Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Sugar Man (and other lost treasures)

And you can keep your symbols of success,
Then I’ll persue my own happiness.
And you can keep your clocks and routines,
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams.
Maybe today, I’ll slip away.

A long time has passed since I last dedicated an afternoon to writing this blog, and it is in no way due to a lack of things to write about. Music is usually the one thing that gets me to sit down and splurge my thoughts on to the nearest keyboard, however recently there have been a number of things going on in my life which have prevented me from doing so. Over the past year one thing that I was afforded the brilliant opportunity to do was work in a record shop; a pleasure which in light of recent developments with HMV/Fopp may not be an opportunity much longer. While I have much to say on the subject, and feel that the physical high-street music emporium is long to be of prime importance, I do not have the intention of discussing that here; at least not today. Instead, I wish to comment that during my term working there I was reminded that new, brilliant and innovative music is constantly there for the taking – if one only wishes to seek it out. I have also enjoyed thoroughly submerging myself in the works of incredible musicians whose masterpieces have decorated the shelves of record shops and loving households for numerous years and decades, but I had regretfully not totally appreciated before for one reason or another; most probably because I was busy overplaying whoever else I happened to be consumed by at the time. I am now very pleased to say that my record collection has grown to include wonderful albums by outstanding musical talents new and old, including Tame Impala, The Black Angels, Neil Young, Joy Division, Band of Skulls, Kraftwerk and Tycho to name but a few. I feel incredibly fortunate that these will now permanently hold their place in my collection and life’s soundtrack.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the reason I find myself sitting here today is due to the - until recently - untapped genius of Sitxo Rodriguez. For those of you who have been lucky enough to watch the heartening documentary ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ which was released late last year, you will appreciate how one can feel so inspired by the wonderful story of discovery and quiet appreciation for the elusive musician. However, if you have not had the pleasure of watching this enlightening film then it makes no odds, for the music itself is a standalone masterpiece. When you listen to the simple, transcendent music that was recorded between 1969-1970 in Detroit, it is hard to imagine that it hasn’t been invading your consciousness frequently for years, and provides much the same familiarity as listening to a Dylan album or something of equal exposure. The lyrics are so direct and still so relevant forty years on,  it’s easy to see why South Africa adopted the songs as anthems for their fight for freedom against apartheid. Very occasionally I feel that one has the pleasure of stumbling across an album or piece of music so brilliant and natural that it is hard to imagine that it ever needed to be written – for that would mean that at one time it was not in existence – but you instead feel as though it has always been out there somewhere, and that someone merely had the fortune and talent to successfully download it from the cosmos. Rodriguez's music slips into that category.

His songs, born out of 60s America, are psychedelic masterpieces drenched in colour and inspired by life, love, poverty and rebellion .While the music itself was somehow sucked into a black hole, what's more intriguing is that its maker - a shadowy figure known as Rodriguez - was, for many years, lost too. Rediscovered decades later working on a Detroit building site, unaware that his songs had become not only cult classics, but for the people of South Africa, a beacon of revolution. It’s a magical listen, filled with tales of bad drugs, lost love, and itchy-footed songs about life in late 60s inner-city America; as demonstrated by the Dylan-esque Establishment Blues;

Gun sales are soaring
Housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer
Smoking causes cancer

However, the music sank without trace, thanks, in part, to some of Rodriguez’s more idiosyncratic behaviour; like performing at an industry showcase with his back to the audience throughout. As his music career became a memory, Rodriguez’s legend was growing on the other side of the world. In South Africa he had become a major word-of-mouth success by some odd chance of a young girl taking his LP with her from America to visit her boyfriend, and caught on particularly amongst young people who identified with its counter-cultural themes. But Rodriguez was such an enigma not even his label knew where to find him, and his demise became the subject of vast intrigue. Some rumours said he’d died of a heroin overdose or burned himself to death on stage, and for a long time this looked to mark the end of the mysterious tale. But the tide began to turn in the 90s, when a group of fans and journalists set out to get to the bottom of the mystery. After many dead ends, Rodriguez was found alive, well and free in Detroit, ending years of speculation. Rodriguez himself had no idea about his fame in South Africa (the album had gone multi-platinum, yet he had seen no royalties), and a triumphant South African tour followed, filling huge venues across the country. It is now thanks to the worldwide success of the film ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ that he is at last receiving some of the appreciation he deserves; and will subsequently be found playing at Glastonbury festival this summer.

What is so fascinating about his story is that it represents all the other untapped talent that exists out there; and this is what inspired me to write this today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Rodriguez is the most talented musician and his artistic outputs will change your life (although they may well); it is much more understated and far-reaching than that. But if such brilliant music can remain buried for over forty years then this has huge implications for all the other amazing music that is out there just waiting to be discovered. There is endless hope that we shall be blessed with rich musical talent for eternity, and that in itself is an incredibly heart-warming and uplifting thought.

I Wonder:

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