The new film Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of Rodriguez, a shoulda-been ’60s folk singer who slipped quickly into obscurity only to find an unlikely path to resurrection decades later. The story is both fascinating and moving, but it’s not the first time it’s been told. In 2008, the label Light in the Attic reissued Rodriguez’s first record, Cold Fact, setting the stage for the documentary to come. We had Alex Naidus interview Rodriguez about his improbable return at the end of that year. We present that interview in full below.
The wacky backstory surrounding the re-release, some 30 years after its initial bow, of Sixto Rodriguez’s Cold Fact almost threatens to overshadow the album itself. After releasing two (unsuccessful) albums on the small Sussex label in the early ’70s, Rodriguez figured it was all over, walked away from the music business entirely and started working odd jobs around Detroit. Meanwhile, Cold Fact was becoming a legitimate hit in places like South Africa and New Zealand — substantial word-of-mouth excitement had led to several (unauthorized) re-pressings around the world. Eventually, some South African superfans tracked him down in 1998 and organized an overseas tour; Rodriguez played to sold-out 5,000-seat rooms everywhere from Johannesburg to Auckland.
As Light in the Attic‘s re-issue shows, though, Cold Fact‘s rabid cult following was hardly for novelty’s sake. The album is a true folk-pop masterpiece, full of bright melodies, biting lyrical wit and a surprisingly funky backbone (thanks largely to the presence of Motown vet Dennis Coffey). Echoes of Dylan and Donovan loom large, but Cold Fact deserves as much praise for its singular quality as any album of the era.
eMusic spoke with the extremely gracious and fascinating Rodriguez about everything from his (eight!) unsuccessful political campaigns, the many, surreal overseas trips and the possibility of peace in a modern age.
So Matt [Sullivan, from Light in the Attic] was giving me a couple of highlights of the West Coast tour. It’s funny that he did, because one of my first questions was going to be about how this tour is going, and when the last time you actually played a proper show in the U.S. before the re-release.
Well, I’ve mostly been touring overseas. I’ve been touring since ’98, but these are my first appearances in the United States. They went well! In one band, I had eight musicians, and on the other one I had ten. And it was awesome. It was a full, full presentation. Usually it’s just rhythm sections and the keyboard and things like that, but this was a lot deeper.
Did you have any apprehension about the shows? Was it weird or jarring for you to go from playing huge shows in South Africa to more intimate shows in the states?
Well, I was real confident because we had it down. We practiced quite a bit for the show. It does feel kind of odd to play the States, but I’ve been waiting to do that.
I want to backtrack for a second to 1970. So your two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality had come out, they didn’t really take off, and then you kind of stopped for a while. From what I have heard and read, you were doing various odd jobs — and then you actually ran for a public office in Michigan, is that right?
Yeah, I’ve been a candidate eight times. I’m an eight-time loser! I ran for mayor a couple times, I ran for City Council, I ran for State Representative and Michigan State Representative and uh, I’ve also run for my life! Basically, to run for mayor, you need 580 signatures of registered, valid voters. That’s how you get on the ballot. So, it’s not a real big trick to do it. It’s just then you got to generate votes.
So, what was your platform?
I’m against police brutality. I’ve been a member of a coalition against police brutality. These kind of things loomed large in my world. It’s so evident, you know, these guys are getting crazy. Detroit is a pretty gritty urban scene. I think one year we had over 800 murders in Detroit, then down to 700, then down to 600 and then a shooting here and there. It’s an ugly area, so these kinds of things get in the way, you know. In Michigan, you can now smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes. I was for decriminalization of it, you know, and it passed on the state’s ballot. Those kinds of issues were the sort of things I supported. But when you do most of your campaigning in bars, you start to realize that a lot of the people you’re talking to aren’t registered voters. I mean they had a great time, but not even my best buddies were registered to vote. So I was in the wrong place trying to generate support!
So you were running and losing many times, you were working various jobs … Who tracked you down? How did you find out that your records had been pressed in places like South Africa and Australia, and that they’d become really popular?
Well, this guy by the name of Stevens got a hold of my record in Africa. And then he got a hold of my brother, and that’s how they found me. I called him up, and we just talked. And then he came to Detroit and then showed me the [bootleg] CD [that had been pressed in South Africa] — and CDs were kind of new things at the time. I was surprised by it. He told me a lot of soldiers used to listen to my stuff on cassettes. At first I thought it was a lot of exaggeration, but then I saw the audiences and I knew that they were genuine. They knew the lyrics and stuff like that. All these youngbloods rush the stage — I couldn’t believe it. It shakes you up, in a positive way. They tell me the stories — a guy said to me, “I remember my mother used to sing me these songs…” They tell me how they found the music and stuff. As a result, I can fill the rooms.
So, about Cold Fact — obviously you didn’t know that it was being pressed in South Africa. There were Australia pressings and New Zealand pressings, all these things were happening when you assumed that it was all over. So, you probably didn’t see any royalties, since you didn’t commission any of these to be re-pressed. Besides the Light in the Attic thing, which is clearly a very legitimate enterprise, you haven’t seen any royalties from any of the re-pressing, or actually even from any of the samples — Nas sampled “Sugarman” and put it in a rap song.
Well, three years ago I got hooked up with Universal, and now we’re starting to get some notice for that. Nas and a couple of other people sampled it. It’s slowly getting out there to other people. But, yeah, in the missing years, I didn’t know any of this was happening. I think there might still be some accounting to do!
A lot has been made of kind of the funky sound of Cold Fact. How did you get hooked up with all the Motown guys? How did that happen?
Dennis Coffey and Bob Babbitt and Andrew Smith were pretty much the basic element of the, you know, the rhythm section. Dennis had done a lot of sessions for Motown at the time, so he was probably is the funky part of this. Dennis is a very giving musician. He gives you everything, you know. He really gets into the tune, and he starts to think of a little something special for each one. I was lucky to meet him. There’s a song called “Friendship Train,” and if you listen to that song, it’s Dennis Coffey who does the first — say, 40 seconds. And that sets up that tune. If you listen to that track, you’ll hear how he does it. He just sets up the tune, and then it all seems to shift. Dennis is an exceptional kind of player.
So, you would just come in with the basics — the chords and the guitar and the vocal melody and they would add all the flourishes and the funkiness?
Yeah. And the thing is, you know, it was a pretty amazing time for me too. These guys would then go ahead and get a lot of hits too. So I mean, it was good all around.
When I saw you at Joe’s Pub, you were very much preaching peace — like, that word specifically, “peace.” I’ve been thinking about that; in some ways, the very term “peace” seems kinda antiquated — it’s still very rooted in ’60s idealism. Do you think that peace -
â€” Here’s my take on that. Peace is hard. War is easy. All the grief, this Iraq thing, all this money we spent — that’s quite a mess there. I’m sure there’s reasons for it, and things we don’t know about, but it’s all over the page. I guess there’s always going to be war, but there’s also got to be peace at some point, you know?
I mean, do you still think that “peace” has a chance? What would that look like?
Well, I’m not for peace at any price. I guess I’m just unthinking what I just said. Here you’ve got Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and that mess over there. How he got to that was he took over all the white people’s farms to use as terms, and now they don’t know how to run those things. There’s a lot of starvation there. It’s hard not to acknowledge it, you know what I mean? It’s right there.
So now that there are a couple of reissues out, and you’re playing a bunch of US shows and touring, are you at all thinking about doing new recordings, writing new songs?
I play guitar and, you know, jot down ideas and titles and things and try and match up the sound. That’s how I write. The thing is, sometimes it’s quick and sometimes, you know, it takes awhile to figure out that second line. That’s what I’ve always done, you know. But for the shows, it’s pretty much just Cold Fact. I want to give people get a second chance to try this stuff out. I’m not looking at trying to distract the audience or confuse the audience with releasing new stuff.
So, what’s next?
Well, they’re going to reissue Coming From Reality on Light in the Attic, and there will be some touring behind that as well. I’m willing to do pretty much anything they want!