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Fri Aug 29 03:17:37 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Rodriguez's cold fiction

Michael Titlestad | 01 March, 2013 00:35
Sixto Rodriguez has been hailed as an artist who unwittingly led white resistance against the apartheid regime - but is that accolade accurate?
Image by: SIZWE NDINGANE

While director Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man argues that Sixto Rodriguez's South African popularity resulted from seething anti-establishment sentiments among the white youth, South Africans know better.

The point has been made by journalists in social media and in letters to the press: Rodriguez fans were not necessarily opposed to apartheid.

Cold Fact and After the Fact (as Coming from Reality was renamed for local distribution) circulated at my Verwoerdburg high school and were played everywhere in my South African Defence Force barracks; including in the psychiatric ward in 2 Military Hospital, where I was confined for three months.

I was blessed in my second year of national service with countless interactions with permanent force personnel and several members of the special forces.

At every ghastly compulsory braai, Cold Fact was played, usually followed by the ironically titled Don't Look Back by Boston.

Bendjelloul goes further. He suggests that the Vöelvry Toer is Rodriguez's indirect legacy. He was a counter-cultural progenitor - an inspirational seer, prophet and poet-of-the-streets who inspired the alternative culture of the 1980s. Yet, histories of Vöelvry (itself mythologised beyond any defensible significance) suggest a far more complex musical and political provenance.

Indeed, by the mid-1980s, Rodriguez was, as far as alternative musicians and their audiences were concerned, little more than a suburban memory: Dylan-lite. Rodriguez appealed to teenagers because he sang explicitly about the sex and drugs we had been warned against at veldskool. It didn't take much to transgress then: "transgression" was really titillation.

These misrepresentations are not just minor inaccuracies in an otherwise thorough and exhilarating film. They undermine its integrity and distort its morality.

Searching for Sugar Man is a scam from start to finish. It presents the most rudimentary search as a grand quest narrative.

Were it not for the evangelical rapture of Rodriguez's apostles - that succession of white men interviewed in the first half of the film - the rather banal facts would speak for themselves.

South Africa, forced into insularity during apartheid, experienced aberrations of marketing and fandom. The majority, despite the availability of more esoteric fare on import, fixated on a very limited catalogue.

Music - perhaps more than anything - evokes our sense of the past and the oceanic longing for a lost home. On February 13 2013, I drove to the Big Top Arena at Carnival City to see Rodriguez.

I thought that neon oasis in the desert of the struggling East Rand the least suitable venue, but it turned out to be perfect.

Rodriguez made a fool of himself.

Rodriguez constantly drank out of two teacups on the table to his right, twice knocking over the bottled water. I began to suspect that he may be drunk (I am a recovering alcoholic and know the signs). He sang off key and muddled the rhythm; he couldn't tune his own guitar and, after multiple failed attempts, called on a roadie to do so; he repeated three different jokes and kept asking the audience if he had told us the one about Minnie Mouse (the punch line of which was "f***ing Goofy").

He told a blatantly misogynistic joke earlier in the evening, which he tried to mask by telling the audience that he "really liked women", in much the way people assert that some of their best friends are black, gay or Hispanic.

Rodriguez supplemented his limited repertoire with a bizarre selection of covers, including a perverse imitation of Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, an evisceration of I Only Have Eyes for You, and a reprise of Sugar Man, performed again without any effect whatsoever against a backdrop of psychedelic lighting that bore an uncanny resemblance to Swedish wallpaper of the 1970s.

Out of 5500 people I could discern one black and one Indian couple. In that respect, it may as well have been a Kurt Darren concert.

The temptation is just to give in and join in the Pentecostal fervour of the Cape Town finale of Searching for Sugar Man.

Clearly the Carnival City audience that night was determined to do so.

After all, they had bought into the moment, capitalised on the film and were reiterating a history they had made real in the first place.

The accolades the film has received, Rodriguez's forthcoming sold-out tour of New Zealand and his massively escalating sales, all validate his original fans.

"We were right," they say.

White South Africans have few occasions for unapologetic nostalgia. It seems that now its ecstatic indulgence is being not only condoned, but celebrated by the world. It's easy to argue that everyone loves a redemptive narrative; that we long to discover a lost master and accord him rightful recognition. Is this not true restitution? Bendjelloul's film constructs this narrative, despite the facts and despite the man.

It is a victory of story-telling of the most glib, theological order.

Titlestad is the associate professor and head of department at the University of the Witwatersrand's Department of English

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