The Rodriguez Interview

Rodriguez is known now - by (so) many - as the subject of the fascinating fan-letter documentary, Searching For Sugar Man. I doubt I would have had a chance to talk to him without that film - and it seems even less likely that he would be touring New Zealand. He agrees with me. He is generally agreeable - and he generally agrees. He is easy to talk to, engaged and engaging. He reminds me very early on in our conversation, "you know I'm only in the movie for about eight or nine minutes".

He's right. Sugar Man is a version of the Rodriguez story - one that was constructed around him and, more specifically, around the myths surrounding his short-lived career and bizarre hero worship in, of all places, South Africa.

Rodriguez - who is introduced by the operator as Mr Rodriguez and then, before I've introduced myself, announces, "hi, Simon! This is Rodriguez! How are you? Tell me about Wellington, what's the weather like? - is enjoying his second shot at fame. The first shot was never, really, even fired.

So of course we talk almost instantly about the obvious impacts the documentary has had on his life. It's given him, once again, a career. This time he might even make something from it - if not creatively, then spiritually and financially.

"People are nice, you know. People have been really nice to me - and it's nice to meet them, nice to talk to them, nice to have this moment where people suddenly are interested and, well, I have no problem with this at all because I'm a musician - and this is what we do; we are supposed to be accessible".

Rodriguez says he has seen the film Searching For Sugar Man over 40 times now and there's one bit that remains his favourite:

"When my daughters come on to the screen, that always gets me. I like that bit the best". There's a beat. And then, "they're so beautiful. I'm just so proud of them. I love them. They're gorgeous. They make me so proud."

Rodriguez made two albums and - as the film covers - his second album was deemed a failure, the first didn't exactly fly out the door, but it certainly showed some promise. Rodriguez was kicked off the label and/or the label folded - he tells me the same story twice, in the first case it's the label that folds leaving him no outlet, shortly after we return to the same events and he tells me he was fired and left without a label. He still has some unreleased music from the mid-1970s; the aborted third album. The movie even features some of that music.

"I was disappointed to hear that on the soundtrack", he sounds solemn. And then stern.
"That's the one part where I tried to fight them, I tried to argue that I did not want that music released, it shouldn't be available as it was never released properly, it wasn't finished..." he leaves that sentence unfinished. Then returns to the same story with a new, upbeat spin, "Sony Pictures Classics did the soundtrack album and they said that the song had to be on there as a point of difference - it would help sell the music. And we're doing great. We're approaching gold in South Africa with sales of the soundtrack album. So I'm really happy. Of course the numbers are smaller for gold in South Africa than in America but I still think we're doing really well".

I tell him that there are not as many sales of any CDs these days - by anyone. So gold in any country should seem like a triumph.

"Oh that's great, thanks, I'm going to write that down. I'll tell Sony that when we talk next".

For someone who either left the music industry - or was chewed up and spat out - it's interesting hearing Rodriquez slip back into the patois, the lingo, the enthusiasm - it's an enthusiasm that feels a little naive, a little too hopeful, a little overly optimistic.

"You see there's music and there's the music business - and they're different". Now Rodriquez is moving towards philosophy-mode. "Music is not a spectator sport, you have to be involved - fully involved - or you get left behind. And I left the music-scene part of it. But I never left the music".

The film paints Rodriquez, now 70, as a frail man who has struggled along with manual labour in place of music.

"I just put myself to work", Rodriquez says. "I don't do any of that now. I'm a solid 70, I'm not out working on houses and building sites now, I haven't done that in a few years but I never left music entirely. I always had my guitar; I worked at writing some songs. I always played music - in the house. I sang to my daughters, I scribbled down some ideas. Actually I didn't always play music. I did leave it alone for some time too".

He is one of far too many people told - at some stage - they are the "new Bob Dylan".

"I was told that", he says with a chuckle. "But you know that really is just ludicrous. Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of rock'n'roll. He's written thousands of songs - so many really great songs. His songs resonate across generations. And there are so many amazing songs from him - hundreds of songs. And I've written about 30. I might have written two or three really good songs too. You know..." He breaks off here in to laughter. "Actually, I cover a few Dylan songs. I've always covered some Dylan songs. I do one or two. And I do them because they're great songs. You know some people cover songs they wish they could have written, not me. I like to cover songs I know I could not have ever written".

There is this constant fluctuation between naive dreamer and ultra-aware, relaxed, thoughtful, spiritual soul. There is a shamanistic quality to a lot of Rodriguez's thoughts and statements - the Zen calmness that is suggested in the movie is clearly not a role he had to work himself up into; he exudes calm and charm. But then, midway through any monologue as he answers questions about a return to the stage after a life spent - mostly - away from it he is all of a sudden caught up in the idea of what the spotlight brings; not so much what it offers but the status it suggests.

And he slips, now and then, into almost surreal Brian Wilson-esque statements; it is hard to fathom just what it must be like, suddenly playing to 5000 people nightly after 30 years of near enough to silence. But you have to wonder if someone - Sony or any other evil - will milk the golden goose, will leave a man in his 70s broken for a second time, no chance of a return to some form of manual labour to feed the family and nurture the soul.

"We're playing 13 shows in the United Kingdom", Rodriquez all but beams. "And then we go to South Africa, Australia and to New Zealand - I'm so excited".

I worry that I've lost him. And that, beyond this phone call, that we - the fans - have lost him. He's no longer the bedsit revelation, he's now the grotesquery held up for worship by doting, previously clueless film festival audiences. A copy of Cold Fact and of course a cheeky Chardonnay. Marvellous!

But then, just like that, he's back. Back and sharp.

"I'm not doing this for the money. It was never about that. I have some money now, I earn some money and it's better to earn it this way at this age but I don't need money - and I don't need things. I never placed any huge importance on physical things; I don't collect and I don't need material possessions. I place value with my family, my philosophy, political advocacy - these are my passions. These are my interests".

Rodriquez completed a philosophy degree across 10 years and in attempts to run for mayor he has focussed on many political causes ("I'm against injustice, I like to stick up for the little guys"). He says that music is just another avenue for his philosophy and his politics - he refers to himself regularly throughout our phone call as "a musical political, or a political musician, whichever" and there's always the slightest chuckle to accompany, not so much unsure as just vaguely insecure.

But it's a joy to speak with Rodriquez who is - and he even uses this phrase himself - back from the dead. This is where the stage-lights seem to have dazzled him once again, so swiftly. To hear him tell the tale though he just switched gears, just moved back into the role. It's been effortless. Apparently. And though there have been reviews suggesting he is not in fine voice and it's a struggle to match up what happens on stage now with the vision from the film Rodriquez is sure he's doing his finest work. "It's just been so great, people seem to really be enjoying it". He probably knows this but it's a bite of the tongue in place of all but shouting to him that the people are applauding a survivor.

And any of the creative license shown in the movie - the mothers of his children were never mentioned, there's a story that one was interviewed but it ended up on the cutting-room floor, is explained away simply - and, it has to be said, correctly - by Rodriquez as "well, it's not my film, I really had no say in it".

One crucial element the film neglects to mention, because, well, never let the (whole) truth get in the way of a good story, is that Rodriquez toured Australia, twice. Long before the famed/fabled reintroduction to touring life via the South African fan connection.

It's something Rodriquez has fond memories of. He was paired with Midnight Oil and I wondered if he had perhaps shared a political conversation or two with Peter Garrett.

"Oh, Peter Garrett - Midnight Oil. Yes, he's a cabinet minister in Australia right? I'm so proud of him. Peter was always great. Midnight Oil were a great band - I loved them. And I saw how passionate Peter was - and knowledgeable. They were great friends. I would join them backstage when they played in America over the years so we're old friends. We have had a lot of great talks. And I had a great time in Australia; I played a festival one time. And you have some great bands down there. There was Men At Work and Split Enz - with the haircuts! This is before they would become Crowded House, they were just wonderful I thought. I have very happy memories of Australia. And I'm really looking forward to returning - and to visiting New Zealand. It's not lost on me that I've had some great New Zealand fans over the years. Many of you were listening to the albums and aware of my music long before this movie. And that's amazing to me".

So it's a fascinating conversation to be on one end of - to be part of. I'm torn. Just as I've decided that Rodriquez is slightly deluded and is arguably sucked right into the music-scene part of the music business that he says he was always so wary of, he then surprises with an anecdote that shows just how aware he is.

There will be a new album he believes. But it will not be the aborted third album from the 1970s ("we'll just leave that there - it was never meant to fully be".) He is working on new material ("slowly") and believes that the current band is "so great" it will be no trouble to record quickly at the end of the tour. "We'll have something - and hopefully it will be very special. A little bit of magic".

I'm not sure if the magic really lies in what Rodriquez has to say and sing any longer. I think the magic is in the fact that he's there - being paraded around if you like. He is a folk-hero now; his story of survival has been framed by a documentary that, for all its strengths, is somewhat at pains to play up the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction aspect of it all.

But there's no lasting concern that Rodriquez will lose at the end of all this. Because he appears to have all he could want; so sure he is in possession of all he needs.

We've gone way over time in our interview and he's concerned with telling me about his "three special daughters". They are his world. "One of them works in a library, one works in a hospital - and one was a Desert Storm pilot. They're all amazing. And beautiful. And talented. And they're stars now - too. In a way. Because of the movie. And they blush when I talk about it with them but they were always my stars; they are my life. And I've had such a good life. It's been wonderful. I'm so blessed".

Rodriguez is touring New Zealand in March. The Wellington show at the Town Hall has been moved to the larger venue of the TSB Bank Arena, more tickets are available following a quick sold-out announcement.

Are you a Rodriguez fan? Have you seen the film? Were you a fan before the movie? Or have you been turned onto his music as a result of watching Sugar Man? And will you be going to see him live?

Here's my earlier post about the Searching For Sugar Man film and my own discovery of the music of Rodriquez.


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