbidden nature of the two most popular tracks, "Sugar Man" and "I Wonder." The first is unambiguously a drug song and the second asks "how many times have
you had sex?" They have great tunes and in a just parallel universe ought to have received a lot of air play but back in the Seventies South Africa was a very repressed society and the airwaves was controlled by the SABC which in turn was controlled by men who saw themselves as solemn guardians of the nation's morals and politics and they would rather have died than allow songs as these two songs to be played on the airwaves. One can easily understand how such a "ban" (rather typical of the way the SABC music programmers operated) could have led to the album achieving underground notoriety and hence popular success: the SABC could not stop you from playing the album on your hi-fi.


It is one of the glaring omissions in the TV documentary that we are never told how many copies Cold Fact have sold in South Africa to date or indeed how many copies it is still selling annually. Indeed, there is very little biographical material; his wife tells us what a wonderful guy he is and there are glowing testimonials from local fans and musicians alike but we are not told when he started his career, how many albums he released and when he actually gave it up and why. Possibly the makers of the documentary were determined to preserve of the mystery and obscurity; the myth grew despite the lack of biographical detail, so they may have conspired not to diminish it with petty facts.


Rodriguez is strictly a white South African secret delight. He means absolutely nothing in the local Black market (then or now) and it was white people who attended the concerts. By all accounts Rodriguez is a man with a social and political conscience -- the songs tell us this, he tells us and his wife tells us – and this is why he would never have toured South Africa in support of a newly released Cold Fact. At the time this country was firmly and seemingly forever in the grip of apartheid and a paranoid government that would barely have allowed him in much less allowed him to play to racially mixed audiences as he would have demanded even though his local fan base has always been exclusively White.


From the video footage it seems that the concert tour was a financial and emotional success, although probably not on a Rolling Stones kind of scale. The venues seem to have been filled to the brim with hugely enthusiastic, substantially young audiences who thoroughly enjoyed themselves, sang along to the well-known tunes and gave Rodriguez tumultuous welcomes wherever he appeared. He must truly have felt like a long lost hero making a triumphant return to the scenes of old success; there was a lot of love in the rooms he played.


Unfortunately, if the video clips are evidence of the general and overall nature of his performances, Rodriguez had lost whatever passion and fire as a performer he might once have had. One can understand that he was forced to rely on lyric sheets for songs he had not played for more than two decades but even so he could have put more passion into his singing. In all the clips the vocal performances lack power, for all the world he sings like someo9ne who has been singing the same old hits so often that he has completely lost interest in them, he is trotting them out one more time to fulfill a contract. I would have expected him to be more joyful in his singing, happy and enthusiastic to be singing long lost songs that he probably thought he would again have the opportunity of singing for any kind of audience much less a large and adoring one. Before the TV show I was considering buying the Live Fact album but now I'll stick with the studio albums; what is the use of putting out a live album that will do nothing but tarnish the image? It is perhaps a nice souvenir if you were there but if not, stick with the tried and tested studio versions and the bubble will never burst.