I met Rodriguez only three weeks ago, on a lazy post-graduation morning. It shattered my views on American ballads and protest songs in one, jaw-dropping experience. I wanted to watch the documentary Searching for Sugarman for a year, since I saw the poster and the mysterious aura around it in the streets of Tallinn. Only three months ago, I was concentrating on Viktor Tsoy’s Russian lyrics, which are bare-boned and melancholic. Then Rodriguez blew my mind.
Rodriguez, Sixto, Jesus, whatever his name, is better than Bob Dylan, better than Johnny Cash. Who’s Neil Young? Why is Paul Simon not showing up, overshadowing this little known songwriter? How does a blue-collar working man-turned musician (and/or the other way around) get to #1 in someone’s 2014 ranking by releasing only two albums in 1970 and 1971?
The quick answer is: I have no idea, but it did.
I saw the documentary, almost in tears for both the story and the depth of the lyrics in his songs, masterpieces of songwriting. I’m of course not a musician or a songwriter, but my brain and my ears keep exchanging high-fives. Every word is spelled out as if it was the last one coming out of Rodriguez’s mouth. Every song has a rhythm that fits the verses, which are built carefully, like a domino structure: once you hit play, something beautiful unravels. Here’s my take on “Cold Fact“, released by Sussex in March 1970 in the United States, which sold only a few thousand copies until success hit back in the 90s and after the release of the documentary. Thirty minutes of awesomeness buried deep in radio station archives, until better PR got it to the masses.
The repetitiveness of Sugar Man closely resembles the addict hailing the pusher for more. This song is the formal entrance by Rodriguez into your veins. Only Good For Conversation brings you to a harsher sound of protest towards some customary behaviors, more to come, undoubtedly. Crucify Your Mind is the masterpiece: Was it a huntsman or a player / That made you pay the cost / That now assumes relaxed positions / And prostitutes your loss? Again, the entrance punches you at each pause. Then a long title that would never make it through radios, charts, or memories This Is Not A Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues, a protest song that reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy In New York only because it has a better weather-related verse: Public gets irate but forget the vote date / Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining […] I opened the window to listen to the news / But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues – try to get more contemporary than that. Hate Street Dialogue is against the state’s monopoly on the use of violence against its own citizens: A dime, a dollar they’re all the same / When a man comes to bust your game. / The turnkey comes, his face a grin / Locks the cell I’m in again. There’s one or two things Johnny Cash could learn from Rodriguez’s crude images here. Thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine, that’s the first verse of Forget It, about love that has worn out. No begging, like to the local sugar man, just forget it. Inner City Blues is another angry song which repeats the album title Cold Fact over and over, while building clever braids with lyrics that could make sense even if you listened only to one every two verses. Will it ever all be straight / I doubt it, says Rodriguez, while making again Christian references. Then comes the bass. The supporting band for his first concert in South Africa played the riff for minutes, while the crowd was cheering their idol, before he could finally open the song with the now-famous verse I Wonder. I wonder about the love you can’t find / And I wonder about the loneliness that’s mine – an uneasy song, less lyric-focused but an incredibly catchy tune. Like Janis is again a great ballad with snappy and clever verses that are better served with the music. A bit more disturbing to the ear is Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme) is a surprising blues track with an actual nursery rhyme within. Help your kids to dream with a Biblical tale about hate, says Rodriguez. Once more, a protest song follows. Rich Folks’ Hoax has an ironic take on the class-system: Rich folks have the same jokes / And they park in basic places. Jane S. Piddy is a weird song that will be repeated in its concept in the second album. Among incredibly poetic lyrics, random name-dropping happens. Who are all these people, nobody knows and nobody cares, I guess that’s the message.
“I saw my reflection in my father’s final tears
The wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears
Acid heads, unmade beds, and you Woodward world queers”
If this has not been enough for you, then don’t bother to wait for the next post, which will take on Rodriguez’s second and last (so far) studio album.