The Wisdom of Rodriguez
The rediscovered rock star’s Riverside concert was a love fest with philosophical asides.
I first saw Searching for Sugar Man, an Oscar-winning documentary, at the opening night of Pop Montreal, a mini-SXSW with its own rock star basketball game, which is usually dominated by Win Butler of Arcade Fire, aka the Tim Duncan of rock stars. It was an uber hip affair at a contemporary art gallery. The second time I saw the film was at a historic theater in British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, a retirement community outside of Vancouver. Polar opposite crowds, both fascinated by the yarn unraveling onscreen.
You’d be hard pressed to find an audience untouched by the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a forgotten Detroit folk singer from the 1970s beloved and reborn in South Africa. Gorgeously shot, brilliantly told, and soundtracked by the incredible music of Rodriguez, it is simply one of the greatest (if not the greatest) documentary films I have ever seen. It appeals to the unacknowledged genius inside us all.
The myth became reality Friday night at the Riverside Theater. “A salt 71” is how Rodriguez describes himself, though his latest wave of belated fame has surely turned back his clock. But before we get into his set, I must acknowledge the genius of Wilsen, Rodriguez’s opening act, a three-piece centered around a sultry 24-year-old British brunette named Tamsin Wilson.
Wilsen, based in New York City, felt like 1960s Greenwich Village coffeehouse meets haunting modern electronic. The music of Wilsen was peripheral to Wilson’s voice (and whistling), but together they shook the Riverside’s dusty drapes. After the show I spotted a slew of instant fans demanding copies of their music.
Early in his set Rodriguez expounded wisdom: “Be gentle with your anger. He conquers who conquers himself. Men must end violence against women. [Applause break.] Many of us come into the world with a closed fist, we all leave with an open hand.”
In the middle of his set Rodriguez snuck a sneaky Spanish guitar intro onto the front end of his signature number, “Sugar Man.” The song erupted in a flurry of strumming by Rodriguez and tripped out pedal effects on top of a subtle solo by the lead guitarist.
“‘Sugar Man’ is a descriptive song, not a prescriptive song. Get your health, stay off the drugs. Stay smart, don’t start,” Rodriguez advised. For some reason this reminded me of an ex-dealer I met in Denver last month, who said, “Don’t do drugs, just smoke pot.” He turned out to have an opiate problem.
Rodriguez prefaced his tragic ballad “Can’t Get Away” with the following cold facts:“Some guys say they’re from the Motherland. Other guys say they’re from the Fatherland. I’m from the Mainland. My mother and father are both Mexican. The Mexican peoples are indigenous peoples. They didn’t come here on no ship. So, the Mainland, you know?”
The cover is such a simple yet exciting element of a live show that is so rarely incorporated these days. Rodriguez reached back to the 1950s with his own kicking renditions of “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Lucille,” among others.
Rodriguez closed out his set with what seemed to be the perfect final song, “Forget It,” whose lyrics proclaim, “But thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine, And after that’s said, Forget it.” Feelings from a different era for sure.
Today, Rodriguez isn’t so bitter. “Forget It” wouldn’t be his final song. A rousing encore would follow. “Power to the People,” was Rodriguez’s basic message. “I think it’s the drinks, but I love you too,” he replied early in the show to the proclamation of an enamored fan. By the end of the night he was more assertive. “I know it’s the drinks, but I love you back.”
What we once ignored we now adore thanks to a few curious South Africans and a backpacking Swedish filmmaker. Considering the outlandish rumors surrounding Rodriguez’s supposed suicide, the news of 36-year-old director Malik Bendjelloul’s actual suicide two days before the Riverside show adds to the mythology of Rodriguez.
An inspired young filmmaker dies. An enigmatic old folk singer is reborn. You can’t make this stuff up.