I was very young when my father discovered Jesus. He was walking around his garden, as was his wont, when he heard Jesus next door. He popped his head over the wall to ask the neighbour who he was listening to, and from that day forth, Jesus became part of our lives.
We knew his every word before we had seen out our first decade. If you asked me now, I could repeat every one to you without even pausing to think about it. It set us in good stead, because most of our peers only discovered Jesus in late high-school, or university, or the army. But one of those weird quirks of history ensured that generation after generation of young white South Africans were all destined to find Jesus eventually.
I grew up in a very strange time and place. The whole world had spent several hundred years accepting, as a given or at gunpoint, that white people were somehow superior, and had a God-given right to rule the world. But then, slowly, over the last hundred years or so, the tide began to turn. The world began to accept that maybe, just maybe, black people, and Indian people, and Chinese people, and Eskimos, and Aboriginals, and the Irish, might just have the same rights as everyone else.
But not here. Here, the white government took one look at the four million white people they represented, and the forty million black people they didn’t, and decided to dig in their heels. The rest of the world took one look at this and decided to cut us off until we learned to play nicely.
And so I, and millions like me, grew up with an essentially western outlook, but with very little contact with the western world. As I said, it was strange. We were better than we had a right to be at things like rugby and cricket, but no-one wanted to play with us. We read about (or watched on our very restricted TV’s) things like Pepsi and McDonald’s, but only those lucky enough to go overseas ever saw them. And we knew about music. But no-one would come out and play here.
We knew about the one-hit-wonders and the number one bands, the people who would burn bright one week and disappear the next. And we knew about the greats. The legends. The ones who would never be forgotten. Elvis. Led Zeppelin. Bob Marley. The Beatles. Cat Stevens. Bob Dylan. And Rodriguez. Jesus Rodriguez.
Jesus Rodriguez was a bit of an odd one though. We knew all of his music, but not a single thing about him. The closest thing to him was probably Dylan, a hard-edged beautiful dreamer who somehow pushed through the wall of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll to tell us something important, something meaningful. But there were books about Dylan. You could read about him in magazines. About Jesus Rodriguez, there was nothing but silence. And we knew why.
Jesus Rodriguez produced two brilliant, simple, insightful, haunting albums. And then he killed himself. On stage. In front of thousands. He finished his set, and then quoted one of his most famous songs; “Thanks for your time, and you can thank me for mine, and after that’s said, forget it.” And then he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
It was a powerful moment, and it only added to his legend. He had joined that select few who had winked out of existence at height of their powers. Joplin. Hendrix. Cobain. Rodriguez.
Which is a little surprising, because I saw him play last week.
In the early 90’s, Apartheid fell and the world came rushing in. No more sanctions. No more censorship. And the story of Rodriguez took a bit of an odd turn. It simply wasn’t true. When the walls came down, we could get back in touch with our idols. But we couldn’t get back in touch with Rodriguez. Because he didn’t seem to exist. Australia knew his music. So did New Zealand. But they didn’t know much more than that. And no-one else knew anything at all.
We were all a bit mystified. We had spent generations listening to a global superstar who simply wasn’t there. South Africans have always felt a little bit like country cousins. We’re a little naïve. But the whole Rodriguez story made us feel like the rest of the world was just messing with us.
And then someone invented the internet, and suddenly anyone with a keyboard had the world at their fingertips. And we found him!
Jesus Rodriguez really doesn’t exist. Or rather, Jesus Rodriguez the singer doesn’t exist. The guy we were listening to was called Sixto Rodriguez. Jesus was his brother. He released a couple of albums in the early seventies, and we think they were brilliant. But his music career just didn’t happen. And so he wandered off and became a manual labourer.
And labour he did. He did do a couple of tours to Australia, but for the most part, he set his music aside and made his living fixing roofs and demolishing houses, oblivious to the fact that halfway across the world, there was a nation of strangers worshiping the ground he walked on. It is estimated that he sold about half a million albums here, (which for South Africa is phenomenal, but pales to insignificance next to the number that were pirated), but he never received a cent of the royalties. He just never knew about us.
When he was tracked down in the late nineties, he came on a tour here. He finished fixing a leaky roof in downtown Detroit, climbed on a plane, and was picked up by a limo. He met up with a band who already knew all of his music, note for note, and stepped out into a packed arena. Tens of thousands of screaming fans gave him a standing ovation, almost drowning out the music with their adoration. Then he got back on the plane, flew back to Detroit, and fixed some more roofs. It must have been a little surreal.
That was back in the nineties. Now his story has taken another odd turn. Some Swedish guy came out here looking for something to make a documentary about. As one does. Someone played him some Rodriguez. He liked it. He heard the story I’ve just told you. He liked that too. So much that he made it the subject of his documentary. And it got nominated for an Oscar.
And now, at long last, Rodriguez is starting to gain the recognition we all thought he had always had. Watch the movie. It will tell you as much about us as it does about him. And you’ll discover some beautiful music. Music that has stood the test of time. Music that has inspired and inflamed and encouraged and moved generations. Music by a roofer. From Detroit. Who should have been something else.
He’s just come out for another tour. We went to see it as a family, not because of the documentary, but because of my father. Because my father loved his music. For thirty odd years, Rodriguez formed part of the soundtrack of our lives. He played it in his car. We introduced our friends to it. We sang it around the fire after a few glasses of wine out in the bush. It was as much a part of the fabric of our family as a favourite dog or a crazy spinster aunt.
And then my father passed away last year. When one of my sisters heard that he was coming out on a tour, she got us tickets. And so, last week, we joined several thousand people on a pilgrimage. Everyone else went there to go and see Rodriguez, the idol of their youth. We went to go and see my father.
It sounds maudlin. It wasn’t. It was bloody magnificent. My father was an unusual man. Unusual things tended to happen around him. And when we went to go and find him at a Rodriguez concert, we had an evening he would have talked about for years.
It started with my brother-in-law. The concert took place in a casino called Carnival City on the far side of town, and my brother-in law drove us there. We asked, as one does after an hour on the road, whether he knew where he was going.
“Yes”, came the response, “I’ve been there once or twice”.
And then he settled into silence. For a while. Until Carnival City appeared on the horizon.
“I used to work for the firm of architects who designed it.” He said quietly.
Carnival city loomed closer, a huge, concrete circus tent bathed in multi-coloured light.
“I actually did the drawings for a small part of the food court.” Still quietly. We began to grow suspicious.
And then we got there. And understood. Dante could not have written a circle of hell better than this. It was an assault. It was like a fetish club for people who were turned on by primary colours. Haunted looking girls dressed as stripper-clowns directed the public through a forest of swirling red and green and yellow pillars. Tired looking waiters in red tuxedos and tiny green hats leaned for a moment against bright blue and orange walls topped with fibreglass tentacles in pink and turquoise.
It was too much for my brother-in-law. The floodgates burst.
“I did that,” he said, pointing at a Technicolor pillar topped with a jester’s hat.
“And that!” A billowing big top made of suspended yellow and blue material.
“And that! And that! And that!” Purple walls. Candy-striped awnings. Carpets that made the eighties look grey and colourless.
By the time we reached the arena, it was clear he had done the whole bloody lot. And had had more than a passing acquaintance with LSD. It was a strange thing to discover about a member of your extended family, and worked wonders for holding any melancholy at bay.
We came to the arena, and made our way in. It wasn’t easy. My mother is no longer young, and has a gammy knee, so we were a little alarmed when the usher led us through what felt like miles of folded chairs and folded legs and dropped handbags and precariously balanced beers. But we eventually made it to our seats. Next to the aisle. Which led directly to the door we had come in through what felt like days ago.
Had the usher received a message from god that we might be in need of a bit of distraction, she couldn’t have done a better job. But she wasn’t done yet. One of my sisters was seated directly in front of me and my mother. She has long, straight, honey brown hair. As she stepped away to go and lead another unsuspecting victim through needless purgatory, the usher reached down slowly and gently ran her hand down my sister’s hair. It was one of the most jarringly intimate things I have ever seen, a lover’s caress from a stranger in the middle of a crowd. I have never heard my mother swear, but that night, as I looked over at her, her eyes did.
“W” they said “TF!?!”
It looked like melancholy was going to have a tough time finding its moment.
The opening band wound up their act and the show began. We had what should have been the worst seats in the house. We were in the nosebleed seats behind the band. We couldn’t even see some of them because there was a black canvas screen in the way, and we were right next to a giant TV screen. But they turned out to be brilliant. It was like watching a behind-the-scenes documentary. And what scenes they were.
A curtain was lowered, cutting everyone but us off from the stage. And we saw the great man make his entrance. It was worrying. Rodriguez is seventy. Manual labourer seventy. He didn’t walk out. He was carried out. They propped him up in front of the mic, and in a curious echo of our own recent experience, the world paused as his daughter ran her hands through his hair, fixing it like a mother on her son’s first day at school. Then he put on his hat, and the world was flooded with light as the curtain dropped. Thousands of people rose to their feet, screaming, and whistling, and clapping.
On stage, very little happened.
There he stood, this funny, humble, slightly hunched over little seventy year old, blinking up at the lights and swaying a bit on his feet, like a drunk caught out by the bright lights at closing time. The noise died down. He took a tentative step forward. The noise started up again. He spent a few more seconds just standing there, swaying.
I felt ill. It was like watching a train wreck. Here he was, this great musician brought back from the dead, back up in the spotlight where he belonged, and it was too late. He was too old. We were here to watch not a triumph, but a humiliation.
And then he started to sing. It was breathtaking. It was like listening to a recording from forty years ago. His voice hadn’t aged at all, and he held the audience in the palm of his hand. We were spellbound. The song came to an end and the audience went berserk. And I realised that we weren’t there to watch a concert. We were there, in our thousands, for an act of worship.
Because he is ours. For all those years out in the cold we kept him alive, passing him around in school dormitories and univeristy digs and army barracks, listening to bad covers of him in dingy bars, singing his songs to our children when we put them to bed. And now we are giving him back. He is not a roofer from Detroit. He is a fundamental part of the story of a strange, troubled little country at the bottom of a troubled continent. And we love him for it.
It could have been a disaster. He could have forgotten the words and wandered off the stage or sat down to read a newspaper, and we would have been on our feet anyway, whistling and screaming and glorying in what we are.
And the rest of the concert? It was surreal. The lead guitarist was a bit of a sideshow, since Rodriguez clearly wasn’t following a script. He had two guitars, and every song started with a mad scramble to pick up the right one.
After the second song, Rodriguez leaned forward and said: “They were very nice to me down in Cape Town.” The crowd went wild.
Two songs after that, he leaned forward and said: “It’s time they chose a woman pope!” The crowd went wild.
Two songs later: “They were very nice to me down in Cape Town.” We went wild again. But some of us began to worry.
Two more songs: “It’s time they chose a woman pope.” Right. We paused for a second, and then went wild again. Anything worth doing is worth doing twice.
Between songs, there was a collective intake of breath, because Rodriguez would take a step back and stand swaying in the lights, and you could never be sure that he would find his way back to the mic. Once or twice, the music fell rather jarringly out of tune. But it didn’t matter. Because the voice was always there, carrying us through. And we all knew all the words, and helped with the carrying.
And the melancholy? We held it at bay. There was a brief moment, as Rodriguez began to sing “Sugar Man”, where I thought my mother was going to falter. It was one of my father’s favourites. But then the superannuated adolescent next to her asked if she would mind terribly if he lit up a joint, and the moment passed. He even offered her a hit or two, but disappointingly, she declined.
I stopped once or twice to look out over the audience. It was beautiful. There were patrician looking businessmen in striped, button-down shirts singing along with forty year old hippies, while spandex clad twenty year olds danced in the aisles. The cameras picked out a woman in her seventies, just for a second, eyes closed, rocking side to side in time with the music, while her lips moved along to the words.
My father would have loved it. Instead, we were there to love it for him. Because he found Rodriguez for us, and it has made our lives richer. You should find him for yourselves. Google him. Look him up on YouTube. Buy his albums. Your lives will be richer too. It’s the least you could do. A whole country kept him alive for you.