For the second time, I went to see the documentary Searching for Sugarman, which has been playing on our screens now, for quite some time. It is the extraordinary story, in case you don’t know, of a 1970s Dylan-esque singer, called Sixto Rodriguez, who produced two albums in the United States. They got absolutely nowhere. However, so the story goes, someone brought over a bootlegged copy of the album “Cold Fact” to South Africa, where it spread like wildfire, alas unbeknown to the singer.
Years past and the story went that he had killed himself on stage, either by dousing himself with petrol, or by shooting himself in the head. It was not until two of his fans started trying to find out what the real story of his end was, that they discovered, to their delight, that he was still alive but cruelly unaware of the fact that he had a huge fan base in South Africa, and even more cruelly deprived of the fairly substantial earnings which were made, from the sales of his recordings.
The first viewing of the documentary, for me, was a really emotional experience. I put it down to the fact that it was a good documentary. I suggested to myself that it was a good news story and that I was responding to that. But these, in themselves, we not adequate explanations for the almost OCD effect Rodriguez’s music was, once again, having on my brain. (I found myself playing the CD compulsively over and over again). They did not explain the extreme reactions I would get from friends of a similar ilk, who had also been to see the movie. Clearly, something very peculiar was going on here, and I wanted to go back to try to work out what might have caused that effect.
A friend told me on the night that she had first seen the movie, how packed the cinema had been; how strangely mixed, in terms of gender and age and class (not race) the audience had been; and how strangely the audience had behaved. She said that the audience had clapped at the end of the documentary. She said that long after the credits had rolled, how people seemed to want to stay there and continue in the glow of the thing. How people would look to each other and perfect strangers, to confirm that theirs was a shared experience – and that it was wonderful.
Before going to see the documentary again, I had looked up several interviews Rodriguez had given on YouTube. I was struck by what seemed to me to be an almost autistic personality in them – someone who seemed to be so astonishingly matter-of-fact, as to almost be strange. A personality so unlike the singular, immediately recognisable lyrics - indeed, of the subtle but powerful passion of the music itself. So I wanted to look at the thing again. What was it that this documentary had done to me? And how had it done it?
This time around, I was most struck by his daughters. They were three of the most straightforward and ordinary of people – incredulous about their father’s fame in a faraway country. But at the same time, deeply admiring of him. Deeply in awe of the fact that the stage was, after all, his natural home. Deeply aware and appreciative of the fact that it was not via the stage that they had been brought up, but rather by the demolition yard and the kind of grinding and serious lifelong slog which that had entailed. “Just because you are very poor,” said one of them, “doesn’t mean you don’t have big dreams for yourself”.
But I still pondered, as I looked at the 20 000 strong, entirely white audience that had welcomed Rodriguez to South Africa in 1998, what was it that draws us to him in the way we are drawn? What is it about me that needed him so badly then? What was it about him and his music which entranced and inspired an entire generation of white South Africans, during the darkest and bleakest period of this country’s history and embossed itself on our being?
I started to understand something of it all while listening to a member of the one of South Africa’s alternative music groups, who explained that for the very first time, as a young white Afrikaner musician, he had heard music which challenged the system. It was the first time he had considered the possibility that music could challenge the system. In Rodriguez’ music all of us heard (curiously – because it was virtually nowhere else for white South Africans) that distant possibility of challenge, of provocation, of dismissal and the rejection of a system we were completely enmeshed and caught up in. After all, we had no culture of freedom songs. No icons of resistance. We had no voice of the other. We had no reading of our history from the underside. If we were lucky, we had a prophetic voice in some church leaders. But we had virtually nothing else. And yes, we had Rodriguez.
And when I watched again, the opening minutes of his first concert – with the crowd just screaming and waving and screaming and crying, I think I understood. This was a Mandela moment. This was the moment when the hero who, for all intents and purposes was dead and gone, suddenly comes back to life. “Thank you” says Rodriguez, “for keeping me alive”.
Far from it. It is we, Sixto (or Jesus, or whatever you name is) - Mr Rodriguez, who need to say “thanks for your time” – and much more than your time. And “after that’s said”, it is quite clear that we can’t “forget it”. No matter how humble you undoubtedly are.