Editors' pick

Rodriguez

Rock
'

Editorial Review

In 1979, Sixto Rodriguez was a construction worker in his home town of Detroit when he learned that "Cold Fact," the album he had released in 1970 with no success in the United States, had become a cult favorite in Australia and New Zealand. It was such a favorite, in fact, that fans were willing to fly him halfway around the world for his first live performances in years.

In 1997, history repeated itself. Rodriguez learned that the same album, long out of print in this country, was selling tens of thousands of copies in South Africa, where it had become a touchstone for the country's counterculture. Once again, the blue-collar worker was flown overseas for a series of concerts, this time in 5,000-seat halls full of raucous fans.

What was this album that had become such a phenomenon in far-flung locales without any help from the one-named performer or his record company? The record's recent rerelease in the United States reveals a poetic, inner-city journalism, not unlike Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly," delivered with the emphatic Latino-folk of Jos Feliciano singing "Light My Fire" and decorated with the psychedelic touches of Arthur Lee's band, Love.

Backed by some of Motown's finest session musicians, Rodriguez strummed an acoustic guitar and sang about drug dealers ("Sugar man, you're the answer/That makes my questions disappear"), politicians ("The mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates/Public gets irate but forgets the vote date") and the ghetto ("The ladies on the street aren't there for their health/Welfare checks don't pave the road to much wealth").

Although "Cold Fact" is too much the product of its times to match the timelessness of the singer's heroes (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen), Rodriguez does compare favorably to such Woodstock acts as Country Joe McDonald and Melanie. The album's best song, "I Wonder," with its series of unanswered questions, is so catchy it's no wonder it caught on all over the world.

-- Geoffrey Himes, Weekend (May 2009)