Not so cold facts about the Sugar man
'Cos I'm tired of these scenes
For a blue coin won't you bring back
All those colors to my dreams.
Sugar man met a false friend
On a lonely dusty road
Lost my heart when I found it
It had turned to dead black coal.
Silver magic ships you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.
Sugar man you're the answer
That makes my questions disappear
Sugar man 'cos I'm weary
Of those double games l hear.
|Listen to 'Sugar man'|
S, a good friend of mine, had been looking for 'Cold Fact' by Rodriguez for years (why he didn’t try and buy it when on his frequent trips to South Africa, I don’t know) when he heard 'Sugar man' blaring out in HMV in Dublin where he now lives. It was the same 'Sugar man' but sung by someone else. He rushed over to one of the assistants and asked if they had the original. The assistant pointed him in the direction of another assistant, saying that he’d know.
‘Who’s this singing Sugar man? Do you have Cold Fact by Rodriguez?’
‘That’s Just Jinger, a South African band, it’s their cover version of the original. No, we don’t have any Rodriguez.’
S recognised the South African accent. ‘So you know who I’m talking about?’
‘Of course, I do,’ he said, smiling. ‘Which South African wouldn’t?’ He obviously recognised S’s accent.
Cold Fact came out in South Africa in 1971. The assistant was in his early twenties but he knew about Rodriguez. Just Jinger, now internationally successful, were the most successful South African rock band of the nineties. They cite Rodriguez as one of their major influences.
Despite having been released there in the early seventies ‘Cold Fact’ became a legendary album in South Africa. The music, its lyrics and the abrupt disappearance of Rodriquez ensured that he became a permanent fixture in South African musical folklore. In his profile on Rodriguez, Nils van der Linden has this to say:
By 1971 "Cold Fact" reached South Africa, where Rodriguez's frank songs about drugs, social unrest, political apathy and general disillusionment were embraced by teenagers and national servicemen. "In the deadly South African '70s, his songs of harsh political complaint, of the power of sex and the lure of drugs, awoke something in untold thousands of young (white) breasts. He stoked rebellion and _ who knows _ helped children of suburbia wake up to the need for change in their own country," was how writer Guy Willoughby accounted for the impact of the album that has gone on to achieve platinum status in this country.
Together with his legendary "Cold Fact" album, the reasons for the sudden disappearance became part of South African folklore. Some people claimed that Rodriguez had been burnt to death while performing. Others seemed convinced that he had murdered his wife and was now in jail, while further rumours stated that he had died of a heroin overdose. The most common belief, though, was that he had blown his head off, on stage, after reciting his famous words "Thanks for your time, and you can thank me for mine, and after that's said, forget it!"
Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrant parents, was born in Detroit in 1942. He brought out Cold Fact in 1969 but it sank without a trace in the US and Europe. It achieved some success in Australia and New Zealand before reaching South Africa. Rumours of his death started in the late seventies and he was assumed to be dead when Cold Fact was released as a CD in South Africa in 1991. The reappearance of his second album, ‘After the Fact’ (originally titled ‘Coming from Reality’), in 1996, triggered a worldwide hunt for the missing legend by a few diehard South African fans.
The rumours of his death were unfounded.
He was found living a quiet life in Detroit, where he worked as a construction worker. He was completely unaware of his fame in South Africa. In this Guardian report, Steven Segerman, who made it his mission to track down Rodriguez, had this to say:
"Cold Fact was never banned, but it never received any radio play, except on pirate stations like Swazi Radio, which weren't under the censor board. The song I Wonder had this line, 'I wonder how many times you had sex', which for South Africa in those days was about as controversial as it could get. For kids, it was like a joke song, they were like 'listen to this!'. Then they heard the album, and realised there was a lot more in it, it was trippy, it was beautiful, it had a lot of social content. It affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways. The commercial success was unbelievable. If you took a family from South Africa, a normal, middle-class family, and looked through their record collection, you'd find Abbey Road, Neil Young's Harvest and Cold Fact. It was a word-of-mouth success."
I wonder how many times you've been had
And I wonder how many plans have gone bad
I wonder how many times you had sex
I wonder do you know who'll be next
I wonder l wonder wonder I do.
|Listen to 'I wonder'|
The discovery of the missing legend led to a series of South African tours, two documentaries and a platinum disk. An amazing thing to happen to someone who'd been rumoured dead, who gave up his recording career in 1972, whose last concerts had been in Australia in 1981 and who'd never played in his home country. This is how he reacted:
"Oh gee, it blew me away when I found out, it was so good," says Rodriguez. "All these youngbloods came rushing towards the stage. It was crazy. In South Africa, people talked to me about how they ran into the album. It happens all over the place, people coming up to me, into the material."
He played his first UK concerts at the London Forum in October last year.
Had S been trying to find ‘Cold Fact’ now, he’s have had no problem - it's stocked by most of the major music stores and Amazon. He asked to buy the Just Jinger album but HMV in Dublin didn’t stock it. The assistant had recently been home where he’d bought the album and was playing it for his colleagues at HMV.
Most of you won't have heard anything by Rodriguez but, if you have, it will probably have been from ‘Come Get It I Got It’ by DJ and composer David Holmes who composed the soundtrack of Oceans Eleven. From the Guardian again:
"It has that combination of obscurity of quality," says DJ and Ocean's Eleven soundtrack composer David Holmes, who found a copy of Rodriguez's remarkable 1970 psychedelic folk album Cold Fact in a New York second-hand shop in the late 1990s, and went on to include its standout track Sugarman on his mix album Come Get It I Got It. "I'd never heard anything quite like it. It was quite surprising to me to see how many people don't know it."
'Cold Fact' is very typical of sixties folk music with lots of social commentary and I know that I'm probably biased by having grown up with it, but I suspect that many newcomers to his music will want to hear more.