the rock'n'roll Lord Lucan
The 'rags to rags' story of Sixto Rodriguez, the 'Latin Bob Dylan',
who is back in the spotlight after 40 years in the wilderness
By James Delingpole
11 Aug 2009
No one in the half-empty bar of the London business hotel gives a
second glance to the man with the long black hair, heavy Roy Orbison
shades and leathery orange features like an Apache Indian. But in the
parallel universe I can so easily imagine, things look very different indeed.
Instead of the sweet looking girl his daughter Regan to mind him,
this man is surrounded by suited heavies with radio receivers in
their ears. Instead of jabbering German tourists ignoring him
completely, the lobby is dotted with fans, rubberneckers, surprised
passers-by doing double-takes, perhaps even the odd would-be groupie.
And instead of the Barbican Thistle, we're in the swankiest hotel
money can buy: if not the Ritz or the Dorchester then somewhere ultra
chic designed by Philippe Starck. What else would you expect of a
Sixties musical legend?
'Oh My God,' people are murmuring in this parallel universe. 'Is that
him? Is that Rodriguez? Is he playing in London? Why didn't someone
tell me? How do I get tickets? Do you think maybe he'll give me his
autograph?' The alternative Rodriguez lazily surveys the scene like
some jaded emperor, the novelty of being worshipped and noticed
having long since worn off. It has, after all, been nearly 40 years
since the release of the album that first made his name: Cold Fact,
the psychedelic folk album, which everyone recognises as a defining
classic of high Sixties/early Seventies pop.
Except it didn't quite turn out that way, and I want to commiserate.
I've come to hear, straight from the horse's mouth, the
extraordinary, heartbreaking tale of how Sixto Rodriguez made one of
the most underrated masterpieces in rock history, disappeared off the
map, then emerged from oblivion decades later to find himself finally
almost famous and being hailed retrospectively as 'the Latin Bob
Dylan'. Swedish film-maker Malik Bendjelloul, who is making a
documentary about the singer, justifiably calls the saga 'one of the
greatest rock 'n' roll stories of the last 30 years'.
'Excuse me,' I say, walking up to him (slightly nervously because
he's never done a face to face interview with a British journalist
before, so no one is quite sure what to expect). 'Are you ', but
before I can say another word, Regan steps forward and whisks me to
one side. 'My father's really not happy right now,' she explains.
'This could be difficult. You just want to ask him a few questions,
right? No photographs.'
'Um, not quite,' I say. 'That's the photographer you can see over
there. And look, if your dad's not in the mood, then maybe we
shouldn't do it. I mean, it's a fantastic story he has to tell. A
fairy tale, almost.' Regan nods. 'I'll see what I can do.'
Disappointed and mildly irked, I loiter in the lobby to await the
'My story isn't a rags to riches story,' Rodriguez says. 'It's rags
to rags and I'm glad about that. Where other people live in an
artificial world, I feel I live in the real world. And nothing beats reality.'
Ten minutes have passed, a loving daughter has worked her magic, and
Rodriguez is in a mellow, generous, expansive mood. With his black,
silver braided, military-style jacket and his peace-symbol scarf, he
looks every inch the classic, hippy-era rock star. But without the
matching ego. It seems the difficulty earlier was the result, not of
rock star diva-ishness, but of a reaction to some medication, which
in turn has led to some uncomfortable and unphotogenic swelling
beneath Rodriguez's nose.
So I tell him what I've been dying to tell him ever since I first
heard his debut album Cold Fact when it was re-released last year:
that the only thing more amazing than the record a fried, hazy,
gloriously tuneful, psychedelic folk rock classic to rank with Love's
Forever Changes is the fact that it sank almost without trace on
its release in 1970.
The singing on it is just perfect the sand-and-glue mellifluousness
of early Dylan, the sweetness of a James Taylor, the soul of Marvin
Gaye. The melodies on at least 10 out of the 12 tracks are
naggingly catchy and often heartbreakingly lovely. The lyrics are
pure essence of high Sixties anxiety, paranoia, dirty social realism
and druggy escapism.
Surely he must feel slightly bitter that his talents went
unappreciated? 'Never believe the PR. Never believe the press,' he
says, grateful none the less for the kind words. He insists he's not
remotely bitter about the way his career has gone. 'This is the music
business. There's no guarantees.'
From his singing voice you'd probably guess he was black, but Sixto
Rodriguez born July 10 1942 was the son of Mexican immigrants
who'd come to seek a new life in the Michigan industrial city of
Detroit. His mother, Maria, died when he was three. Ramon, his
father, was what he calls 'hard working-class' a labourer who rose
to become foreman at Great Lake Steel.
Though Spanish was his first language his father used to sing him
songs on the family guitar: 'He would bring me down to tears with his
heartbroken singing' he fell in love with English at school, as you
can hear in the wordplay and imagery of his lyrics. Sometimes they're
angry ('The little man gets shafted, sons and monies drafted'),
sometimes poignant ('Lost my heart when I found it/It had turned to
dead black coal'), sometimes gnomic ('Adultery plays the kitchen,
bigot cops non-fiction'); always they stick in your head.
As for his music, probably the reason it sounds so instantly
accessible is because of the years Rodriguez spent in seedy dives
paying his dues covering songs by and assimilating the style of
the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Reed, Ray
Charles, Bob Dylan, along with blues standards and the popular hits
of the hour. 'I like people who can write and sing, and play an
instrument,' he says, though he really doesn't rate his own talents
'I have a sloppy style of playing guitar. A percussive style. Unique
in fact.' Then he raises his left hand to show me why. Half his
middle finger is missing. 'I lost it in an industrial accident when I
was 21 and within two weeks I was playing again,' he says, adding, as
he often does, another favourite aphorism: 'He conquers who conquers himself.'
Having graduated from playing parties to low-rent gay clubs and cheap
watering holes Rodriguez has always liked to 'keep it real' he
was finally introduced to producer/label owner Harry Balk, who had
worked with names including Del Shannon. Balk teamed him up with
renowned Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey and producer/arranger
The resulting debut recording was released in April 1967 at Balk's
insistence under the nom de plume Rod Riguez lest any buyers get
the off-putting impression it might have been made by a person of
Hispanic origin. Still the record flopped.
The late Sixties, we now like to imagine, was a period of unbridled
hedonism, sexual liberation, drug experimentation and creativity
and very heaven for anyone lucky enough to be a musician. But this
was not, it would seem, the Rodriguez experience. What he remembers
most was the unrest and injustice.
'People were burning draft cards, protesting the war, assassinations
and riots,' he says. On one occasion, Theodore had to make a
terrifying dash past burning buildings in the middle of the 12th
Street Riot to rescue the master tapes from the recording studio.
Ah but the drugs: never, surely, was there a more bittersweet paean
to the temporary escape offered by narcotics from earthbound misery
than the brilliant Sugar Man. ('Sugar man, won't you hurry/'Cos I'm
tired of these scenes/For a blue coin won't you bring back/All those
colours to my dreams').
Rodriguez laughs: 'I've never done hard drugs. Always preferred wine
myself.' He has never tried LSD and only touched marijuana for the
first time in his thirties, when he was introduced to it by the white
college kids at university.
Talking to Rodriguez it becomes clear that personal politics have
always been more important to him than commercial success, which may
explain why when he got his big break in 1969, he couldn't quite
bring himself to play the game. Teamed up by a new record label
Sussex with his old pals Coffey and Theodore, bolstered by some
top-class musicians (including a horn section) and given a reasonable
mixing budget, Rodriguez was ready to launch his masterpiece Cold
Fact on the world. All he needed was a bit of airplay and publicity.
But he did himself few favours. He'd alienate fans by always playing
his gigs with his back to the audience. 'I was concentrating on the
music, thinking of the lyrics,' he claims now. And at a key music
industry showcase in Los Angeles, he invited a member of the Brown
Berets the Hispanic equivalent of the Black Panthers to join him
on stage and sound off about injustice, which wasn't what the suits
wanted to hear at all. Cold Fact bombed. Its follow-up Coming From
Reality, performed even worse. At which point Rodriguez realised he'd
need to pursue other avenues if he was to pay the bills.
In later years all sorts of strange rumours would circulate as to
what had become of Rodriguez. Some said he had committed suicide in
prison after murdering his wife; others that he had died on stage,
either from electrocution or a heroin overdose or, most dramatically,
by setting himself on fire having delivered these final lyrics: 'But
thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine and after that's
said, forget it.'
The reason for these rumours doing the rounds was that, quite
unbeknown to Rodriguez, his music was enjoying an extraordinary
afterlife in some unlikely places. Throughout the Seventies, bootlegs
of his albums were hugely popular in South Africa not so much among
downtrodden blacks, but among young whites conscripted to the
military. ('We made love to your music; we made war to your music,'
one awestruck fan would later tell him).
'This guy didn't know at all that he was one of the most famous
artists ever in South Africa,' says film-maker Bendjelloul. 'He was
literally more famous than the Rolling Stones there and he had no
idea.' Rodriguez did not earn a cent from this cult success. Nor did
he earn anything from his other big audiences in Australia and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, to supplement his studies at Wayne State University and
raise his three daughters, Rodriguez had taken on any number of odd
jobs. The story that he worked as a petrol pump attendant is untrue,
he says, but he did pretty much everything else. 'I did demolition
and restoration of houses; a lot of work in factories; in laundries;
a lot of dust, a lot of lifting, a lot of "Hey you!" kinds of
things,' Rodriguez says. He also dabbled in local politics, but his
grassroots canvassing and tight circle of friends weren't enough to
win him office.
Detroit was not the most genteel of places to earn a crust, but
Rodriguez is clearly drawn to its edginess and decay and even now
would not live anywhere else. 'I was in a supermarket the other day
and a woman asked me: "Can you walk me to my car?" Three black guys
were watching her. Soon as she was in her car, she took off. So these
guys chased me instead. Believe me, I tracked! It was 15 minutes
before I lost them.' With its motor industry almost gone, Detroit is
a shadow of its Motown glory days. 'It's a city of victims. Everyone
I know has been ripped off, stolen from, assaulted. We get 800
murders a year,' he says, with perverse pride.
His first glimmerings of a musical afterlife came in 1979 when, out
of the blue, he was invited to play at a few small venues in
Australia. In 1981 he returned to play as a support act at one or two
gigs by Midnight Oil. And that, he thought, was that.
Years passed with little outside interest (barring the occasional
'best of' compilation) when, just as Cold Fact was about to celebrate
its 28th birthday, lightning struck for a second time. In December
1994, a devoted Rodriguez fan named Stephen 'Sugar' Segermen and a
journalist called Craig Bartholomew joined forces to track down the
man who had written the soundtrack to their South African youths.
By this stage Rodriguez seemed to have disappeared off the face of
the earth. So they set up a website called 'The Great Rodriguez
Hunt', in a bid to find out where he was. And after nine months, 72
telephone calls, 45 faxes, 142 emails and an unlikely 'Have you seen
this man?' campaign on the side of milk cartons (spotted by one of
Rodriguez's daughters), Bartholomew finally tracked him down.
(Rodriguez didn't even own a telephone at the time.)
Rodriguez is oddly matter of fact about the huge South African tour
that followed: in March 1998 he played six concerts in 5,000-capacity
arenas across the nation, every one of them sold out. 'It was strange
seeing all those bright white faces, all of them knowing every word
to every one of my songs,' he says. But it's of a piece with his
philosophical attitude to success that he seems to make little
distinction between playing vast sell-out crowds and tiny clubs.
Since his South African renaissance, Rodriguez has played in
Australia, Sweden, Namibia, Holland and twice more in South Africa.
In 2003 the Belfast DJ and Hollywood soundtrack wizard David Holmes
got Rodriguez to re-record Sugar Man with a 30-piece orchestra. This
year, after sell-out performances at London's Barbican theatre,
Rodriguez will be back performing in the UK. One of the few remaining
places in the world which so far remains immune to his talents is his
But if anyone's bothered by this, it's certainly not Rodriguez. 'All
my life, I never gave up on music and though there was a lot of
disappointment for some that the commercial thing never happened, it
has never been a disappointment for me,' he says. 'I'm an old man now
and I belong to the old century. It's been 40 years since I made
those records. For the music to have survived at all, let alone for
anyone to care about it, well, I feel overwhelmed.'
Rodriguez plays the Green Man Festival, Wales, on August 23. 'Cold
Fact' (Light in the Attic) is out now