Thursday, October 01, 2009

Rodriguez Coming From Reality

What a luck! I ambled into Cash Crusaders in Adderley Street, Cape Town on a very wet day in September 2009 and flipped through the small stack of second hand CDs on offer and came across the Rodriguez album Coming From Reality, known as After The Fact in South Africa, it being the follow up to the locally most popular Cold Fact, for just R19,95 and I had to have it. The sales woman took a long time to find the CD in the drawer where they are kept and eventually handed me a disc and said this is all she could find. The filing number on the back of the jewel case matched the CD but it was in fact Cold Fact and not the later album. Somewhat puzzled I opened the jewel case and found that the packaging actually contained a double CD set, and that the disc for Coming From Reality/After The Fact was still inside the jewel case, at the back. So, for the price of one seriously discounted album I got two, though I do already own the earlier single CD release of Cold Fact.

It is always good to find a real bargain.

Cold Fact is a legendary album from my youth in Stellenbosch and lots of people owned the record. It seemed to be one of the ubiquitous Seventies albums, up there with Dark Side of The Moon, Led Zeppelin IV, Aladdin Sane, Rumours, Hotel California, and the like. The songs I Wonder and Sugar Man were very popular in the repressed times I grew up in because of the sex and drug references, and the album was always available in South Africa, even if as a budget release. When I bought The Encyclopaedia of Rock I looked up the name and found only Johnny Rodriguez, who was not the same guy. It seemed astonishing that South Africa would have made a hero of sorts out of this clearly very obscure American recording artist.

If I remember correctly, I did see After The Fact in record shops in Stellenbosch but never bought it; for that matter I never bought Cold Fact until somewhere in the late Eighties when I acquired a cassette album tape of it, and then later the CD. Cold Fact is a great little album with no bad song on it. Rodriguez had a bit of folk and bit of psychedelia going on, along with lots of Dylanesque rock poetry. It sounded as if Rodriguez was a guy who should have gone far in his career and I chalked his obscurity down to the same old song of lack of ambition or luck or both.

Much to my surprise Rodriguez kind of rose from the dead, popped up in South Africa again on his first concert tour for a very long time, looking very much worse for wear, with tales of manual labour and distance from the music industry, and now resuscitation after some South African fans made a serious effort to find him. In South Africa one can now also buy no fewer than 2 "best of" albums, and a live album, all of which recycle a very limited repertoire. Nonetheless, Rodriguez is back in our lives. Except that Coming From Reality / After The Fact is not all that easy to come by

This CD double pack I bought at Cash Crusaders was released in 2002 and must have been a bit of a cash in on the renewed interest in the man. The booklet has a potted history of the man's career and history of his recordings, which is very useful to the lay person though it still does not explain the obscurity.

Coming From Reality was released in 1972 and apparently renamed for the South African market in 1976 to emphasise the link with Cold Fact and for a while I lived under the fond impression that there might also be a third album called Hard Fact.

Coming From Reality was recorded in England in 1970, with some distinguished British session musicians, notably Chris Spedding on guitar. This is the guy I knew from his late Seventies hit Motorbikin' and association with the first wave of punk bands and hardly a name one would link with Rodriguez, but then, Spedding was a session guitarist and must have played whatever sessions he was booked for, regardless of the artist. It seems that the record company must have had some kind of belief in their artist if they were willing to put up the money for recording in a foreign country. In the early Seventies The Eagles did the same, though in their case, the expense paid off. They became superstars.

Coming from Reality is a departure from the approach of Cold Fact in that the music is mostly acoustic and string laden and the lyrics more romantic. The angry Rodriguez is in abeyance for most of the album and only about 3 songs even have anything approaching the hard guitar sound of the first album. There is no overt drug song. Maybe the record company's advice to their artist was to appeal to the commercial interests of radio and the record buying public, and to aim for tunes that would find a home in the easy listening format. I must say, if I had heard Coming From Reality before I heard Cold Fact, I would never have bothered with Rodriguez. His legend rests on that assured debut. The follow up sounds like too much of a cop out.

Having said that, on the evidence of the lyrics and tunes of these two albums, it is anyone's guess why Rodriguez could not achieve anything like mainstream commercial success amidst the crowd of singer-songwriters who populated the musical stage in the Seventies. He has some lyrical quirks and cleverness that suggests a thinker and a philosopher rather than a rocker, as the music generally bears out, but in a sense, if one listens to the two albums back to back, it is as if he cannot decide whether he wants to be a funkier Bob Dylan or a more roots James Taylor. Rodriguez does not quite get it right and at best he has produced one kind-of-classic-because-it-is-so-obscure album and one not-quite-awful-yet-half-arsed album. This output is not the most imposing of legacies. I wonder if he has some new songs in him, or in the vaults, that may now be released while he is in vogue, sort of, again.

Coming From Reality has nothing much to appeal to me in and of its own right and if it had been the first sighting of Rodriguez, he would never have become a legend anywhere in the world. No wonder he sank into the dark ages of the soul after its release. He should have remained a one hit wonder and then the myth would have been perfect.

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