The 66th British Academy Film Awards ceremony on February 10, 2013 announced Searching for Sugar Man as the Best Documentary of the Year. It is a touching and highly-emotional documentary directed by Malik Bendjelloul about the search for the man famed for his song Sugar Man. Sixto Rodriguez, now 70, is the personification of a kind, hard-working, politically aware, brilliant song writer. He only produced two albums (Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971)) but his personality conquered the hearts of South Africans during the socially and politically difficult apartheid years, Cold Fact in particular. The album became a political and social testimony of the people; it vocalised their struggles and burdens in a way no other album of the time did.
Yet, despite the fame he achieved in South Africa, for years he had no idea about his musical and socially engaging contribution to the lives of these people and his albums didn’t sell in his native USA either. However, the South Africans had grown increasingly curious about this eclectic man by the name of Sixto Rodriguez. Several rumours that he had died spread across the country but in the late 1990s two Cape Town Rodriguez fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, set out to find him. For over 20 years Rodriguez worked in hard jobs and played in small, dingy music venues. Now, accompanied by the success of the BAFTA winning documentary, Rodriguez is at the height of his musical career. On the evening of 7 June I watched him perform his enduring songs of hope and despair at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo.
Rodriguez slowly walks onto the stage supported by, I assume, some members of the crew. 70 is not an easy age for a man who has had to work in tough jobs all his life to make ends meet, whilst harbouring jaw-dropping talent. The Apollo is sold out. The crowd cheers, whistles; applause never ends. As humble as he is, he is a man who still has the confidence to wear leather trousers and cover his eyes with sun glasses and the brim of his black hat. He performs all the songs from his first album Cold Fact with interspersed shortened jazz and blues covers. From the whispers around me, some of us realise that he is unwell. He tries very hard to hold onto the notes, his voice fades in the high notes of his songs; his concentration wavers. This man has lived every word of his songs however. This is a man who acknowledges his age and is not ashamed or worried. This is a man worthy the respect and love of his fans. This is a man living for and alongside music. A man from the audience shouts, “Rodriguez, I love you!” “I know it’s the drinks talking, but I love you too.” When he sings I Wonder, Sugar Man, Rich Folks Hoax, I’ll Slip Away, and Cause scream-like whistles hang in the air, clapping continues, and on stage Rodriguez is singing and playing like there is no tomorrow. The crowd shudders upon realising that they have finally seen the mystery man performing with their own two eyes. Though it may have been beneficial if he had also played some songs from his second album Coming from Reality. There are some great tracks on this album that are maybe still to be discovered by those who have only recently watched the documentary.
Towards the end of the 80 minute concert, it is quite clear that Rodriguez is really not feeling well. The fans who know this is a once in a life time opportunity call him back to the stage with their screeching, whistling and incessant clapping. Even though he is tired, he returns and he selflessly gives the audience more. Establishment Blues emanates across the enthusiastic crowd. The lyrics of the song are still valid as ever, even 30 years on. With the last of his energy, Rodriguez plays Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and completes the evening with Lucile by The Hollies. He leaves the stage and, with two people supporting him, appears to fall to his knees in the shadow. He gets to his feet and vanishes into the darkness. Rodriguez is due to perform at Glastonbury at the end of the month and there is no doubt that all are wishing him a fast recovery to be ready for the festival crowds.