Sixto Rodriguez is philosophical about ‘Searching for Sugar Man’

From The Los Angeles Times:

He has been called the greatest ’70s rock star who never was. A Chicano Bob Dylan. More improbable, the 70-year-old street bard from Detroit is considered a founding father of South African progressive rock. At the very least, he’s one of the most unlikely comeback artists in music history.

Sixto Rodriguez, a man whose life has been shrouded in question marks, myths and might-have-beens, thought his music had fallen into a black hole of obscurity. He spent three decades as a construction worker in Detroit after he was dropped by his record label in the 1970s.

Now he’s the star of “Searching for Sugar Man,”a documentary recounting his stranger-than-fiction life saga that was the surprise hit of last winter’s Sundance Film Festival and opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

When Rodriguez showed up last month to perform at the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A., it was as if some pop-culture Lazarus had materialized on stage. Resplendent in an electric-turquoise suit, caressing his Yamaha guitar and sporting sunglasses to shield his faltering eyesight, he launched into a musical lament with the unshowy confidence of a man used to working a crowd.

“I know I am on a dead-end street in a city without a heart,” Rodriguez wailed in his knowing, weather-beaten tenor to the roomful of friends, music biz insiders and the simply curious. “When the odds are all against you, how can you win?”

Against all odds, Rodriguez has become a reborn rock artist, touring the world and playing gigs this summer with the likes of Van Morrison and the Kinks’ Ray Davies. He’ll be at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday and on “Late Show With David Letterman” in mid-August. This week, timed to the film’s arrival in theaters, Sony Legacy releases the “Searching for Sugar Man” soundtrack with Rodriguez’s music.

Sitting down to lunch at the Mondrian Hotel the day before his Grammy Museum appearance, Rodriguez expressed surprise and pleasure over his recent reversal of fortune. Neither fazed nor blasé about the sudden media spotlight, he’s as outwardly shy as he is unfailingly humble and polite. He still sees himself as a working man, an artist-activist who spent his life doing manual labor, once ran for mayor of Detroit, and believes in music’s power to make a better world.

“During the ’70s, late ’60s, I thought there’d be a revolution, but now I think it’s just caving on its own,” said Rodriguez, who often speaks in rapid-fire soliloquies, hop-scotching from subject to subject. “I always like to say that Solomon was a musician and David was a musician and music itself is a cultural force. It’s a celebration of life.”

Wearing a modish black suit over his lean frame in the 80-degree heat and surrounded by a poolside throng of toned, tanned bodies, Rodriguez brought to mind a sturdy ’72 Plymouth parked by a row of shiny new Mini Coopers.

“Searching for Sugar Man,” named for one of Rodriguez’s biting urban ballads about a corner drug dealer, tells the mind-bending tale of how the singer, forgotten in his homeland, became a rock idol in apartheid-era South Africa in the mid-1970s. In that isolated pariah state, Rodriguez’s sexually frank, anti-establishment songs were embraced by a faction of liberal white Afrikaner youth who were opposed to the country’s racist, repressive regime. At his peak in South Africa, Rodriguez was as popular as the Beatles and more revered than the Rolling Stones.

The twist is that Rodriguez was unaware of his fame until 20 years later.

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