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Real Heroes: Sixto Rodriguez

Everyone, you can stop looking now- we’ve found the coolest person on the planet. Where did we find him? In Detroit, USA. Naturally. As the brilliant docu-film Searching for Sugar Man revealed, it was here in the city known for its urban wastelands, huddling hobos and flaming trash cans that one of the most remarkable stories I’ve ever seen or heard unfolded… with a little help from Apartheid-ravaged South Africa of course. Sixto Rodriguez, take a bow Son.

Born in 1942 to working-class Mexican immigrant parents, he was named Sixto because he was the sixth child to be born (and presumably because his parents ran out of ideas). Rodriguez developed a love for music, releasing his first single as a singer-songwriter in 1967. He toured Detroit, and soon became known for his unique persona, shuffling from gig to gig across the city without anyone really knowing exactly who he was. He took limelight avoidance to new levels, regularly facing away from the crowd during live performances. His beautiful metaphor-laden lyricism, beautiful phrasing and melodies shined through, and he was soon snapped up by Sussex Records to produce an album. Two albums later, he was dropped. The records sold poorly despite excellent critical reviews. By 1975, he was a full-time labourer. The dream was all but extinguished.

In 1998 Rodriguez’s eldest daughter came across a website asking ‘Who is Sixto Rodriguez?’ Intrigued, she soon discovered that over the past 25 years, completely unknown to her father, Rodriguez’s albums were absolutely massive in South Africa. Like, really massive. In a country of 22 million, it was estimated Rodriguez’s 1970 album, Cold Fact, sold around 600,000 records. Dealing with working class oppression and the battle for equality, his lyrics struck a poignant chord during the Apartheid. “Every revolution needs a soundtrack” said one South African music journalist. For the anti-apartheid movement, it was Rodriguez’s Cold Fact that blared from the protestor’s speakers.

It transpired that the record first appeared in South Africa in the early 70’s after an American college student visited her boyfriend. Things grew from there; bootlegs and exploitative record companies saw to it that the record became available to its loving audience. Not knowing anything about who this Mexican guy with a black hat and shades was, rumours circulated around South Africa that he had killed himself on stage. It was only when a South African music journalist started to wonder why nothing more was known about this man- whose music the country adored on a par with The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel- that the remarkable truth revealed itself; to both sides of the Atlantic.

Rodriguez was invited over to South Africa to play for the people who had grown up loving his music - and thinking he was dead. The scene in Searching for Sugar Man showing the footage of Rodriguez coming out onto the stage for his first sold out performance in Johannesburg made me cry. Not in a girly way- they were manly tears, tears of steel and… petrol. To this man, this was a world he did not know existed. As far as he was concerned, his music had failed; he was a labourer, who had brought up a family and nowadays only occasionally got his guitar out to mess around with a few friends. The adoring thousands who called his name, drowning out the bass line that rolled on in the background- before he had even opened his mouth- thought he was dead. Surely, in the modern world, this comes the closest to replicating what it would have been like to witness Jesus on stage. A Mexican Jesus.

The story is truly incredible. But even more remarkable to witness was the humility with which Rodriguez took the whole thing. Even seeing fans with his album cover tattooed on their arms was not enough to change his perception of himself: his feet, in steel-capped boots, remained firmly rooted to the ground. Since his first tour of South Africa, he has returned in 2001 and 2005 for further sold out tours. In between though, he simply lives his life in his basic surroundings working as a labourer in Detroit. He gets up, goes to work- walking through the snow in the freezing cold in winter months at the age of 70- comes home, and puts his feet up in front of an improvised fireplace. J-Lo says she’s still Jenny from the block. I say bollocks. If ever there has been a working class hero who has stayed true to their roots, it’s Sixto Rodriguez.

Incredible, too, is the apparent absence of bitterness and anger over his total exploitation at the hands of the record companies that distributed his albums without giving him as much as a dime, or even contacting him to let him know how well things were going in reality. He comes across as man content with his lot, even before he discovered his fame. He brought up two girls, educating them in the arts and science, instilling a curiosity that helped them to achieve a life of financial success and comfort far beyond anything he ever knew.

Just to really cement his coolness, his music is seriously good. There are a lot of similarities to his better known contemporary Bob Dylan, but Rodriguez covers more musical territory, venturing into blues, jazz, swing and funk. There’s a real mix of instrumentalism layered on top of Rodriguez’s guitar. Oh, and unlike Dylan, Rodriguez can really sing. Like every note he goes for. The lyrics are great too. He wrote this five years before losing his record contract- two weeks before Christmas.

Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas
And I talked to Jesus at the sewer
And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business
While the rain drank champagne
My Estonian Archangel came and got me wasted
Cause the sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I've never tasted
Oh but they'll take their bonus pay to Molly McDonald,
Neon ladies, beauty is that which obeys, is bought or borrowed