Rodriguez’ Brooklyn Concert

“…The outstanding act was Susan Cowsill, famous for a family singing group act in the 60’s who began with their hit song, “Hair” an upbeat chorale and then broke out into a truly kicking rock ‘n roll set. Was she another missing talent, holding out for the chance to be the next Bonnie Raitt?” (excerpt) 

When the crowd in the arena rose, whistling, cheering and applauding at the appearance of this legend of our youths, it seemed like an historic moment in the making. Barely able to see, Sixto Rodriguez was lead onto the stage by his daughter and an assistant, put on a top hat and began to sing in a remarkably young, robust voice.

Rodriguez at the Barclay Center
[Courtesy: Brooklyn Vegan]
This voice of our youth, might have needed a little help getting there but contrary to the rumors was not frail at all. He played the songs we love, Sugarman, I Wonder, Inner City Blues, Crucify Your Mind and we all thank him for that. But the moments were more mystery than history: if you came to understand the magic of Rodriguez and recapture the strange mixture of dread and rebellion that his music stood for South Africans during apartheid – you didn’t get it there.

On the other hand, if you read on, you just might get it here.

It turns out that Rodriguez is a very sweet natured man – think Paarl Perlé on a breezy night – and while he played his obligatory hits from his first albums and acknowledged the many South Africans in the audience, this was no South African show. He never discussed the songs, there was no commentary, no lingering with choruses or any attempt to engage the audience. We didn’t get to revisit the strange rebelliousness he represented for white South Africans in the 70’s and 80’s – the world they comfortably hated and knew to be wrong but whose alternative was just too hard to confront.

He just sang them so he could gt them out of the way to sing what he really wanted. It turns out, the old prophet of destruction yearned to be a classic, early sixties blues rock crooner and his greatest joy was playing songs like Lucille and A Whole Lotta Shaking Going On. His younger back up band reveled in those standards and despite needed to huddle between songs, played those old rock licks like they grew up with them. This could be the top group at any State Fair. As Sixto said in his wisecracking patter, he didn’t want to be a great legend, “just an ordinary legend.”

As heartbreaking as his story goes, that’s what he was: an ordinary guy. Then, just as you beaming at the resurrection of this once lost soul, he breaks out his Mickey Mouse joke that I first heard in Junior High. The one about the judge refusing to grant Mickey a divorce from Minnie on the grounds of her being stupid. “I didn’t say she was stupid,” Mickey says, “I said she was f*** Goofy.” Yep you heard it from Sixto who, by the way, is passionate about protecting women against domestic violence. Just not bad jokes.

So what is about the Rodriguez we all fell for? A consultant from the Obama Administration recently asked me to explain. All I could say is that he was a kind of anomaly at the time when Dylan was just too revolutionary for us (“Times are a changing?” No bloody way.) and our local version of protest was him, all we would have had was David Marks, the former mine engineer who sang “It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack.” It wasn’t the words exactly – no one yet has explained what those words actually meant to South Africans, since he wasn’t signing about us and had no idea we even existed. It was about the tone, and the words were a kind of abstract poetry that let us take in new ideas at our own pace. For the most part, we just projected our deepest thoughts and he was a screen, the tabula rasa we laid it upon. And yes, he opened us up to some new concepts we hadn’t really encountered like alienation, dread and rebellion along with serious drug dealers and teen sex.

He was, in short, our own personal Dylan. As for me, I thought he was a great Dylan copycat hailing from Lourenço Marques in Moçambique where his songs were regularly played on their pirate broadcast.

The oddest part and arguably, most revealing part of the concert were the numerous opening acts – a collection of reinventors and offbeats that made you think this event really stood for something. One of the openers was a poet who reminded many of an angry George Carlin, had he tried singing. Given the lack of audience response you get why he might be angry. But he was also a kind of crossover 60’s proto-Rapper and that made him intersting. The outstanding act was Susan Cowsill, famous for a family singing group act in the 60’s who began with their hit song, “Hair” an upbeat chorale and then broke out into a truly kicking rock ‘n roll set. Was she another missing talent, holding out for the chance to be the next Bonnie Raitt?

Maybe that was the real message of the traveling Rodriguez show: a place for lost souls who just may get that one last break. His humility and his gentleness are disarming but, but what was it musically? Critics are not big fans of his, perhaps because they feel his success is a repudiation of their profession, which has always ignored him. They may be right if they say his songwriting or his storytelling hasn’t grown but they are wrong if they think he never really was that talented. They could also be missing out on what could yet come.

Last year, at around this time I saw Bob Dylan perform in the Barclay Center. He was good for two songs and then his voice exited the building and something like a Harvey Fierstein rasp took its place. These dudes may be the same age, but Dylan is old while Rodriguez sounds like he is just getting started, as if his vocal chords were preserved in aspic. He easily sounds like Dylan’s golden voiced years of Blood on the Tracks and Lay Lady Lay, right after he quit smoking. Only better.

The remarkable thing, according to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, is that Jobs met Dylan who was his idol, and asked him about his iconic songs and how came to wrote them. Dylan replied that he just didn’t know what came over him and that he could no longer write those kings of songs. But, he said, I can still sing them. While that might have been true in the early 2000’s it is not so any more. Rodriguez can’t write them either but he can definitely sing them. I say Bob Dylan should hire him, I’ll bet the two of them would even write some interesting new songs together – perhaps about young love or just two old guys living it up forever. So what about a Bobbie D mashup with Rodriguez: call it Highway Sixto Revisited. That would be a real show. Something old and fresh and new that could still blow our minds.

© Alan Brody 2013

Playlist (courtesy setlist.fm)

1. Climb Up On My Music

2. Only Good For Conversation

3. Crucify Your Mind
4. I Only Have Eyes for You 
(The Flamingos cover)
5. This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues
6. I Wonder
7. Fever 
(Little Willie John cover)
8. Sugar Man
9. Inner City Blues
10. Lucille 
(Little Richard cover)
11. Rich Folks Hoax
12. Street Boy
13. Forget It

Encore:
14. Rock Around the Clock
15. Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On 
(Big Maybelle cover)

Update: This review is now available on the official Rodriguez.org website.

14 Responses to Rodriguez’ Brooklyn Concert
  1. enoch doyle jeter
    November 13, 2013 | 9:07 pm

    ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT….OR DAY…THERE IS NO ONE BETTER THAN SUSAN AND RUSS! THAT’S A FACT….NO ARGUMENT, AND CERTAINLY NO COMMENTS FROM WANNABE CRITICS! LOL
    MUCH LOVE TO YOU BOTH….THANKS FOR THE MUSIC/MAGIC YOU PUT OUT THERE…ON STAGE…AND OFF….
    DOYLE AND YVETTE

  2. russ
    November 25, 2013 | 11:59 am

    Thanks Doyle and Yvette!
    Much love! Happy Holiday-ing again in Ireland this year? If you feel like booking us a tour there while y’all are vacationing…. hahaha…
    FEEL FREE TO DO SO!!!!
    Love,
    Russ and Susan

  3. Jim Kalk
    March 23, 2014 | 2:28 pm

    Love your music, Susan! I have 4 CDs. Hoping to catch you guys performing live next time I get to NOLA. Jim.

  4. jim ferullo
    May 28, 2014 | 12:58 pm

    I knew back when you all lived in new port ..it was really great to see you guys on the tv the other night .it made me sad but also made me happy to see you all some what made it through it all . I went to school with john .and we would sled down your big hill out back of your house .and sometimes your big dog would chase use . we love your music. thanks Jim & Debi

  5. Phil
    May 29, 2014 | 9:59 pm

    Happy belated Birthday, Ms. Susan!!!

    I think of your lovely smile, when I met you a few years back, on a college campus in Tennessee, performing in an oldies venue. Afterward, (and I normally don’t do this,) I had to get your autograph. You were busy, but you took time and then…I was 10 years old again! I had to let you know that you were my FIRST crush. You signed: “To Phil”, from Your First. (still have it!) Later on existing the building you caught my eye once more, and smiled. I was 10 again!!! That is a memory I will cherish, beyond even the obvious display of your still awesome, musical talent.

    May God Bless and keep. You not only bring joy with your music, but also with your heart. You my dear, are a class act.

  6. Bill Garcia
    June 13, 2014 | 7:58 pm

    I just finished watching the story of the Cowsills and wanted to let you know how sorry I am for the hurt you and your brothers endured. Yet, you and your brothers and mother continue to bring joy into our hearts through your music. God bless you all and keep singing.

  7. Susan & Russ
    June 14, 2014 | 2:36 pm

    Thank you Bill. As Maya Angelou said many times, there’s no cloud that doesn’t have a silver lining.

  8. Arthur Kelly
    June 25, 2014 | 5:39 am

    I watched your Showtime event the other day, got me interested in The Cowsills again. 1967, first love and all that.
    Found out you are playing at Joshua Tree on 7/03,I will be there. Am excited to hear you and Russ play. I am a child of the 60/70’s.
    You have a style and voice that speaks to all of us old surviving hippies.

  9. Dean Hoffman
    August 5, 2014 | 1:48 pm

    Susan,I certainly remember the great sound of the Cowsills. After recently watching the family documentary, I got back into the music and the group is fantastic both yesterday and today. No group can touch the harmonies the Cowsills generate.

    The best part of re-discovering the Cowsills was discovering how talented you are, Susan. I ordered your solo CDs and am blown away by your vocals and song writing. The “Just Believe It” single is awesome, and should be released again with the right promotion, so it can be heard by many. The reviews of your work are excellent and deserved.

    Thank you for sharing your talents. Regards to your brothers, and thanks for the continuing performances as the Cowsills as well.

  10. Mick Sagester
    August 22, 2014 | 5:50 am

    I love the Cowsills. Was a little young like Susan.

    Have listen to the Flower Girl and can’t ever get enough!!!

    Would love to see you in OHIO!!

    Mick

  11. Susan & Russ
    August 23, 2014 | 9:53 pm

    Thank you! We don’t have any shows planned for Ohio, but something just got booked in champagne, IL for The Cowsills. Is that near enough?

  12. Susan & Russ
    August 23, 2014 | 10:04 pm

    Thank you for all the kind words Dean! It sounds like you’ve done some homework! 😉
    Peace

  13. Mick Sagester
    September 8, 2014 | 6:50 am

    Can’t wait to listen to the new cd

    Flower girl to crazy girl.

    I love it!!

    Born on the same cloud in the 50’s

  14. Joyce Bean
    October 1, 2014 | 10:49 am

    Dear Susan,

    I recently read that your brother Richard passed this summer. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Just watched the documentary for the second time and was motivated to find a way to write to you. I am a year older than you, and I was a big fan of the band at the height of your popularity. My siblings and I sang together, and singing along with the band’s music was a joy to my harmonic ears. I wanted to have your life – I thought you were the luckiest girl in the world. Now I know that I had a life a lot like yours, in terms of the dysfunction at home.

    Believe me when I say the similarities between my parents and yours, including being born the same years, 1925 and 1928, are such that I feel not only sympathy for your life’s pain, but a kinship. We are truly sisters under the skin. And survivors.

    As such, I am so happy to see you emerge a strong woman, even as some of your siblings were less able to cope, bless them. It is clear that you have arrived at a place of Love and forgiveness. I’m so glad that you and your brothers have continued to make music, together and apart. Your undeniable talent and soulfulness are a gift to the world as well as to you. Rock on, sistah! Peace and Love to you and yours. Joyce

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