In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a soft-spoken Detroit musician named Rodriguez put out two magisterial albums and then disappeared from the music scene. For the next three decades, he worked construction, raised three daughters, and even dabbled a bit in politics, until a pair of devoted fans in South Africa—where, unbeknownst to him, he was bigger than the Beatles—decided to track him down. It’s a complicated tale, expertly told by first-time feature filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul in his brilliant documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. We had a meandering conversation with Rodriguez yesterday in the penthouse of The Standard, East Village, where he performed an intimate concert surrounded by family and friends. Here’s how it went down …
RODRIGUEZ: So, how you drivin’ this thing? Whattaya wanna get out of it? Whattaya wanna know?
STANDARD CULTURE: Let’s start with what you’ve been up to since the movie came out. How are you feeling?
RODRIGUEZ: It’s been a musical Olympics, man. Ya know what I mean? We’ve been touring with the film and doing all the screenings—Austin, L.A., San Francisco, New York, Michael Moore’s film festival in Travers City, Alec Baldwin’s film festival in the Hamptons, Durban, South Africa. It’s crazy. Then we’re doing the David Letterman show Tuesday night, with woodwinds and oboes. I talked to Paul Shaffer for about five minutes and he told me I have about three-and-a-half minutes to play. So it’s like that. I’m just happy to be aboard. We want people to see it. We want to be accessible. The difficulty with my stuff before was that it was before the Internet.
The film mentions a few of the crazy suicide rumors that went around after you stopped recording—that you had set yourself on fire onstage, for example. Where do you think those originated?
I think it’s like those idioms people have: “He went out in a blaze of glory,” or, “He went up in smoke.” I think people didn’t have any info so they made up a story around it. Now they have Google.
Are you a big Web guy?
Not directly, but through my daughters. They’re technicals. That’s what I call ‘em. I describe myself as a musical-political. Or, take Mitt Romney. I’m sure there are a lot of good points about the man, but he’s an industrial. Durkheim and Weber, the sociologists who developed the word bureaucrat, said that the future is going to be run by industrial captains. Captains of industry. And you see it happening!
When you were recording back in Detroit in the late Sixties, things were pretty bleak, too.
Yeah, and now the same thing is happening everywhere else. We can’t do much except speak out about it. I use the protest song to describe social issues. Dylan did that, Paul Simon did that, Neil Young did that, Woodie Guthrie—who just celebrated his 100th birthday—did that. But it’s a new century and I think that through technology I’m almost a new product in a sense. I’m finally breaking into the American market.
Are you still writing songs?
Oh, yeah. I work ideas out. I enjoy that part—trying to synopsize something in a few words. I like poetry and the way you can synopsize so much in a phrase. And I love alliteration. Like, I woke up in Wisconsin and wondered where I was. That sorta stuff. But I really worked on those first songs, man. You gotta edit, like Hemingway said. Write, then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite …
Are you sitting on a secret trove? A 500-song back catalogue waiting to be released?
Oh no, man. [laughs] I’m all about live. Each night is the best night.
No secret recordings?
No, no, no.
Was there a specific point where you decided to quit the industry or did you just fade away?
I left the music scene, not music. I just stopped trying to chase what I’d been chasin’ since I was sixteen-years old. But yeah, I went back to school. It took me ten years to get my four-year degree and then I ran for office in Detroit—mayor, city council, then state representative of Michigan. And I learned about all that stuff.
Have you given up your construction job?
[laughs] Oh, yeah, man. Only do that for emergencies. And no shame in hard work. Keeps you honest. I’m no stranger to it. In fact, this music thing is all because of strangers. [Director] Malik Bendjelloul was a stranger, Sugar, who came and found me in Detroit, was a stranger, Brian Currin was stranger—they were the only people lookin’ for me.
You spent some time in politics. How are you feeling about the election?
If it’s a big turnout I think Obama will be okay. As long as they don’t steal Florida and California—the place, ya gotta remember, that’s responsible for Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon! And we gotta save social security now and for good. The guys have proven they can’t do it, so maybe we gotta put some more women in. Girls are smarter.
So what’s next for you?
I wanna keep doing these screenings because it helps the music and then I eventually wanna go back into the studio. It’s all kinda related. I’m touring right now. That’s the immediate thing. I’m up to 5,000-seaters.
Maybe in a way you got lucky. You missed the implosion of the music industry these past few decades and now just play live like everybody else.
Yeah, man! There you go. Nice synopsis. Most people just listen to recordings and stuff, but live is where it’s at. It’s fun. I’ll tell you what the music business is to me: There’s 300-seaters, 500-seaters, 2,000-seaters, 20,000-seaters, and then there’s the Rolling Stones. That’s basically all it is. But you can succeed playing 2,000-seaters, especially if you focus on the foreign markets, where they’re really into American music. The film has helped us a lot. It’s crazy.
Do you think you would have enjoyed it as much if you’d been successful back in the Sixties?
It’s hard to imagine. I mean, this would have been impossible to even dream of. I’ll tell you this, though: One thing that plays in my career is that I’m a lucky guy. And maybe that little bit of luck is enough. I always wanted a real gig—some stability—and I looked for that, but the world is in flux. It took a while, but I got one. It’s like, everybody wants to be but I think it’s about becoming. Work teaches you the job.
Have you met Dylan yet? More than a few critics have compared the two of you.
Aw, no, man. Not yet. But that’s crazy. He’s written thousands of songs. They say he saw the film and liked it, though. Heard that through the grapevine or whatever. By the way, this is an incredible panorama, man. Never seen somethin’ like this. Top of the world, man. Ha!