by Blake Maddux, Correspondent,
Sixto Díaz Rodriguez, the previously obscure (to Americans, at least) subject of the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” had been scheduled to play at The Cabot this past April. In what proved to be an optimistic assessment of COVID-19’s staying power, the show was rescheduled for June.
Alas, his visit to Beverly is not among those that are now on the 2021 calendar.
That’s because the singer-songwriter – whose preternatural talent was captured on the early 1970s albums “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality” – has been tapped as one of many marquee performers participating in The Cabot’s 100th anniversary virtual celebration on Thursday, Dec. 3.
Though the Herald Citizen’s interview with Rodriguez was conducted by phone in February with the plan of previewing his spring concert, much of what was discussed still serves the same purpose for next week’s celebratory event.
The Detroit native described his family as “musical people who danced and sang.” Thus, Rodriguez grew up in a household of people who played music themselves rather than listening to records on a turntable. “I think they were more live,” he explained.
Mississippi-born electric blues guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Reed is the one specific artist Rodriguez names when asked about his influences. However, he tried to understand the style of “anyone playing guitar,” including folk artists who didn’t “write only boy-girl songs.”
On that latter point, Rodriguez aimed to “broaden the scope” as a lyricist when he began composing songs as a teenager.
“I’m Mexican, you know, so English is my second language,” he said.
“I have a lot respect for the English language … I play with the words,” he added, affirming his interest in how words can be manipulated and used to mean different things.
“Literature is based on experience and personal interpretation,” he also averred, indirectly describing his approach to lyric writing.
Statements like this make it unsurprising that the 78-year-old has a degree in philosophy (from Detroit’s Wayne State University, which he has long lived a few blocks from) and profoundly admires the American philosopher, psychologist, and Harvard professor William James.
“He was very optimistic,” Rodriguez said of the founder of pragmatism. “I’m optimistic. I want to live to be 350 years old. But like you, I can only do one day at a time.”
While this might be true on a personal level, Rodriguez’s lyrics are frequently far from Pollyannish with regard to societal or political concerns. For example, his 1970 song “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: or, The Establishment Blues” includes lyrics such as “Public gets irate/but forgets the vote date,” “gun sales are soaring/housewives find life boring,” and “Adultery plays the kitchen/bigot cops nonfiction.”
The recent election was nine months away when the conversation happened. As would be expected of a self-described “musico-politico” who has run for local offices in the past, Rodriguez had some thoughts on the matter.
“I’m supporting Bernie Sanders,” he shared. “I made posters for him and I carry them around.”
Asked about the then-non-lame duck Oval Office occupant, he responded, “My first line of the show is, ‘I have something to say to the commander-in-chief.’ Then I put on my hat and I shake my head down. That’s what I think of this administration.”
Expert songwriting and sage-like wisdom aside, Rodriguez is a modest and unassuming human being. That likely comes from decades of being more or less forgotten as a musician (though not everywhere, as the documentary makes abundantly clear) despite his immense talent.
Eight years of previously unexpected time in the spotlight and the economic windfall brought about by extensive touring has done nothing to change this.
“I put a roof on my house. I got new floors and new doors,” is his answer to whether he has afforded himself any indulgences. “I’m proud of the place.”
This is the same house seen in “Searching for Sugar Man,” and which a 2013 MLive article reports his having paid $50 for in 1976.