Searching for Sugarman
After being taken to the ends of the world (DLR to Limehouse) we arrived at London’s former picture palace – The Troxy. With my required mix-tape clutched firmly in my hand, (though technically mine was a CD with a mix-tape ‘N50’ written across the front) we entered the old cinema.
Decked out with vinyls, hot dogs and popcorn stands, we got some drinks, had a wander through the music stalls, before grabbing our seats. The evening started with a comedian warming up the troops, followed by a short film about a man who collected the most records in the world. Only then was it time for the film to start. The audience was treated with homemade sound effects courtesy of the South Africans of the crowd, wooping and cheering when the camera panned across Cape Town – as one of the most brilliant and untold stories in music unraveled in front of our eyes…
Rodriguez was a 60/70s folk rock musician. His career started when he was spotted in a bar – his silhouette cut through the smoke, with his Dylan-esq folk sound bringing life to the dreary bar. He was signed and released his first album. It was a flop, but the label believed he was going to be a star. He was the freshest sound they’d heard in years and still, to this day, they don’t understand why it didn’t sell. So the label backed a second album – this time convinced it would be a bestseller. But sadly it wasn’t to be and the label dropped him. People then heard of Rodriguez again when he played a final gig – where his last song saw him get a gun from his pocket and blew his brains out. To the world, he was dead.
Around the same time of his second album ‘Cold Fact’ being released, a copy of it was taken over to South Africa by a girlfriend to see her boyfriend. They played it at a party and everyone was desperate to get their mits on a copy, so bootleg copies got made of this vinyl. It spread so much that the record stores at the time started to buy in the album from the States. As this was going on, there was a massive amount of oppression and discrimination from the leader, which sparked riots to bring justice. The main hit on Rodriguez’ second album was all about freedom and revolution – which everyone had been playing – and therefore got banned. All the radio stations around the country scratched out the song on vinyls so that it couldn’t be played. And as everyone generally knows, when something gets banned you want more. This lead to millions of sales of the album – making it bigger than The Rolling Stones and The Beatles!
We whizz forward a few years, to a fan that owns a music store. With the help of his friends, he wrote a list of all the things he wanted to do in life. One of those things was to ‘find out how Rodrigues died’. His mystery-solving mission began – to find out the history behind his favorite musician. He started at where his money went. From all the millions of sales, the royalties had to be going somewhere. But the topic was brushed under the carpet when he confronted the record companies – claiming they didn’t even realise it was selling.
Our fan didn’t give up. His mission of music saw him set up a website of all the places he’d tried looking – through song lyrics and asking for information that anyone might have. Then, one day he received an email from a girl stating that Rodrigues is her father and… alive! The next night, at stupid-o-clock in the morning, our fan received a phone call from Rodrigues and filled him in on his music taking over South Africa. Rodrigues couldn’t believe it. Since the record label dropped him, he had been working back in Detroit doing bits and bobs in building construction. He had no idea he was a South African superstar! Skipping forward a few months, they flew Rodrigues out to do a tour, which the family thought would be pretty small. They hoped people would turn up. But had no idea the audience was more like six sellout nights at London’s 02 Arena. The crowd went wild, as the man they all grew up listening to and believed to be dead, walked out on stage – cool as a cat.
This was the amazing story of a man who wrote music that inspired a whole country – yet never knew about it. He goes back every now and again for tours, but at home his life hasn’t changed.
The film finished and the credits started rolling. We’re all left sitting there thinking, ‘damn, that’s one hell of a story…’ when the screen starts moving, ever so slowly up. We hear a bass guitar start playing the riff that was heard when Rodrigues walked out on stage in his first concert in South Africa. The screen is still moving up, revealing the bassist in a box above the stage. Then on the actual stage in front of us, we see the rest of the band start playing. All of a sudden, in true Secret Cinema style, Rodrigues himself, at the ripe age of 69, walks out on stage and starts singing. Live. People start running down to the front of the stage. We’re all standing on our chairs, cheering. It was mental. I think I saw at least three bras thrown for the man with the best story in music. And, as amazing as he is, I can safely say mine wasn’t one of them.
Now I do apologise, having stolen five minutes of your life – but this story was too good not to tell. I can’t wait to see what the geniuses behind Secret Cinema do next with their Secret Screenings Nights.
(Oh, and what was the point of my homemade mix-tape, I hear you ask? Everyone who brought along an old vinyl, CD or tape exchanged it. Making me now the proud owner of 7” vinyl of ‘Question Mark and the Mysterians!’)