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Protest music, freedom and truth in America: a conversation with Rodriguez 

Andrea Warner

For more than 40 years, 75-year-old Sixto Rodriguez, the elusive Detroit-based folk singer-songwriter from the early '70s, has been the subject of myth-making levels of rumour, mystery, scrutiny, obsession and adoration. Well, at least in South Africa where his sole records, 1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming From Reality, made him something of a cult figure to legions of fans.

The story at home was wildly different. Largely ignored by the American music industry in the early '70s, Rodriguez’s legacy was further obscured when he himself quit the business in 1976. With low record sales and a label that went belly up, he spent decades outside the spotlight, working physically demanding jobs and participating in political activism while being, for the most part, largely forgotten by the public.

That is, until he became the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Since then, Rodriguez’s life has been a whirlwind of travel, touring and non-stop attention. It’s not necessarily the way the singer-songwriter anticipated living out his 70s, but the notoriously shy folkie isn’t letting this chance pass him by.

He’s currently touring across Canada, in support of his 2016 live album, Rodriguez Rocks: Live in Australia, and the day before his Aug. 5 show in Vancouver, Rodriguez visited CBC Music to talk about protest music, freedom, marijuana and telling the truth in America.

What's changed the most for you since the documentary came out and won the Academy Award five years ago?

Well it's a very global perspective I have now. We’ve been to Australia six times, we've been to South Africa six times. We've been to England and France and Namibia, and so it gives you a perspective. I’ve been in these countries and it's pretty astounding.

When you were writing your songs originally in the early ’60s, did you consider yourself a witness or were you writing from personal experience?

Oh, that’s a good word. Yeah, I like to write poetry I like to look at things and put them in a poetic frame. I put the lyrics like that and every once in a while, I put these riffs that I call ’em. It’s a different style, I guess, than everybody else’s. I'm a single, I play guitar, rhythm guitar, and I know how to play.

A lot of people talk about lyrics first or music first —

Oh, it's developmental. I always wanted to say to people that you grow. You have your first gig, you have the second gig, third gig. It's developmental; it's like knowledge, it's cumulative. You build on something, first grade, second grade.

Absolutely. Did you teach yourself guitar?

Yes. I'm self-taught. And thanks for asking! Everybody develops their own style, I believe and yeah, I’m self-taught.

When was the first time you picked up a guitar?

Well, it was my brother's guitar and he often wondered why it was out of tune. [Chuckles] He would work and come home and he was my role model. His name is Jesus. That name has this kind of magic.

Can we talk a little bit about some of your classic songs?

Sure, you tell me what you would like to talk about?

I’d like to talk about ‘Inner City Blues’ first. What inspired you to write it?

Well it's just the scene, you know. You just throw little lines into a music scene and that’s the way that one went.

But there's something really specific about the lines that you choose to observe versus what other people might choose to observe. Did you feel a responsibility as a songwriter?

That's the way I write, you see. There's a lot of boy-girl songs out there, 80 per cent or some high numbers like that. Boy-girl songs are one kind of writing. And so I choose topics that are a little bit different and so forth, questions about society and stuff like that.

What are some of the biggest questions you're still asking about society?

Oh geez. I went to see John Sinclair [poet, writer and activist from Flint, Mich.] at the DIA in Detroit and they busted that guy [in 1969] for two joints and gave him two-and-a-half years.... Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder all went to Ann Arbor and rallied for John Sinclair and he’s out now, but that was an atrocity. To take a person’s life and ruin it for cigarettes. That issue is outrageous and society hasn't caught up yet. Twenty eight states have approved medical marijuana. Nine states have legalized it. And so it's coming down the road you know. The laws are catchin’ up and change is coming.

It feels like there’s an even larger gulf between rich and poor and I know you've got a song called “Rich Folks Hoax.”

Many of us come into the world with a clenched fist, but we all leave with an open hand. And the question about capitalism is also on the table, you know, is this the way to go at it? And the president of the United States doesn’t seem to be in line with all this. He exhibits senility, he exhibits conceit, and these kinds of things, and prevarication, he’s full of that. And I speak to that. You can't get around it.

One of the questions that has come up so much recently is where have all the protest songs gone? Have you thought about that?

I think bringing up issues is the thing. It’s hard to do because it's a sensitive thing. Any of it. You gotta try to find the right words so it’s not so harsh-sounding.

You’re writing new songs, right?

I am, yeah, and I’m writing new stuff and I’m experimenting a lot with music.

I know that there have been challenges to your eyesight. Do you think it's made you a better listener?

Oh absolutely. I have glaucoma and it's a visual impairment, but I get around.

And you have the really cool sunglasses.

Well, yeah, it’s the image. [Chuckles] Gotta keep the image on.

When I was doing research, people talked so much about you writing the truth. What does the truth mean to you today?

Well, if it’s not going to be true, at least get it accurate, you know what I mean? I think that’s important, too. Tell it like it is more than trying to flower it up. The president of the United States said truth didn't matter. What a.... He's got three federal investigations. The Senate is investigating. I don't think he's going to do well with all this extra attention. He’s said too many things, too. The more enemies you make, the more enemies you’re going to have. And that whole thing about Mexico and the wall — I’m Mexican. I don’t think — there’s nothing there.

Can you give me a preview of the songs you’re working on? Just the themes?

Listen, you can write all kinds of themes. Here’s a theme for you: freedom. Write about freedom. You can pick any subject and write a song.

What's your advice to aspiring songwriters?

Oh, really, they need a passport and a bank account. I think that's very important because it's a global market now. You don't have to worry about the guy down the street. You can take your business down to other places, and that's what it did to me. It opened up everything. They asked Tony Bennett, "Doesn't he get tired of singing 'I Lost My Heart in San Francisco'?" and he said, "That song gave me the keys to the world." And so likewise; I'm a citizen of the world now and I take that.

And I assume the gratitude for the experience. Some people seem to sort of not have that open heart.

The music business is that: it is a business, it's an industry and it's an art form. And the thing is, some take it differently. I take it as an art form, and we're doing good in business. But it takes time. But it's open to everyone and they should go into the humanities, arts, painting, music, anything like that. It's an option, it’s another alternative lifestyle and I’m exhibit A of that success.

Rodriguez's Canadian tour dates:

Sept. 15: Massey Hall, Toronto
Sept. 17: CityFolk, Ottawa
Sept. 19: Metropolis, Montreal

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner