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‘Searching for Sugar Man’ Rodriguez: From Poverty to Carnegie Hall

Since "Searching for Sugar Man," the resurrection of folk singer Rodriguez is as remarkable as his fall into obscurity

The story of late-'60s folk rock singer Rodriguez’s fall into obscurity and poverty, told movingly in the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” is remarkable.

Just as his surprising is the story of his resurrection since the movie debuted at Sundance in January, winning the audience and special jury prizes, and its release in theaters this summer.

Since then, Rodriguez’s music has found its way onto iTunes, and the movie soundtrack hit No. 3 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. Rodriguez is playing concerts across the country  and is booked to play Carnegie Hall and Coachella next year. He’ll be the subject of a segment on “60 Minutes” on Sunday.

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“It blows me away,” Rodriguez, now 70, told TheWrap in an interview last week ahead of an appearance at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. “I did David Letterman with a 25-piece orchestra. It was my first orchestra. That’s the magic.” (See excerpt of interview on video below)

Rodriguez, whose Dylanesque anthems to the rejects on the hard streets of Detroit won critical attention but few sales in the 1970s, disappeared from the cultural landscape shortly after the release of his first two albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality.”

For decades, he supported his family as a demolition worker, all the while writing poetry and remaining active in working-class politics. It was not until the late 1990s that Rodriguez learned that his album had won a mass following among South African’s youth and anti-apartheid activists, making him a household name in that country.

Those fans thought that he’d died in an onstage immolation-suicide, which had become the stuff of myth.

The film by Malik Bendjelloul documents the re-threading of these parallel histories and introduces the very-much-alive Rodriguez to an entire generation of fans he did not know existed.

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"Searching for Sugar Man" also raises the question of where the money from his album sales went, as the musician himself has lived in poverty most of his life.

Rodriguez, soft-spoken and gentle in person, is amazingly free of anger. “Anger is too strong an emotion to waste on something you don’t like,” he said. “It can bring you down. You have to control you emotions. He conquers who conquers himself.”

That doesn’t discount what a struggle his life has been.

“I’m hard working class,” he said. “I took out walls, ceilings, floors. I’d do preparation for the plumbers and the drywall. But – material things? It’s not like we don’t get what we need.”

“We were so poor, we couldn’t pay attention,” he said jokingly, in the conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel. (“You can’t dismiss the room service and all of that,” he says appreciatively.)

He still isn’t making much money now, but he’s racking up airline miles. And with the platform on “60 Minutes” and the Oscar race for documentaries on the horizon, he’s hoping to build a following that will buy his music. 

At 70 (“solid 70” he calls it) and after a life of poverty and hard labor, Rodriguez is not very strong. His eyesight is failing, and he appears frail. His appearance at the El Rey wasn't exactly a hit – he sang at 11:30 p.m., sometimes out of tune, and sprinkled in old-style covers like “Great Balls of Fire.”

Even so, when he sang his own songs acoustically, the poetry came through. And a certain justice seems to prevail. 

"You don't do art for a guarantee," he said. "Musicians don't write for the Grammys. We do music for the girls, for the money, for history, but mostly — for pleasure. It's a living art."

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