Linus Van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas put it best: "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country." If you’ve ever heard of Sixto Rodriguez, you probably already know the story of the Detroit folk singer who sank into retirement and obscurity for over 20 years while his albums went platinum in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, only to abruptly discover his meridional rock star status after zealous followers tracked him down in the late ‘90s using a fan site they called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt.” Now, nearly 40 years after its initial release on the small Sussex label, Rodriguez’ legendary debut Cold Fact is getting its first widespread release in the States thanks to the good folks at Light in the Attic.
It’s interesting to listen to an album that purportedly inspired opponents of Apartheid and try to appraise it objectively in your own place and time. What’s most striking about Cold Fact at first listen is how uniquely American it is: a mish-mesh of Dylanesque folk, stripped-down blues and dirty fuzz framing a mostly grim suite of songs portraying the blunt reality of life in a Detroit on the decline. Rodriguez delivers his poetry with a combination of dry wit and inward seething that’s more proto-punk than hippie: he is angry both at his city (“Gomorroh: A Nursery Rhyme,” complete with scary children chorus) and at his country (“The poor create the rich hoax / and only late breast-fed fools believe it” on “Rich Folks Hoax”), and most of all at the women in his life (“Only Good for Conversation”: “I wonder how many times you’ve been had...” and so on). Light orchestration and subtle psychedelic touches by legendary Motown producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey heighten the drama, but almost never take the listener’s attention away from the man with the message, the exception being the opening track “Sugar Man.”
“Sugar Man,” a bittersweet ode to narcotics that has since become both Rodriguez’s signature song and his nickname, actually contains his weakest lyrics (“Silver magic ships you carry / jumpers, coke, sweet mary jane”), and is a departure in tone from the remainder of the album. But no matter, it is still one of the most unsettling psychedelic head trips ever committed to record. It starts off simple enough, with Rodriguez over a spare percussive guitar calling for the Sugar Man to “bring back all the colors to my dreams,” but soon descends into chaos as the nightmarish strings get louder, moogs freak out and the echo and delay effects go awry, setting the singer and the listener adrift into an empty void.
Perhaps like most prophets, Rodriguez simply had his timing wrong. Cold Fact was unleashed in 1970 on a country already collectively turning its back on political music. It’s worth noting that music critics at the time of the release of Cold Fact ignored the album’s incendiary subject matter completely in favor of lazy comparisons between Rodriguez and Jose Feliciano, as if inviting the former to make the kind of feel-good latin music the latter was known for. Now that the social and economic problems that were swept under the rug during the ‘70s have come back to haunt us with a vengeance, this may be a great time for America to discover – or rediscover – Sixto Rodriguez.