One of my favorite books as a teen, and a huge influence on me during that time, was a novel called The Armageddon Rag, by the then-little-known George R.R. Martin. The book is about… well, it’s about many things, including loss of innocence, the metaphorical end of the Sixties, the rewards and regrets inherent in revisiting the past, and the enormous power of music. The way it is about those things is that it follows a journalist investigating a murder, one that seems inextricably bound to the music of a fictional Zeppelin-esque defunct band called The Nazgûl, whose lead singer died on the same date as the murder. As the journalist investigates the story, he is startled to discover that the band is getting back together, and somebody who looks and sounds a whole lot like the singer is fronting them…
The documentary Searching For Sugar Man is about many things too, and the way it is about them is that it follows a journalist investigating how a beloved artist died. The artist’s name is Rodriguez. A Detroit singer-songwriter in the Dylan mold, he released a couple of albums in the early 70s — good albums, beloved by producers and critics, but completely ignored by the American audience. He quickly faded into total obscurity. Well, almost total. By some quirk, the albums became wildly popular in South Africa, their protest lyrics credited with awakening an anti-apartheid generation to the possibility and power of questioning authority. One South African describes Rodriguez’s popularity there like so: “If you went into any white, middle-class, liberal home in South Africa and started flipping through the record collection, there are three albums you’d always find: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Rodriguez.”
But while there are reams of information available about The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, South Africans could learn almost nothing about Rodriguez. They couldn’t even find out how he died, though many seemed to agree it was grisly in some way. Did he immolate himself on stage? Blow his brains out right after the encore? Nobody seems to know, so in the 1990s, South African music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Styrdom starts researching an article whose premise is: “How did Rodriguez die?” He followed the money, made a lot of phone calls, and also made use of this nifty new tool called the Internet. With fan Stephen Segerman, he created a website called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt”, casting far and wide for leads on the mystery.
I don’t want to reveal what he found. It’s best learned watching the film. Quoth Roger Ebert: “Let me just say it is miraculous and inspiring.” For me, it was like a mirror image of The Armageddon Rag: where the story of The Nazgûl is dark and apocalyptic, the story of Rodriguez is redemptive and luminous. Even better, the story of Rodriguez is true. I spent pretty much the entire movie thinking it was a hoax, along the lines of Dave Stewart’s Platinum Weird stunt a few years ago. Nope. It’s not a hoax. It is one hundred percent true, and it shone a light on a couple of things that really moved me.
The first of these is about mystery and music. Not to sound like a village elder, but I am old enough to remember a time when you could hear a song, or an album, and love it, but have almost nothing more than the song or the album. If you heard it on the radio, you might not even know the title or the artist! I once taped a lovely Robert Plant song off the radio, and it took me years to find out the title of the song, and that it was solo Plant rather than Zeppelin.
Even if you owned the music rather than hearing it on the radio, you might have an album cover or some liner notes to peruse, but those could be sparse or willfully obtuse, and in any case they were merely snapshots in time. You could subscribe to Creem or Rolling Stone and get up-to-date news, but only for the artists they chose to showcase. You might be able to find some historical info at the library, for well-established artists, but again, that would be up to the caprice of your library’s collection. Even the albums themselves could be elusive — I remember driving all around Aurora, searching fruitlessly for a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut.
This atmosphere gave rise to wild rumors and legends. I suppose the poster child for this would be the Paul is dead phenomenon, but these legends lasted well past the Sixties. I remember someone confidently asserting to me that Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant had a daughter together. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when there is a vacuum of information, human beings will fill that vacuum with speculation, and doubly so for the things we’re passionate about. Thus were many hours spent trading ridiculous stories of our pop idols.
That’s all different now. Don’t get me wrong — the age of rumors wasn’t golden, and I wouldn’t want to go back to it. I absolutely love that we have Google, and Wikipedia, and Shazam, and even horrible ad-splattered lyrics sites. The trade wasn’t something for nothing, though. What we lost was a little bit of that mystique, that sense of the unknowable. Having information at our fingertips about the musical pantheon brings them a lot closer to earth with the rest of us. It’s a mixed blessing.
The other aspect of this film that really spoke to me was about recognition and arrival. The filmmaker speaks to Rodriguez’s daughters, who knew their father as someone who had put his music out into the world, only to see it immediately sink beneath the surface. When they learn that it finally found its home in South Africa, that those songs were deeply loved by an entire nation of people, the revelation is immensely powerful. They see that their father’s spirit, his true self, has been kept alive for all those years. Did the news come too late? Maybe, but I don’t think so. See the movie and judge for yourself.
This part of the movie felt allegorical to me. We each have our core, our essence, and as bravely as we can, we express it to the world. Sometimes the world embraces it, sometimes not so much. But it never goes away. It is there, still waiting to be seen and heard. Sometimes, it gets seen and heard in the most unexpected ways, and when that happens, the resulting illumination is a wonder to behold.