South Africa was a very different place in 1971 when Cold Fact was modestly unleashed on the Southern hemisphere. Back then, nobody had heard of Rodriguez. Abba was storming the charts, TV hadn’t arrived (god forbid, it was too corruptive according to the dominees) and our current President was in jail. Music was played on turn-tables, Cliff Richard was on tour and the Hippie era hadn’t quite made it South. Violence and crime was something that happened in the townships, South African musicians were gaining modest international success and Sundays were spent at church.
“Sugar man, won’t you hurry ‘cos I’m tired of these scenes”.
Against this backdrop, an album with lyrics such as these must’ve seemed years ahead of it’s time and could only have captured the imaginations of a lost generation of South Africans. Over the next twenty five years, waves of disco, punk, new-wave, grunge and electronic music (in addition to our own ethnic music) served as soundtrack to the country’s turbulent history. Yet through it all an astonishingly simple folk album from a hitherto unknown singer crept into the hearts of many, occupying a unique place unparalleled elsewhere in the vast world of music.
The Legend unfolded on it’s own. Rodriguez dropped out of sight, lost in the haze of hippiness, and the profound lyrics left behind on Cold Fact were the only clues we had to invent the mystery and myth.
That has all been settled now, and the remarkable reappearance of this long-forgotten Hispanic American is a celebration of the enduring popularity of this album. Since it’s re-release on CD in 1991 by Polygram South Africa, it has sold a incredible 60 000 copies, encompassing several generations of fans from all quarters.
Soon you know I’ll leave you, and I’ll never look behind, ‘cause I was born for the purpose that crucifies your mind.
Like other Americans before him, notably Morrison and Dylan, Rodriguez was a hopeless romantic, inspired and troubled by the changing world around him. His lyrics were deep and poetic, yet it was the simple acoustic accompaniment that lent the album so much timeless appeal. Cold Fact opens with the ultra trippy Sugar Man, which may well have been straight out of an acid trip. “Sugar man met a false friend on a lonely dusty road, lost my heart, when I found it, it had turned to dead black coal” suggests just where exactly the inspiration came from as he goes on to list jumpers, coke and sweet Mary Jane. More than any other Rodriguez song, it is Sugar Man which personifies the artist in the minds of those who have always wondered. The eerie moog synthesizer, whistling in the background, the lazy and simple guitar chords and the dreamy nasal voice place the listener firmly in an era of fantasy. It sets a perfect tone for the album and the myth.
By contrast, Only Good For Conversation is nothing short of disturbing with it’s grinding power riffs and vocal echo. In fact it is a good indication of the irony and sarcasm that Rodriguez layers thickly throughout the album. “My statue’s got a concrete heart, but you’re the coldest bitch I know” shows just how blunt the singer could be.
The moon…. is hanging…. in a purple… sky.
At times, his music was simple and beautiful, his lyrics pure poetry. Lovesickness was often the theme, but it was always from the lips of a troubled soul. In Crucify Your Mind, one of the albums most subtle songs, one gets the impression he’s begging like a scorned lover. In fact, he’s competing for a girls attention, but is sidelined by the lure of narcotics, and the boys who push them – one of many references throughout the album. “Was it a huntsman or a player that made you pay the cost, that now assumes relaxed position and prostitutes your loss, were you tortured by your own thirst in those pleasures that you seek, that makes you Tom the curious, that makes you James the weak” he asks. The appeal of Rodriguez, is his ability to state common emotions so beautifully. Always cynical and often sarcastic, he later makes a similar jibe “and don’t try to enchant me with your manner of dress, for a monkey in silk is a monkey no less” in the song Like Janis.
Drifting, drowning, in a purple sea of doubt, you wanna hear she loves you but the words don’t fit the mouth.
At times, the songwriter on this album – whoever he may be – is a desperate character and it’s not surprising, sifting through these lyrics, that rumours of taking his own life abounded. In Jane S Piddy his self pity of lost love is heartbreaking. From the above lyric he goes on to describe himself “you’re a loser, a rebel, a cause without”. Similar poignancy emerges in the short and simple final track on the original side one, Forget It. At no point, does Rodriguez ever seem happy. All these clues lend credence to the incredible myth that fell into the void that his disappearance left.
I wonder how many times you’ve had sex, I wonder do you know who will be next, I wonder, I wonder, wonder I do.
It is at his most obsessive, Rodriguez is best known. The simple lyrics from I Wonder mean many different things to many different people, and yet they are all sung in unison, at the end of disco’s, around camp fires or in a beat up old combi, with the same feeling that summed up the curiosity across South Africa throughout the seventies and eighties. He says, in two and half minutes, what many young men and woman would love to say to each but never find the courage. Again, in Hate Street Dialogue, the same simple guitar makes you imagine you’re sitting around a campfire in an Indian reserve, listening to some one’s home grown ditties. “Woman, please be gone, you’ve stayed here much too long”, he chided melodically. It’s the simpleness that is so alluring.
Gommorah is a nursery rhyme, you won’t find in the book.
It’s written on your city’s face just stop and take a look.
Perhaps it is the social conscience that has such important role on this album, and most significantly suggest what sort of person Rodriguez was and is. He has managed, throughout the album, to make it clear that the world around him just isn’t quite right. “The baby’s sleeping whilst it’s mother sighs” from Rich Folks Hoax is innocent enough, but all the time it is seen through the eyes of a working class Mexican immigrant, trapped in the motor industry that encompassed his hometown – Detroit. More than anything, it is this character that best describes the man who had disappeared for 25 years. In using school children for the chorus of Gommorah, Rodriguez effectively demonstrates the irony of inner city life, as he runs through the countless problems on the street in his neighbourhood, drugs, prostitution, runaway kids and bemused rich folk tourists. His working class vitriol emerges on Rich Folks Hoax and The Establishment Blues where he states matter-of-factly that “The Mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates” and “little man gets shafted, sons and moneys drafted”. Not surprisingly it emerged, upon his rediscovery, that Rodriguez now has his own political aspirations, having run for mayor eight times! His views on the wealth disparities between rich and poor in the worlds most prosperous country are never far from the tip of his pen.
Don’t say any more, just walk out the door, I’ll get along fine you’ll see.
Sixto Rodriguez (as we now know him) has moved on, we all do. The album (and it’s predecessor, Coming From Reality) never quite cracked the vast American market, and the artist hung up his guitar and talent to concentrate on other ambitions. The albums producers (and Rodriguez’s backing musicians), Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey emersed themselves in the vibrant Motown scene that was emerging at the time and the later went on to work with Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Jackson Five.
In South Africa it’s hard to imagine that a cult figure of such importance should belong exclusively to us. To a lesser extent he is known in Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. Importantly, what remains is a character that didn’t really exist at all, but was created out of a time and place, spurred on by our own imagination. Cold Fact documents, with astonishing effectiveness, a turbulent America at the tail end of the sixties. The numerous drug references, the cynical tone, the frustrated lover, the disillusionment and inner city blues were a world around Rodriguez, one that he had a poetic eye for.
“Sometimes the fantasy is better left alive, it’s as unbelievable to me as it is to you” stated his daughter upon their discovery of a whole fan base at the tip of Africa. And that way it will remain, he is a deeply private person and indeed we have a fantasy that would probably be shattered. Perhaps we all took him a little too seriously when the needle scratched off those old pieces of Vinyl with the final words;
thanks for your time , then you can thank me for mine and after that’s said, forget it”.
– Andrew Bond, London, April 1998