News Column

At 70, Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez Is Famous Again

Nov. 1, 2012

Brian McCollum

Sixto Rodriguez

Forget could've, should've, would've. For Detroit's newest rock sensation -- the comeback king known as Rodriguez -- a career surge at age 70 is all about looking forward.

With his Friday band performance at Pontiac's Crofoot, the biggest metro Detroit date of his life, the musician born Sixto Rodriguez continues to reap the benefits of "Searching for Sugar Man," the documentary released this summer to critical adoration and a bundle of prestigious awards.

The film chronicles the little-known story of Rodriguez, whose two albums in the early 1970s took on mythical stature in places like South Africa as he vanished from public view for two decades. The tale is framed through the eyes of two diehard fans toiling to track down the fiercely private musician -- or even to simply verify he was still alive.

The movie's success has propelled Rodriguez to previously unknown heights. Having resumed an irregular public performance schedule in 1998, he's enjoying his busiest year yet: playing gigs across the world, making film promotional appearances and basking in the spotlight of shows such as "60 Minutes," which profiled him earlier this month.

Meanwhile, his 40-year-old music, a commercial dud in the U.S. at the time, has become one of 2012's biggest indie hits, drawing raves from the hipster sites and reaping steady sales: "Cold Fact," Rodriguez's 1970 debut, peaked in Amazon's top 10 and has spent three straight months in the top 100.

"Absolutely it's a transformation," he says. "I've been chasing music since I was 16. I'm a solid 70 now, so that this occurred at all is pretty crazy. That's quite a twist of luck there, a change of fortune."

The fact that you're even reading quotes from Rodriguez, or catching him on a prime-time network program, is its own sort of triumph. While he never disappeared to the extent envisioned by some longtime fans -- who heard rumors about onstage suicide and the like -- Rodriguez certainly proved elusive through the years.

Even in Detroit music circles, his name was often evoked with an air of mystery and murkiness. One Free Press writer can recount his lengthy effort a decade ago to lock down time with the enigmatic Cass Corridor denizen, only to have the interview fall apart at the last moment.

"I haven't been invisible," Rodriguez says now, adding with a laugh: "I wasn't lost. I knew exactly where I was."

These days, he's getting a kick out of his romp through the public eye. He excitedly recalls his August appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman," where he performed with a 25-piece orchestra ("Sony picked up that tab," he says). And he's eager to rattle off his bustling schedule -- a 2013 itinerary that will include a Jan. 25 gig at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival and at least two big-time national bookings he can't yet reveal for the record.

You get the sense that Rodriguez approaches it all with a mix of exhilaration and bemusement. He's quick to downplay credit for this burst of attention, instead thanking a long list of people and institutions behind the film, particularly director Malik Bendjelloul and cinematographer Camilla Skagerstrom.

"I have to acknowledge and credit those people, because it's a collaborative effort," he says. "That's why it's all succeeding."

Rodriguez says that even during his own career downtime -- the stretch from 1974 to 1998, when he turned to painting and odd jobs -- he never lost touch with the wider music world. He'd spend afternoons immersed in the Detroit Public Library's performing-arts wing, reading the music trade magazines, keeping tabs on artist tour schedules and watching the rough-hewn rock business steadily grow into a sleek multibillion-dollar industry.

"I still followed music. I just wasn't in the music scene," he says. "That was the difference."

You'll detect a touch of cynicism from the man whose streetwise protest songs made him the hero of progressive South Africans three decades ago. He's not short of barbed opinions about the City of Detroit ("the racketeering, the extortion, the political backdrop") or the state of modern pop music ("I challenge any adult to listen to Disney Radio for an hour -- this is what they're shoving down kids' throats").

"In the '60s and '70s I thought there was going to be a revolution," he says. "Now I don't think that. Now I think (the system) is going to cave in on itself. The corruption, the greed -- those are the things that have hurt the citizens, especially here in Detroit."

Rodriguez doesn't think his time away caused him to lose a step in the relevance game. Indeed, he insists, at 70 he's all the better for time.

"Some people age physically, some chronologically, some financially. But how about musically, creatively, politically? Maturity isn't given to you just because you turn 21," he says. "I know some people well below the poverty level. From my location, I can walk to 11 liquor stores. Government repression, police brutality, these kinds of issues ... I'm not over that. We're caught here in Detroit between the cops and the crooks."

But it's not all doom and gloom, says Rodriguez -- and how could it be? He's just spent the year hearing stories about the way his music touched the lives of fans around the globe.

"They tell me, 'My dad used to listen to you, my mother used to sing your stuff in the kitchen,'" he says.

"This is the 21st Century. To be involved at all is pretty exciting."

Source: (c)2012 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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