I went to a concert last weekend and may have arrived a bit late, like 5 years or possibly even 45.
Maybe you’re already familiar with the musician, Rodriguez, but I was not. It seems that I had several opportunities to become familiar with him. I just missed, and for a while, so did he. Now, I’m feeling some regret, but it doesn’t seem like he is. My apologies if you already know this story.
Forty years ago, America ignored Rodriguez in droves. His first album, which came out in 1970, was acclaimed by critics and adored by tens of fans. No, not tons, tens. He made about as much of a splash on the music scene as a waterstrider on a pond. Yeah, as in barely a footprint on the surface. I was one of the millions who never heard of him. I regret that. He doesn’t.
Five years ago I missed him again. This times millions of others did not. In a documentary that won an Academy Award, the Swedish film maker, Malik Bendjelloul introduced the non-South African world to Rodriguez, by detailing the efforts of two South Africans to locate a musician who had been “bigger than Elvis” in their country. Seeing this film, the world was astonished to find that a musician, living in relative anonymity in Detroit as a handyman who did demolition work, was a musical hero in South Africa, where his music had become the soundtrack for the anti-Apartheid movement in the 70s and 80s. In 2012, the world discovered Rodriguez, and again, I missed the party.
Last weekend my wife and I were given tickets to a concert in Bridgeport. Two friends of ours had purchased tickets but couldn’t attend. Nancy asked me if I wanted to go. “It’s some South African guy whose music was really popular in South Africa and Australia, and now he’s catching on here.” That was all I knew until I sat in my seat at the Klein Auditorium. I decided to Google Rodriguez. That gave me 30 minutes to adjust to what I was about to see and hear.
He was not South African, as it turned out. He was American. He was born and raised in Detroit, the son of Mexican immigrants. He had recorded two albums in the early 70s. They had not met commercial success. His record label, Sussex, dropped him in 1973. When asked how many albums Rodriguez had sold, his producer replied, “Six. I think my wife bought one, my kids may have bought another.” That was hyperbole (or hypobole – is that what negative exaggeration is called?). He returned to his humble life, playing his guitar for himself, but making his modest living working first on an assembly line and later doing the dusty, back-straining demolition work that no one else would do. His co-workers admired his soft-spoken serenity. His neighbors knew him as a quiet advocate for justice in the inner city.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to him, his music began to gain popularity in South Africa. That country, though, was so walled-off by the rest of the world, because of its racist policies, that no one in the U.S., including Rodriguez, had any inkling that he had become an iconic figure in the protest movement. Adding to the mystery of his life was the rumor in South Africa that Rodriguez had killed himself on stage. This wasn’t true, but it may have added to the mystique of his music, and it certainly curtailed any efforts to locate him.
When, in the late 1990s, through a series of accidents, coincidences, and the advent of the Internet, two South Africans were able to connect first with one of Rodriguez’s daughters, and finally with him, the humble demo man’s life changed…sort of.
He and his family flew to Cape Town and found themselves suddenly greeted as though they were superstars. Rodriguez played sold-out concerts, backed by a South African band, even though he hadn’t performed in 25 years. He did TV interviews in South Africa, where music fans who for years had thought him dead, viewed his appearance almost as a resurrection. Still, he returned to Detroit, an ordinary construction worker. Music fans in the U.S. had no awareness of his existence or of his music.
In 2012, the documentary Searching for Sugar Man changed that. For the first time, many Americans (not including me) heard his sounds and watched his unbelievable story unfold on the screen. How was it possible, they all wondered, for someone to be so wildly popular thousands of miles from his home and so unknown in his own back yard? How was it possible for someone with this amazing poetic and musical talent to be so ignored? Suddenly his home country awoke and discovered Rodriguez.
I knew all of this exactly 15 minutes before the concert began. Thanks Wikipedia. Everyone else in the auditorium seemed far ahead of me. “Did you know he was born in 1942?” I said to my wife, astutely picking up on the least remarkable feature of the story. “The guy’s 75 years old.” I continued. Eventually I got around to part of the mind blowing quality of the story. “It’s kind of like a weird distortion of Rip van Winkle. He woke up to find that he’d been famous for 40 years but never knew it.” Would that be frustrating, to know that you could have been adored (and wealthy) for more of your life?
When the stage darkened, a woman walked part of the way on stage, and a spotlight flipped on. “I’d like to introduce the band,” she said. She welcomed a drummer, a guitarist, and a bass player first. The three of them walked on stage. Finally she introduced her father, Rodriguez. He shuffled on stage, certainly not at the tempo of his fellow septuagenarian, Mick Jaggar. No. This was a humble entrance by a stoop-shouldered man, who had labored hard. Wearing all black, he perched on a stool. His daughter and the lead guitarist helped him strap on his acoustic. He mumbled something about being happy to be in Bridgeport, did some tuning and a little more mumbling. Then he began to strum…and sing.
His years melted away. He no longer seemed 75. His voice summoned smooth, clear notes. Imagine Bob Dylan suddenly able to carry a tune. On other songs he sounded more like James Taylor. Sometimes he covered songs from other artists of his era: Elton John’s “Your Song,” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” But mostly he featured the songs from his two long-forgotten albums. And those songs, written in the early 70s rang true, still.
The mayor hides the crime rate
council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date
Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining
Everyone’s protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting
you’re not like all of the rest.
Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people they’re abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it’s at.
Woke up this morning with an ache in my head
Splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed
Opened the window to listen to the news
But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues.
I sat (or stood) mesmerized. I felt sorry for myself that I’d missed this for all of those years, but grateful that I’d finally found this sound. I was late to the party, but at least I’d arrived.
I felt sorry for Rodriguez too, having missed all those years of success, all those years when he might have been creating, agitating, and inspiring in his own country. He had lived humbly in the same house in Detroit for 40 years, but he did not seem sad. Wistful, maybe. Amused even. What he exuded most was serenity. Here was a man who seemed content to have lived most of his life like the lines in one of my favorite poems, “Famous,” by Naomi Nye:
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
Most of his life, at least as far as he was aware. He was famous, too, in the more traditional way. He just didn’t know it. Now, toward the end of his set, he could celebrate the contradictions in his most unusual life. “I don’t want much,” he deadpanned. “I just want to be treated like an ordinary…legend.”
The guest of honor had arrived late to his own party, but in time for his just desserts.