Sunday, October 27, 2013

All in God's Time: Sixto Rodriguez comes to Texas

Sixto Rodriguez made a treasury of original songs in the early '70's that were almost swept away, never to be seen or heard from again. But they weren't.

We often say "All in God's time..." another way of saying, “be patient.” Let me tell you a story that illustrates how true this is. Actually two parallel stories.

It is the story of a modest, unassuming soul, but a devoted and passionate singer who lived and breathed music, but never got a decent break in thirty years. It seems everyone recognized his talent and potential, but he was often just used and abused. He endured financial hardship, racial prejudice and vicious pitfalls in the entertainment industry as he played for local venues, and always wanted to break out of his oppressive sphere, but nothing came of anything. He ended up resigning himself to just playing when and where he could, keeping his day job, raising his children, and finding fulfillment in hard work and his family.

Then one day when he was actually nearing senior status, strangers approached him and made everything change almost overnight. He became not only a link to the music of the past, but an inspiration to a whole new generation. Before it was all over, he made albums, did gigs all over the world, and became a famous entertainer... and all in the twilight of his life.
As if justice would not be denied, in the last chapter of his life all that music which seemed to wash downstream and down the gutter like a million fallen leaves to oblivion, suddenly gained critical mass. A lifetime of leaves blocked the drain! Something finally stuck, and he finally got a break. And in a wonderful turn of events, Art won. The system that kept him down was by then a mere question on a history test, yet the music it forged prevailed. To top it off, a wonderful documentary was made to tell his inspiring story. In the end, he was seen not only as a significant artist, but a cultural icon, a bridge between cultures and generations, a philosopher, and a downright decent human being.
This is the story of Navasota’s blues legend Mance Lipscomb.

And this is pretty much the same story for Sixto Rodriguez. But with more twists and turns. You probably had never heard of him and there is a good reason why. If Mance was carefully discreet, Sixto was painfully shy. Where Mance would adapt and please his audience, Sixto would choose to redirect, embrace new forms of expression, keeping him from his primary craft. Mance would work at all kinds of things to survive and then fuel his dream inside of his weekend venues. Sixto became a craftsman who took pride in his daily handiwork. He found contentment in other more practical expressions, as he dared to dream.

There is a powerful, award-winning documentary that provides all the details of how Sixto Rodriguez stayed head down and working his tail off for over thirty years, having given up on his music as a career. And you need to rent and watch the film. But let me whet your appetite. It is a great American story. It is also a great American indictment.

You see Sixto, a tall wiry street kid from Detroit, a first generation American, managed to attract significant interest in his songwriting talent before he threw in the towel back in the Seventies. He recorded a couple of albums, and even went on tour. But sales were flat. And at this time there was a culmination of the social revolution begun in the Sixties, and there was lots of competition, and perhaps sexier, more promising rock star wanna- bes lined up by the dozen to fight for the prize. After a couple of years of disappointments, Sixto went home for good. He was beaten down and ready to face reality.

He did what he could, did what he had to do, and became good at it. He became a home remodeler, someone who designed, repurposed, gave old worn out stuff a new lease on life. He found satisfaction in the healing art of home restoration. He went to college, studied philosophy and dabbled in politics.

Decades passed. The Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties. The Turn of the Century. Then one day one of his daughters found a chat on the Internet discussing “Rodriguez.” A bunch of passionate fans, mostly from South Africa, bantered about this music legend, "now deceased," who had made such a powerful impact on their world. He was as big to them as the Beatles, or the Stones, or Elvis, even bigger. African Journalists wondered had anybody researched his life, or verified the facts of his death. The United States was a long way off, how could they even know who to ask, where to look for relatives? They had believed for decades that their idol, Sixto Rodriguez, had become depressed back in the Seventies and one night had committed suicide on stage. He had purportedly set himself on fire during a performance. The tragedy had only fanned the fire of his mystery… and record sales.

Rodriguez’ daughter entered the chat, and music history began to unfold. While Sixto was living his life of obscurity, his music took on a life of its own. South African youth had discovered his music, and somehow it gained traction. His songs about social revolution and the perceived wrongs and injustices in America were even more apropos in a country that still enforced apartheid. It was largely his music that greatly inspired South African youths, who led protests and ultimately brought down the white supremacist regime. Blacks were once again enfranchised and took back their country. Albeit imperfect, justice had been served, common people were once again in charge of their own human potential. The ideals of democracy and self-determination once again rang bells of hope throughout the world.

And yet Sixto, unaware, went on with the hand he was dealt. All while his records sold in the thousands and tens of thousands. Most musicians in South Africa knew some of his songs by heart, if not lots of them. They were celebrated as anthems of their National re-invention. All while Sixto Rodriguez lived poor, in a small bungalow with few amenities. He chopped wood and burned it in a wood stove. He picked his guitar. He became a good neighbor, a loving father, a local character.

And here is the belated indictment. Somewhere, some person raked in the spoils of his music career that never happened. Record sales, royalties, whatever Sixto had coming, even the knowledge of making such an impact on history, was robbed from him.

Then his daughter told him that a bunch of people in South Africa thought he was dead and that he was the greatest. Some of them refused to believe that she was his daughter or that he could possibly still be alive. Now years later, after several tours in South Africa, he is known to be very much alive and loved all the more… as a living legend. His resurrection was an amazing story in itself… and it too was pretty much ignored by the American Media. It seems that even today, powerful unseen forces have left no stone unturned… in fact have piled them onto Sixto Rodriguez’ premature grave. But like the story of Mance Lipscomb, art won the day.

All the meanness, selfishness and treachery the unseen powers had could not stop his music, its impact or its popularity, in a void where they had no control. And Just as Mance Lipscomb outlived his enemies who practiced every kind of Civil Rights violation, and he lived to see his music shape a lasting legacy, Sixto Rodriguez has finally enjoyed the sweet joy of… acceptance.


The crowd Friday night at his concert at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin was gushing with pure affection as Sixto came out to get a genuine dose of Texas hospitality. Each song, a should- have- been hit, every fan transfixed on this humble man brought out of retirement to take his place in the pantheon of Dylan and Lennon and Jagger. 

And it is a unique presentation; Rodriguez staggers out, escorted by his daughters onto the stage, feeble and delicate. He puts on his little black hat and takes on the countenance of a Crow Indian Chief. You can’t help but expect him to fall face first right off the stage. But then he stiffly starts to strum. And he finds his inner strength and begins to sing. Then the magic begins; Cutting edge lyrics even for today’s standards, delivered by addictive melodies that make your ears beg, sung by an endearing, soft-spoken gentleman, and backed musically by young musicians who ironically can barely appreciate who and what he represents. And there is the unmentioned impact these songs have had for millions. Not to mention the unanswered injustice of the decades of robbery of his music, his name, his just desserts. That kind of outrage would make anyone bitter, but instead Sixto stands as a man full of gratitude.
Sometimes things bloom where they were NOT planted...

“Hate,” he explained, “is too powerful a force to waste on someone you do not even like."

In spite of everything, the embezzlement, the poverty, the years of “failure,” he maintains an amazing sense of humor, a sense of being, perhaps something he has learned in these years since those first recordings. And perhaps that is the way it was supposed to be. Perhaps the Almighty allowed it all, for a purpose. America was not ready for Sixto Rodriguez in the 1970’s. A tender soul, he may have not been ready for America or the grind and inevitable addictions of the entertainment industry. Now they are finally ready for each other. And that gives all of us hope, in whatever dreams we are reaching for. Amazingly, I had never heard of him until a few months ago... and then like a lightning bolt, he actually comes to perform here in Texas! Now that's Providential timing! And Sixto is the patron saint of happy endings and ultimate justice, in spite of the odds.

Let the lovefest commence.

If you cannot get to see Rodriguez in person, do get his CD’s…I strongly recommend his album Cold Fact for starters.

And go rent "Searching for Sugarman" to get the whole story.. and buy extra tissues when you do!

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