Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is a moving, revelatory documentary about Rodriguez, a caustic, surrealistically inclined Detroit singer-songwriter who should have been as big as Bob Dylan—or at least Phil Ochs. Please read my review of it here.
I had the privilege of interviewing both subject and filmmaker; I present the transcription below (it's long; make yourself comfortable). I found Rodriguez, who recently turned 70, to be quick-witted, but his answers tended to glance off my questions and skitter off topic, albeit in a charming manner.
Searching for Sugar Man opens Aug. 24 at Harvard Exit.
Rodriguez: You look like you should be in films yourself. Really, man, you got the profile. You could do a lot of roles.
The Stranger: If I could only act...
Well, maybe that’s a gift, too. They said the method was not to act. Are you from Seattle?
Really? My deepest condolences.
We went to the same college: Wayne State University. Were you a political science major?
No; philosophy. It took me 10 years to get my four-year degree, but I got it. I wanted it. I graduated in ’81. They were phasing out the college, so I finished up my degree in Colorado. It was a special school. But my curriculum is general education. I know a lot of areas of things. Travel has expanded me, the experiences I’ve had. It’s not just education; it’s enlightenment.
Are you still living in the same house?
Yes, I do. It’s two blocks from campus, right off Trumbull. It’s the Woodbridge area, the triangle between Grand River, Trumbull, and the expressway [Lodge]. It’s a brick house, two stories, for $400. Some of those houses were selling for $50. We had to renovate it.
You should be living in better circumstances, don’t you think?
No. If it weren’t for the university [Wayne State], that place would be a dead zone.
Haven’t you made enough money to move somewhere more hospitable?
[laughs] Are you telling me to leave the city?
Not leave the city, but maybe get a place that has more amenities or something. Or do you find inspiration living there?
You know, London, Johannesburg, Cape Town—they’re all close now. You just need a passport and a bank account. My reward is sharing my music. I share the money with my family, three daughters: Eva, Sandra, and Regan.
Do you feel like Detroit never really gave you your proper due? I grew up in the Detroit area and listened to the radio, watched the TV music shows, and I never heard your music. There was no media exposure on you. I didn’t hear you until David Holmes put “Sugar Man” on that compilation, Come Get It I Got It.
Okay, dig it. I can see that you’re deep in this. The only reason my albums were reissued was because of the Seattle label Light in the Attic. The only reason they got involved was through David Holmes’ [inclusion of “Sugar Man”].
I’m curious why Detroit never gave you any recognition. Was Motown so dominant…
I think so. And the playlists [for radio] are always so tight. But it’s going to turn over. They can’t listen to that stuff much longer. It’s been 30-40 years. At that time, when I surfaced, FM was just being developed. In the 30s, radio was just being invented. My audience now, they hold their phones up and they’re enlarging the capacity of the listening audience.
Has your life changed since the making of this movie?
Yes, certain parts of my life. We all have a personal, private life that we guard and we have a political life and a social life, as well. I’ve written 30 songs and who would’ve thought 40 years later they would be. We’re in MOJO and Esquire magazine. I have song of the month, ‘I Wonder.’ This stuff is 42 years old. That’s pretty amazing. We’re doing the David Letterman show August 13. They’re talking about putting violins on my presentation. It’s their production thing, see? I was thinking, should I bring a band or I use their musicians? You kind of want to bring a band because you’re trying to bring a new sound. We’re trying to find a couple people from South Africa—the detectives from the film—to the presentation. We went to the Alec Baldwin film festival and he screened the film and also came to my gig. So we’re following the screenings now, but on the side I’m trying to get some gigs. I’m a self-employed musician. I describe myself as musical-political. I’ve done some big rooms. Now we’re just pursuing this film.
It seems like this film could help you get more gigs around the world.
Yes, it could. We got picked up by Sony Legacy. They do the soundtracks for these huge films. Malik is a self-made director. This is his first film. Out of 10,000 entries, Sugar Man was picked in the documentary category. The vistas in South Africa are great. It’s a beautiful country; gorgeous people there.
The movie made me choke up a lot.
Really? You gotta write your emotion. People’s emotions are private, but people say that Bob Geldof saw the film in London and got a little teary. [The film’s] an emotional release. My father said to be yourself and I try to remember everything he said. It’s at these times that I wish I could remember what he said. I didn’t listen well enough. He’s my role model. My mother died when I was 3. The heart never buries its dead; they’re eternal. The way we honor our parents is by remembering what they said and trying to emulate them. And we’ve gotta save social security for the young bloods. Music is a cultural force. We’ve got the right to assembly. Music generates oxygen and money. It raises the consciousness of the audiences.
Have you been writing any new music?
Yes, sir. I listen to other bands and write down thoughts and lyrics. There are plenty of inspirations.
I cover music from the '40s to the '00s. The guitar is central to the musical ensemble. In the 40s, Charlie Christian electrified it. As soon as you add a drummer, you need an amp. Everybody develops their own style. I listen to Paolo Nutini. He’s got the pipes. He’s 24 [25, actually], a young blood like yourself [haha; nice one, Rodriguez]. My daughter Sandra and I went to check out James McCartney at the BMI showcase.
Are you still in touch with Dennis Coffey?
Oh, jeez. Dennis Coffey’s on a German label called Strut. He covered one of my songs with Paolo Nutini [“Only Good for Conversation”] doing the vocals. I saw him in London. He came to my show. I didn’t know he was there and he didn’t know I was going to call him up onstage, but he did three songs and it was good. That kind of thing is instantaneous; it’s not scripted.
[Here Rodriguez goes off on a jag about protest songs, naming Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and David Bowie's "Changes."]
Music, it’s maybe 80 percent are boy/girl themes, but there are social things that are very important. Voltaire said that the pen was mightier than the sword, but I think today maybe the journalist and the camera are mightier than the pen. The Zapruder film, they said it was the beginning of photojournalism.
Detroit can sustain 2 ½ million people. They’re gonna buy the whole town up and it’s gonna change again and they’re gonna extend the gentrification. The midtown is what they’re calling it now. It’s growing, but not as fast-paced as Seattle.
Do you still have political aspirations? You ran for mayor a while ago.
Yes, I did. I’ve run for office eight times, from mayor of Detroit to state representative of Michigan and city council of Detroit. To get on the ballot, you have to petition for the needed signatures. The most votes I’ve ever received was for office was for city council; I received 7,000 votes. The cutoff was 30,000, so … I’m voting for Obama in this coming election. I don’t feel like I’m being represented by a governor’s son, with that Teflon kind of look.
Your between-song banter at your last Seattle date at Triple Door was really funny.
Oh, thanks! Your mind can get sharper in your old age, because you have that history.
You made two classic albums and I heard there was a third album that never got released.
My only plan now is to go to these screenings that are sponsored by Sony Classics and Sony Legacy and when I’m in the area, I try to get a gig or two. I thank my lucky stars because they’ve helped my family.
The guys in congress proved that they can’t do the job of fixing social security, so it’s time for the women to take over.
Interview with Malik Bendjelloul
What were the biggest challenges you faced when making Sugar Man?
Bendjelloul; It was basically four stories. There’s the music story about one of the greatest albums ever made [Cold Fact]. The story of how the same album could be completely forgotten in one country and be the album of the decade in another. Then there’s the detective story, which is almost like a film in itself—how they decipher lyrics to find out where this guy comes from. Then there’s this resurgence story, which is the climax of the movie—a dead man who comes back to life. All of these things needed to come together into one film. Even if each thing works [individually], they need to work together. Otherwise you don’t have a film.
Do you have any theories why Rodriguez was so huge in South Africa and Australia but so unknown in America?
I don’t know. I think it’s more strange that he wasn’t famous in the US that he was famous in those countries. The producers who worked with Rodriguez had worked with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and they said of all the albums they ever made, [Cold Fact] was the true masterpiece. There are thousands of artists we’ve completely forgotten are more famous [than Rodriguez] and sold more records than he did. The fiasco was of a gigantic scale and his success in South Africa was on a gigantic scale. He was up there with Bob Dylan and the Beatles [there].
Were there any people you wanted to interview and you couldn’t who could’ve helped the film, or did you get everyone on camera you wanted?
Pretty much, yeah. I was worried that people wouldn’t remember. This was 40 years later. It was absolutely the opposite. Steve Rowland [producer of Rodriguez's second album, Coming From Reality], for example, said, "Please, I’ve been waiting for this phone call. Rodriguez is the one I remember the most of all the artists I ever worked with." He didn’t know about South Africa. The lack of communication was complete. He didn’t get any royalties. Rowland said he’d never experienced anything like this. They say it didn’t sell, but we’ve received royalty statements for $1.50. This is the only time in our career that this happened. The story is extreme on several levels, especially the way [Rodriguez] was cheated out of royalties from half a million copies of record sales.
The most uncomfortable passage in the film occurs when Sussex Records owner Clarence Avant is on screen. You put him on the spot and he looked really evasive. He seemed not to be forthright. Can anything be done to rectify this injustice or has too much time passed?
I don’t know, to be honest. Labels go insolvent, new labels come, people buy each other’s back catalogs; it’s complicated. I only just scratched the surface of this subject. It’s a much bigger story. I know the stories that are not in the film. But the film is not about the money. It needs to be mentioned, because that’s the reason why Rodriguez didn’t know he was famous. If you have royalty checks in your mailbox, you understand that. I learned that all of the major labels are involved. His albums have been released in different forms. There’s a story that in Australia there should be an account for him in the name of Jesus Rodriguez. That could actually be reclaimed.
You’ve done documentaries on Kraftwerk, Kylie Minogue, and some others. Did you find that Rodriguez is the most compelling figure you’ve worked with?
By far, on every level. Not just because of the story. Björk and Kraftwerk are famous for having a lot of integrity, but Rodriguez by far has the most. He feeds your imagination because he doesn’t give everything away. With the interviews we did, I tried to not make intrusions with him, because he should remain this enigma. He isn’t that accessible in a way.
He seems like he doesn’t want to reveal too much about himself.
But the film does a really good job of conveying his roots and the interviews with his daughter are very revealing. Did you have any resistance from anybody you interviewed?
Not really. Even Clarence was very happy to talk. They all loved him so much. Clarence still had the Rodriguez CD in his car 40 years later. Everyone had a story about Rodriguez. The daughters had a beautiful story about him going to South Africa. How many people have experienced such a thing: Your dad is a superstar; you didn’t know about that!
How are you going to follow this up? Do you feel like it’s your masterpiece?
I do have a couple of ideas that I’m developing. But it is a very special story. It sounds like a fiction writer would have written this. It’s almost too much, unbelievable, that this sequence of events could’ve happened. But it did. [laughs]
Your film is very well made. Even though, obviously, we now know about Rodriguez, but the film still builds suspense. The odds were stacked against you in that regard. But even after all the reissues, Rodriguez is still not as well known as he should be. But Sugar Man might be the thing that breaks him out.
No, he isn’t. In those places where he has been heard, he’s on a ridiculously high level. They do talk about him in the same breath as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But in America hardly anyone knows Rodriguez.
I was so emotionally wrenched by Sugar Man. Just the footage of Rodriguez walking in Detroit in the winter tore me up. It really stirred a lot of memories from my time in that city. I felt like, here’s a guy living in reduced circumstances, but he should he be living like a king. The way you portrayed his life is very powerful.
Thank you very much.