Sixto-Rodriguez-Paris

I am the Sugar Man

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I was doing something else. I’m a writer so all I want to do is write. But I have a regular man’s life. I have children. I have bills to pay. I have to work just like everyone else. I’ve spent years lamenting my ‘situation’. If only I had a benefactor. If only I had a cabin in Vermont. If only I could win the MegaMillions. If only my book had hit the charts. If only the big ship would come in and take me away to the island of happy carefree artists. If only I’d stop and realize that this thinking is wrong.

I am late in praising the power and significance of Searching for Sugar Man. But something tells me not to let this opportunity pass. There are too many people I know personally who can use the medicine this film prescribes. I’m the one who needs it the most.

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The story here is about a singer/songwriter who, in 1970, releases an album as powerful, evocative and true as anything being done at the time. His name is Rodriguez. He sounds like a mash-up of James Taylor and Cat Stevens and writes songs that you cannot help but compare to Dylan and Springsteen. When you listen to this guy something happens inside your body. He holds the trip-wire to the human heart. It’s stunning. How is it that I, a music lover, have never heard of him before?

Rodriguez’s first album sputters. He records another. It, too, practically suffocates. The music is beautiful, meaningful, necessary. But the response is crickets. He goes nowhere in the United States or in England. He stops recording music and essentially disappears. It’s tragic. It’s heart breaking. It’s a story that seems to nullify that comforting adage – your art will find its audience. Rodriguez is forgotten. Except he’s not. Something amazing happens. A young American woman brings his debut album to Cape Town South Africa.

*

In 2008 I was fortunate enough have a novel picked up and released by a large publishing house. Serpent Box took me seven years to write it. I went through a personal hell to write it. For the last five years I’ve asked myself why. Why did I do this? What was I hoping for? What was I expecting?

The book, I have claimed many times, was something I had to write. It was like a set of antlers that pushed through my skull. The people who read it liked it. I had the chance to do a limited tour. I was interviewed on the radio. I did readings to crowds as large as a hundred and as small as one. I got to read for my favorite elementary school teacher in my hometown library. For a time the book was optioned by a film producer.

But nothing significant happened. Sales were disappointing. Oprah never found me. The film rights fizzled. All antlers eventually fall to the ground. And so it goes. You move on. You live your life and go back to your writing because it’s the thing that makes you feel the most vital, the most alive. You do it because it’s the only thing you know how to do well. Still you wonder. Why?

I whine, I complain, I mope. I make excuses for why I don’t work on my new novel. I blame the publishing business, I blame consumers, I blame myself. Just when I think I understand what writing is and why I do it, I somehow forget.

What is writing?

It’s my concrete interpretation of life. It’s how I process this thing, this existence of mine, of yours, of ours. Feelings happen. Emotions swell. Images build. I have questions. I see ghosts. What is going on? What is all this? A dream? A dream inside a dream? There’s no need to dwell on those questions. Tell stories instead. Write. The very process of holding a pen, of moving its tip across the surface of paper while simultaneously seeing an image in my mind’s eye, draws the anxiety out like poison and turns it into sweet music that not only heals, it illuminates, it reinforces the bridge to the divine.

I am Lotto-lucky just to have this be a part of my life.

*

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South Africa in 1970 is hell on earth. Apartheid makes Jim Crow look like a sissy. People of color are treated worse than animals. The whites are freer, but theirs is a closed, oppressive society – a police state. Nothing comes in. Nothing comes out. But somehow Rodriguez slips by. His first album, Cold Fact, becomes an underground smash hit. People record it and pass bootlegs around like Deadheads. Rodriguez’ music fuels the oppressed minds of the white middle class, it foments dissent and rebellion. His music becomes the anthem of a movement.

 8000 miles away in Detroit. Rodriguez earns his living doing manual labor. He lives in near poverty. He does the bone-breaking labor of house demolition, masonry. He works 10, 12 hours a day and comes home covered in dust. He does not complain. He does not whine. He does not wish things would’ve been different. He doesn’t record anymore but he still writes songs and plays his guitar. Why? Because it’s who he is. Being a star never interested him. Selling records never interested him. He wanders the streets of Detroit like a ghost, seeing, listening, writing.

*

I am not Rodriguez. I am not a cult figure anywhere and my writing is not changing the world. But maybe it changed a heart for a while. Maybe it gave another human being pause. We can never know what our art will do, where it will land, what it might sprout. Van Gogh sold one painting during his short and troubled life. Rimbaud died without his brilliance being recognized.

I won’t ruin Searching for Sugar Man for you. Perhaps I’ve already spoiled it. If you haven’t guessed, it’s a redemption story. But we can’t all hope to be redeemed. Yet, it doesn’t matter. If you are lucky enough to have found that thing your heart loves, seize it and don’t let go. Do it, even if the world tells you that you’re crazy, even if you yourself believe it.

Searching for Sugar Man is a story about a story. Stories do change lives. Sometimes a story comes along at precisely the right time to shine a beam of light on something you’ve missed. I am going to hang a picture of Rodriguez’s scarred face on my wall. I’m going to talk to it. I’m going to remember that here’s a man who did what he did and didn’t complain. A true artist is true to herself. A true artist is true. A true artist aspires to a deeper understanding of humility.

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112 thoughts on “I am the Sugar Man

  1. It’s a great story, and you’ve interpreted it really well.
    But having seen the movie, I know that you should definitely put a spoiler alert at the top for those who haven’t. The movie wouldn’t have been the same, would have lost its power somewhat, if I had known what you give away in the post. Just saying! (Listened to Cold Fact just yesterday, while I painted :))

  2. Pingback: Why We Write | vikkilynnsmith

  3. I seen this film ages ago and wondered if it was a ploy to launch a new artist but no, it was a genuine documentary film and I loved it.
    Was just thinking about knocking learning the guitar on the head but your post has made me actually think about the reason I started learning the instrument in the first place.
    Nice Post.

  4. The music was just terrific, very much of my time, but it was that incredible isolation of South Africa that astounded me. At the time I believed that the world wasn’t doing enough to pressurize the regime and had no idea how effectively they were shunned. A first class documentary in such a laid back delivery.

  5. About three weeks ago one of my good friends and long time musical supporter sent me this movie. He said that I had to watch it! That it reminded him of me. This same friend has tirelessly tried to promote my music and paid not only in cash but countless hours to have me recorded and booked for gigs. He bought me this laptop right before he sent me the movie, which I had put off in an attempt to pursue my dreams of being a professional online survey taker and research maker. ( I lost everything in Vegas again, guitar, amp, my mac book)
    He keeps asking if I’ve watched the movie yet, and disappoint when I say no. We connected thru music and our common failing both big and small, but always the optimist, he’s convinced there is something more. This leads me to you, and remembering that wordpress was something I had intended to do and visit more regularly. I came across your blog and immediately your words transcended my thoughts into action. You can only question coincidence for so long with out active participation. I watched the movie which is what was required of me to see beyond the mundane masterpiece I had been working on. I would find it hard for anyone to not relate, or be moved by the endearing qualities of the characters, stoic, charismatic, benevolent, tragic and beautiful. It lead me back to your blog, which spoke louder and more specific to me. I wanted to become an active part of this community bound by word and thought (this could be the wrong format to post, but hopefully I’ll slide on my newness and excitability). My mode of writing has always been with the craft of song or some bastardized verse posing as poem, which more often than not would just echo in the run down mansion of my mind. So a thank you is in order, To share this subconscious epiphany with a stranger. That this daisy chain we belong, the thread that ties, the bound that binds, to find the links of time is twine, the gift that gives our soul a voice thru someone else’s art, the house of love is built with strength of heart, our shared human experience, a documented abundance of madness and sorrows, that no mater how thick or thin, the world is a tangled ball on a string. To not reach out and say hello would be not only impolite, but a betrayal of self.

      • Sorry about the long delay in getting back to you, thank you for the reply, i’ve been locked out of my account and i’m so ADD that i’ve started about a hundred online projects in the last couple of months, right now i’m trying to figure out how to post my blog and get out there in the word. Great article by the way,excellent writing my new friend

  6. FYI, Rodriguez was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal column about Lou Reed this morning. It drew a parallel between Reed and the “Velvet Revolution” and Rodriguez and South Africa. Until I read Sugar Man I had never heard of Rodriguez.

  7. Thank you. What you wrote touched me, just as Searching for Sugarman did. Someone once said (I forget who) that “everyone has a novel in them, and in most cases that’s the best place for it!” Well they were wrong – we are our stories, and our stories are us. Thank you for reminding me of this.

  8. My mother always said that sometimes it is nice to save some things to accomplish later in life or else what is there to look forward to. Sixto is getting his much deserved 4th quarter victory touchdown… Pretty amazing songwriter….cool piece…

  9. “The very process of holding a pen……………” Yes, a ‘process,’ indeed. Sometimes I take my glasses off (or can’t find them) so I can’t really see the letters I’m writing. They become shapes, floating in their negative space. Writing, for me, is often disembodied. Later I ask, “Did I really write this?” Happy I’ve found your fine prose/poetry. You’ve helped me understand something. By the way, have you seen the movie ‘Muscle Shoals’? Image/music/story.

      • Dang, had to “Wikipedia” skynyard, and, of course, this triggered all those dormant synapses. The movie, M.S., gave me hope. Perhaps we can bridge the white/black gap again. Worth the incredible music, don’t you think?

      • A very interesting question. I think Barack’s doing it right now. But will it last? Dunno. I’m struck by the white/white gap. The movie ‘Muscle Shoals’ suggests it is possible, that music is color blind. A buddy in Europe relayed this ‘joke’ to me: Beethoven was so ‘blind’ he thought he was painting. Profound when you think about it.

      • We are far too reliant on vision, on seeing. We are far too caught up in form. When we learn to ‘see’ with our hearts these problems that are based on vision will vanish. The white/black thing is just a variation of an age-old curse, the curse of eyes. We think that because we see it, it’s real. We think that what we see is all there is. It turns out that sight is our weakest and most unreliable sense. Color, skin, shape, size, volume, beauty, ugliness, different, same, you, me – these are all descriptions based on reflections. Light reflecting off something. Mirrors. It’s all mirrors. We are so addicted to surfaces and form. Perhaps the great equalizer would be a plague of blindness. Imagine that? The whole world is suddenly blind. How could we hate then? Of course we’d find a way. There’d be olfactory racism. Is music color blind? To some degree, yes, in that it speaks the heart language we’ve all either forgotten or never bothered to learn. But when you look at American music so much of it is rooted in Black cultural. The Afro-American influence on our music is so deep that we are essentially listening to the rhythms of old Africa without us really knowing it. The Blues – which is the foundation of rock-and-roll. Jazz. Music is a language older than words. Sound is a language that transcends time and space. It’s all about sound. We should be seeing with our ears. With our hands. We miss so much because we are such slaves to our eyes.

    • Amen to all of that brother–and to Freudian slips, twisted logic, and ‘…the why-ing and the cry-ing, and the shooting and the dy-ing, and the fellow with the switch blade knife, let’s think about living, let’s think about life.’ Peace out.

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