RODRIGUEZ – The Political Side & The Private Side Of The Sugar Man

Rip Nicholson talks to Sixto Rodriguez about just what’s important in the modern world.

RODRIGUEZ interviewed October 14, 2016
For Street Press Australia [VIEW HERE]

In 1970 Rodriguez summed up a slice of ’60s Americana in one psychedelic folk album, and 46 years later Cold Fact is considered one of the defining masterpieces of modern rock. But, at the time of its release, the record fell hard on deaf ears in the American market that Rodriguez painted so poetically.

Though ignored on Rodriguez’s home front, in an apartheid South Africa Cold Fact sold more than any Elvis Presley record. He became the subject of a long journey for Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn, two South African fans in search of what had happened to the enigmatic singer – one rumour even claimed he’d committed suicide. Their efforts resulted in the Academy Award-winning doco Searching For Sugarman.

“Of the two candidates, I am voting for the younger person, Hillary Clinton, and the reason is that she is more of a statesman.”

They discovered Rodriguez certainly wasn’t dead, and was less a recluse than just a working class man. He’d quietly eluded stardom for more than 30 years as a construction worker in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. That didn’t mean he’d stopped expressing his social beliefs however, several times running for political office including Mayor of Detroit.

For the former factory-line employee, who still lives in the same home he bought for $50 over 40 years ago at a government auction, the realities of life for those swung low on the socio-economic scale will always be more pressing than any run-of-the-mill rhetoric behind the legacy of Cold Fact. Particularly now, with one of the most contentious periods in recent US politics in full swing.

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“You see a lot of hypocrisy and political adolescence today, and these are serious matters that go well beyond the reach of a billionaire. But, [Trump’s] the best they’ve got in the Republican party at the moment and that’s a shame,” shares Rodriguez in regards to his stance on the current US Presidential election. “Whoever is going to be the Commander-In-Chief of this country, it’s going to be an important position. I think of the two candidates, I am voting for the younger person, Hillary Clinton, and the reason is that she is more of a statesman in that manner. That’s very important in coexistence with other nations in serious matters. I would prefer Hillary Clinton to be President of the United States.

“You bring up the economic status. Well, I travel the world now and I’ve been to Australia six times and I’ve been to South Africa six times and my synopsis of the world is that there’s enough for everyone and in fact there’s too much for anyone. America is a leader and they have to show that leadership… I describe the music I make as political because those things are important to me, as they are for everybody.”

A selfless outlook, it’s the kind of regular statement from the grounded man behind decades of mystique, bringing to the fore someone whose nature seems content with what life has thrown him. Despite his tag as “the Latin Bob Dylan”, a cult fantasy had been constructed around the ambiguity of Cold Fact, yet during its incubation, and even now, Rodriguez has led an existence separated from the shine, something he still enjoys.

“Well I can’t explain it,” Rodriguez responds as to how he handles the recent boom in interest about his music and himself. “I compartmentalise my life. There’s a political side and a business side to the person, and a personal and private side. There’s many different parts to a person and I try to separate myself away from the media. It works that way for me and I like that.”

While South Africa was credited with helping take the Sugar Man off the back of a milk carton, Australia has also long been enamoured with the singer, since his first 1979 tour here (Cold Fact has gone five-times platinum in Australia). Returning again in ’81, Rodriguez had his most memorable gig at Tanelorn Music Festival, held on the October Labour Day holiday weekend and toured with Midnight Oil and The Break (Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey and Rob Hirst with Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie).

“Here’s what happened: Midnight Oil was headlining and that’s where we met. There were something like 20 Australian bands lined up – Men At Work was there, this was before they got their haircuts,” he quips, breaking for a quiet laugh. “And Split Enz was there before they became Crowded House, so there was a lot of history there. For me, I felt a very personal involvement in what was really a unique sense of what I call rock ‘n’ roll. It turned the world upside down for me.”

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