It’s universally agreed among film mavens that Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 Searching for Sugar Man is a classic of its kind; the low-budget feature swept just about every award it was eligible for, including a 2013 Oscar for best documentary, in the process becoming a box-office hit as well. But acclaim didn’t buy Bendjelloul happiness; suffering from depression, the Swedish director committed suicide in 2014. And while the film brought its unlikely star, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, back onto the concert stage, he remains nearly as enigmatic a figure as he was in South Africa during the 1970s. There, as Searching for Sugar Man details, the Mexican-American singer-songwriter—who performs and records under his last name alone—enjoyed both pop success and underground cachet despite being essentially unaware of his overseas fame.
The film is a tangled tale of fanboy enthusiasm, apartheid-era censorship, and music-industry malfeasance—and real life is even more complex, but don’t expect Rodriguez to shed much more light on the details. What is known, though, is that in the wake of Searching for Sugar Man’s success, rights to Rodriguez’s two early-1970s releases, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, became the subject of still-unresolved legal controversy, with two competing companies claiming ownership.
And now we also know that until the courts rule on the matter, we probably won’t hear new music from the 75-year-old artist. “I’m tied up in this legal stuff, so I don’t want to put anything out there unprotected,” Rodriguez tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his Detroit, Michigan, home. “I want it to be free and clear.…We’ve got great representation, and I’ll tell everybody how it goes. But I’m still finding out details, and I want to get free from these old contracts and stuff. And that’s been a long distraction for me, anyway.”
Whether he’s been told to say no more or is just naturally wary, Rodriguez sounds almost as opaque as his jet-black shades and hair. He sidesteps the issue of whether he’s been actually writing new material, admitting only that, in concert, he and his band have been fleshing out songs from the film with an assortment of covers. Whose songs might they be? He doesn’t say, but a recent San Francisco show found him adding the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”, Elton John’s “Your Song”, and the Doors’ “Light My Fire” to his own hits before ending his four-song encore with Frank Sinatra’s bon-vivant anthem “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die”.
Why his music made such an impact in South Africa seems straightforward enough: as a Hispanic kid from inner-city Detroit, he was using songs such as “Street Boy” and “Crucify Your Mind” to wrestle with the same topics of poverty and discrimination that bedevilled residents of
District Six and Soweto. Asked to elaborate on that notion, though, Rodriguez jokes about how it’s hard to remember those times, “because you’re trying to forget”. Instead, he slides into a discussion of what seems to be his current
obsession, the price of an education.
“I think they should forgive those student loans, because they’re all on paper,” he says. “They’re imagining these high interest rates kind of coming back to them, and that’s not going to happen. So why pretend you’re going to get all this interest money because it’s on paper? They should forgive those loans, and that’s a political statement.”
As for Bendjelloul’s suicide, Rodriguez comes close to giving “No comment” as an answer. “The reason I don’t know all about the details,” he says, “is because I don’t know all the details.”
But he’s enthused about touring again, this time with a band. “Music, for me, it’s a universe,” he says. “I love music, and so do my fellow musicians, because they wouldn’t be jamming so hard if they didn’t!”
Rodriguez plays the Orpheum on Saturday (August 5).