‘Sugar Man’ singer-songwriter Rodriguez experiences yet another resurgence
Underground ’60s singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez seems to experience a resurgence every couple of years. In 2008, he reissued a few albums from his back catalogue and toured in support of them. This time around, the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man has thrust him back into the limelight. In the wake of its release, Rodriguez has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and is about to embark on a short U.S. tour. We recently spoke to him via phone as he walking in downtown Detroit in search of a cab.
How are you feeling about the tour starting?
Oh jeesh, everything is fun. I’m up for this because I’ve waiting for a long time to do this. I’ve been chasing music since I was 16 and it’s a great time.
Talk about your current frame of mind. What is it like to be rediscovered yet again?
[Sugar Man director] Malik Bendjelloul is the reason this time. He’s won awards in Moscow, L.A. and Australia. I met him in 2008. The movie climaxes in 1998. In 2008, I was reissued by [the record label] Light in the Attic. So you’re right. Maybe time is on my side this time.
What do you think of the Searching for Sugar Man?
I’ve seen it over 40 times. The best moment is when my daughters come on the screen. I didn’t have anything to say over who was interviewed or where they were interviewed. It was a surprise to me when I first saw it, but now I enjoy it. My daughters – each of them has her own career. Eva spent 20 years in the Army and made helicopter pilot and served in Desert Storm, the first one. She was at the Berlin Wall, bringing it down. She was in Egypt. Sandra worked in the hospital in the receiving room and Regan works in the library. Each has done okay.
When were you in South Africa?
I did my first tour of South Africa in 1998 and that’s the story. I’ve been there four times now. I’ve been to Australia four times, I’ve been to Sweden three times, and I’ve been to London about six times on tours. It’s been good.
What did the South Africans like so much about your music?
The thing is, I understand more now about South Africa, which I didn’t know much about at the time. There was apartheid and government suppression and police brutality. We can’t forget that that has happened and that is the history there. Unfortunately, here in America, we have police brutality cases, too. It’s that kind of social realism that appealed to the South Africans. In the film, we just get a glimpse of apartheid and the music scene. It’s grim information. It’s like Syria today. That has been going for 16 months and we’re in the middle of that now.
It sounds like you’re even better informed now.
I think all of us are and we can credit the Internet. It makes it all more conscious globally. There are a lot of parallels in the universe. Here we had draft dodgers going to Canada and the killing in Ohio at Kent State. Those are issues of government repression and we have to remind people that California is responsible for Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan. If you want to get political, I’m voting for Obama. I gotta say that because that’s what I’m doing.
Well, Jerry Brown is now in charge of California.
Yeah. I think everyone is happy with Brownie.
Talk about what first made you want to become a musician?
A lot of people shaped me. I was 16 when I started music. Guitar is central to the music ensemble since the ’40s when Charlie Christian electrified it. I followed the guitar and anything that had a guitar and the Beatles. I’m a self-taught musician. I used folk music or rather the protest song as a genre in music where I can describe social issues and the conditions of the people on the streets.
What made you want to discuss those things?
I don’t know. When you’re immersed in that kind of thing, you have questions about it. I was born and bred in Detroit. I’m urban as opposed to rural. You get drawn into issues in the urban settings. No one is an island unto themselves.
Were you discovered by musicians/writers/producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore in a Detroit bar?
They came to a show and checked me out and I was the first product on Sussex. That was in 1969 and that year was super for musicians. I’ve been chasing music ever since.
At some point in the ’70s, you became big in Australia? What was that like?
A guy started playing me on midnight radio and we had enough attention that we could sell out the concerts. I was there in ’79 and ’81. It was amazing, but after that nothing happened until I resurfaced in 1998. Rock ’n’ roll is not linear, and there is no blueprint for success. I have to credit my daughters and the Internet for helping me get there, wherever “there” is.
What were you doing during that time off?
I just did demolition and construction in Detroit. I just went back to work basically.
Were you still writing any songs?
I always put new riffs together but I never finished anything.
What about now?
Now, I’m just following the screenings and pursuing my music career.
Why do you think “Sugar Man” became a hit?
I call it a descriptive song and not a prescriptive song. Get your hugs, stay off drugs. Stay smart, don’t start. It’s a song about the scene in Detroit. I don’t think anyone should smoke or do drugs. I put that disclaimer there. When I play it in public, I explain it in that way.
Are you playing with a band?
Not this time. I’m doing these as singles. I did Letterman with a 25-piece orchestra. It was a powerful performance even without me. I didn’t have anything to do with the orchestration. The orchestration stole the show. But I’ll be touring solo even though I got about 12 bands. I’ll have a full band in England. I have a Swedish band. I have a South African band. I have British bands. I’ve been doing for a while now since 1998. Sometimes I’m at a lack of words because I’ve led such an ordinary life and there’s not much to say about hard work beyond that it’s hard work. I’m enjoying this time and the resurgence, so to speak.
8/30 Washington DC
8/31 New York, NY
9/2 Northhampton, MA
9/20 Chicago, IL
9/21 Columbia, MO
9/23 Minneapolis, MN
9/26 San Diego, CA
9/28 Los Angeles, CA
9/29 San Franciso, CA
10/11 Vancouver, BC
10/12 Seattle, WA
10/13 Portland, OR
10/25 Toronto, ON
10/27 Sommerville, MA
10/28 Philadelphia, PA
11/2 Pontiac, MI
11/3 Cleveland, OH
11/17 London, England
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
Roots ‘n Blues n’ BBQ Festival
Weismann Art Museum
El Rey Theatre
Bimbo’s 365 Club
The Showbox at the Market
The Mod Club
World Café Live
The Crofoot Ballroom
Royal Festival Hall