Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Music Detectives

The first sound we hear is a sharp, percussive acoustic guitar followed by a vaguely echoing voice that sounds like it's been leaked from the mists of time -- which as it turns out, it has. It's a sort of a cross between the folk-pop singer Jim Croce and a less-nasal Dylan, stark and soulful, like a light in a window by the dark sea. It begins to sing lyrics that are both gritty and mystical:

Lost my heart
When I found it
It had turned to dead, black coal
Silver magic ships, you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet maryjane...
Sugar Man, you're the answer

The lyrics and music were composed in the late 1960's by a second-generation Mexican day laborer named Sixto Díaz Rodriguez, who had been busking around the anonymous taverns and dives of Detroit's bombed-out Wharfs Riverside district. He released just two nil-selling albums -- Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971) -- before being dropped by his label and, ostensibly, dropping off the face of the earth. Rumors of his demise were profligate and ugly: he blew his brains out onstage; no wait, he set himself on fire onstage; he died in prison; he succumbed to a drug overdose.

They were also wholly inaccurate. As Malik Bendjelloul 's quietly startling documentary Searching For Sugar Man, reveals, Sixto Rodriguez is alive and well and living in the same small house in downtown Detroit that he's lived in for 40 years. He still cleans people's lawns, knocks down sheds, dabbles as a carpenter and construction worker. If he plays any music, it appears, it's by himself in a modest room that's heated with a wood-burning stove. Until 1998, he apparently remained completely unaware that half a planet away in South Africa, his two forgotten albums had made him, in the words of one giddy admirer, "bigger than Elvis."

There are many lucky coincidences and convergences in Searching for Sugar Man, which was justly nominated for Best Documentary Feature for this year's Academy Awards. If you set the remarkable set of circumstances and the Sherlock Holmes detective story shaped by the film aside, the whole project would not have worked had Rodriguez's music not stood the tests of time so well. Like his fellow Detroiters The Stooges, Rodriguez's music reflected the gritty harshness of urban life in America while not being directly about it. It carried grains of soul and R&B -- the label's founder was an ex-Motown executive -- and electric folk. ("Soul folk" might be a more accurate description.) Rodriguez's lyrics -- elliptical, metaphoric, removed, oblique -- unmoored the songs from any time capsule. Only the occasional syrupy string section, tinkle of a xylophone or bloat of easy-listening horns could enable one to nail it down as the early 1970s.

It was this quality that allowed Rodriguez's songs to float halfway across the earth and settle in bootleg form in the old vinyl shops in Cape Town, where they were memorized rallying cries for a generation of young, mostly white South Africans who were beginning to question to the inequalities of Apartheid. One of the pivotal players in Rodriguez's unlikely "comeback" -- a record-shop owner named Stephen Segerman, dubbed "Sugar" by his compatriots -- testifies that the song told him and his that "It was okay to be angry at your society." The P.W.Botha regime soon caught on and certain rabble-rousing tracks like "This Is Not A Song, It's An Outburst, Or: The Establishment Blues" were literary scratched with sharp tools to keep DJs from playing them on state-owned radio.

One of the rare gaps of Bendjelloul's film is that it never directly addresses why the radicalized generations who responded to Rodriguez's Aquarian-age protests seemed to be mostly white; they included including university students, journalists, aficionados and musicians who made up the subsequent "Afrikaners" music movement. It almost invites this query in shots of adoring crowds at Rodriguez's triumphant March 1998 "comeback" concert in Cape Town in March 1998, which show virtually no black faces. It's one of the rare gaps in the film that explains why this was, and it bodes the questions: Did any black South Africans respond to Rodriguez? (Follow-up: Does Charlize Theron like Rodriguez?)

But when the film showcases the music itself, often with intricate animation or foreboding shots of burnt-out Detroit, does it truly come alive. Suddenly, the subtle swell of French horns buoying the transcendent "Crucify Your Mind" or the bed of strings that uplift the devastating lyrics of "Cause" aren't cheesy reminders of a studio era best left in the past but lift these simple, skeletal songs to greatness. Everybody involved in this music at the outset -- the producers, the engineers, the musicians, the artist himself -- did everything right. We feel their confusion and heartbreak when the first album sold, by one estimation, six copies in America. Steve Rowland, who produced Coming From Reality, plays "Cause" and notes that Rodriguez's opening line "I lost my job two week before Christmas" wound up actually happening when A&M Records dropped him just before the holidays. "Nobody was even invested in listening to this," the baffled man says before practically breaking into tears at the rawness of the music. "How can that be?"

Surrounding the heartbroken and the jubilant alike is Rodriguez himself -- a little frailer, a little more bent, still dressed in all-black with dark sunglasses like some lost link between Johnny Cash and José Feliciano -- who despite his "resurrection" maintains a sort of monkish life of willful poverty and quietly busying himself in community politics that the filmmakers allude to as being almost Christlike. He cannot -- or will not -- reflect on his situation. "I don't know if it would have been better," he says after a question about how his life would have been different if he had been more famous with typical stoicism. "But it's certainly a thought." Even reporters notice his reticence when confronted with what to them is the ultimate question: The "miracle" of his final, long earned acceptance. ("Most of us die without ever having come anywhere close to that sort of magic," one marvels with typical overheatedness. "Home is acceptance.") The film alludes to something beyond this question, something that Sixto Rodriguez, in all his quiet reticence and deferential dry humor and gnostic life of simple things, may know but won't divulge. It was, after all, his hard-earned path. He lived silently amongst the filth and chaos for over 40 years without once picking up a gun and going postal on the rest of us.

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