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The legend of Rodriguez crosses decades and continents 

Wednesday, Nov 19 2008
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When Light in the Attic label head Matt Sullivan picked up the crate-digging David Holmes–mixed compilation Come Get It, I Got It in 2002, he had no idea he was embarking on a six-year journey to resurrect a folk-psych masterpiece. The remixes of underground gems included Sixto Diaz Rodriguez' "Sugar Man," an eerie ballad about a seductive drug dealer that featured softly strummed acoustic guitar punctuated by ambling horns, keyboards, and unearthly effects. "I was immediately transfixed," Sullivan says.

The comp listed minimal information about Rodriguez; it took Sullivan a year to find details of the artist's bizarre biography online. Luckily Sullivan is something of an expert in excavating masterpieces — his Seattle-based label has reissued lost classics by funk pioneer Betty Davis and folk heroine Karen Dalton —and he eventually tracked down Rodriguez' daughter, Regan. She facilitated an introduction, and six years later Light in the Attic reissued Rodriguez' 1970 debut, Cold Fact.

Aside from the hypnotic qualities of the music, Sullivan was fascinated by the Mexican-American musician's transcontinental journeys in and out of obscurity. Indeed, Rodriguez' life is biopic-worthy (a documentary is currently under way). He grew up the son of working-class immigrants in Detroit in the late '50s, where he fell in love with rock 'n' roll at a young age. By the mid-'60s, he was deeply entrenched in the thriving local music scene. "It was an exciting time," he affirms from his Detroit home. "There were a lot more clubs, bars, and just hangouts at the time." He absorbed edgy new acts like the Stooges and ? and the Mysterians, hoping one day to crystallize the symphony of sound in his head.

Rodriguez' chance meeting with legendary Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey led to a recording opportunity with producer Mike Theodore. Though Rodriguez' single flopped, Theodore and Coffey pulled him into the studio again to record his full-length debut. "I'm just a guitar player, so it took me a while to figure out what to do," he recalls. "I put myself in the hands of these producers."

Tracked and mixed in late 1969, Cold Fact was a complex, intellectual folk record with splashes of psychedelia. It reflected music trends of the time and the growing voice of the antiwar movement. Sounding like a grittier version of Bob Dylan, but with a smooth finish reminiscent of Arthur Lee, Rodriguez' songs tackled love, class struggle, and government corruption. Most famously, he reflected on the tempting escape of drugs for the working class with the song "Sugar Man" ("Silver magic ships you carry/Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane").

While Cold Fact failed to take off in the States, over the course of the next two decades, a bizarre series of licensing deals (struck unbeknown to Rodriguez) and bootlegging operations spread his music to New Zealand and Australia. The music mysteriously made its way into the hands of South African soldiers, where it was traded on cassette so widely that it became the soundtrack for the apartheid battles of the late '80s.

Rodriguez says his far-flung fanbase caught him totally by surprise. "I didn't learn about [the South African fans] until '98, so that's when I toured. It was like going from a 50-seater to a 5,000-seater," he says, describing the difference between small Detroit gigs and a sold-out South African tour.

That late-blooming international success led to a resurgent following back home, setting the stage for Light in the Attic's reissue this fall. This week, Rodriguez plays the Great American Music Hall with local backing from Tim Cohen's latest project, the Fresh and Onlys. His supporting musicians were brought together by (((FolkYeah!))) promoter Britt Govea and Sullivan. The label owner remains an awestruck fan, but is also spoken of reverently by his own hero. "I only met them a couple of times before this whole thing blossomed into what it is now," Rodriguez says of Light in the Attic. "But it's that young blood energy that helps get these things going."

About The Author

Hannah Levin

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