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By Lauren Wise
In the social media era, it seems unfathomable that an artist, no matter how trivial, could completely disappear off the radar. In the 1970s, it was a different story entirely. Sixto Rodriguez was one musician who not only fell through the cracks but was thought by many to have died — possibly even by his own hand, on stage — as his critically acclaimed music sold poorly.
A Detroit native and a poet as much as a musician, Rodriguez was touted by some as the Hispanic Dylan. His lyricism rivaled Dylan's, but musically he was shaped by his heritage and the times, mixing Latin influences with folk, soul, blues, and psychedelic rock fluffed up with lush strings. His stories touched on politics, race, drugs, loneliness, and war and adroitly captured a darker, often cynical side of the human condition.
Discovered in a dive bar by Sussex Records founder Dennis Coffey, Rodriguez made two albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). Both proved commercial failures, and the label dropped him. Then, by all accounts, he was gone, returning to a life as a day laborer while his musical legacy was consigned to record store cutout bins — at least in the United States.
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Unbeknownst to him, South Africans in the 1980s used Rodriguez's music as an anti-apartheid rallying cry, as documented in the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Though the South African government banned much of his music during that period, it circulated freely in underground channels, inspiring people to a better life. Interestingly, "I Wonder," most likely unintentionally, opens with a South African-style bass line. Visiting a host of world issues, questioning everything, the song struck a chord at a time when many white South Africans openly questioned their government's intentions. Lines such as "I wonder will this hatred ever end . . . I wonder, don't you?" proved particularly powerful.
It is this way with all of Rodriguez's music. Simple songs at their core, each is made a unique, powerful journey by Rodriguez's insight into the human psyche. "This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues" flows like Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while tackling corrupt politicians, cheating housewives, war protests, soldiers, drug use, pollution, and smoking in a voice riddled with disgust. "Sugar Man" is a slang-filled tirade against Detroit's drug problems, while Rodriguez admits throughout the soulful, string-laden "Can't Get Away" that problems follow no matter where one tries to hide. The soulful "Inner City Blues" reveals the depth, despair, and grit of inner-city Detroit life, while "I Think of You" is a potent, longing love song with just enough country twang that it probably could have been a massive hit for Glen Campbell. Instead, like most of his material — like the artist himself — it faded into American obscurity.
Amazingly, Rodriguez's songs remain just as relevant today as the day they were written. And thanks to the documentary, Rodriguez is enjoying the level of home-soil popularity that evaded him when the music first was released. It is a good story, the rediscovery of a one-of-a-kind artist unafraid to speak his mind but gone missing in the labyrinth of musical politics. Rodriguez's future output — he has plans to record some recently written songs — will not go unnoticed this time. That's a guarantee.