AS A SLIVER of the setting sun of the 1960s lingered on the horizon, Detroit-based, Mexican-descended Sixto Rodriguez released Cold Fact in 1970. The songs were smashing, pretty, and poppy, yet wordy and wicked, shrinking heads like Bob Dylan, backed by the shadows of Motown.
At the time, no one in America seemed to care. A second album fared as poorly as the first. Deemed a commercial failure, Rodriguez was dropped from his label. Interest seemed to dry up.
Half a world away, however, Rodriguez's music was finding an audience. In South Africa he became the soundtrack to the apartheid era, emboldening hearts while enflaming government. His records were banned, only elevating the fervor. According to a recent New York Times piece, "In South Africa, Rodriguez had become as popular as the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley."
But Rodriguez himself never got word. He remained in Detroit, receiving no royalties, working construction, and hacking out menial labor. In South Africa, meanwhile, rumors swirled. The man became myth. Many thought he was dead.
In the late '90s, thanks to a burgeoning internet, South Africa found Rodriguez, and brought him over for a six-show tour of the country in 1998. A documentary, Searching for Sugar Man (which won a Sundance Audience Award), was released earlier this year. Though the film is largely responsible for the current surge of American interest, Rodriguez has been touring semi-regularly through Europe, Australia, and South Africa since returning to the stage in '98.
I spoke by phone with Rodriguez at his home in Detroit. Unlike the sometimes cold, benevolent witness in his songs, Rodriguez was warm, upbeat, and personable. He harbors no ill will toward his twisted cosmic fate.
"Right now," Rodriguez told me, "I'm on top of the world."
In late September, I saw Rodriguez perform at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. His bandmates, San Francisco's splendid, syrupy, searing garage maestros the Fresh and Onlys, led him to the microphone. Though he is all but blind, Rodriguez can still goddamn sing. He began the evening mostly silent, shrouded in shadows of sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. But as he and the band settled in, a more opalescent man emerged.
"I'm a solid 70," Rodriguez pronounced to great cheers. He continued to unfurl, sharing jokes and tales from Detroit, and offering support for Barack Obama and medical marijuana.
"Knowledge in itself is nothing," Rodriguez told me. "It's what you do with it—you speak to it. That's why I'm a musical politico."
But the man who unblinkingly chronicled the '60s is not some sentimental burnout locked in a bygone era. "I like to consider myself contemporary in a very real way," he told me.
Besides touring with a band who could almost be his grandchildren, Rodriguez is in tune with modern music. He likes the dance-forward features of techno and electronica. Recently, after performing an opening slot, he was introduced to the members of Animal Collective.
"I got to have a little drink of whiskey with them, too," Rodriguez said, giddy like a fan. He's been listening to their records since. He's particularly impressed with their amalgamation of elements from different genres. "Young bloods," Rodriguez said. "It's their world."
Yet it seems young bloods have something to take from Rodriguez as well. And I can't help but wonder about the timing. Is it just because Rodriguez's records—Cold Fact in particular—deserve to be waved before us once more? Or is there something about this time? Something about our receptiveness to his feel and sound that resonates in today's America more than it did before? And, furthermore, is there some similar undercurrent between apartheid-era South Africa and today's America?
I seek not to answer these questions. Only one thing I know for sure—that Rodriguez has a number of songs that are of a time but also timeless, including: "Crucify Your Mind," on existentialism; "I Wonder," on assessing new love and society at large; "Jane S. Piddy," on phonies; and "Like Janis," on the lonesome ebbing of the '60s cultural wave.
Almost as remarkable as the tale of Rodriguez's being lost and found is how the spirit of his music seems to almost foresee it—not in terms of details, or faith in a happy ending, but in a profound and peaceful acceptance that life is often ambivalent, severe, and unknowable. Indeed, Rodriguez was nothing if not prepared for the strange and, some would say, unjust fate that found him.
Then again, there can be no surprise—at least not from the man who sings: "I was born for the purpose that crucifies your mind."