Silver magic ships you carried

Eine Geschichte, fast zu schön um wahr zu sein: ein in Detroit lebender Musiker nimmt Anfang der Siebziger Jahre zwei LPs auf, die in den USA und in Europa niemanden interessieren. Er wendet sich von der Musik ab und schlägt sich als Gelegenheitsarbeiter durchs Leben. Was er nicht weiß: in Südafrika, Australien und Neuseeland ist er berühmter als Elvis Presley. Dort liebt man zwar seine Musik, aber niemand weiß etwas über den Sänger selbst. Ende der Neunziger Jahre gelingt es schließlich zwei Freunden aus Südafrika, den Mann aufzuspüren, dessen Songs der Soundtrack einer ganzen Generation sind und von dem das Gerücht geht, dass er sich auf offener Bühne verbrannt habe: Sixto Rodríguez. Im Westen wird Rodriguez erst 2012 durch den preisgekrönten Dokumentarfilm ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ bekannt. Am 8. August 2023 stirbt der Sugar Man im Alter von 81 Jahren.

The Independent (10.8.2023)

Tributes have poured in for Sixto Rodriguez – the cult singer-songwriter who, for years of his career, had a huge following in South Africa and beyond without even knowing it.

Rodriguez, whose spectacular life story was chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, died aged 81 this week.

The Detroit-born musician had initially struggled to get his music career off the ground in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After being dropped by his record label, the folk-rock musician ended up leaving the industry entirely – while, unbeknown to him, his music became a phenomenon overseas.

Here’s a breakdown of Rodriguez’s incredible life story.

Born on 10 July, 1942 in Detroit, Michigan, Rodriguez was the sixth son of a Mexican father and Native American mother.

He started out as a musician in the 1960s, during the height of the counterculture movement. His first single “I’ll Slip Away” – a catchy composition about remaining optimistic in the face of adversity – came out in 1967.

After signing with Sussex records, Rodriguez recorded two albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971). Songs on each album have been praised for their lyrical dexterity and musical finesse, often with an overtly political message.

“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected / Politicians using, people they’re abusing / The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river / And you tell me that this is where it’s at,” he sings, in his 1970 protest song “This is Not a Song It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues”, one of the numbers that featured on Cold Fact.

While performing, Rodriguez had a habit of singing with his back to the audience, something that he later explained was because he was “concentrating on the music, thinking of the lyrics”.

The albums, however, failed to connect with a wide audience, and Rodriguez abandoned his third record partway through making it, having been dropped by his label.

By the mid 1970s, he had mostly stepped away from professional music and was working as a labourer in Detroit, an occupation he would remain in for decades.

However, at the same time, Rodriguez’s music was accruing a following in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa.

A compilation album titled At His Best went platinum in South Africa, where his music became tied to the country’s the anti-apartheid protest movement.

“May I tell you why I think the music surfaced in South Africa?” Rodriguez later said, in an interview with KEXP radio. “OR. Oppression and revolution.”

While his music was ballooning in popularity, false rumours began to circulate abroad that Rodriguez had died. (Among the various rumours: that he had died by suicide in prison after murdering his spouse; that he had perished on stage by electrocution; and that he had set himself on fire while performing.)

In 1997, an effort to track down Rodriguez was spearheaded by two fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom, whose journey was detailed in the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

It worked: through an expansive campaign to locate the singer, Segerman and Bartholomew were eventually tipped off to Rodriguez’s whereabouts, by way of one of his daughters.

Soon after re-entering the public eye, Rodriguez embarked on a tour of South Africa. In the country, he filled stadia and played to thousands of fans at a time. As noted in Searching for Sugar Man, it was a surreal experience for many: this supposedly dead artist, often described as “bigger than Elvis [Presley]” in South Africa, was not only alive, but performing in front of them.

However, Rodriguez saw scant profit from his years of success, thanks in part due to the proliferation of bootleg records of his music.

“My story isn’t a rags to riches story,” Rodriguez later told The Telegraph. “It’s rags to rags and I’m glad about that. Where other people live in an artificial world, I feel I live in the real world. And nothing beats reality.”

The 2012 release of Searching for Sugar Man saw Rodriguez’s career enjoy a second resurgence. The documentary, directed by Sweden’s Malik Bendjelloul, was a critical and commercial hit, winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The legendary film critic Roger Ebert described the ending of Sugar Man as “miraculous and inspiring”, writing: “I hope you’re able to see this film. You deserve to. And yes, it exists because we need for it to.”

Off the back of the documentary’s success, Rodriguez was able to tour large venues in the US, UK and elsewhere, and played Glastonbury Festival in 2013.

“All my life, I never gave up on music and though there was a lot of disappointment for some that the commercial thing never happened, it has never been a disappointment for me,” Rodriguez would say, in a 2009 interview with The Telegraph.

“I’m an old man now and I belong to the old century. It’s been 40 years since I made those records. For the music to have survived at all, let alone for anyone to care about it, well, I feel overwhelmed.”

In the years leading up to his death, Rodriguez’s reputation had been transformed from one of unappreciated greatness to that of a truly important artist, whose limited musical output is nonetheless spoken of in the same breath as giants of the musical counterculture.

The era of streaming and instant information means a story like Rodriguez’s would never happen now. For the many thousands of his fans, his comeback from anonymity and rumoured death was nothing short of a real-life fairy tale.