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Sixto Rodriguez
Hal Wilson/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Sixto Rodriguez

Second act

Music | Documentary brings '70s folk singer Sixto Rodriguez and his music back into the spotlight

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

In 1970 and 1971, respectively, a long-haired, sunglasses-wearing Detroit folk-protest singer named Sixto Rodriguez released the only two studio albums he would ever record. The first was called Cold Fact, the second Coming from Reality.

Sung in a voice recalling Arlo Guthrie and Donovan, anticipating Jim Croce, and augmented with everything from squalling guitars to flutes and strings, the bluntness and cleverness of his verbally meandering songs proved a tough sell to U.S. radio. By the time his label, Sussex Records, folded in 1975, he'd been doing for four years what he'd be doing for most of the next decade: supporting his family as a construction worker and pursuing a B.A. in philosophy. Aside from a revival of interest in his music in Australia and New Zealand, where he toured from 1979 to 1981, Rodriguez had resigned himself to being a footnote in the history of Motor City music.

Fast-forward to 1998. Unbeknownst to him, his music had become popular in South Africa, serving as a de facto soundtrack to the anti-Apartheid movement. He had also become, due to the lack of easily accessible Rodriguez info, a mysterious legend about whom rumors (including his having killed himself onstage) swirled.

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Searching for Sugar Man (Sony Pictures Classics) is a new documentary about the attempts of two South African Rodriguez fans to locate their hero (see "Searching for Sugar Man," Aug. 25, 2012). The film and its 14-song soundtrack have finally made Rodriguez, who recently turned 70, a prophet with honor in his own country.

"When they say I was 'lost,' I wasn't lost," the singer-songwriter told me. "I knew where I was."

Where he was, was where he'd always been and still lives: Detroit. As for where he's going, he has international and North American tour dates scheduled throughout November, with a performance on the Late Show with David Letterman a special concern.

"They want me to do one [song] in particular," he says, "but it's too long and too brooding. I think when you watch light TV, you want to be up instead of saying, 'Oh, God!' So I'm trying to think of something more uptempo."

Rodriguez doesn't often take God's name in vain. "Oh, jeez!," which he says a lot, is about as edgy as his banter gets. Some of his lyrics, however, still retain shock value, from anti-papal rhetoric ("Cause") to the sort of frank epithet slinging that, were he a conservative talk-show host, would have advertisers bailing in droves ("A Most Disgusting Song").

But mostly his songs deal with socio-political topics long common to the protest palette. Did Rodriguez think, when he wrote about "taxation," unprotected "women," "politicians," "pollution," "gun sales," "adultery," desperate "housewives," "population," and "divorce" in "This Is Not a Song It's an Outburst: or the Establishment Blues" 41 years ago, that such issues would still be in the news?

"Here's how I frame it," he says. "In the '60s and '70s, I thought there was going to be a revolution. But today I don't think we're going to have that revolution. [The system] is going to cave in on its own. And what's going to bring it down is nepotism-that cronyism, that favoritism, that corruption, and just greed."

Rodriguez is not a conservative. When he observes of Sweden that "they take care of people cradle to grave," for instance, he's envious. But he also acknowledges that "the government money, that's ours."

And most of all he's grateful for his belated second chance. "There's no blueprint for how it happens," he says. "I'm a lucky man that this happened at all."

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