Born to working-class Mexican parents and raised in the once-flourishing industrial center of Detroit, Michigan, Sixto (“Sees-toe”) Rodriguez does not fit the mold of most 1960s singer-songwriters. Far from being an observer in some Greenwich Village coffee shop, he actually lived in the streets among the pushers, the peddlers, and all the other shadowy figures that inhabit his songs. His lyrics, which read like some drug-riddled street manifesto, are grittier than the poetic tales spun by Dylan, Donovan, or Croce. Rodriguez was also a big failure. When neither of his two proper albums found an audience in the US, he went back to factory work to essentially “keep the blood circulatin'”.
And this is where his story really begins. Somehow his debut album Cold Fact became a cult success in Australia and, more prominently, in apartheid-era South Africa, where he was revered to the same degree as Jimi Hendrix. So after decades of semi-stardom in the eastern hemisphere, it’s only now that Rodriguez’s debut album is being given a much-deserved second chance in the US via Light in the Attic. With its release, baby boomers will scratch their heads and ask themselves why they had never heard his name before, while their kids might finally be able to connect with the anti-establishment and anti-war themes that defined the hippie generation and seem just as relevant today. There’s still three more months left in the year, but the rediscovery of Rodriguez and his modest debut masterpiece may just be the most pleasant surprise of 2008.
When production partners Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey helped release Cold Fact in 1970, they thought they had a hit record. The two were already heavily involved in Detroit’s soul and Motown scene, working with such artists as Little Willie John and Marvin Gaye. Rodriguez was clearly a different kind of act, but his street-sharp observations and familiar voice appealed to them. Even his idiosyncrasies seemed like an unusual selling point at first. Theodore said, “When you went to see Rodriguez, you never went to a normal place. You went to a hooker bar, to a dive, to a god knows what. He was always in these unusual places where most mainstream people wouldn’t be going.” And so were his songs. “Sugar Man” was one of the first original songs Rodriguez played for Coffey. It’s an ode to a drug dealer with psychedelic swirls, an echo chamber that perpetuates the song’s melodies, and a backward violin loop that escorts it out in a stumbling, druggy haze. All the while, Rodriguez sings adoringly, “Silver magic ships you carry / Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane”.
The turns of phrase used by Rodriguez clearly mirror other artists. “This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues” is the most obvious Bob Dylan emulation, with Rodriguez connecting abstract thoughts slightly off-key. It also shows that he’s a hell of a songwriter with such tickling lyrics as “Gun sales are soaring / Housewives find life boring”. The stunning ballad “Jane S. Piddy” plays on the psychedelic color motif that stretches throughout the album. Rodriguez describes drowning in a “purple sea of doubt” and a “yellow appetite” that leaves one “choking on the truth”. At the end of the song and album, Rodriguez quotes himself from earlier, saying, “Thanks for your time / And you can thank me for mine / And after that’s said / Forget it”. His music yearns to be a voice for his city: for the despair it causes, the simple pleasures it unveils, and for all the damage with which it’s inflicted.
There’s no question that the songs on Cold Fact had a tremendous amount of potential. Rodriguez penned ten of the 12 tracks himself, and songwriter Gary Harvey contributed two songs — “Hate Street Dialogue” and “Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme)” — to flesh out the album. Harvey does a near-seamless job matching the humanistic, abstract approach taken by Rodriguez. But ultimately the album could not compete with the like-minded musical meditations that clogged the airwaves and, despite initially solid local radio play, Rodriguez’s musical venture was short lived. Some argue that his eccentricities inhibited his success. He played with his back to the audience and rarely meshed well with accompanying studio musicians. But if Dylan could rise to such monumental celebrity with Asperger syndrome, Rodriguez’s quirks hardly qualified as career-breaking.
Out of nowhere, while Rodriguez picked up a hammer and put his musical aspirations to rest, Cold Fact swiftly became a sensation in Africa. As the story goes, its success stems from a single lyric. On “I Wonder”, which begins with an entrancing bass motif, Rodriguez asks openly, “I wonder how many times you had sex / And I wonder do you know who’ll be next?” In such an authoritarian, repressive environment, the blunt sort of naughtiness of the question spoke to the South African counterculture. People passed along the record to their friends and military men cherished it as a keepsake. For a certain time, there were more copies of Cold Fact in South African record stores than there were in the US. The irony though is that the South African masses assumed that Rodriguez was just as big in the states as he was in their homeland. And since his output stopped after his second album (Coming From Reality), which was commonly referred to as After The Fact in South Africa, people assumed that he had died. Some speculated that he had burned himself alive on stage while others claimed he shot himself. Eventually an effort was made to hunt down the whereabouts of Rodriguez, who was found alive and well in Detroit. The story is well documented on Rodriguez’s website and reprinted in the reissue’s liner notes. In 1998, Rodriguez triumphantly made his way to South Africa and played a string of concert dates to full-capacity venues, hearing, for the first time, someone sing his song lyrics back to him.
For a record that’s almost 40 years old, Cold Fact sounds astoundingly fresh and relevant, as if it has been preserved in a time capsule all this time. The lyrical content of songs like “Inner City Blues” and “Hate Street Dialogue” is sharp, witty, and biting. Rodriguez has a commanding voice that is at once wise and completely unpretentious. And of course the musical accompaniment, all of which was recorded and added after Rodriguez contributed his parts, enhances the psychedelic mood and vibrations. Rodriguez is currently back on tour, supporting an album that he recorded decades ago. Some rock-n-roll relics might find playing their classic numbers a bore, but Rodriguez is playing his like no one’s ever heard them before. And for better or worse, he’s right.