Recognition depends to a great extent on chance, but given enough time, chance produces fairly reliable results. In general, however, a single human lifetime is not long enough. And so there will always be people whose excellence goes unrecognized in their lifetimes. Van Gogh is the most extreme example, the painter who never sold a single work; Thoreau and Melville, today (with Twain) the most famous American writers of the nineteenth century, could not meet even their very modest needs with the proceeds of their work. They could hardly have dreamed of someday surpassing the literary fame that their contemporary Fitzgreene Halleck had, the atrocious hack who was the toast of New York society; thousands turned out for his funeral, including the U.S. president, and even today he is the only American writer to be honored with a statue in Central Park. That said, no one knows any of his works today. The arc of artistic fame is long, but it bends toward justice.
We are accustomed to this phenomenon with respect to time; but the world is large enough that something similar may happen with respect to distance. Such is the story of Sixto Rodriguez, the American singer who is the subject of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, a movie I enthusiastically recommend. The story is precisely the kind of thing Hollywood was made to record.
Rodriguez was a folk singer very much after the style of Bob Dylan – I hear also reminiscences of Donovan in his voice – who impressed some A&R men and got a record deal in the late 1960s. He was given a chance – he worked and recorded with good musicians – but his albums met with no commercial success whatsoever. His label dropped him after the second album, and he went back to his day job as a construction worker in Detroit.
I should revise one of those statements. It is not true that his albums met with no success whatsoever – they just met with no success in the United States. After some space of time, the albums found their way into radio play in South Africa, where they became hugely popular. One rock expert interviewed in the documentary estimated that Rodriguez sold half a million records in South Africa – a huge number, especially in a country like South Africa with such a small middle- and upper-class population.
It’s not hard to hear why, listening to the music. It’s true that the songs are not complex or weird – but they are good, literate 60s folk music. You can easily imagine your parents and hippie friends knowing these songs if Rodriguez had sung at Woodstock. And they play a similar role in the public imagination of South Africa as Dylan or Joni Mitchell does here.
But all of this occurred entirely without Rodriguez’s awareness. The royalty checks went to his label, Sussex Records, which had officially folded; and its head – interviewed in the documentary – seems to have pocketed all the money. There was no particular reason for Rodriguez to be aware that he was massively popular in South Africa. And no one there sought him out, due to a rumor that he had long ago committed suicide – a rumor which in some respects harmonized with his melancholy music. The rumors were wild and strange – that he had committed suicide onstage, to conclude one of his concerts, either by blowing his brains out or setting himself on fire. The rumors of his death were hence greatly exaggerated in two ways. But the rumor also helped explain to South Africans – who in any case had other things on their minds, as apartheid was entering crisis mode and the country had become an insular international pariah state – why Rodriguez wasn’t doing anything else anyplace else in the world.
The end of apartheid, the end of economic sanctions against South Africa, and the internet solved all this. Eventually some South African musicians learned that Rodriguez was alive, living in poverty in a broken-down house, doing “Detroit construction,” i.e. demolition. They brought him to South Africa where he played a series of sold-out shows in small South African arenas, causing a sensation.
Even more impressively, this was in 1998, fourteen years ago. Rodriguez immediately returned to his obscurity. He gave the money he made from the shows to his grown children and returned to his work demolishing buildings. There was a reason why he had never become famous – in part, it was because he never really was searching for it. He had found some kind of serenity in manual labor, and he was not going to give it away. In the interviews in the documentary, Rodriguez himself seems to have nothing in particular to say. One of them asked if he wouldn’t have wanted to enjoy the fame and money he could have had. He responded, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” One of the South African journalists complained about it: “He gave me absolutely nothing.” But then he thinks again: “On the other hand, he took none of the mystery away.”
Some of this seems to have changed now, as the movie appears to be part of an effort to spread some of Rodriguez’s South African fame more evenly around the globe. He is currently on tour in concert with the movie. I suspect he is a bit old for physical labor now, and his children would not mind him paying for his future hospital bills. And he does not seem to have any of the artistic resentment of love that seems to go with the territory: in the footage of his South African concerts he seems to be thoroughly enjoying the adoration he gets from the crowd. Now perhaps that he has done his own thing all the way to its destined end – he has run the race and fought the good fight – he can spare some time for their adoration.
This giving away of the story in no way reduces the power of the documentary. Knowing a good story does not make it any less a good story. I knew the story of the movie beforehand, but was enchanted nonetheless, especially by the South African footage, both the landscape and the adoring fans at the concerts. In fact the story is so good that it overcomes some of the defects of the documentary, which is not always shot beautifully and in fact some of the work is terribly amateurish. There is something immediately appealing about the idea that somewhere, perhaps in some distant place, or sometime in the future, our true worth will be seen and loved. This longing is in all of us, even those who do not believe there can be such a heaven. And perhaps artists feel it most acutely of all. When Rodriguez played his first concert in South Africa and entered to the thunder of a delirious crowd, he began by saying, “Thanks for keeping me alive.” I think we all dream that the love of our fellows will somehow have this power.