Some people refer to Sixto Rodriguez as the Jesus rock star because he rose from a lifetime of obscurity in his home country to stardom, albeit in a faraway land on a different continent. And even there, despite his cult status in South Africa, he was believed to be dead due to a myth that he had set himself on fire at the end of a show to the last lines of a song: “Thanks for your time. And you can thank me for mine. And after that's said, Forget it. Bag it, man.”
Rodriguez was the sixth child of Mexican immigrants living in Detroit. Influenced by his father’s music, he was writing songs and performing in bars before he was eighteen. That was where it all started—his soulful, Dylan-like melodies and prophetic lyrics attracted the attention of two music producers. They cut an album, and though it failed in the US, a bootleg recording made it to South Arica. That was during the apartheid years in the 1970s, and somehow the lyrics articulated the feelings of those—black and white—who resisted the enforced racial segregation of the time. His music soon became a political statement.
While Rodriguez sold only six albums in the US, he sold a half million in South Africa. A diehard fan—Stephen Segerman—began a worldwide search in the hope of finding out what really happened to his hero. A Journalist, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom joined the search. These two South African fans eventually tracked him down, alive and well and still living in Detroit. But you really have to see for yourself how the rest of the story unfolds in a documentary film directed by Malik Bendjelloul.
Craig Bartholomew-Strydom happens to be a friend of my husband, Bruce, so we had the privilege of seeing the documentary shortly after its release, thanks to a tip-off from Craig. It really is a fantastical story—I highly recommend it! Another delightful fact: Bruce attended Rodrigues’s first (now famous) sold-out concert in South Africa in the late 1990s. And last night, more than ten years later, we attended his concert in Columbus, OH.
The music hall at the Wexner Center for the Arts was crowded, and there were some “Viva South Africa!” chants, so I knew we weren’t the only South Africans in the audience. A frail Rodriguez was assisted on to the stage; but from that point on, he held his own, with a wicked sense of humor to boot.
I feel honored that my home country played such a big part in this amazing performer’s belated rise to fame. His three daughters have confessed in interviews that their father’s newfound fame hasn’t changed him as a person at all, and while I believe that he is as humble as ever, his life undoubtedly has changed dramatically—at age seventy, he’s on a hectic schedule to perform in the USA, Britain, and South Africa over the next few months.
This remarkable case got me thinking about my blog post that kicked off this series of stories about change, and I’m puzzled as to how the recent events in Rodriguez’s life can be studied in terms of Bateson’s Neurological Levels of Change: environment, behavior, capabilities, values and beliefs, and spirituality.
Environment: Rodriguez still lives in Detroit in the same old, tumbled-down house where he has always lived. The part of his environment that has changed, though, are the world stages on which he now performs to adoring fans in contrast to never having played in a formal concert in his home country other than jamming informally with friends. What comes to mind is the demands on his energy, and I cannot help but feel concerned about his health.
Behavior: Rodriguez is known for being “humble,” he has been called “a groovy cat,” some fans describe his music as “depressing,” he has been applauded for “always promoting something in the community.” I saw snippets of all these qualities during his performance in Columbus last night, so I believe he’s still the same person in terms of how he responds to his new life.
Capabilities: Rodriguez’s might’ve grown frail, but he still brings the same magic to those songs that have had South African fans drooling for more—when he sang Cold Fact, Sugar Man, and I Wonder last night, the melancholy lyrics and his soulful voice brought about a misty-eyed applause.
Values and Beliefs: Last night, he was vocal about being an Obama supporter, and he took quite few stabs at the conservatives, so I should imagine he’s always been a liberal. Throughout his performance, he shared philosophical thoughts tinged with a healthy sense of humor.
Identity: Clearly, Rodriguez is no longer an unknown quantity. Not only has he risen from obscurity to stardom, but I predict that the mythical quality related to his past will forever shroud his rock star persona.
Spirituality: In the big picture, Rodriguez “knows who he is. He is not ready to lose his mind over money. Yet, he could lay claim to more than 40 years of unpaid royalties. What he wants most is to make his fans happy.” Read all about it in the Kindle Edition of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez's Philosophy: Rodriguez's eBook Guide to Happiness (How to Live Before Dying, How to Live Before You Die; Leadership for our Times).
As an author of a memoir - Out of Sync - a story about the impact of expatriation on relationships, I believe the dynamics of change affect characters in storytelling as much as they do individuals in real life. If you’d like to share a story about what change means to you (or to one of your story characters), contact me to make a guest contribution to this insightful story series.