November 21st, 2008 | Interviews

Download: Rodriguez “Sugar Man”


(from Cold Fact out now on Light In The Attic)

Rodriguez was the Detroit folk-rock songwriter who played guitar a little like Dylan and sang about the scenes on the sidewalks a little like Lou Reed. His excellent 1970 Cold Fact LP had Dennis Coffey’s backing but never caught on in America, but did become so colossal in South Africa that people cover him in coffeeshops there the way they do Bob Marley here. It was finally reissued on Light In The Attic this year, prompting new interest and a string of shows. This will actually be his second-ever show in L.A.—he will be backed this time by Connie Price and the Keystones—and his first in over thirty years. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

So this is your second L.A. show, but your first without the Brown Berets as an opening act?
I did that and I got the worst reviews! It’s in the Hollywood Reporter in the ‘70s. He had come to Detroit—this guy named Sanchez. He was complaining that six or seven Mexicans or Hispanics had been killed in the L.A. jail in a short period of time. So when I got to L.A.—because my label was out there—I met him again, and he told me again, and I said, ‘Well, come up and you can talk to my audience!’ Because I don’t know what’s happening over here. The other thing—the grapes were being boycotted. I’m politically involved and I had my kids with me—we’re involved, you know? So they said I should just leave the stage forever because I wasn’t at a political rally! The thing is—that’s an antiquated view of it. Don’t look to the side, just see straight ahead! I think there’s more communication happening in the world than ever before. And music is at the forefront of technology. It’s a social thing. We bring people together, we create revenue.
How do you feel about your revival? It’s the year of Rodriguez.
Keep talking, baby!
What was Detroit like when you first started?
In those times, there was a lot more pubs, taverns, bars, lounges—and they had all these names. There was more nightlife. What’d they call ‘em, the baby boomers? Trying to give a name to a generation. But those times—with the advent of TV—TV used to only broadcast til 9 here and they’d cut off the station at 1 in the morning.
And play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’?
There you go! So in the confines of those time—those things were happening. And we’re a gorgeous city. The Canadians love us, you know.
What were the first songs you were writing about?
At that point—you have to take that step from doing covers. But covers keep you going. I put two songs together—‘Slip Away’ and ‘You’d Like To Admit It’—for Impact Records. The guy who had that label worked with a lot of Detroit artists, and he went to Motown and they said he had a great deal to do with Marvin Gaye getting What’s Goin’ On to be recorded as that. So I got a chance to meet him and he was the first guy I signed with and we just put a few things out. Just starting out. A lot of activity—industrial, you know. Urban. As opposed to rural—country, you know? Which were all influences on artists and musicians but I’m totally urban.
The Detroit heritage?
I think so. Well, Liverpool is industrial, too, and London was one of the first industrialized cities. So anywhere where that kind of resonates—that machinery that’s forever on. It’s good not to live too close to a main street, you know what I mean? Because it stays active all the time.
The city that really never sleeps?
I think so. I have a lot of confidence in America and it’s ingenuity. They came up with the Internet! This changing world—it’s ever on.
Where do you get this optimism?
Well, geez—you know what I mean. I hide my despondency well, like everybody else. I mean, look at Exxon-Mobil—they made so many billions. It’s really rich against the poor—that’s really true. And what keeps us separated is the military between us. The cops and the military. It’s a tripod society. They talk about it in Greek times—Plato and Aristotle. The same kind of model there. In America, the multinationals got their cheap labor, and now they’re hiking the prices. It’s as clear as that. And the Iraq war—Cheney’s people—it’s so blatant, and there it is!
Why do you think you’ve stayed engaged with politics?
Well—my role model was my father, and I can see that very clear. You got to think of the future generations for sure. I think we have purpose. I’m a grandfather. I want to correct the social-security system and get that fixed—maybe they can take a couple months off and fix that, too! General Motors is gonna hook up with Chrysler and they’re asking for a bailout—well, that’s just the news, but they already gave Chrysler one bailout and then they sold it to the Germans and here they come back again asking for some more! I don’t know how to respond to it. It’s just—wow. But there was so much music in those times coming out. The music industry was really hot in those years. One guy from—one of the big guys in music—said there was too much money to be made to let personal taste get in the way. This was the best times and the most young energies were out there. You got Morrison, the Monterey Festival—those were living times! Unheard of before! Woodstock!
What were your favorite albums the year Cold Fact came out?
The influences of the English sound came through. The Beatles. Because they changed up. Much like they say about keeping up on stage—you got to change up and not be so predictable. Well, the Beatles followed that pattern. They went into Sgt. Pepper and they went into the Far East with gurus—and Harrison, he’s the one who brought the world consciousness about Bangladesh. These guys out there—Farm Aid and Live Aid—they’re doing things like social workers in a bigger space. And Midnight Oil—I gotta brag about that guy!
You played with them, right?
We were on the same bill. The top Australian bands and I was the American band. I did a single then. Men At Work was there before they got the haircuts. But he made Minister of the Environment in Australia. They think he’s gonna be the next governor of his state. They’re current news! He’s accessible, too. They’re having things in Sydney. I consider Sydney the capital of the world.
Do you ever think about running for office again?
No, I don’t. I got the Light In The Attic thing in front of me and it’s such a powerful thing—I have a real opportunity to break in the states and maybe I can do a couple gigs here and there. You’re right, man—every two years, an election. About running for office—to run for mayor in the city of Detroit, you need five hundred and eighty signatures. And they have a special election, and they’re gonna have another one in two years, and if you get youngbloods in there, they’ll change it, I feel. And with term limitations—that’s another thing that has happened, so they can’t run. So that’s gonna be almost—running against no one there. It’s a mechanism to change things.
So do you think the system works?
What ruins it is stolen elections. That’s clear—I feel we’re almost in South America, man! They’re wrecking everything. Look at Mugabe, man. In Zimbabwe. He killed the opposition.
Are we really at that point?
No, no—well, I don’t know. There’s Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, all these music people getting offed. You know Detroit had that heavy murder rate. One year we hit a little over 800. In Chicago, they were talking their crime rate was 450. So Detroit in itself—a lot of activity here. And people say we’re doing the drugs—the LSD people. And the war was still very much in the paper. But with journalists, man—this is another way to inform people. We still have the tools. And creative people they can’t mess with because they come up with the ideas.
Did you think of yourself as a reporter when you were writing your early songs?
It’s a social thing starting to surface there. Like Simon and Garfunkel—‘Crosstown Bus.’ And you hear the lyrics and you can exactly relate. And with photography now and the Internet, you can get through. We’re reaching a global audience here. I did a thing with Rolling Stone, and then this French music weekly—I got the copies and there it is! Reaching through Light In The Attic—much further and much quicker and much more independently! You can get swallowed up in the world with the ‘gotta do this because you’re connected with that.’
The rock bureaucracy?
There you go! So it’s all very real.
Did you feel lost when you everyone said you were lost?
I consider the music a odyssey. South Africa, Australia—I been at least three times to each place if not more. I went to Namibia! It’s big enough to put England, Ireland and Scotland in there. It’s all about world paradigms. These people have all those ideas that will day off and then the young people will come in. It’s Kuhn—his idea of paradigms. Get a formal education, as I like to say. Musicians if they make it, they don’t like change. So if it’s not coming from the schools, it’s not coming from anywhere. With Zimbabwe—I went to South Africa, so I learned what was happening in that region. And once you hear about it, you want to speak about it, just like Bangladesh—how we became aware of the Indian culture and the sitar.
How did the South African military get so into your music?
Everybody in South Africa had to do duty—it’s compulsory. So they put these guys at the edge of the country—Namibia took the most fighting. And they found these tapes and they were passing them around. They were all that age group, and apartheid was happening, and they were starting to question what they were doing out there and what it was all about. In America, they not only protested the war—they were burning their draft cards and going to Canada. So these kinds of movements—and the demonstrations in the city—this is the news! You don’t know who to believe about the Iraq question and all this stuff now—we’ll see. It’s almost like the early part of the century—Cubism and Picasso and Stravinsky, stuff like that. Well, anyway—I’m getting into time periods.
Do you think the problems you sang about in the ‘60s still persist?
They’re still sadly true. But I feel it can be fixed. They’ve spent billions to bailout people or do this or that—they can fix the system. They need to create more doctors. Stuff like that. I think it’s all possible. They created the FBI—and I think 100,000 signed up! It starts evolving somewhere. The American government should be investing in young people. And the military largely made up of women now—that’s where they get their personnel. But I think—well, we’ll see after the election! When times are good, music goes up—and when times are bad, music goes up! It’s an industry and it’s global—a person doesn’t have hit in the United States to go overseas, and so can they the other way. It’s gonna be an honest pleasure and a privilege to be out there, man! Say hello to everybody, man!