Primero, Segundo, Tercero, Cuarto, Quinto, and… and… Sixto, ahhhh… And the sixth time was a charm (not that the first five weren’t), and Sixto Diaz (Jesus) Rodriguez came into this world on July 10, 1942, the sixth son of Mexican immigrants working in war-time Detroit, more than three years before atomic bombs would fall on Japan and twenty-five years before rockets would land men on the moon. No one would have predicted that his life would have been easy, but no one would have predicted that it would turn out like it did, either. It all started with his love of music and song and… words full of meaning. In case you don’t know the story yet—though you likely will soon if all goes well at the Oscars Sunday night---it goes something like this: in 1967 he released his first single “I’ll Slip Away” on a small label, to general neglect, and in 1970 and 1971 he released two killer albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality,” on a larger label, also to general neglect. He was immediately dropped from the label, of course, and so he discontinued his musical career in favor of jobs generally revolving around the related acts of construction and demolition. But an Australian company picked up the rights to his work because his stuff was selling a bit there. He even toured Oz in 1979 and 1981 with Midnight Oil. And that was that. He remained philosophical, of course, so in 1981 he got a BA in philosophy; so did I.
But all was not lost. Fast forward ten years to 1991 and his collected works were released on CD for the first time in South Africa, where his legend had been continually growing over the years, with platinum sales to show for it. He knew nothing about any of this until his daughter ran across a website dedicated to him. Legend there had it that he had died, of suicide. A tour followed in 1998, to sold-out crowds, so he returned in 2001 and 2005. By this time the word’s starting to get out about what a great story—and great music—this was, so in 2007 and 2010 tours in Australia came about…to growing fame, and a documentary in the works. So where is America in all this story? Strangely silent…until now. This story has been out and floating about for at least five years by now, because I’ve been aware of it that long, and I have other priorities to be honest. He even played a date in LA several years ago, got the blurb in LA Weekly, so… on your mark, get ready, set… and nothing. Surely indie music DJ’s and booking agents would have been all over this story, right? Nothing. But what about world music? This was a Mexican-American whose story spanned the globe, but… nothing, nothing but that documentary by unknown Swedish film director Malik Bendjelloul, who had maxed out his credit cards to see this project through… AFTER a sample had been accepted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it scored an opening night showing… to huge acclaim. The rest is history. The flick got theatrical release—hard for a documentary—AND… an Academy Award nomination. It’s called “Searching for Sugarman,” after the name of his signature song.
Now everybody wants a piece of Rodriguez; everybody has been his huge supporter all long; everybody is his biggest fan. KCRW, KEXP, and all the other indie radio buzz and hitmakers around the country magically found a place for him in their coveted playlists after years… no, decades… of neglect, total utter neglect. Rodriguez himself just smiles through it all, playing his tunes on Letterman and Jules Holland, etc., and enjoying his golden years. Next stop is a gig at Coachella, the Woodstock of the current millennium, regardless of how well he does at the Oscars. That movie is nominated for best documentary, and odds are good. He’s got my vote, and I haven’t even seen it. We philosopher/carpenter/creative-types have to stick together, and maybe one day we’ll all get our due and our just desserts, fame optional (I like chocolate btw). I reiterate that the amazing thing here is not just this incredible story, not just the fact that it lay neglected in South Africa for a decade, ditto Australia, but that it has lain neglected in LA, SF, NY and everywhere else in America for the last five years. That’s the USA, not Australia, and not Zuid Africa. It’s a tough market to crack, sure, but this is freakin’ ridiculous! How do you spell 2x4? Maybe you marketing movers and shakers need one upside your thick skulls so you’ll know a good story when you see one. What, do you figure that a guy that old just can’t be ‘monetized?’
Nice story, n’est-ce pas? And there’s even a happy ending in the works as Hollywood so loves. Not much else to say, right? Actually there is. There are hundreds of Rodriguezes out there, and that’s just counting the ones who speak English as first language, artists who never got the marketing, or support, they needed, regardless of who’s at fault. We’re talking Dylan/Beatles/REM/U2/Hank-quality lyrics and music, mind you. I found Townes Van Zandt for the first time in a bargain bin in Jackson, MS, in 1969 btw. Thank God for Austin. Ever heard of Shuggie Otis? Or Arthur Lee, maybe? Too bad. Now if you add in non-English speakers, the case goes viral, groups who have sold literally millions of top-quality albums, but who remain outside the Anglo-American mainstream of music—and consciousness—simply because of language. Groups such as Mexico’s Mana’, Russia’s Mumiy Troll, and Thailand’s Carabao—all legends at home—come quickly to mind, all of whom play the US… but only for their compatriots, Americans not interested… at all. Go figure. People lament the demise of great studios under the assault of YouTube, Spotify, et al. I don’t. That web unites us all potentially. How long do I want to wait for the next Wilson Pickett while forgoing a thousand Rodriquezes? Here’s to the little guys. This bud’s for you. Don’t forget to inhale…
Author Hardie Karges writes on travel, entertainment, and life.