Q&A: Rodriguez, star of the documentary 'Searching for Sugar Man'

Rodriguez (right) and director Malik Bendjelloul

Rodriguez (right) and director Malik Bendjelloul (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye / August 3, 2012)

Spoiler alert: Little-known, critically acclaimed early 1970s folk singer Rodriguez is not, contrary to popular belief, dead.

Yet, as chronicled in the Sundance award-winning film “Searching for Sugar Man,” that’s what many fans in early-’90s South Africa believed as Sixto Rodriguez’s socially conscious folk songs became anthems of revolution for the anti-apartheid movement. Rodriguez, however, had no idea. He wasn’t receiving any royalty checks and hadn’t heard that this growing base of overseas fans believed rumors that their new favorite artist had killed himself on stage.

“No, I didn’t commit suicide,” the 70-year-old Detroit native says with a laugh by phone from Minneapolis. Actually, he’s spent most of the past few decades working construction, but the film (which also has gained support from Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore) has begun to spark a certain career resurrection, including an upcoming Sept. 20 show at Lincoln Hall.

What went through your head when you heard so many people thought you were dead?
[Laughs.] The whole story was unbelievable in the sense that they talked about royalties and all this popularity, but I didn’t believe the second part that there was any money or that I had any fame there. ‘Cause I didn’t believe the first part that I was anything or anyone there. It was all a surprise … in ’98 I toured. I knew it was genuine because the audiences were so large. I was playing 5,000 [-seat] theatres, and they knew the lyrics to my songs.

Why do you think these rumors came about and how? It wasn’t just that people thought you were dead. It was that they heard you had killed yourself on stage. Or that you killed your wife and were in jail. That’s pretty extreme.
It is gruesome stuff. I didn’t know what started these rumors … The thing is I always want to think that maybe it was a misinterpretation—”someone went out in a blaze of glory” kind of thing. And so that’s read in words like “He went up in smoke” or something. So maybe somebody interpreted it differently so it started sounding more gruesome.

How much frustration or sense of regret do you have about the fact that no one told you about your rising fame as it was happening?
As the music business goes, there [are] a lot of disappointments and criticisms, so that goes with the territory of the creative arts. Did I wish I had known? There’s stuff I wish had known, but I want to return to music in the sense that we make new money so we create new revenues. Music is a living art. I start from now and all we have to do is put on a concert and by the end of the night the receipts are in there. In music we create new revenue. That’s why I got into the music business because [of those] immediate rewards. And long-distance rewards, royalties that might happen. So I didn’t know it was already happening. I certainly wasn’t receiving those revenues. That’s still a question that’s gonna be resolved. And I’ll let everyone know how that goes.

What were you going for on your albums “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality,” and why do you think they didn’t sell at the time?
Well, they didn’t sell in the United States but in the genre of protest song, I think they put my stuff in that category. Social protest. “I Am a Rock” by Paul Simon; Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War;” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” These kinds of tunes were coming out at that time. “Ohio” by Neil Young, [about] the Kent State killings of American students on campus ... They canvas things, [focus] people’s attention to the real issues that are happening. And South Africa, they have constriction too … Angola, Namibia … In the United States the people were burning their draft cards, resisting the draft, going to Canada. So again these parallels were happening, so [my albums] didn’t succeed here but it did in a way in South Africa.

When you were dropped from your label and things didn’t seem to be working out in the U.S., were you upset about it?
Everybody feels disappointments. To say I wish I had known is almost like a non-answer. I did learn later and from then I moved on. So I don’t know. It can only be today. I was just in England [for a] music festival [at] a 5,000[-seat] theater; Van Morrison was there. Ray [Davies] from the Kinks was there. I was on the main stage with them. I continued my music career, and this film is a different thing.

What can people expect from your show at Lincoln Hall?
I didn’t know all the bookings, but we’re going to be on the David Letterman show Aug. 13. I didn’t know about the Lincoln [Hall] there, but that sounds like a wild time. If it’s a big room I’m going to get a band for sure. What can they expect? I’m going to do music from my “Cold Fact” and “[Coming From] Reality” albums, and we’re reissued in America in Light in the Attic, a Seattle label. And I do covers at these shows too. The thing is I enjoy that. Some bands don’t do covers. I love music. I’ve done the ‘40s, the ‘50s, ‘the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the ‘00s, and I’m working on the ‘10s. And all the music and environment I try and include that in my set so to speak. I describe myself as a political musical. I try to follow that direction. If there’s something to say up there, I try and say it. It’s not just I ignore the social issues, the politics. I’m voting for Obama if anybody wants to know about that, but I know this is a music interview.

How would you summarize what you’ve been up to in the last few decades in between the time when you were dropped from the label and your career kicked back in?
I was working. I did demolition. Construction. I had labor. That’s what I’ve been doing.

Are you still involved in that work?
Not presently. But you never throw away your work clothes, Matt. There’s always something comes up, whatever it is. I earned a bachelor’s of philosophy in that time period. I also ran for office eight times: Mayor, city council, state representative of Michigan. A busy bee knows no sorrow; I think that’s the whole theme is you stay busy. And I didn’t know about South Africa until later.

What goes through your head when you hear people put you in the same league as the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel or Michael Jackson? How does that feel, especially as someone who didn’t have a very long career and is now coming back?
They use these comparatives, and the thing is … I’ve only written 30 songs or something. Dylan’s written over 500 songs. There’s no comparison. He’s the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll and popular music. But it’s nice that they [mention] us in the sense to lyrical and poetry things. I think that’s what they’re doing.

If he’s the Shakespeare, what are you?
[Laughs.] Oh jeez. I can’t answer that. I don’t know. I got my style. I got my own way of playing. I’m a musician. I’m self-taught.

Plus:
On Chicago: “It’s a large city. A lot of sound comes out of Chicago. A lot of political stuff. You got the ward system, you have Daley history. The history of the Daleys. You still have that political structure in place still. Obama was a senator from your state. The mayor is now the mayor … You gotta be from somewhere, and Detroit has its history as well. We have February cold weather and July hot weather like you guys do. I’m urban more as opposed to rural.”
What he’s listening to now: Paolo Nutini, Arctic Monkeys, Animal Collective (for whom he opened at Metro in 2009)

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