Thursday, January 22, 2009

The four lives of Rodriguez

Posted By on 01.22.09 at 02:29 PM

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One of last year's more bizarre comebacks--his third, by some reckonings--belongs to Detroit's Rodriguez (born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez), a child of Mexican immigrants who forged a compelling mix of folk-rock, psychedelia, and strident protest song in the late 60s and early 70s, but whose two albums sunk quickly into obscurity.

The extensive liner notes that accompany last year's reissue of his 1970 debut, Cold Fact (from Seattle's Light in the Attic label), make it clear that Rodriguez suffered from a combination of bad luck and a self-destructive tendency to shrug off music-biz protocol--he often performed with his back to audiences, casually associated with underworld types, and made frequent drug references in his often depressing lyrics.

Great session guitarist Dennis Coffey produced Cold Fact and his arrangements, performed by some Motown session cats with a full complement of strings and horns, gave Rodriguez a gorgeous setting for his tunes. Despite local success, though, the record didn't fly nationally--and its follow-up, Coming From Reality, cut in London and released the following year, did even worse.

Rodriguez enrolled at Wayne State University (in the early 80s he earned a BA in philosophy) and supported his family with renovation and restoration work. During the 70s he tried to enter city politics but failed. He carried on working day to day, unaware that in Australia and New Zealand he'd become a minor star, with sales of his albums (either licensed and bootlegged) far outstripping the U.S. numbers. In 1979 he accepted an invite to tour in Australia, and he returned again in 1981 with Midnight Oil as his backing band.

A similar situation played out in South Africa in the late 90s. Under apartheid the bluntness of his lyrics had appealed to freedom fighters, but that urgency was gone by the time his music was finally issued on CD there in 1996--and most people assumed Rodriguez was dead. A dedicated fan (who worked on the Light in the Attic liner notes) succeeded in tracking him down, opening the door for several successful South African tours. Around the same time a handful of DJs tapped into his records, most notably Britain's David Holmes, who eventually included a track from Cold Fact on a mix CD in 2002.

The music on last year's CD reissue of Cold Fact holds up well--though its subject matter is clearly of its time, the production sounds pretty fresh, and there are shades of Bob Dylan, Jose Feliciano, Donovan, and Love. I can't quite agree with folks who seem to think it's some sort of holy grail, but it's good stuff, no doubt about that. The label plans to reissue Rodriguez's second album later this year.

Since the most recent reissue of Cold Fact Rodriguez has done a handful of gigs, and a few days ago he was announced as the opener for tonight's sold-out Animal Collective concert at Metro. In case you're seriously itching to see him and don't have tickets to that, he'll also play tomorrow night in Rock Island at a Daytrotter show at Huckleberry's Pizza Parlor.

Today's playlist:

Johnny Osbourne, Truths and Rights (Heartbeat)
Erdmann, Westergaard & Rohrer, Sleeping With the Enemy (Jazzwerkstatt)
Various Artists, An England Story (Soul Jazz)
Monareta, Picotero (Nacional)
Lucas Niggli Drum Quartet, Beat Bag Bohemia (Intakt)

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