An inspirational story – the Cold Fact

25 12 2013

I am not religious at all so this time of year is a bit lost on me. Actually I find it a bit tedious and find it a relief when it’s over – an excess of eating and false bonhomie and the original message of hope and inspiration long buried in commercialism. I heard the first Christmas Carols this year in a supermarket at the end of October. I do however like a truly inspirational story as much as anyone so last night made myself comfortable with a DVD “Searching for Sugar Man” – the story of the search for the artiste known just as Rodriguez who in my youth produced the iconic album Cold Fact that sank without trace in the USA but was a huge hit in this part of the world where it was seen as a touch provocative, anti-establishment, and a touchstone for anti-apartheid music in the Afrikaans language.

I suppose I was about 15 when I first heard Cold Fact. Tape cassettes were a new technology so it must have been what we called an LP (long playing vinyl record). We considered ourselves a bit rebellious just for listening to it with its shocking lyrics on I Wonder – “… I wonder how many times you’ve had sex and I wonder, do you know who’ll be next and I wonder…”. Well, shocking for that era. And the song about drugs – Sugar Man. I never owned the album, I wouldn’t have dared bring it home. I had already rocked the boat by being the first of my siblings to buy a pop album – the soundtrack to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Radical stuff man! I am not sure I would really have appreciated the lyrics anyway, often a gritty synopsis of Rodriguez’s Detroit.

The Searching for Sugar Man documentary follows two South African fans as they search for their hero about whom next to nothing is known where Rodriguez’s two albums were a massive hit. They don’t even know if he is still alive as rumours abound about an onstage suicide. I remember being told that the artiste was an ex-convict who wrote his songs in jail. Rodriguez is alive and well and  has absolutely no idea that he is a superstar in this part of the world and has spent the last 30 years as a blue collar laborer in construction and renovation in his native Detroit.

The opening scenes of the first sell-out concert in Cape Town in 1998 are incredibly touching; a lot of the fans cannot believe it’s really their hero. Then the opening notes of I Wonder start and the crowd goes berserk. That Rodriguez, who is expecting a couple of thousand fans at most, walks calmly onto the stage in front of some 20,000 after a near 30 year hiatus and handles the concert with aplomb, is a tribute to the extraordinary quality of the man who remains remarkably humble to this day, still living in the run-down house in Detroit where he has spent the last 40 years.

The “Making of” section at the end of the documentary (which won an award at the 2012 Sundance Festival and later and Academy Award) is well worth a look – in itself an inspirational story of persistence from a first-time director who nearly didn’t get the film made at all. And the music; well, it’s timeless. Rodriguez is favorably compared to Bob Dylan in the documentary. In my opinion he is much better. I have never been a fan of Dylan whose nasal whining I find tedious no matter how good the lyrics. Rodriguez has great lyrics AND a clear voice. Here’s hoping he has found the recognition that he has so long deserved in the wider world.

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3 responses

9 01 2014
Aaron Dunn

I stumbled upon your site and read this article on Rodriguez; I’m sure played Glastonbury Festival here in the UK in the summer of 2013; if it wasn’t him he is very similar. I remember the album from the 70’s and the lines quoted. I always played the song when I knew my parents weren’t about.

10 01 2014
gonexc

Hello Aaron,
Apparently he did play at Glastonbury in 2013. Sounds like we had equally conservative parents!

10 03 2014
Al M

In the film he mentions working at the Chrysler Dodge Main factory. I worked there at roughly the same time, probably saw him from time to time. I agree, it’s a great story about a humble man, ripped-off from fame and fortune for so long who harbors no animosity. I’ve not always been proud to say that I was born in Detroit but this is an exception.

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