Oscar sugar coming for Rodriguez?

Like most local music lovers of my generation, which is roughly one behind the region's golden age that included Sixto Rodriguez, I knew nothing about Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, the records that were expected to launch another brilliant Detroit musician's career.

But as we know they didn't, instead launching an enigmatic life journey and a tale far stranger than fiction.

Which is where Swedish documentary film maker Malik Bendjelloul and Searching for Sugar Man come in. Even at this late date, less than a week before Bendjelloul collects the academy award he is favored to win for best documentary feature film, I hesitate to give away all the delicious details of the narrative.

Suffice to say, it's about discovery and rediscovery, hard work and patience, poetry and revolution made in Detroit and how it altered the politics in a far off land (South Africa).

See it at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak; or find it now on DVD/Blue Ray. It's a must-see. At least twice, maybe three times. 

It all inspires memories of my own humble discovery of Rodriguez, which came independent of the music enthusiast-amateur sleuths in South Africa who initiated the search, and around the same time that the Swedish director found the subject for this film.   

It even takes me back deeper into my youth, to when Rodriguez was tipped to be the rust belt Bob Dylan.

I was all about Motown then, not to mention many of the indie soul and early funk labels that Berry Gordy absorbed into his surging empire before decamping to California. We love you still, Berry, but those were two bad moves we cannot forget. 

I collected 45s by Michigan garage rock pioneers like the Unrelated Segments, Woolies, Underdogs, Rationals and, of course, the MC5 and the Stooges.

But Rodriguez? Nope. Oddly, I did know about his co-producer Dennis Coffey, whose 1971 song 'Scorpio' was a national breakout hit. Coffey was also one of the famed "funk brothers," the guitarist on hits like 'Psychedelic Shack,' 'Ball of Confusion' and 'Cloud Nine' (all by the Temptations).

The rest of the 1970s gave me glam-rock, punk and disco (though it divided many of my friends into competing camps, I was energized by all three); the 1980s brought synth-pop, post-punk, techno and acid house (more division and sub-division among my peers); and the 1990s saw the second coming of garage rock and smart, minimal approaches in electronic dance music.

I was, through and through, a Detroit music guy. Living it, sleeping it and writing about it in local and out of town magazines and newspapers. 

But it wasn't until the early to mid-oughts that I became aware of Rodriguez. And it came by sheer chance.

I was at the Magic Stick talking to Matthew Smith, of Outrageous Cherry and the Volebeats, a talented singer, songwriter and producer. Our families have shared an alley in Hamtramck since the 1960s. I was about to write a profile on Matthew as he was turning 40 and active in the music business for about 20 years. He pointed to a lone figure at the bar. Dressed in black, sunglasses, but not attention getting, spectral, unassuming, like a shadow.

"That's Rodriguez," he said. "Who?" I said.

Later, while we were spending time on his profile he told me the story of how Rodriguez had been lionized in South Africa, had become an icon, more myth than mere man. Bigger than the Beatles and the Stones. "No, c'mon," I said. But I'll be damned if it wasn't all true.  

Smith and other Detroit musicians have since backed him up in local appearances at the Old Miami, the Park Bar and other spots. Rodriguez continues to be a living story. As incredible on Cass Avenue as it is in Cape Town. His life a great film that awaits its just due Sunday night.

Walter Wasacz is Model D managing editor and had Rodriguez' 'This is not a song, it's an outburst: Or, the establishment blues' on repeat while he wrote this story.

Photos courtesy of Searching for Sugar Man.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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