Only in America: Rodriguez at the Greek

May 30, 2014

By Ross Altman

Rodriquez

I wonder

sings Rodriguez,

How many times you’ve had sex

And I wonder

If you know who’ll be next.

Then, at the end of this great song, he confides to the nearly sold-out Greek Theatre audience, “I wonder, but I don’t really want to know.” It brings down the house. Well, I wonder a few things too. For example, I wonder what Rodriguez is thinking when the opening act—a slender young woman with an enormous voice—promotes her soon-to-be-released first album after every song, going through the track list one by one.

I wonder what Rodriguez thinks of her good fortune in opening at the Greek Theatre for what is now a major international star without even one album to her credit, when he had already released two albums back in 1970 and couldn’t get out of a small neighborhood club in Detroit, where he grew up and was trying to make it out of the dirty downtown streets the only way he knew how—by writing songs and playing music.

I wonder what Rodriguez thinks of the 40 intervening years he spent in complete obscurity before lightning struck and a film director became obsessed by his story—and felt compelled to get to the bottom of it. And I wonder what Rodriguez thinks of the new music scene today, when a savvy self-promoter—who made sure the audience also heard her name after every song—LP—could get national attention right out of the box, with Facebook, Twitter and i-Tunes to by-pass the road to oblivion he had to endure as a young artist with more to say in one line of one song than she had in her entire (soon-to-be-released) first album. I wonder.

But I don’t really want to know.

Sixto Rodriguez, as he was at 2013’s downtown Orpheum Theatre concert I reviewed in FolkWorks, was helped on stage by his daughters. He is 71 years old, according to some sources is going blind, and has not spent the past forty years living the life of a touring folk rock star—to which the inherent depth and brilliance of his music would certainly have entitled him—but rather supporting his three daughters as a single father performing hard labor in the same burned out neighborhood he grew up in, carrying heavy refrigerators on his stooped over back for construction projects and demolition jobs in and around his home town. He relished the life he wound up with, even if it wasn’t the life he aspired to, calling it “honest work.” He still seems uncomfortable on stage—having nothing of an entertainer’s personality. But the power of his music has put him there, and he is determined to do a good job—just as if the entire audience was one of those refrigerators, and he carried us on his back throughout the concert. With his song Climb Up On My Music he lifted us up and made sure we landed safely.

It was a glorious ride. Before the concert officially started—or perhaps it was the touching start we just lucked onto—he sang a heartfelt solo acoustic Happy Birthday to his daughter Regan—named for one of King Lear’s daughters, not the former president. As he did so, the years seemed to melt away and he made five thousand eight hundred people feel like family, and perfectly captured the spirit of the evening. Rodriguez has the gift of being able to talk to 5,800 people like we were one person—and everything he does on stage bears the stamp of his unmistakable originality.

For example, most performers wait until near the end of the show to introduce their band. The opening act was typical—she waited until the final ovation before she did so, and as a result the audience was applauding over every name, which you couldn’t hear in the muffled sound. By that time it was a pointless exercise in futility.

Rodriguez introduced the band before they even started playing—and spelled their names for the benefit of attending press—sometimes twice so we wouldn’t make a mistake. It was the first time I have ever seen such attention paid to this honor; he treated the band fully as his equals—knowing how hard they had worked to get there. It was unintentionally but deeply moving—and that before they even started.

So, for the record, Rodriguez was accompanied by British guitarist Ed Coonash on electric guitar, New Zealand’s Maree on bass and…unfortunately the view from the terrace was not great and I missed the name of their outstanding drummer. They were a great band and able to cover all the sonic textures in his repertoire, from pure folk to Peggy Lee’s sweltering Fever to rockabilly on Carl Perkin’s Sun Sessions classic Blue Suede Shoes—to full tilt rock and roll on Little Richard’s Lucille.

For Rodriguez does not just perform his own songs—which like his This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: The Establishment Blues came out of the protest folk song revival of the 1960s—with a harder edge than the poet troubadours of the Greenwich Village folk scene. That is why they became so popular in South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970s. For while America had its segregated South, segregation was not the law of the land—it was the shameful exception to the law of the land, and that is why Martin Luther King could write his Letter From the Birmingham Jail with one ear tuned to the local ministers he was trying to reach with what he called “the fierce urgency of now,” and the other ear beckoning to the leaders in Washington, D.C. who could put the weight of the federal government on the side of the civil rights movement. Only in South Africa there was no such dichotomy: the national government’s official policy was racial separation and hatred; Apartheid was the law of the land. And their Martin Luther King—Nelson Mandela—was not thrown into jail every so often for a few days at a time—until the Attorney General interceded with the local sheriff—but rather imprisoned for 25 years on Robyn Island—where he seemed destined to spend the rest of his life.

The intractability of South Africa’s racism spoke with a harder edge than America’s—and required a folk singer with the ability to stick to exactly what Rodriguez laid out in his first album: Cold Fact. There weren’t any answers blowing in the wind in Johannesburg; only desperation of the kind Rodriguez described in his portrait of the neighborhood drug dealer, Sugarman. After singing the title song from the movie’s soundtrack he made sure, however, to underscore his anti-drug message to young people who make up a good part of his audience: “That song is descriptive, not prescriptive. Stay smart, don’t start.”

1979 Full Concert in Sydney Australia
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ga5aR0MwWOs)

Somehow the subject of the late Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman succeeded in reaching the ears of South Africa’s dispossessed even as American audiences studiously ignored him. The cold fact that he became—unbeknownst to himself—the most popular recording artist of his generation in this bastion of racial injustice remains one of the more amazing stories in American popular (or in this case, unpopular) music.

Tragically, like Richard Cory in E.A. Robinson’s classic poem of the unfathomable suicide of a man who had all the trappings of external success, the 36 year-old Swedish director of this ground-breaking and career-making documentary took his own life this year, just as Rodriguez was starting the second leg of his comeback tour. Though even here, language struggles to do justice to this phenomenal rags-to-modest riches modern Horatio Alger story: for how can you speak of a “comeback” when there was never any real career to begin with? He sold all of 7 records—tantamount to Emily Dickinson publishing all of 7 poems during her lifetime—only to achieve immortality after her death with the discovery of 3,000 more in her desk.

Those who think—and I overheard one audience member suggest that the only reason we were there was due to the power of Rodriguez’s famous story, not his music—that his current success is some kind of a fluke, and will pass as quickly and mysteriously as it arrived—miss the point. Rodriguez is the classic example of an artist so far ahead of his time he had to wait for his natural audience to catch up. Be assured that he is the real deal; his music should have acquired this stature back in the 1970s with the explosion of the singer-songwriter movement that gave us James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell and Harry Chapin. But as soon as you say that, you realize why it didn’t. Rodriguez’s songs were not born out of the sensitive accommodation of an artist with his own hurt feelings and personal failures, but rather from the mean streets (which he documents unerringly in Street Boy) and social degradation in which he was trapped. He was, after all, a Chicano artist trying to make it in a white society that had no place for him. And he had no pleasant fantasies with which to win them over; his second album, typically, was called Coming to Reality.

Rodriguez had to wait for reality to come to him; and now that it has we are more fortunate than we may realize that he is still able to perform his music live. He should have been performing at venues like the Greek Theatre all along. Consider this: when Richie Valens—the only Mexican-American artist to succeed in this nearly all-white music world of the time—went down in the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959—the day, according to Don McLean’s magnificent song American Pie, the music died, it took forty years for another artist to pick up the mantle left behind by Richie Valen’s premature, tragic death.

That artist is Rodriguez. Practically the first words out of his mouth, as he introduced himself after introducing his band, were “I am Mexican.” And this time, in 2014, after Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, after the struggle for immigrant rights, after the fight against Prop 187, after the latest US Census report indicates that for the first time whites are no longer a majority race, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Apartheid crumbled like communism, of its own weight, after we could no longer pretend that we live in Ronald Reagan’s America, a roar of approval went up all over the Greek Theatre. Rodriguez was no longer in a foreign country—his own—he was home.

And make no mistake—he was singing to family, including his own. After forty years and counting, we have finally caught up with Rodriguez—not the other way around.

“Power to the People!” he ended his show; indeed. Someone had to say it, and probably for the first time at LA’s Greek Theatre.

But before he said that he said something even more thrilling to hear: “It has been a pleasure, an honor, and a privilege to share this evening with you. Thank you!”

This old Mexican-American gentleman is a troubadour for the ages, and for our time. As he put it so well in his encore Live Until I Die (originally recorded by Sinatra), after a thunderous standing ovation brought him and his band back to center stage, “Before my number is up/I am going to fill my cup.”

Rodriguez’s cup, at long last, runneth over. Then Rodriguez held the hands of all his bandmates, and like the very opening when he introduced them, refused to set himself apart for the crowd’s applause—as he has always been, he insisted on being treated as a worker among workers—with his fellow musicians. That was honor enough, and it was a lesson in humility I won’t soon forget.

There are some wondrous sights I have missed, or at least have yet to see: Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon come to mind. But I saw Rodriguez at the Greek Theatre. Wow!

I wonder how it could have taken so long; but I am overjoyed that Rodriguez has finally arrived. As Harry Golden once observed of another cultural collision—this of a Jewish humorist in the Deep South, some things happen only in America.

Welcome home.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com