Record collectors and documentary filmmakers often look for the same thing: a moment when someone does something remarkable without being seen, a gap that turns the witness into a proprietary liaison between that moment and everyone else. Documentary directors search for dogs in love with elephants and impossibly driven wire walkers , subjects that beggar belief but end up secured in the medium, confirmed and concrete. Or, go see it and come back. The head-shaking bit is simple. In the early seventies, Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit native born to Mexican immigrants who goes by his surname both socially and professionally , recorded two albums for Sussex Records. They dropped into the void. Rodriguez returned to the demolition and renovation work he has done ever since.
They were folky but not exactly folk-rock and certainly not laid-back; sometimes pissed off but not full of rage; alienated but not incoherent; psychedelic-tinged but not that weird; not averse to using orchestration in some cases but not that elaborately produced. And they sold very few records, eluding to a large degree even rediscovery by collectors. Imagine an above-average Dylanesque street busker managing to record an album with fairly full and imaginative arrangements, and you're somewhat close to the atmosphere. Rodriguez projected the image of the aloof, alienated folk-rock songwriter, his songs jammed with gentle, stream-of-consciousness, indirect putdowns of straight society and its tensions. Likewise, he had his problems with romance, simultaneously putting down again gently women for their hang-ups and intimating that he could get along without them anyway "I wonder how many times you had sex, and I wonder do you know who'll be next" he chides in the lilting "I Wonder". At the same time, the songs were catchy and concise, with dabs of inventive backup: a dancing string section here, odd electronic yelps there, tinkling steel drums elsewhere. It's an album whose lyrics are evocative yet hard to get a handle on even after repeated listenings, with song titles like "Hate Street Dialogue," "Inner City Blues" not the Marvin Gaye tune , and "Crucify Your Mind" representative of his eccentric, slightly troubled mindset.
A decade ago, he was rediscovered working as a day laborer in Detroit, Michigan. He was unaware that his defining album had become not only a cult classic, but for the people of South Africa, a beacon of revolution. Rodriguez recorded Cold Fact — his debut album — in , and released it in March And he got on with life. Over the years, he turned his hand to local politics, gaining a degree in philosophy, factory work and eventually, hard labour. In South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Cold Fact had become a major word of mouth success, particularly among young people in the South African armed forces, who identified with its counter-cultural bent. But Rodriguez was an enigma — not even the label knew where to find him — and his demise became the subject of debate and conjecture. Others said he was in a mental institution, or in prison for murdering his girlfriend. Barring a couple of sold out Australian tours in and , nothing had been heard of him for almost 30 years.