In what should be an iconic image, we see Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a Folk singer who recorded his first single “I’ll Slip Away” back in 1967, strolling along with his guitar case strapped across his back. His long dark hair billows in halo-like fashion around his head; his eyes hidden behind dark shades.
The image is hippie cool, full of alternative cred. He released two albums — Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality a year later — about the hardships of the streets without rubbing our sensibilities raw or preaching armed resistance. Rodriguez is the little voice in our heads, reminding us of the right thing, the right course of action staring us in the face.
And, it turns out, he’s also the voice that is easiest to ignore because that is exactly what we did. We ignored the man and his music, so he quietly exited stage right and went on about his business. That image, the one I’ve just described, isn’t quite real, although from the moment Rodriguez appears on screen in Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man, it sure feels like it could have been real.
That’s probably how the legend took shape back in 1968. A couple of music fans walked into a bar and heard Rodriguez doing his plain and simple thing onstage — just the man hunched over on a stool with his guitar, talk-singing his way through songs about what was going on for the voiceless out there who hadn’t gotten caught up in the summer of love or the trippy-dippy highs that followed.
Rodriguez was broadcasting the Blues of the downtrodden. This was the news, post-assassinations and riots, when people were stepping over the charred remnants of their neighborhoods on their way to the bus stop first thing in the morning or at the end of a long day on their feet.
And when no one else listened to the reports, Rodriguez packed his case and his few belongings and joined his brothers and sisters in obscurity. He worked as a carpenter and day laborer, waged a losing campaign for political office, fathered children and contentedly lived on the margin of the margins.
But he wasn’t quite forgotten. In South Africa, a couple of old vinyl fanatics found copies of his albums in the bins and plucked them up. When they dropped the needle down, they heard his voice, the true voice of the people, and they were moved. Who was Rodriguez, they wanted to know, and where is he now?
Whispered rumors said he had gotten so depressed by the state of affairs that he walked out on stage one night, back in the day, doused himself in gasoline and lit a match during his set. Others imagined him like Samuel L. Jackson’s hired killer from Pulp Fiction, walking the earth with the clothes on his back and “Bad MF” stitched on his wallet. Rodriguez inspires the romantics, the fools and the alternative skeptics out there who dream of a world where Dylan never went electric, Elvis and Tupac are alive and well making music with Miles Davis and Stevie Ray Vaughn and MLK lived to see Obama become President before Oprah.
Fortunately, Rodriguez was alive, those two crazy South Africans did find him, and he ended up onstage once again before adoring international fans. This is the kind of story we say is too crazy to be fiction and every once in awhile the adage is proven right.
To see Rodriguez walk out from the wings and step behind the mic is to dream a little dream, as Shakespeare wrote. If he had never opened his mouth to sing a word, it would have been all right, but he did and this second coming was exactly what those fans wanted and needed. It confirmed their faith in music and the power of redemption.
The story of Rodriguez captured in Searching for Sugar Man isn’t even half over because this narrative is about more than just one man lost in the slipstream of music trends. There are a host of underappreciated artists that have been able to emerge from the shadows thanks to late-career rediscoveries, artists like Bettye LaVette, Andy Bey, Question Mark and the Mysterians and Scott Walker.
At the 7:30 p.m. Saturday screening of Searching for Sugar Man at Mariemont Theatre, Jim Blase of Shake It Records and CityBeat contributor Steve Rosen will be on-hand to discuss the film and the stories of these and other musicians.
Thankfully, the search continues.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre. (PG-13)