Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man begins with a song being sung by a voice that you’ve probably never heard (unless you grew up in a white, liberal home in South Africa in the 1970s). It’s not a recognisable tune but there’s a bluesy, folksy burr to it that feels familiar. “He’s like Bob Dylan, but with a better voice,” I thought. The song being played is “Sugar Man” by someone called Rodriguez. Not much is known about Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. Stephen Segerman, who owns a record shop in Cape Town, says Rodriguez made only two albums and they were big hits in South Africa in the ’70s, but Rodriguez himself is a mystery. The only thing his fans know about him is that he set himself on fire at a concert and died in front of the audience.
Rodriguez’s songs, forgotten and lost in America, somehow became anthems for the young men and women in a South Africa that was conservative, ruled by an oppressive government and isolated from the rest of the world because of apartheid. For a generation of young white people who didn’t know what horrors were committed by their government but were uncomfortable with the idea of apartheid, the tunes and words by a Mexican immigrant’s son became mantras.
Not that anyone in South Africa Rodriguez was a Mexican immigrant’s son. He was just the voice they knew, singing gems like “Crucify Your Mind” and “Cause” and “The Establishment Blues”. The singer became an obsession for Segerman and later, a music journalist named Craig Bartholomew-Strydom made it his mission to find out what happened to Rodriguez. Strydom tracked down the people who produced Rodriguez’s records and all of them say the same thing: it makes no sense that Rodriguez didn’t become famous. As one producer said, “Bob Dylan? Forget him. Rodriguez was the real thing.”
There are three-odd Rodriguez albums floating around: Cold Fact, Coming From Reality and Live Fact, which is a collection of his live performances. I’ve been listening to them continuously for hours, and it really, truly doesn’t make sense that Rodriguez isn’t a legend. Because he should be. The lyrics, the voice, the tunes – everything is pitch perfect. Listen to a bar, a verse, a fragment, and it’s easy to understand why this man’s songs made those young South Africans cheer. What doesn’t make sense is that his music didn’t connect with American listeners. His lyrics have no flash of abuse or obvious anger, but there’s so much observation and melancholy in them. He’s crooning about rundown Detroit, but you don’t have to belong to that city to recognise the heartbreak and frustration in his songs. If someone told me “I Wonder” – with it’s languidly delivered questions like, “I wonder, how many plans have gone bad? I wonder, how many times you’ve had sex? I wonder, if you know who will be next?” – was the new hipster favourite today, I’d believe it.
One of the things that’s beautiful about Searching for Sugar Man is that Bendjelloul shows how art can reach out to people who ostensibly have no connection whatsoever to it. Detroit would have meant very little to Rodriguez’s South African fans, but those lyrics came to mean the world to them because they came out of nowhere. They connected with the dissatisfaction the young South Africans felt with apartheid and the fans made the songs their own. And maybe that’s why the story in South Africa was that Rodriguez died, in a literal blaze of glory, watched by a concert hall full of shocked people. Perhaps it was a reflection of how desperately people wanted to make a statement, to be seen and heard, to disrupt the status quo in South Africa.
Because, as Stryodom discovered when he tracked down one of the men who produced Cold Fact, Rodriguez lives.
Bendjelloul is a wonderful storyteller and a crafty, brilliant editor. Halfway into the documentary, you realise that the man you thought was dead is alive and you want to whoop with joy. All the interviews you’ve seen so far seemed to be of people remembering a man long gone when actually they were all talking about a man they know. It’s so smartly pieced together and so well told that even though the search is only half of the documentary, you don’t feel like the story is over when Rodriguez turns out to be alive.
And of course, it isn’t over. The second half of the documentary is about Rodriguez, the real man rather than the symbol and object of fandom. Rarely does reality turn out to be more awesome than the hype. In Sixto Rodriguez’s case, though, this may just be true. The son of an immigrant, he was a labourer for decades. His profession was basically demolishing abandoned houses and then building them up. He’s the man that no one notices. His friends are bricklayers and construction workers. You look at his hands and they’re large, gnarled, knobbly as though they’ve been sprained and broken repeatedly. But while doing things like lugging refrigerators on his back and ripping out floors, Rodriguez made two albums. He ran for mayor (and lost). He took his daughters to libraries and museums. He was shy, hated interviews and the limelight, but he had one helluva suit and on stage, he can hold an audience’s attention seemingly effortlessly. He had dreams once, and when their wings were broken, as they must have been when his musical career withered, he gave them up, held on to his guitar and returned to the construction site.
Who knows what music Rodriguez may have created if his career had taken off in America? All we can say is thank god for the internet, without which Rodriguez wouldn’t have known how much his music meant to generations of South Africans, and Segerman and gang wouldn’t have had the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with their hero on stage. What we do know is that almost 30 years after his last recording, when he performed in front of a massive, delirious crowd of South African fans, Rodriguez sounded only slightly rougher around the edges than he does in Cold Fact.
Searching for Sugar Man reminded me of why I dream of writing the stories in my head. Some things you do not because you hope it will give you anything in return, but because you need to do it. And because you never know, it might mean something to someone.
Watch Searching for Sugar Man. It’s better than magic.