Monday, December 17, 2012


In the late seventies I remember seeing ads in the local music press (Juke and RAM) for what I took to be promotions of current singer songwriter types. I clearly remember a series of display ads for Nick Drake's albums. I never heard them then so they never took with me. Rodriguez was given the same treatment. Quite big ads for his two albums issue after issue. I thought no more of them at the time until the name started filtering through in the community out under the smoking trees at lunch and then, which gave it real heft, the university parties I started going to when I was sixteen. But there was something in the way of all this.

By the late seventies the singer songwriter type of artist was in the panelling. What I heard of Rodriguez' albums was acoustic guitar and whining voice. Right, I thought, it's 1978 and someone's cashing in on Bob Dylan. That's timely.

Also, when I was swept up by punk from 1976 onwards everything had to be as good as that. Well, everything had to be that. So in the year I decamped for Brisbane and kept up a lot of letter writing with some of the ol' crew from Townsville, Fiona, fellow travelling punque, told me about how good she thought this new stuff by Rodriguez was, quoting the lyric to I Wonder. I didn't give up on her but I did feel like it.

Searching for Sugar Man does this kind of thing. The first scene and narration are that of a shop owner from Cape Town talking about himself and then edging toward the subject of this film. And then you get a lot of other people from the same town doing the same. In the midst of this are some talking head interviews with people in America recollecting seeing Rodriguez in the bars he played, signing him up and recording the two albums. And one thing comes through like a big blue wave: Rodriguez' story is that of his fans. 

See also Nick Drake. There is a poignant and delicate film about Drake called A Skin Too Few. So very little is known about him intimately that the screentime seems held together with a system of spider webs. In this realm of fame or near fame the testimony of a Paul Weller feels as weighty as that of a Joe Boyd who knew and nurtured Drake's work. The overall effect of this is respectful but barely contained commemoration, its brevity seeming to emphasise the fragility of the emotional response to such a heart rending tale as Drake's. 

That's what I thought I was in for when I saw Searching for Sugar Man and indeed that's how it begins. Rodriguez through the same kind of social currency as I experienced put the hook in the Afrikaner youth who were culturally malnourished but ready to rumble. It was these two sets of whining singer songwriter strumming that fuelled a generation into something anthemic and mighty. The cultural and social movement that led to the southern Perestroika in the hated Republic of South Africa rioted to the thump twang and wheedle of a singer unknown in his own land and in his own town known only as a demolition worker.

Rodriguez' two LPs sank without a trace on their release in the early seventies. After that so little is known of him that the arguments were not over what might have been but if he'd killed himself by gun or petrol at his final live performance. This is where this film gets interesting, knows it and starts luxuriating. 

With no effective biographical material there is nothing to talk about but the effect the music had on its listeners. They don't just talk, they bear witness to social upheaval and healing. There isn't a musician alive who wouldn't find this and this alone to be a kind of neurological miracle drug. Such works as I have given, shall cleanse nations..... Especially if he flopped and settled down to his old job and did like everyone else. Or ... if he'd lit a match to his petrol-doused body and farewelled the nerveless cruelty of the world forever.

Anyone with Google can end the story told here and I'll keep the heart-gladdening twist of it for the viewer but there is something this film brings out that has intrigued me for a while and it has to do with an error of perception on my part that I can scarcely forgive in myself.

Where grief is concerned I'm mostly an ice cube. It takes a lot to affect me simply with the news of a death. I'm just not very good at it. But when Syd Barrett's death came through I wept. I could think of nothing more than that beauteous creature with the fiery imagination walking away from his fame into decades of shuddering lonely insanity. Then I read an interview with David Gilmour who said that the rest of Pink Floyd made sure that Syd's contributions were kept in good profile and that he received every penny of his royalties. His death came at the end of decades of pottering creative restlessness, creating weird furniture, painting, naming the pebbles on the path between his house and the chemist and somewhere way back there a little music as well. Everything I'd thought about him was guided by the shallow assumption that he had wanted the kind of fame he had early on but just couldn't connect with it. We assume this about our rockstars as the supporting evidence is so cringingly strong. But sometimes....

Rodriguez makes a couple of albums that fail so rudely he gets the message and picks up his tools and goes back to work. An ocean away the sounds and words are fuelling a revolution. But there's a fridge that has to come down from a second floor apartment and there are only the stairs to get it there. And now, I'm going to go looking for some Rodriguez CDs.

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