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Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 2

Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Well, Rodriguez has made it into my daily routine. I remember his lyrics, his riffs, his pauses. It’s time to post a review of his second and last album so far, “Coming From Reality”.

There is little doubt that if “Cold Fact” didn’t make it into the US charts, there would be no game for “Coming From Reality“, which came out only one year later in 1971. Rodriguez was playing around in Midwestern bars while Jimi Hendrix was already a legend and the Beatles had already disbanded. Johnny Cash was The Man In Black and Bob Dylan was living his fame. Rodriguez was to become only a musician by night: his new album sold only few copies in the US and his record label dropped him… two weeks before Christmas, as he mentions in “Cause”, although the song was recorded months before the release and the sacking. He would move on to work in factories in pre-crisis Detroit.

“Coming From Reality” is a dark album. There are almost no cheerful lines in Rodriguez’s poetry here. Climb Up on My Music seems a call to the listener, it’s about trust, Rodriguez says: there was a girl named Christmas, / Did I tell ya she drank gold?. Not much sense, just blind trust is what Rodriguez needs from his audience. At least at a first glance. His guitar laments his way into the next track A Most Disgusting Song, which is perhaps the cleverest, reflecting on the craft and the stress of being a musician. The simplicity with which he treats his audience is reflected in the casual name-dropping (Jimmy “Bad Luck” Butts, old playboy Ralph, Mr. Flood, Linda, Tim, Tom, Martha…). The message targets the routine, the dullness, the literally disgusting never-ending present: everyone’s drinking the detergents / that cannot remove their hurts … every night it’s the same old thing / Getting high, getting drunk, getting horny. Then, oh, a sweet love song… about a lost love; I Think Of You is not a song about the break up, but tracks the nostalgic feeling that comes months, years after the end of a relationship. A psychedelic trip starts suddenly thereafter with Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour, a crazy ride, with verses that chase each other in a hectic and messy manner: Rodriguez warns to look out for the cops and the itchy trigger fingers, but no-one disagrees that happiness is free on Heikki’s suburbia bus tour ride. A lullaby-like love song turns the mood back to sad-mode: Silver Words? is about the odd feeling of having a chance with the person that made you fall in love. The violin gets introduced by the end of the song and comes back in the next track Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyle, back to the real blues, but with string instruments resounding like an orchestra. “America gains another pound / Only time will bring some people around / Idols and flags are slowly melting” – it’s always winter in Rodriguez’s calendar. To Whom It May Concern is actually addressed pretty accurately, despite the title, to those who are waiting for love. The song would thematically fit perfectly in between “Silver Words” and “I Think Of You”. Then It Started Out So Nice throws you into a magic world… of sorrow and melancholy, of course, but still magic. Again some name-dropping, this time mythical: Genji, the Ixea mountains, Orion, etc. From the sea to the skies, it was a great love, remembered with the words of somebody who knows, that love is lost. Coming from fantasy, back to reality, Halfway Up The Stairs is another song about missed opportunities, half-baked ideas, unfinished tasks. Here comes the masterpiece of the album: Cause. From his oft-cited inner city to the local factory, the working class seems to cry through Rodriguez’s voice: Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them. The album ended here with an Estonian Archangel, Molly McDonald, Willy Thompson, and Annie Johnson, the common names of common people, exceptional figures of the constant, flat present.

Three more songs were added in later editions of the album, particularly in the bootleg version distributed in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a constant feature on the radio (the few allowed tracks) and in basements. I’ll Slip Away, Can’t Get Away and Street Boy are about journeys, of course. In the first track, Rodriguez communicates the uneasiness of conformity and the inability to continue a relationship, be it a sentimental or a political one: Now I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying / Cause I’m losing who I really am / And I’m not choosing to be like them. In the second song, Rodriguez explains his origins with a touch of color: Born in the troubled city / In Rock and Roll, USA / In the shadow of the tallest building / I vowed I would break away, but he can’t. Then, my personal favorite, Street Boy, which speaks of a nomadic and innocent life, perhaps naive. The singer gives some grown-up advice to the boy, but acknowledges his need to get away and find himself. The last word is a warning though: you’ll never find or ever meet / Any street boy who’s ever beat the streets.

This concludes my two-part praise of my new favorite musician and songwriter. Click here for the first part and here for more guesses on the meanings of his lyrics.

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Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 1

Croton-On-Hudson, NY

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 WonderI 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.