Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cold Fact

Here is the cold fact about Rodriguez's Cold Fact album: it is, unquestionably, one of the greatest albums of an era that was the greatest in the history of music.

It is, on every level, simply astonishing. Its incredible range, the absolutely stunning lyrics, the brilliant production, the overwhelming personality of Rodriguez--in every way, it's a masterpiece. And Crucify Your Mind (which you can listen to if you hit the link), to me, is one of the single greatest songs of all-time.

I've already written at length about Rodriguez and the documentary Searching For Sugar Man (which will probably win the Academy Award for best documentary), so I won't retrace that ground here. What this post is about is Rodriguez in concert. He's 70 now, and it never even crossed my mind that he would tour in North America, but incredibly, he has been touring, and he was in Austin Sunday night.

"Searching For Sugar Man" overwhelmed me so completely that I very nearly broke down both times I saw it. Actually, I did break down. I wasn't sobbing, at least externally, but something inside me just completely melted down.

So the prospect of seeing Rodriguez in person was just as overwhelming. I told Gloria before he came on, "If I start sobbing uncontrollably, just abandon me and save yourself the humiliation," which she thought was very amusing.

Then he came out, holding onto someone's arm for support, looking exactly like he did on the cover of "Cold Fact", which was released forty-two years ago.

His voice was not as strong, but it was still his voice.

There was no band, just Rodriguez and his guitar, onstage for ninety minutes. And it will absolutely go down as one of the favorite nights of my life.

This picture is not well-taken, but its subject rises above the quality of the camera:

Here's one more:

And here's a short video from "Crucify Your Mind":

Now, here's a very special bonus. Reader Dave Couto was kind enough to contribute an essay about growing up in South Africa and the influence of Rodriguez. From here on out, you're reading Dave's words, and I want to think him for contributing something truly special.

Remembering the Sugar Man
Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact came out in 1970, ten years before I was born, so his music was always a part of my life. My parents had somewhat underground music tastes, exposing me to Deep Purple, Emerson Lake and Palmer and, naturally, Rodriguez.

1970s and 80s South Africa was a dark place for most people. Apartheid was in full swing and the Black majority were nothing more than helots on their own land. It was easier for the White minority, but it wasn’t all light and joy.

The government was an arm of the strictly Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. Television was kept out until 1976 and the Board of Censors controlled every scrap of media that we were exposed to. The Beatles were banned for John Lennon’s Jesus comment, Jesus Christ Superstar was banned and anything that spoke of political freedom, drugs or sex was cut off at the border.

Yet somehow a few cassettes from a little know American folk singer named Rodriguez made it in, probably stashed in someone’s overseas bought porn. Oh yeah, that was banned too, of course.

For a repressed and curious youth, this bootleg cassette tape called Cold Fact was a sensation.

For kids being told that there was no sex before marriage “I Wonder” coming right out and asking ‘I wonder how many times you’ve had sex, and I wonder do you care who’ll be next?’ was deliciously decadent and thrilling.

For those who were lectured about the evils of drugs and reefer madness “Sugar man,” nearly a love song to a drug dealer, with its very open discussion of ‘Silver magic ships’ carrying ‘Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane’ was equally titillating, and the imagery  was just enough to hide the meaning away from the authority figures; government, parents and church alike.

Those two songs in particular were a fresh liberating breeze for a youth that hadn’t been exposed to the concepts of freedom and choice. Many of his other songs were more subtle, and just as challenging to the strictly controlled mindset of those who heard them.

By the 90s, when I was a teenager, our society was more free. The 80s had seen an explosion of protest music, from musicians like Johannes Kerkorrel, Koos Kombuis and James Phillips, some of it inspired by Cold Fact. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and the ANC was unbanned.

The path was laid for the end of Apartheid, yet Cold Fact was still with us. The macabre tales of Rodriguez’s death appealed to our angsty teen selves and when my friends and I learned to play guitar “Sugar Man,” “I Wonder” and “Rich Folks Hoax” were part of our standard repertoire, the appealing anti-establishment lyrics and simple folk shuffle strumming made them easy and satisfying to learn.

I won’t go into too much detail about the discovery that Rodriquez was still alive. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure Searching for Sugar Man tells the story better than I could.

I will say though that the news of his being alive, and appearing on stage with local band Just Jinger, caused a shiver of joy through those of us who grew up listening to his music. I’m happy that this lyrical poet with his words of rebellion and freedom is being heard by more people in a global age where these messages are needed, and hope that his new success continues.

Site Meter