“Age? There is only one age. Either you’re dead or you’re not. Old? I’m not getting old. I’m getting dead.” – Sixto Rodriguez
This week we said goodbye to The Sugar Man. Detroit based singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez died at age 81. Said to be a quiet and humble man, Rodriguez left behind two incredibly well produced albums, a worldwide cult following, and a legion of fans via the 2012 Academy Award winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.”
For many of us the music of Sixto Rodriguez was only in our lives for about a decade, and we had never heard of Rodriguez until the documentary that outlined his career and the film makers’ quest to find a long forgotten mysterious American singer brought his music into our lives. But once we discovered him, we wondered why we’d gone our whole lives without his music in it. A powerful film which moved not only music fans, but also musicians and industry insiders throughout the world, “Searching for Sugar Man” became a phenomenon, which generated a lot of discussion upon its release and helped put Rodriguez on the cultural radar. Although he still isn’t a household name necessarily, to music fans who have taken the time to do a deep dive into his two albums, 1970’s “Cold Fact” and 1971’s “Coming from Reality,” they know that Rodriguez was one of the best American songwriters of his generation, but for some reason it took another forty years until his music reached a mass audience (on his own turf anyways) which would embrace him.
I don’t feel the need to tell the Rodriguez story here, because for most music fans it is now already well known, and if you don’t know it I’d suggest you watch “Searching for Sugar Man” for yourself. One of my all-time favorite films it’s a movie which I’ve told so many people, especially those who are either creating or collecting music, to watch. Inspiring and uplifting, it is one of the most important music documentaries ever made. Although some of the facts were exaggerated for dramatic effect, “Searching for Sugar Man” is an underdog tale about the triumphant success of a man who seemingly failed in the music industry only to discover a fan following beyond his dreams. A beautiful film about the power of music and artistic perseverance, “Searching for Sugar Man” catapulted Rodriguez into the international spotlight decades after his final album had been recorded, and while the original albums remain difficult to find, the rereleases became essential albums for modern record collectors and audiophiles.
When Rodriguez’s music came into my life in 2012, I remember downloading his albums and just doing a deep listen to both of them back-to-back. I was stunned at the poetic beauty and raw bluntness of them. Rodrguez wrote like Bob Dylan but had a street cred like Lou Reed. While the term “urban poet” is thrown around far too easily in regard to musicians, I don’t know another way to describe what he was. Rodriguez embodied that term. I remember for the next six months I listened to “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality” every single day, and they were amongst the first 120 gram records I ever purchased (to be exact they wee the third and fourth ones, ordered from Tim Haines at Bluestreak Records with gift cards given to me for my fortieth birthday). I couldn’t believe that I had gone so long without these songs in my life and very quickly they became part of my internal soundscape. Songs like “Crucify Your Mind” and “Cause” were emotional and moving, while “Hate Street Dialogue,” “A Most Disgusting Song” and “I Wonder” were full of biting commentary. But Rodriguez wasn’t just a social political songwriter. He could weave some beautiful love ballads, such as “I Think of You” and “Silver Words.” He even wrote, what I believe, is the most diplomatic break up song ever written. When a relationship I was in ended not long after I saw “Searching for Sugar Man,” I remember simply sending the woman I had been seeing an mp3 of Rodriguez’s “Forget It.” It was all that needed to be said.
And of course, there is his most famous song, “Sugar Man,” which is the moniker that his fans took to affectionately calling him. The irony is that Rodriguez wasn’t Sugar Man. Sugar Man was actually a Detroit drug dealer which hung out in Rodriquez’s neighborhood in the late 1960’s. But more people probably know who you are talking about if you say ‘The Sugar Man’ than ‘Sixto Rodriguez,’ and he seemed fine with that. He sort of embraced it and rolled with it.
Rodriguez’s music and story mean different things to different people, but to me learning his story changed the way that I listened and wrote about music forever.
You see, perhaps it’s just that I’m a product of my age, but while I love music, I do not like much of the modern music being produced on modern pop radio. This goes for all genres – rock, pop and country. I find the majority of radio music to be shallow, over produced and uninteresting, and the more that marketing gets involved, the more unauthentic and stupid it becomes. Now of course, there are some exceptions to this that might surprise people (I own far more Britney Spears albums in my collection then people would probably expect), but for the most part, when I discuss the majority of modern music I sound like an old man yelling at kids to get off of my lawn and saying things like “You kids don’t know anything about music. When I was growing up we didn’t have autotune. We had real musicians like Duran Duran!” It’s really the circle of life in regards to music fans. The older generation will always dismiss the younger generation’s music, for better or for worse, and the cycle will continue forever and ever.
But in 2012 I was probably at my most cynical in regards to this. I had a real hate on for mass produced pop music and I was making sweeping statements that “music was dead.” I won’t name the artists that I disliked at this time. I don’t believe in shaming people for their music tastes and, in all honesty, I’m not the intended audience for the modern pop market anyhow. It’s not being directed towards me anyways. But in 2012 the cynicism had seeped in and as a writer creating on-line content, I felt that we were in a musical dystopia.
And then I heard the music of Sixto Rodriguez.
In Rodriguez’s albums I discovered some of the most beautiful, well written and emotional songs that had ever been recorded but, for whatever reason, we never heard them until now. Was it bad luck, under promotion or timing that kept him from achieving the success that should have been his in 1970? The documentary offers a lot of possible explanations to why this happened. But I felt that the public had been cheated by going so many years without knowing who Rodriguez was, while so many records that weren’t as good soared to the top of the charts and off of record store shelves.
But as long as there has been a recording industry, stupid songs have been recorded and people bought them. During the 1970’s instead of buying Sixto Rodriguez, audiences were buying “She’s Having My Baby,” “Mandy,” “Disco Duck” and “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I Got Love in my Tummy.)” For every annoying ear worm, dance remix and carefully constructed boys band, the music of Rodriguez sat unlistened to, unheard and lost to obscurity. I found it infuriating.
But it got me to wondering, how many unheard artists like Rodriguez are there out there? How many struggling singer/songwriters who put their heart and souls into creating legitimate music that comes from a true place within their souls are hiding in local bars and struggling at nearby music festivals and fighting against the shallow corporate marketing machines that are mass producing the drek played on pop radio? How many musicians are there that are going undiscovered, unheard and risk slipping into the same obscurity as Rodriguez did? Well, I started turning a stone or two and discovered that the number is in the thousands. Music isn’t dead. The spirit of music, and the power of song is still very much alive. The only thing is, the deserving artists and genuine music isn’t being heard on the radio, and if we don’t go searching for it ourselves we’re never going to hear it.
The one thing Rodriguez taught me is the importance of going to see live music in our own communities and just how crucial it is to support independent musicians and record labels, and to share and promote the music of artists that have not found mainstream success as often as you can. Often these artists will never achieve mainstream success not because they don’t have the talent, but because they don’t fit into the confines of what modern music producers feel is marketable. Furthermore, the more complex or interesting the artist is, the less likely they will be deemed marketable, making underdogs out of musical innovators and geniuses.
The struggle of legitimate songwriters and musicians is so real. Independent artists need our support, and their music deserves to be shared and heard. It’s up to us as music fans to ensure the artists we love continue to reach an audience. And for the love of God, spend your time and energy writing about the music that you love and lifting the artists who move you instead of creating content to bite back at the musicians you dislike. That;s just creating toxic content, and they don’t need the attention. Every time you put an artists name in print, you further their fame. Spend your energy lifting up the musicians that you love, and bringing them to the ears and hearts of those around you. This is what Rodriguez taught me, and it changed not only my attitude towards the state of music, but the way I listened, wrote and shared it forever.
Although he was 81 when he passed away, for most of us he was only in our lives for a very short time. Thank you for the music, the inspiration, and the lessons Sixto Rodriguez. Your music will never be forgotten again.