Rumors of Rodriguez’s death were exaggerated—greatly, as it happens. The Mexican-American singer-songwriter cut just two albums in 1970 and 1971, before veering off radar when his career stalled. (Playing an industry showcase with his back to the crowd probably didn’t help.) The Detroit native popped up again briefly to tour Australia in the late ’70s, but after that—zip. Rodriguez was gone, leaving only his music as proof of his existence.
As you may already have guessed, Cold Fact, Rodriguez’s debut, is the exemplar of a Great Lost Album. Warm, moody and psychedelic, its songs are built around Rodriguez’s raw silk rasp (check signature single “Sugar Man” for a taste); fans of the Black Keys would likely reel at the bluesy guitar solos, groovy basslines and thwacked drums that pepper the disc. All the same, it is a cold record; Rodriguez was born to immigrant parents and grew up in end-of-an-era Detroit, and at times the bleak way he expresses his social frustrations has more in common with gritty hip-hop than with the gripes and quips of, say, protest-singing Bob Dylan. (Instead, imagine Donovan, raised in Compton.)
So it makes a funny kind of sense that the album became huge in South Africa. Copies of Cold Fact found their way to a country in crisis, and turned Rodriguez—or at least the idea of Rodriguez—into a counterculture hero. Stories sprang up concerning the musician’s fate: Some said he died after setting himself alight onstage; others, that he had murdered his girlfriend and ended up in a mental hospital. In 1996, journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom began a search for the cult singer, now chronicled in a documentary movie, Searching for Sugar Man. Suffice to say, Rodriguez was found alive and well in Michigan, somewhat surprised to hear of his popularity on the other side of the world. Having at last toured South Africa, played the Newport Folk Festival and appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, Rodriguez is finally getting another crack at America. Color us very curious to see the man in action.—Sophie Harris
Rodriguez plays Coachella Sunday April 14 and Sunday April 21.