Before I left to go to the Detroit area for the Labor Day weekend, I read a review [tepid] of a new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit. Well, the city has one hell of a FREE jazz festival over the holiday weekend, and I heard some excellent music there. The whole thing is presided over by the weird Minoru Yamasaki building (he designed the original WTC in NYC) seen in the background of the photo on the left, below. This band, Papo Vazquez and his Pirates Troubadours was wild, with their Afro-Puerto Rican Modern Jazz blend.
The cultural high point of my stay was seeing the movie, Searching for Sugar Man.
Sixto Rodriguez was a folk-rock singer and songwriter in the late 1960s: he put out two albums, but they were flops. The people who knew him are in awe of his talent, and mystified as to why he never caught on. But he did catch on in South Africa during its anti-apartheid period, and his records were wildly popular. He never knew anything about it, and after his brush with the music industry, went back to ordinary life.
Rumor had it that he had died in spectacular fashion, an on-stage suicide. Two South African fans decide to get the real story, and they find to their amazement, that he is alive and well, living in Detroit. (Right near where I was that weekend, in fact.) He is incredulous at their tales of his South African super-stardom, “You’re bigger than Elvis there!” but he agrees to go on tour. He sells out stadiums.
This movie is weirdly enchanting in many ways: The tale of a man returning from the dead; the fan-turned-detective’s thrill; a fairytale of a man ignored finally getting recognition for his work; perhaps another sorry tale of the music industry stealing from an artist, but that’s not completely clear; and the man himself. This last bit is what fascinated me the most.
Rodriguez is an very unusual man: that come through clearly. He is deeply non-materialistic. When his fame falls upon him, he is totally uninterested in the perks, the limos, the hotel suites, the papparazzi. He is unfazed by the cheering throngs, serenely responding with joy to their love of his music. That’s what he’s about – his art, his poetry, his music. He seems like a Buddha-type. When the detective-fans finally meet him (they are in a daze of disbelief that this is happening) he is living in a completely rundown apartment in Detroit, making his living, as he has for years, working as an hourly interior demolition worker. (He also earned a degree in Philosophy, and raised three daughters.) It reminded me of Alexander the Great finally meeting his hero, Diogenes, whom he found living in a tub.
His music is really good, though I prefer it more or less acoustic-solo, rather than with the string arrangements. Why didn’t he make it? He’s clearly not the type who would stress and strive to do the things one must do to make it in the business – that has to be part of the story. He’s touring now, though.