Sixto Rodriguez is the centerpiece of one of rock's all-time fascinating stories. It spans four decades, four continents, two albums and at least three generations of music fans. Yet you probably never heard of him.
In 1969, Rodriguez (he makes music under his surname only) recorded Cold Fact — an album of Dylan-like ruminations on sex, drugs and America at the end of the '60s — in his native Detroit. It was released a year later and quickly forgotten. A year and a half later, he released Coming From Reality, which also bombed. Then Rodriguez (already a shadowy figure who played gigs with his back to the audience and was prone to erratic behavior, on and offstage) disappeared.
In the late '70s, South Africans began scooping up used copies of Cold Fact and Coming From Reality from record stores. So did Australians and New Zealanders. Rodriguez briefly re-emerged for a tour of Australia. Then he disappeared again.
In 1996, a writer penned a story about Rodriguez, who was doing blue-collar work in Detroit. The singer-songwriter learned that he was a multi-platinum star in South Africa, where young listeners heard liberation in his rebel music about sex and drugs and politics. He toured and sold out South African venues. Then he disappeared again.
Last year, Light in the Attic, an indie label based in Seattle, reissued Cold Fact. It became one of 2008's most drooled-over records. Hipsters all over the world rejoiced over the shaky-voiced Rodriguez's songs, some of which feature post-hippie funk grooves bubbling beneath the surface. Rodriguez really had no idea what his producers were doing with his original spare arrangements, which basically consisted of him and his acoustic guitar.
Now, the 66-year-old Rodriguez is preparing to take his music on the road for the first time in almost 40 years. He's scheduled only a dozen or so U.S. dates (including a stop at the Beachland Ballroom on Friday), before heading over to Europe for festival season.
He's quick to talk about his records (Coming From Reality is being reissued in a couple weeks), his tour and his band (which is made up of fellow Detroit musicians). Rodriguez will even tell you the story about how the record company folded after his albums came out ("The guy who started it became chairman of Motown Records for five years," he says. "There were a lot of changes going on").
But ask him about what happened — why he just disappeared for all those years — and he brings the subject around to his old producer. Press for details about where he was and what he did, and he lets out a nervous laugh.
"It's a different world," he sighs. "Music is another world almost. It's a hard business, and there are no guarantees in music. Everybody who's slept in a van knows the story. You try, but you can only do so much."
He's comfortable with his sudden fame in what he calls the "global underground." He gushes over Pitchfork (which gave the Cold Fact reissue a glowing review and pretty much jumpstarted the U.S.-hipster bandwagon) and the Internet ("it's a different arena now"). But ask him how he feels about the delayed acceptance of his music, and he talks about the "American creative inventiveness."
In a way, Rodriguez is still living in 1970. He's evasive when it comes to his work. He maneuvers around questions about writing songs during those lost years and about giving up his music. "I've always written, but I never put pen to paper," he says, somewhat cryptically. "I tried [recording] a couple things, but it wasn't me."
He's happy, though, and he wants everybody to plug into his peace-and-love vibe. "The thing is," he begins and then pauses. "Be kind, man."
Rodriguez still lives in Detroit. That's where he lived when he made his records; that's where he's been all these years. He's still a huge fan, he says, going to clubs and listening to new artists whenever he can. And he's excited about playing his music again.
So is he writing new songs?
"I'm going to be [touring] until October."
What about after the tours are over, after he returns from Europe later this year? What's he going to do? The only music he ever recorded has already been reissued. Will Rodriguez, 40 years after he recorded his debut album, start writing and recording again?
"That would be a good idea," he laughs. "But I can only do it one day at a time."