Waiting for Sugar Man:
Rodriguez In Concert at the Orpheum Theatre
TUESDAY, April 16, 2013
Last night I had the strangest dream—only it really happened. Something beautiful this way came to downtown Los Angeles. I waited two hours to see Sixto Rodriguez in concert at the Orpheum Theatre, but I didn’t grudge the time; Rodriguez waited forty years. I got there at 7:00pm thinking that’s when the sold out show started, since that was the only time listed on the tickets. Turned out that’s when the doors opened. Then when I got in for the 8:00pm start time there was an unlisted opening act—a very good guitarist and singer-songwriter from Denmark who had the thankless task of warming up the audience. He did a very nice half hour set, and it was another 35 minutes before Rodriguez’s band came out at 9:10pm. The audience greeted the band with a mixture of enthusiasm and frustration.
And then, to a standing ovation, Rodriguez appeared. Like Kirk Gibson in the bottom of the 9th in the 1988 World Series opener at Dodger Stadium, he hobbled up to home plate—with the aid of his two daughters on either side—and proceeded to hit one out of the park.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon murderous terror bombings that left an indelible scar on America’s greatest race, it made me proud to be an Angelino just to be there; proud to be an American; and proud to be a human being. In all honesty, I am still not sure what I saw and heard. Was it a concert? Well yes; but it was more than a concert—it was a rite of purification, a collective dance and outpouring of love for a performer that tried mightily to make up for forty years of neglect—all documented in the Oscar-winning movie Searching for Sugar Man, which I reviewed separately in these pages last year.
Like Beckett’s greatest play, Waiting for Godot, it was an existential masterpiece—the search was more important than the meaning, as my old mentor John Macksoud wrote in his similarly unheralded masterpiece of modern philosophy Other Illusions.
Rodriguez, to briefly recapitulate, made two albums in Detroit in 1970 and 1971, at the height of the singer-songwriter movement that produced James Taylor, Carol King, Cat Stevens and John Denver. It should have produced Rodriguez, but guess what—it didn’t. His albums disappeared without a trace after selling a grand total of seven copies. Rodriguez left music and became a laborer; doing the kind of hard labor one might associate with chain gangs rather than musicians. He carried the heaviest kind of objects a man can carry—refrigerators and other home appliances for people who were moving. That is how he raised his two daughters as a single father. He thus has earned every limp and stooped over inch of his seventy-year old frame.
Fast forward forty years and filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul got fascinated with the accidental discovery that Rodriguez may have disappeared from American musical shelves, but a rare copy—they were all rare copies—of his first album—Cold Fact—made its way down to Cape Town, South Africa and was reproduced by a record store owner—one of the two “Sugar Mans” of the evocative title—the other of course being the composer of the song about a drug dealer on the album. And guess what again—Rodriguez became a smash hit in South Africa—bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles. It’s the stuff of which dreams are made, and fortunately this one had a fairy tale ending. Long story short, the Swedish filmmaker found that Rodriguez—far from being dead as had been supposed—was alive and well and living in Detroit, where he had made those albums forty years before. Finding him and bringing him back to Cape Town for a comeback reunion concert with the delirious audience who gave him significant credit for inspiring the South African freedom movement under Nelson Mandela—in the same way that Elvis inspired the sexual revolution and Dylan inspired the civil rights movement in America with songs like Blowing In the Wind and The Times, They Are A-Changing. Heady stuff, and all true.
When the documentary won the Oscar last February guess what—Rodriguez was back home in Detroit fast asleep after another hard day’s work; he doesn’t even own a TV set to watch the show. You can’t make this stuff up, folks; sometimes reality surpasses even so-called reality TV shows. Not surprisingly either, since Rodriguez’s second album was entitled—guess what yet again—Coming to Reality. Along with Cold Fact they contain his core repertoire of about thirty songs. In the words of Rolling Stone’s recent profile of him at the beginning of his first major tour, they were enough to take him around the world.
Those were the songs Sugar Man brought with him to the Orpheum, and you would have thought they had all been hit songs down through the years. The audience—the most engaged and responsive audience I have ever heard at a concert—clamored for them by name—I Wonder, Sugar Man, and Street Boy and his anthem The Establishment Blues being four of their—our—particular favorites.
The songs and his band were great, and first rate, but don’t begin to capture the powerful experience of the event, for make no mistake, an event it was; like hearing Bob Dylan for the first time at The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1963, or being at The Beatles concert at Wembley Stadium in 1964, or seeing Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. You couldn’t know walking in that you were about to witness something historic, but walking out you couldn’t describe it any other way.
The music—and it was sublime—was only half the show; the other half was moments like these: after four songs Rodriguez took off his long black coat, which in itself was a hypnotic gesture, as if to say, I’m having fun; do you mind if I stay a while? I and everyone else in the audience expected to see some kind of shirt underneath—most likely a long sleeve shirt. You had to hear their collective gasp in order to believe it—he had on a sleeveless top revealing his extraordinary biceps—which had a lot of middle-aged women screaming like teenagers, and yes, some of the men whooping too. That was what forty years of hard labor looked like—Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, or Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire.
Except this performer had dark-brown skin, and as I looked around, so did the audience; but not just dark brown—white, black, yellow, and red too. I saw Indians, Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians and several shades in between. Every ethnic group was represented. Finally, I thought, a folk singer who looks like America; for the audience for once captured the racial diversity and harmony that we associate with the anthems of folk and rock—the We Are the World spirit its best songs aspire to, and so often fail to see reflected in the audience, which in my experience has been overwhelmingly white. Pete Seeger has embraced humanity in all of his music—My Rainbow Race being the most telling example; but look around at a Pete Seeger concert and one sees mostly white folks. Go to any “folk festival” in Southern California and one will see a similar demographic amongst both performers and audiences. Rodriguez transcends those boundaries, which is one reason why his story is so compelling; his audience is completely and naturally integrated; it actually is what it purports to be—the universal spirit of humanity as expressed in song. It makes you wonder what we have missed for all these years he could have been a part of the American musical landscape.
But to see him now has its own special magic, and I hope everyone within the sound of my voice will take the opportunity to do so.
What you will hear at a Rodriguez concert will surprise as well as amaze and inspire you. For he doesn’t just stick—as virtually every other singer-songwriter does—to his own songbook. He performs songs from the Great American Songbook—including the Peggy Lee hit Fever (written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell). He did the 1954 Cole Porter hit Just One of Those Things and the Carl Perkins classic Blue Suede Shoes. He reached all the way back to 1934 for the Harry Warren/Al Dubin jazz standard I Only Have Eyes for You, and he did a plaintive, heart-stopping wailing version of Little Richard’s blues Lucille.
And like a pro he saved the best for last. After his second thunderous standing ovation (encouraged by his delightful and brilliant three-piece band, who came back first) Rodriguez, again with the aid of his two daughters, hobbled back out to center stage and strummed the familiar opening chords (adapted from La Bamba, an appropriate musical quotation of Richie Valens for this great Chicano artist); then he began to sing:
Once upon a time
You dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime
In your prime
Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone brought the house down. And it also started me thinking; I wonder (if I may borrow from Rodriquez own great song) what Rodriguez was trying to tell us in these unexpected song choices; what strange beast—borrowing from Yeats—its hour come round at last—is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born?
Let me put it this way: Rodriguez was painting an aural mural—a soundscape of modern American music—saying in effect, “This is the tradition out of which I came, this is my music, and I too am America (just like Langston Hughes so memorably said). An essential piece of this mural has been missing for these past forty years, and I, through the grace of God and a great filmmaker, am now able to restore it to its rightful place. Now that the spotlight is on me I don’t want you to see my music in isolation from all the rest; I don’t want to set myself apart from all the rest; and (despite some of the fabulous claims of various participants in the film, but crucially not Rodriguez himself) I especially don’t want to set myself above the rest. I just want you to hear and see my music as a part of the tapestry (pace his contemporary Carol King) of the best of the rest. My songs belong in this company, and they should have been here all along.
“We love you, Rodriguez,” screamed many of his fans last night throughout the concert, to which he charmingly replied, “I know it’s the drinks talking, but I love you back.” And finally, after the show was really over he grabbed his band-mates and stood all four together to take a bow, when he left us with the following simple declaration: “It has been an honor, a pleasure and a privilege to be with you tonight. Thank you very much.”
Rodriguez is the real thing—a great artist and a symbol of the healing power of music. If that isn’t worth celebrating, nothing is.
The Orpheum, this beautiful old stately theatre in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, was the perfect place to see him—right there on Broadway. Sugar Man was well worth waiting for.
On Saturday, April 27 Ross will perform in San Diego at Adams Ave Unplugged; for info see www.adamsaveunplugged.org; Sunday, April 28, Ross will perform in a benefit for the Jennifer Diamond Cancer Foundation American Folk Music Fest at the Leonis Adobe, 23537 Calabasas Rd, Calabasas, CA 91302. 818-700-6900; on Sunday, May 19 Ross performs at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival; for info on tickets, contest registration and volunteer opportunities see www.topangabanjofiddle.org; and on Saturday, June 15 Ross returns to Claremont for the 30th Claremont Folk Festival; for info on tickets, a complete list of performers and volunteer opportunities go to www.claremontfolkfestival.org
Ross Altman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org