Bigger than Elvis – on the other side of the world
I have a major fetish for really great songwriters. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Jacques Brel, Stephen Sondheim, for starters … the list is exclusive, but it’s not terribly short. I consider myself to be something of a scholar in this area, or at least a really serious connoisseur. So I’m baffled and somewhat embarrassed to admit that, prior to this week, and prior to seeing the film I first heard about on David Dye’s NPR radio show World Café, I had never heard of Rodriguez.
A powerfully evocative singer/songwriter active in the early 1970s, little-known in America, Rodriguez is the subject of the wonderful 2012 Swedish/British documentary directed by Malik Bendjelloul, Searching for Sugar Man. Rodriguez appeared in Detroit in the late sixties, circulated on the music scene briefly, released two albums to the high expectations of his label and his producers, and then vanished. Actually that’s not quite correct. He couldn’t vanish, because as far as industry bean counters were concerned, he never even appeared. According to the producers of the albums, who are interviewed in the film, here in the U.S. the LPs were each met with positive critical response but a deafening silence commercially. Nothing. And thus would have ended the tale – except that for some deeply karmic reason, at exactly that moment Rodriguez became, in South Africa at least, bigger than Elvis. Seriously.