The ‘rags to rags’ story of Sixto Rodriguez, the ‘Latin Bob Dylan’ who is back in the spotlight after 40 years in the wilderness
No one in the half-empty bar of the London business hotel gives a second glance to the man with the long black hair, heavy Roy Orbison shades and leathery orange features like an Apache Indian. But in the parallel universe I can so easily imagine, things look very different indeed.
Instead of the sweet looking girl – his daughter Regan – to mind him, this man is surrounded by suited heavies with radio receivers in their ears. Instead of jabbering German tourists ignoring him completely, the lobby is dotted with fans, rubberneckers, surprised passers-by doing double-takes, perhaps even the odd would-be groupie. And instead of the Barbican Thistle, we’re in the swankiest hotel money can buy: if not the Ritz or the Dorchester then somewhere ultra chic designed by Philippe Starck. What else would you expect of a Sixties musical legend?
‘Oh My God,’ people are murmuring in this parallel universe. ‘Is that him? Is that Rodriguez? Is he playing in London? Why didn’t someone tell me? How do I get tickets? Do you think maybe he’ll give me his autograph?’ The alternative Rodriguez lazily surveys the scene like some jaded emperor, the novelty of being worshipped and noticed having long since worn off. It has, after all, been nearly 40 years since the release of the album that first made his name: Cold Fact, the psychedelic folk album, which everyone recognises as a defining classic of high Sixties/early Seventies pop.
Except it didn’t quite turn out that way, and I want to commiserate. I’ve come to hear, straight from the horse’s mouth, the extraordinary, heartbreaking tale of how Sixto Rodriguez made one of the most underrated masterpieces in rock history, disappeared off the map, then emerged from oblivion decades later to find himself finally almost famous and being hailed retrospectively as ‘the Latin Bob Dylan’. Swedish film-maker Malik Bendjelloul, who is making a documentary about the singer, justifiably calls the saga ‘one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll stories of the last 30 years’.
‘Excuse me,’ I say, walking up to him (slightly nervously because he’s never done a face to face interview with a British journalist before, so no one is quite sure what to expect). ‘Are you –’, but before I can say another word, Regan steps forward and whisks me to one side. ‘My father’s really not happy right now,’ she explains. ‘This could be difficult. You just want to ask him a few questions, right? No photographs.’
‘Um, not quite,’ I say. ‘That’s the photographer you can see over there. And look, if your dad’s not in the mood, then maybe we shouldn’t do it. I mean, it’s a fantastic story he has to tell. A fairy tale, almost.’ Regan nods. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Disappointed and mildly irked, I loiter in the lobby to await the Emperor’s verdict.
‘My story isn’t a rags to riches story,’ Rodriguez says. ‘It’s rags to rags and I’m glad about that. Where other people live in an artificial world, I feel I live in the real world. And nothing beats reality.’
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