The Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man introduced the world to the forgotten psychedelic-folk singer Rodriguez. One viewing and you wonder how his sound, reminiscent of Bob Dylan's and Donovan's, never found an audience. But time and a movie have remedied that error. Rodriguez is now touring the world and will stop at Parker Playhouse Friday night. "All you need is one hit. If you can get on the charts, anything can happen," Rodriguez says before referring to one of London's most prestigious music venues. "I'm going to be playing Royal Albert Hall."
This will be the first time in his 77 years that Rodriguez has played South Florida, and he's heartbroken by the recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. "Kids killing themselves? Leadership has to come from everywhere. I'm from Detroit, and I can see there's too much ammunition on the street. We've got to be vocal on it." Politics has long been on his mind, not just in his lyrics but also in his daily life. "I ran for mayor of Detroit, city council, state representative, and for my life," he says. Indeed, he was a candidate for the Detroit City Council in 1989, for mayor of Detroit in 1981 and 1993, and for the Michigan House of Representatives in 2000.
In songs such as "Sugar Man" (1969) and "Cause" (1971), he narrated injustices from the times when they were recorded. But his combination of the poetic and political still speaks to audiences today. "I recorded that stuff a long time ago, but music is a living art. I sing about the banality of evil. When I talk to my audiences, I appeal to their collective consciousness. They know what's going on."
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The strident attitude of his music is a big reason why the only country that originally appreciated him was South Africa, he says. "There was police oppression there. Oppression results in a revolution. It happened there; it will happen here." The movie Searching for Sugar Man captured South African fans' search for Rodriguez. Over the decades, urban legends formed about what happened to their beloved troubadour. Most of the tales involved a gruesome suicide. But in reality, he was raising a family, working blue-collar jobs, and being a political activist. Throughout the years, when the music business seemed to pass him by, Rodriguez continued to strum his guitar each and every day. "I couldn't stop — it's a curse," he laughs. "Playing guitar is my therapy."
Though he's grateful for the success Searching for Sugar Man has given him, it doesn't seem as if Rodriguez is necessarily a fan of the Academy Awards' best documentary of 2012. "I'm in it for eight minutes, and I do all my own stunts. Some people watch too many movies," he says tersely.
Instead, he would rather discuss the ills of the world and the sweetness of life. "I'm optimistic about the future. I hope to live to be 350 so I can see it, but I can only live one day at a time." Then, good-naturedly, he leaves with parting words meant to encourage every singer-songwriter toiling in obscurity: "Youthfulness doesn't guarantee longevity."