Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Today’s featured selection, chosen by Midday Show host Cheryl Waters, is
Sugar Man by Rodriguez from the 2008 album Cold Fact on Light In the Attic.
With the current ’60s resurgence going on, one would hardly suspect that this track was actually recorded in ’69. Cold Fact, along with its follow up, was largely left in the cold until it was rediscovered with large fanfare in places such as South Africa and New Zealand. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez himself actually moved on to other things before the cult followings abroad brought him back into the fray. In listening to this one track, it’s easy to hear the simplicity of Nick Drake, the vocal similarity to Jethro Tul,l and the lyrical kinship to early Bob Dylan, but Rodriguez is his own man. Since the recent rerelease, Rodriguez has been extremely busy, among other things performing his first show and interview in New York. Cold Fact represented the debut album from the then young talent and now serves as a long neglected relic of psychedelic-folk and pop music. Perhaps fortunately for Rodriguez, he was able to live through the void of the attention Cold Fact deserved, but that truth couldn’t hold out forever — this music is too timeless, too important for its creator, and for us, to be forgotten. If this is the first you’ve heard of this incredible artist, enjoy. If Rodriguez’ music is a part of your past, welcome back.
If fact, Larry Rose, on his Sunday show, Larry’s Lounge (3-6PM), received a letter from local photographer Maxwell Balmain, who, when he heard this song, wrote in:
I grew up in South Africa. My older brother, who was into all things cool, was basically kicked out of the family house in the early 1970’s. I was ten years younger. My brother then shacked up in a small apartment in Cape Town with his then cool girlfriend (now still married.) He invited me to come over and stay, to get away from our parents, and hang out whenever I wanted.
This I did. I have incredible memories of staying in that apartment and listening to their record albums while they were at work. I was just a kid then. Here I discovered music and played the twenty or so records they owned over and over. Records cost a fortune in South Africa. I remember listening to the Beatles, early Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen, Santana, Bob Dylan and a strange looking album by a guy I had never hear of: Cold Fact by Rodriguez. I listened to this album all the time.
My family then left South Africa in the late 70’s to escape apartheid, but I was a music junky by then. Over the years I always wondered about Rodriguez. Before leaving South Africa I bought After the Fact by Rodriguez, but it was not as good as Cold Fact. Once in the US, I looked for Rodriguez albums, but no one seemed to have heard of him. I remember trying to find out about him on the internet later on with no luck. I never heard his stuff or found his music anywhere.
After further correspondence with Maxwell, he elaborated more on the South Africa of his youth:
Apartheid, paranoia, and government repression gripped the country. Anything critical of the government was banned. So was anything titillating or racy. In those days Playboy was banned as “obscene.” The official censors kept everything clean and “white”. This huge department would read and listen to just about everything before deeming it fit for the country.
Where am I going with this? Well, one the the cool songs on Cold Fact is “I Wonder”, a song that got passed the government censors somehow. Young white kids noticed that one of the lines in the song went “I wonder how many times you have had sex. I wonder who will be next…” Early adopters told their friends and the word spread. It became very cool to own this record by this hip looking Mexican guy.
Sounds crazy, I know, but this was the reality in 1970’s South Africa. White kids had to do two years of hard military service. Media was exploding all over the world and everyone knew big change was coming to South Africa. Record albums cost a fortune but music kept this generation together and was a low key way of thumbing their noses at authority.
So while Rodriguez was swinging a hammer in the US, he became a huge star in South Africa. I think the recordings were reissued down there and Rodriguez did not receive any royalties for years. Years went by and he found out how popular he was in the Southern hemisphere. He did several tours in South Africa. He is still a big name there and his daughter married a South African guy and they live in Cape Town.
How ever it happened this guy’s music is very cool and easy to listen to. It doesn’t sound like it was recorded 40 years ago. It sounds relevant and fresh. It will be interesting to see how well this re-release gets noticed.
A few musicians have caught on to Rodriguez’ work over the past several years, like Scottish singer Paolo Nutini, who was fortunate enough to actually share the stage with Rodriguez. Here, Nutini covers “Sugar Man” at Atlanta’s Criminal Records: