Like every other person I knew in South Africa, I owned a copy of Rodriguez’s album “Cold Fact”.
All the plaintively sung songs stuck in my head and like everyone else, I knew all the lyrics
“Sugar man. Won’t you hurry.Cause I’m tired of these scenes.For the blue coin, won’t you bring back. All those colours to my dreams. Silver magic ships, you carry, jumpers, coke, sweet mary jane…” I would sing along to the CD in my car or in my bedroom.
You could buy the album in just about any music shop in town. I am sure I bought my copy – now lost – at ‘CD Warehouse’ in Rosebank, in the leafy, northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
It was always on special, alongside the best of Santana, Led Zeppelin IV and Simon Garfunkel’s Bridge over Trouble Waters and something by Van Morrison.
R39 (about $10 Australian) is what you’d pay for a copy in those days.
My friend Doug Cohen, who introduced me to a lot of good bands, told me that Rodriguez was dead. He’d shot himself on stage.
For many years I believed him. Nobody told me otherwise. It’s not the kind of story you make up and at the time I was kind of obssessed with dead rock stars.
I owned and would read and re-read a book called “Rock n’ Roll Heaven” about dead musicians who died in their prime including Jim Morrison of The Doors, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones. There were about 30 or so musicians in Rock ‘ Roll Heaven – Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, even ‘dorky’ singers like Karen Carpenter, but no one called Rodriguez.
Then one day I heard he had apparently risen from the dead: he was coming on tour to South Africa.
I never went to the sold out concerts in Cape Town (or the ones in Johannesburg) , but watching the documentary film “Searching for Suger Man” I wish I did.
Not a man who sheds a tear easily, I found my eyes brimful with tears throughout much of film, during which two South African music fans set about finding what happened to this enigmatic singer-songwriter with the haunting voice and lyrics.
The film begins with one of the fans a Cape Town vinyl record shop owner – Steven ‘Sugar’ Segerman driving along the windy roads of Camps Bay, listening to the track “Sugar Man” and remarking how he too believed that Rodriguez was dead.
Then a journalist – Craig Bartholomew-Strydom- joins him in the quest.
In Segerman’s version of the legend, he heard an even more grotesque ending: Rodriguez had set himself alight on stage.
And so the film follows the two fans as they seek out their hero, finding to their astonishment that he is very much alive.
When they do track him down in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Detroit and convince him to come to South Africa to play for his adoring fans – “You’re bigger than Elvis over here,” Segerman tell him – they find a softly spoken, gentle man but with the same, haunting voice and guitarmanship.
And despite missing out on fame for much of his life, he is not in the least bit bitter; though he has spent his life restoring houses, working in car factories and raising a family in one of the poorest cities in America, rather than live the lifestyle of a rockstar.
“This is the music business. There are no guarantees,” is how contemplates his very late-realised fame.
But better late than never.
Discovering his legions of fans does not change him. He is the same man he was when his songs were unappreciated, but he is pleased to have been given a chance to be a star and play his music.
They describe him – those people who first discovered him and produced his first records – as better than Dylan, as a poet of the streets, a keen observer and teller of tales at the poorest end of town.
He is proud but unchanged. He talks of his music and the path of his life in that same soft, sweet, gentle voice that comes across in his songs.
What happened to the money? Half a million records sold at least in South Africa alone. He never saw any of it. That’s one question the documentary does not answer.
But Rodriguez appears to be a man beyond bitterness and material gain. His life has been hard, honest, but good. He has raised his three daughters to believe in themselves regardless of money, class or privilege. They are strong and proud.
He is Rodriguez.
And now, as I type away in the kitchen or as I walk to the train station in the morning, I find myself singing all those songs from Cold Fact, the album where he floats in a bubble, a contented shaman with his sunglasses, purple shirt and sandles.