A few weeks ago, my parents rented Searching for Sugar Man, and I watched it over my shoulder while doing homework. You’ve probably heard the name as the winner of the Oscar for best documentary. It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, the working-class man from Detroit who recorded a couple of albums in the early ’70s that didn’t sell and then went back to being a construction worker, only to find out 30 years later that he’d become a superstar in South Africa and they were ready to welcome him to fame. And yet he maintains his “school of hard knocks” wisdom and humble, ascetic lifestyle that gave rise to his music and lyrics in the first place.
It’s a great story. But this isn’t a review of the movie. The obvious question after hearing a story like that is, “So, is the guy any good?” One Sunday a couple days after we saw it, my brother and I drove down to HMV to buy the albums. (Yes, they’ve been rereleased on CD now.) They only had his second one, Coming from Reality, so we paid up and ordered his debut, Cold Fact. A purposefully extended drive home allowed us to listen to all 50 minutes of it.
What I heard on Coming from Reality was—well, for the first five songs, some groovy acoustic guitar chords, meh lyrics, somewhat flat melodies, and a spoken word song not poetic enough to justify itself. But it had a lot of gusto. Then, on the second half of the album, things slowed down. A guitar and harp introduced “Sandrevan Lullaby”, followed by an incredibly sweet violin melody. The track broke into a completely different song in the middle, one that rocked. “Night rains tap at my window / Winds of my thoughts passing by / She laughed when I tried to tell her / Hello only ends in goodbye.” Not genius, maybe, but it feels classic, and we just plain enjoyed it. From that point on, the album only got better. “To Whom it May Concern” is a more mature relationship advice song, and “Cause” is probably Rodriguez’s best song both lyrically and musically. “Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun in weekends of whiskey sours / Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?”
When we got home, we listened to it again on shuffle while playing Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii, since that’s what Sunday afternoons are for. It became clear this was an archetypal ’60s rock album in every way. As my brother put it, it doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be ’60s; it just is. Once you’ve heard it, it’s inconceivable it didn’t contribute to the genre. During “Halfway Up the Stairs” and the bonus track “Can’t Get Away”, I swore I was listening to Cat Stevens, and “Street Boy” could be a Paul Simon outtake. That’s a good thing.
At the same time, the album has moments that are ahead of its time, especially in its production. “Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour” ends with a riff that apparently invented U2 before U2 did (and is also reminiscent of the final riff of fun.’s “Some Nights”—if you can be reminiscent when you predate something by 40 years). We even warmed up to the first half of the album that I had originally found boring.
Two weeks later, Cold Fact came in and we picked it up. Now, this was supposed to be the better album, the one that—if you take the movie at face value—fuelled the end of apartheid. It does open with a great song (“Sugar Man”), but you can tell right off the bat that something’s different. This is a younger Rodriguez. His songs are a little rougher and more formulaic, the producers don’t have as good an ear for instrumentation, and half the lyrics are just angst against the establishment and the naïve fools who believe in it, which gets a little old. Of course, that’s not all there is on the album, but it’s epitomized in the track “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst”.
Most of what you can say about Coming to Reality also applies to Cold Fact; the difference is that this album is purer blues. “Only Good for Conversation” is an excellent impersonation of Jimi Hendrix. Every song on here feels like a half-forgotten classic, with the exception of “Gomorrah”, whose lame chorus is accompanied by a children’s choir that seems not to have been told which song they should be singing. Some standouts are the cool, tongue-in-cheek “Crucify Your Mind”, the upbeat “Like Janis”, and the unforgettable bass line of “I Wonder”.
I still think Coming from Reality is better, even if it couldn’t have provided as many anti-apartheid slogans. It has more interesting and memorable melodies. And the lyrics are still cynical, but they don’t condemn, as you can hear in “A Most Disgusting Song” with its vivid illustration of gritty blue-collar life. This time it’s not an outburst, but an outcry. Of course, even by his second album Rodriguez hadn’t quite come into his own, and it’s not entirely clear which direction he would have taken. But then again, how many great musicians had a debut that was any better?
I’ve listened to these albums a few times each now, and to be honest, when the interviewees in the movie suggest that Rodriguez is better than Bob Dylan, I think they’re exaggerating. But that doesn’t stop me from singing along to every song when I listen to them. And maybe the comparison isn’t even valid. Yes, it’s rock, but Rodriguez’s music and lyrics take the perspective of quite a different demographic. Both albums are definitely worth buying—especially now that the money actually goes to him.