“I didn’t know that we would be in touch with the Kremlin.”
Five years may have passed since Searching for Sugar Man re-introduced the world to Sixto Rodriguez, and yet the musician has been anything but quiet since. With his 75th birthday approaching, Rodriguez has been making up for lost time, touring the world and finally receiving the audience he deserves for his pair of early ‘70s records: Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971).
During their time, neither album sold well, leading Rodriguez’s label, Sussex, to drop him. After toiling in obscurity for a few years, he quit music altogether in 1976, doing manual labor and working on production lines in his native Detroit. Little to Rodriguez’s knowledge, his records had a fanatic following in South Africa. Rumors swirled about the mysterious musician. Fans thought he had passed away. In the late ‘90s, his daughter found a South African website devoted to Rodriguez, and soon enough, he was playing to large crowds there. It wasn’t until Sony Pictures Classics snapped up Searching for Sugar Man, and its subsequent Oscar for Best Documentary, that American audiences caught up with Rodriguez and his music.
I spoke with Rodriguez during a West Coast tour where he plays historic theaters such as the Warfield in San Francisco and the Moore in Seattle. Here, in Portland, he plays the 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, a far larger room than some of the venues he has played in town since the documentary debuted.
“I take my message to the people,” he told me as he traveled up the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California. “It’s ‘power to the people and peace to world.’ Music is one way people get together.”
Even though Rodriguez is playing bigger rooms to larger crowds here in the United States, he jokes that he isn’t even close to superstar status.
“I was in Australia and we did 40 days and 40 nights over there,” he said. “I played to 42,000 people [in total]. The Stones do that in one night. You know what I mean?”
While it would have been easy to talk about his music and the documentary, both Rodriguez and I had something bigger on our minds. In the week leading up to the interview, Donald Trump and his potential ties to Russia dominated the news cycle.
“I describe myself as a musical-political,” Rodriguez said, explaining that many of his songs carry a political angle. “I thought this administration would turn things around, but all they’ve done is disorganize everything. I didn’t know that we would be in touch with the Kremlin.”
Even if Rodriguez initially possessed some guarded optimism about the Trump administration, that doesn’t mean he endorses the man.
“I like Bernie Sanders, and Nancy Pelosi is music to my ears,” he said. “[Trump] wanted to be president and now he doesn’t want to live in the White House. He’s got duties.”
When I ask him if Trump will still be in office in four years, Rodriguez seemed unsure.
“They’re talking about impeachment and treason,” he said “I think those words have weight. It’s not his government. It’s the people’s government. He’s supposed to manage it and he’s not doing a good job.”
When Cold Fact was recorded in the late ‘60s, the Vietnam War was in full-swing. Rodriguez said that the same type of energy that helped end that conflagration can also wring out the truth about the Trump administration.
“People came out to end the Vietnam War,” he said. “The bombings in Vietnam. Those graphic My Lai photos. And all those soldiers who died in that encounter.”
In the meantime, he will continue touring and enjoying the success that eluded him for so many years.
“I didn’t want a higher education, I wanted a fuller education,” he said about why he tours, even as he enters his mid-70s. “I want to know everything. I want to know everybody’s story.”
During recent performances, Rodriguez mixes in covers of the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Little Richard and Frank Sinatra with his own songs.
“I have a senior advantage,” he said. “I’m 74. It’s not a disadvantage to be serious at times. I’m not into fiction. I’m a musician. I play those covers to show that I can play and to show that I’m part of the scene.”
When he’s not on tour, Rodriguez still resides in the house he bought four decades ago in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood.
“I put value into the place,” he said. “It’s a good place. It’s a few blocks from the (Wayne State) University. I picked it up for $100 with a friend. You should see it now. It looks pretty good! I’m aiming for Better Homes and Gardens.”
Since he finally tapped into success overseas and with the help of Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez has been able to spend time away from Detroit and learn more about how the world operates.
“I’ve been around the world,” he told me. “I’ve been to Africa six times and Australia six times. My synopsis of the world is that there is enough for everyone, and too much for anyone.”
As he works his way up the coast, we await his performance in Portland.
“It’s freedom,” he said about the town, adding he was looking forward to playing here. “You can sense it.”