[Today: Through the cracks…]
Drop the needle anywhere on Sixto Diaz Rodriguez’ 1970 debut, Cold Fact, and it’s confounding to figure out how this music didn’t get across to a wider audience – these are catchy, poetic slices of urban woe, set to an appealing folk strum. At the same time, it’s immediately obvious why these songs were doomed from the outset – they were simply too stark and angry for a crowd weaned on James Taylor and Carole King. Cold Fact was too folk for a rock audience, and too rock for a folk audience, and somewhere between the two it fell through a crack, all the way to South Africa.
The story of this album has almost taken on the quality of legend: after Cold Fact and its follow-up failed to make an impression, the remainders were crated up and put into storage in a warehouse in New York City. In 1976, several thousand copies were discovered and shipped to South Africa and Australia, where Rodriguez had earned a steady cult following. After a few shows in Australia in 1981, he slipped into a domestic life, raising a family and even running for public office. His popularity in South Africa increased to the point that he was able to headline a stadium tour of that country in 1998, but it was the inclusion of ‘Sugar Man’ on David Holmes’ 2002 compilation Come Get It I Got It that finally broke Rodriguez to the kind of appreciative audience he deserved all along.
Rodriguez functions as a latino Bob Dylan, using pointed wordplay to tell a story and get across some larger truths. But Dylan captured visions of kings and queens, and his Desolation Row was a mere abstraction, a literary device used to evoke feelings of doom. Rodriguez – a native of Detroit and the son of Mexican immigrants – was slinging his truth straight from the gutter, without varnish or sweetener. His reporting came from the boulevard of broken dreams and busted windows that ran right down the middle of Motown.
Album opener ‘Sugar Man’ is a haunting love song to “jumpers, coke, sweet mary jane”, an insidiously dreamy number that evokes drug impairment as well as any song this side of Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin’. ‘Establishment Blues’ (full title: ‘THIS IS NOT A SONG, IT’S AN OUTBURST: OR THE ESTABLISHMENT BLUES’) is an outburst – against bigoted cops, illegal handguns, garbage strikes, organized crime, divorce, cigarettes and a hundred other urban ills. Predictably, it’s an evergreen song that sounds more topical now than ever. ‘Inner City Blues’ is a stroll through real desolation and into the dark heart of Detroit, while ‘Jane S. Piddy’ follows an acid-head rebel loser as she disappears into the fog of San Francisco. ‘Hate Street Dialogue’, ‘Crucify Your Mind’, ‘Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme)’ – the song titles paint a picture that isn’t pretty, but Rodriguez took the coffin dust and concrete hearts of his hometown and used them to paint his masterpiece…
Listen: Sugar Man
Listen: Establishment Blues
Listen: Inner City Blues