Rodriguez was a shaman with long black hair and sunglasses who met his producers on street corners, who wore a tuxedo to do manual labor. Everything about him was a mystery, including where he'd received the education and inspiration to write lyrics that read like an earnest mix of Bob Dylan's social consciousness and Bruce Springsteen's clear-eyed view of Americans stuck in groundhog lives. His music wasn't created by a branding machine. The urban folk sounds — light and nimble on the records, driving and insistent live — came out because to keep them inside might have destroyed him.
Nobody bought the albums, which seemed appropriate, since their subjects were invisible and forgotten, the metaphor complete. Their power remained hidden. The producers couldn't understand why. They'd worked with the Motown stars and with Miles Davis. After the two records, a few weeks before Christmas, his label dropped him. The words of the last song on his last album gave a little window: "You can keep your symbols of success and I'll pursue my own happiness. You can keep your clocks and routines and I'll go mend all my shattered dreams. Maybe today I'll slip away."
His songs did not. In fact, once divorced from him, they found that power, forcing themselves out of the purgatory of dusty record shops. Legend says an American took his first record, Cold Fact, to South Africa, where a circle of friends listened and made copies. The songs spread, and record labels began selling copies. One estimate says that 500,000 were sold, and the money went to the suits. The government tried to censor Rodriguez, but the songs of protest found their audience among the repressed whites who sensed that apartheid was wrong. The first generation of bands formed to protest racism were inspired by Rodriguez. He was their Elvis.
During the 1970s, three of the most important albums in South Africa were Abbey Road, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Cold Fact. Fans researched Rodriguez and found that he'd killed himself onstage. Some heard he'd set himself on fire. Others heard he shot himself in the head with a revolver. That strengthened the myth and the metaphor. His death gave the songs added power and meaning. Rodriguez sacrificed himself for them.
A South African journalist couldn't solve the puzzle and wrote that Rodriguez was dead. One of the singer's daughters found the article and, 15 years ago, posted on a South African Rodriguez message board. She had news.
Her father was alive, working construction in Detroit, living in the same house, still as invisible and unknown as the people and places his songs were about. She typed something strange:
"Sometimes the fantasy is better left alive."
An old man with long hair and sunglasses inched toward the mic stand, helped and pointed by a publicist. He shuffled. Taxicabs and buses reflected on the mirror of his glasses, so that if you looked into his eyes at the right angle, you saw a psychedelic rendering of the street scene outside. He turned the knob on the body of the guitar down and played the chords without amplification, almost like he was trying to remember. He faced the audience.
This was a new sound, unaffected by the gravity of brand and focus groups, free from the influence of the past 40 years. The effect was to make his songs seem completely divorced from time. They seemed more from the future than from the past. His voice stayed in your head long after you went back into the sun.
Met a false friend
On a lonely, dusty road
Lost my heart.
When I found it
It had turned to dead, black coal.
Silver magic ships, you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.
You're the answer
That makes my questions disappear.
The filmmakers floated around, proud, protective. Their movie followed the rediscovery of Rodriguez. In the film, there's this brief flash of disappointment that the martyrdom myth wasn't true, a sense that something had been both lost and gained in the answering of a disappearing question, but that was soon silenced by the joy of what happened next. The filmmakers tracked his journey to South Africa, in 1998, where he arrived at the airport, wondering who the limousines outside the terminal gate were for. They were for him. This is the climax of the film, the resurrection. Never mentioned were the two previous resurrections in Australia nearly 20 years before; I was surprised to learn on my own that he'd toured Australia in 1979 and 1981. It's odd that nobody told Rodriguez he was huge in South Africa. The name of the tour was Alive, a reference to the myth about his death. He knew the myth. The promoters knew. Was that what they were selling?
Maybe that omission was appropriate. This isn't a story about Rodriguez; it's a story about his music in South Africa, and how the reunion between the musician and fans mirrored the reunion in the nation and even the reunion between the two halves of all those people who bought tickets to hear a voice from their past.
They packed an arena, and when he walked onstage, they cheered so loudly, for so long, that the band stopped playing and let the applause roll up to the stage, 25 years building, these parents who'd used their youth and his songs to change a country. For 10 minutes, the crowd clapped and whistled. Some of them cried. Rodriguez said, "Thanks for keeping me alive."
It's as if he somehow sensed that his destiny had been interrupted but never buried. He's been patiently waiting, the embodiment of Zen, and that's how he's portrayed in the film. Honestly, when I saw it, my first reaction was that this was all some elaborate joke or statement about the nature of art and commerce and celebrity, but the footage is all there: He really exists, and his dual life as the unknowing crusader against apartheid is true.
He seemed so happy.
The film won two big awards at Sundance and is picking up speed. He is being swept away by something larger than him, and just as he couldn't control the tectonic forces pressing down on him in Detroit, he will have no control over what comes next. His life is changing in front of him.
"It's very abrupt, and the thing is, we didn't know he was gonna win these awards and maybe we wouldn't be here," Rodriguez says. "I just want to mention the Voltaire thing, the pen is mightier than the sword. Now I think the camera is even mightier than the pen."
A line of reporters waited to get their allotted sit-down. I'm a sportswriter by day, and this was the first time I'd ever done an entertainment-media cattle call. Something bothered me that I couldn't exactly identify, but sitting with Rodriguez felt like walking into a cool stand of virgin timber carrying a chain saw.
He'd left one world and returned to another. His songs were now attached to him, to his story. His obscurity and early failure make his success so compelling. For the songs to fly, he must sell himself, and this world doesn't like mysteries. The bigger the film, and the more popular his music, the more pressure will mount to answer all the questions. Part of the reason his songs became so huge in South Africa was that mystery, and I wondered if our modern machine would have allowed that mystery to exist. The answer, of course, is no. A new kind of attention must be paid.
The same film that's given his art new life also floats in the zeitgeist like chum. It's beautifully rendered, but there are two holes at the center. Nobody explained why his contract was dropped, or what kept him in obscurity and unable or uninterested in releasing new music. What has he been doing for the past 40 years? Was it bad luck? Something he did? Where did his daughters come from and how did they end up so put together? The music producers who knew him in the 1970s hint between the lines, but that's it. Second, he's portrayed as a Christ-like poet — a symbol of an old purity that's been consumed by modern culture — but he seems, not surprisingly, heartened by the idea that his records might sell and that money might finally flow into his pocket.
"We don't do this for a pat on the ass," he says. "We're going out there to get a little I call it oxygen. Everybody needs a little oxygen."
Both questions call out to be answered — someone will go to Detroit in advance of the Oscars with a notebook and a curious mind; I did a public records search to see if he had a rap sheet he was clean — but that chase might kill the remaining mystery. What is gained and lost when a mystery is solved? The magic of waiting for him to take the stage, and the feeling we got when he started to sing, came from seeing something we couldn't explain. Facts and art don't always mix well. Sometimes the fantasy is better left alive, except that there sat a 69-year-old man in a Soho bar, finally finding success with the songs he wrote about the world that stood between him and his dreams.
There are dormant riffs that he now feels hopeful enough to pick up again. A future seems possible. A tour is in the works. Last week, he played a gig in New York and a crowd of South Africans showed up, including former soldiers who enforced apartheid, even as they knew it was wrong. One came up to him after the show and said, "We made love to your music; we made war to your music." Rodriguez smiled when he said that, and there was this sense that, after four decades of his songs doing things for other people, it was time they did something for him.
"I'm proud of the stuff I wrote," he said.
I kept picturing him in his house, working every day, raising his daughters, coming home from work covered in sheetrock dust, playing his guitar for himself. He walked away from a musical career, and until some South African journalists went looking for a ghost, he'd never seemed to give any indication that the loss bothered him. One of the great casualties of borderline poverty is when a fertile mind is trapped by it. The distance between his soul and his hands must have seemed infinite.
"If nobody had ever heard any of those songs again," I asked, "would you have been satisfied with that?"
"No," he says. "The thing about if a tree falls in the forest I want people to hear it. Art is a living thing."
Remember the film when you're filling out the ballot at your Oscar party.