Sugar Man's Second Coming

Singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez experiences yet another resurgence

When Sixto Diaz Rodriguez played the Beachland Ballroom three years ago, the club's owners had a hard time selling tickets. While Light in the Attic, a small indie label that specializes in reissuing out-of-print and hard-of-find music, had just reissued his back catalogue, that didn't translate into ticket sales, and the show was only sparsely attended. Despite the low turnout, Rodriguez put on a hell of a show as he played with a three-piece backing band that provided a certain amount of garage-rock grit to his folky protest tunes. At that show, the soft-spoken, Detroit-based singer-songwriter sipped from a glass of red wine and seemed to have a real aura, but it didn't seem as if his music would ever have mass appeal. Flash-forward to the present day, and Rodriguez is experiencing a resurgence thanks to the release of the art house hit movie Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about his life that centers on the rumors of his death that circulated in the '90s. In the wake of its release, Rodriguez has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and has embarked on a short tour. He was also the subject of a recent 60 Minutes feature that highlighted the film and his burgeoning career. Unlike the gig from three years ago, this weekend's Beachland show sold out shortly after tickets went on sale; the tickets were gone even before the 60 Minutes segment aired.

"Oh jeesh, everything is fun," says Rodriguez last month via spoke via cell phone as he was walking in downtown Detroit searching for a cab. "I'm up for this tour because I've waiting for a long time to do this. I've been chasing music since I was 16, and it's a great time."

Born in Detroit to parents who had emigrated from Mexico, Rodriguez was the sixth child his parents had, hence his name, which means "sixth" in Spanish. He started playing guitar and singing while still a teenager, and after Dennis Coffey of the Funk Brothers and producer and writer Mike Theodore heard him playing in a Detroit Bar, they decided to back him up and helped him get a deal on the Sussex label.

"They came to a show and checked me out, and I was the first product on Sussex," Rodriguez says. "That was in 1969, and that year was super for musicians. Guitar is central to the music ensemble since the '40s, when Charlie Christian electrified it. I followed the guitar and anything that had a guitar, and the Beatles. I'm a self-taught musician. I used folk music, or rather, the protest song , as a genre in music where I can describe social issues and the conditions of the people on the streets. I was born and bred in Detroit, so I'm urban as opposed to rural. You get drawn into issues in the urban settings. No one is an island unto themselves."

Rodriguez released his full-length debut, Cold Fact, in 1970, and while it wasn't a hit in the States, it struck a chord in South Africa, in part because his protest songs aptly described what was going on in the country at that time.

"The thing with all this is that I understand now about South Africa, which I didn't know much about at the time," he says. "There was apartheid and government suppression and police brutality. We can't forget that that has happened, and that is the history there. Unfortunately, here in America, we have police brutality cases, too. It's that kind of social realism that appealed to the South Africans. In [Searching for Sugar Man], we just get a glimpse of apartheid and the music scene. It's grim information. It's like Syria today. That has been going for 16 months, and we're in the middle of that now."

Cold Fact yielded the song "Sugar Man," a wispy folk tune that sounds a bit like Donovan crossed with Bob Dylan. The song has allusions to taking drugs from which Rodriguez would now rather distance himself.

"I call it a descriptive song and not a prescriptive song," he explains. "Get your hugs, stay off drugs. Stay smart; don't start. It's a song about the scene in Detroit. I don't think anyone should smoke or do drugs. I put that disclaimer there. When I play it in public now, I explain it in that way."

Its follow-up, 1971's Coming From Reality, was the last studio album Rodriguez would release. Recorded at London's Lansdowne Studios, where the album was produced by Chris Spedding (Sex Pistols, Dusty Springfield, Harry Nilsson) and Steve Rowland (The Pretty Things, PJ Proby, The Cure), the album was ignored in the States but became a hit in Australia.

"A guy started playing me on midnight radio in Australia, and we had enough attention that we could sell out the concerts," he says. "I was there in '79 and '81. It was amazing, but after that nothing happened until I resurfaced in 1998. Rock 'n' roll is not linear, and there is no blueprint for success."

During that time when "nothing happened," Rodriguez says he simply went back to work. "I just did demolition and construction in Detroit," he says.

But in 1998, he discovered that he had a cult following in South Africa, and he embarked a successful tour of the country. He's been touring sporadically ever since. It's certainly true that Rodriguez hasn't followed any template for success, and Searching for Sugar Man makes that point.

"I've seen the movie over 40 times," says Rodriguez. "The best moment is when my daughters come on the screen. I didn't have anything to say over who they interviewed and where they interviewed them. It was a surprise to me when I first saw it, but now I enjoy it. My daughters — each of them has her own career. Eva spent 20 years in the Army and made helicopter pilot and served in Desert Storm, the first [Iraq war]. She was at the Berlin Wall, bringing it down. She was in Egypt. Sandra worked in the hospital in the receiving room, and Regan works in the library. Each has done okay. I have to credit my daughters and the Internet for helping me get there, wherever 'there' is."

While he's taken bands out with him in the past, he's performing solo for the current tour.

"I did Letterman with a 25-piece orchestra; it was a powerful performance even without me," he says. "I didn't have anything to do with the orchestration. The orchestration stole the show. But I'll be touring solo even though I got about 12 bands. I have a full band in England. I have a Swedish band. I have a South African band. I have British bands. I've been doing that for a while now since 1998. Sometimes I'm at a lack of words because I've led such an ordinary life and there's not much to say about hard work beyond that it's hard work. I'm just enjoying this time."