Walking into one of the many faceless bars on Hastings Street in the Detroit suburb of Paradise Valley, I feel like I’m taking a step back in time. The jukebox is playing Motown funk as I spot Rodriguez, sporting shades as always, sitting in a booth in the back, and I wade through the nostalgia to greet him.
The man is a bit of an underground legend. With the raspy drawl of Dylan and looking like Hispanic Roy Orbison, he has an easy, familiar charm, dropping ‘man’ and ‘you know’ into every other sentence.
Having recorded only two albums in the early 70s (although there has been a spate of compilations and live recording released in the past two decades), he disappeared from the music scene in the early 80s following his albums’ failure to make an impact on the American market.
His absence prompted a slew of rumours, from being dead of a heroin overdose, to being in jail for murdering his wife while in truth he had just gone back to a normal life. “Nothing beats reality man,” he laughs. “When the company folded I went back to work you know. I did demolition and renovation and pretty much went back to the working class.”
However, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, a compilation of songs from his albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality (also known as After The Fact) as well as unreleased and rare tracks entitled, Rodriguez: At His Best, had gone Platinum in South Africa, and he himself had become somewhat of an icon of revolution amongst the nation’s soldiers, prompting a whirlwind tour in 1998
“One soldier came up out of the audience and he told me ‘we made love to your music and we made war to your music,’ and that pretty much blew me away,” he tells me as a hearty smile creeps across his face.
“It turns out some guy on the bus had shot another guy and he was in hospital. So that’s the environment over here, I mean it’s crazy I was waiting for that bus.”
“You know this is a big guy, one guy was so big he almost broke my glasses when he hugged me. These guys were sweethearts man, they all had conscription and they had to be there you know, and to them I helped. That really made an impact.”
However, Rodriguez is still largely unknown amongst people of his era, as his audience is made up mostly of those who inherited the disowned records from their parents. “My audience is very young, a lot of young blood in my audience. The thing is the music scene is always changing and reinventing itself, and at the moment I can feel that my sort of music has returned and been rediscovered as well.”
And it’s a good thing he has been. Part Bob Dylan and part Rolling Stones, Rodriguez fuses elements of folk, rock and psychedelic pop with insightful lyrics rooted in the urban environment of his home city, Detroit.
“You know the country mouse and the city mouse,” he asks, looking down over his glasses. “Well I consider myself an urban mouse. That’s pretty much my environment. Lots of cement, a lot concrete, any industrial city you know, like London or Liverpool, they’ve always inspired me. You know what I mean, just look at singers like John Denver with Rocky Mountain High, I think we sing our environment, and I think Cold Fact was a reflection of the urban environment of the time.”
You don’t have to look further than his lyrics to see what he means.
“The mayor hides the crime rate
council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date”
– This Is Not A Song It’s An Outburst, Cold Fact
“Going down a dirty inner city side road
Madness passed me by, she smiled hi
Looked up as the sky began to cry
She shot it”
– Inner City Blues, Cold Fact
“Detroit is the only city in America with no view,” he exclaims leaning back in his chair with a laugh of resignation. “Still, Detroit has a history, it has a homicide rate of 800, which has now gone down, but it’s still pretty bad.”
“I mean yesterday I was waiting for the bus you know, and it was taking a real long time. I waited and waited and eventually I went back over to my house and called up the bus company and asked them what was going on. It turns out some guy on the bus had shot another guy and he was in hospital. So that’s the environment over here, I mean it’s crazy, I was waiting for that bus,” he tells me with a wry smile.
“Our Mayor is a crook as well,” he continues. “No seriously, he has nine felony charges laid against him and he’s just handed over office to the interim Mayor.
I tell him about being introduced to his music through a friends’ mother who used to smoke joints with us listening to Cold Fact on Vinyl, and for the first time a hint of seriousness enters his voice.
“I think marijuana is less harmful that alcohol, I think it makes you relax and the other makes you angry. But I’m for people taking it easy, not overindulging you know what I mean man.”
We talked a lot longer and I could go on an on, but in the end all I need to say is he’s Rodriguez.
He went from recording with Motown legends Dennis Coffey and touring Australia with Midnight Oil to working in a factory, only to later discover he’s a figure of South African revolution.
His songs have been listened to by everybody from counter-culture heads to housewives, who think lines such as “silver magic ships you carry, jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane,” from his best known song Sugar Man, refer to sweaters, cola and presumably an old girlfriend or something.
With mainstream appeal next to cynical and progressive lyrics, Rodriguez is a man who, like his immigrant parents and blue-collar colleagues, deserves more than he gets. Cold Fact.
There’s no MySpace but head to http://www.sugarman.org for more information. Rodriguez’s ‘Cold Fact’ is out now on Light In The Attic through Inertia.