Rock and pop musicians, as we all remember from the end of This is Spinal Tap, sometimes find fame in the least expected countries. Tufnel, St. Hubbins, and Smalls found themselves embraced in Japan, a country that has since become the go-to cliché for the final resting place of fan enthusiasm for American and English has-beens and never-weres. But what to say about a performer who becomes famous specifically in South Africa? It happened to the singer-songwriter Rodriguez, the Detroit-bred son of American immigrants whose 1970 and 1971 albums Cold Fact and Coming from Reality provided the soundtracks for thousands upon thousands of South African adolescences. His poetic protest songs seemed to hit home with a generation fed up with apartheid society, and you can only imagine what a loss they must have felt upon hearing that their bard of choice had fatally set himself aflame onstage.
Both the South African popularity and the rumors of self-immolation came as a surprise to the man himself, who had remained living in Detroit as a student and demolition laborer since the seventies. He’s since enjoyed occasional bursts of rediscovery, like the one that sent him on his first South African tour in 1998, but only now, at age seventy, has he attained the kind of recognition that his dedicated listeners would insist he deserved long ago. This owes to the efforts of the young Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, whose iPhone-shot documentary Searching for Sugar Man opened the 2012 Sundance Film Festival with Rodriguez’s story. You can watch its trailer at the top of this post, and a recent 60 Minutes segment featuring Bendjelloul and Rodriguez himself just above. YouTube also hosts many Rodriguez performances, including this rendition of his signature song “Sugar Man” performed at the Triple Door in Seattle.