The Strange Tale of Rodriguez: Detroit Musician Becomes a Star in South Africa … Without Knowing It

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.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (3)
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  • felix says:

    What is amaz­ing about this film is how it ignores how pop­u­lar Rodriguez was in Aus­tralia in the 1970’s.He had 2 top ten hits (and a no 1 hit) and both his albums went gold and platinum.Almost every teenag­er had a Rodriguez album on their shelves and yet the recog­ni­tion he received in Aus­tralia is hard­ly men­tioned in this film.Rodriguez also knew about this (as record com­pa­ny execs have told me) and was quite impressed by the atten­tion

  • Karen Sand says:

    I lived in Hawaii all through the 70’s. We had lots of friends from Aus­tralia that would come to Hawaii. I also worked at a local club while attend­ing col­lege. I am cer­tain I recall see­ing the album Cold Fact and heard Rodrigu­iz music!
    At 59.…. Love his music!

  • Becky says:

    My good­ness! How mov­ing and inspir­ing! Espe­cial­ly touch­ing when his daugh­ter says she hopes he buys him­self new glass­es.

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