“…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
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.