Rodriguez - The Myths and The Mystery

"How many times can you wake up in this comic book
...and still plant flowers?"

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Climb Up On My Music
by Craig Bartholomew

An unpublished draft of an article written in June 1997 that eventually became Looking For Rodriguez published in Directions magazine in October 1997.

"Climb up on my music", exclaims the folk artist known as Jesus Rodriguez, "and my songs will set you free". When Cold Fact was released in SA in the early seventies, no-one was free. Not the masses, then ruled by a minority. And not the minority, then, and probably still, ruled by mass inhibition. The country had not yet seen television and censorship ensured that not a nipple was in sight. A two year military service was mandatory while the "mother grundies" declared war on Scope magazine. It is not surprising then that when Cold Fact was released in South Africa, it became a hit. Simply because it contained a line which would muddy the country's sexually chaste waters and become a mantra to the youth, namely: I wonder, how many times you've had sex ...

In the early seventies Hillbrow was becoming quite fashionable as a cosmopolitan haunt. Words like zol, dagga and buttons made their entry into everyday language and so did the need to smoke some. Then along came a man called Rodriguez who was able to mirror this need to be free. A man who sang praises to his drug dealer in the song, "Sugarman", claiming that "you're the answer that makes my questions disappear". Unashamedly, he sang about Silver Magic Ships, Jumpers, Coke and Sweet Mary Jane in slang references to various drugs like LSD and Heroin. Both albums, in fact, and the two (actually 3) unreleased songs found on the greatest hits album, are riddled with references to drugs and drug culture. And more than this, he sang of something new to South Africans; that of disillusionment in crowded city life, dwindling job opportunities, slums and ghettos. A state he called the "inner city blues", and a precursor, in mindset at least, to Punk which would soon follow, and today's Generation X.

But just who or what is the enigma known as Jesus Rodriguez. And more importantly, what happened to him? Information is scant. Not only does the SA record company have no biography on him, nor do any of the major folk music clubs worldwide. Nor can Polygram International, now a major conglomerate, assist. And nor did the over one-hundred e-mails, letters and faxes that were posted over the last year. Every lead, with the exception of Sugar Segerman of Madiba Records and a handful of others, led to a dead end. Remarkable, though, is that Cold Fact was recorded in Detroit, a city which spawned not Folk Music, but rather the predominantly black sounds of Motown. And almost more remarkable is the fact that Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, the session musicians who perform on the album were at the time fully fledged Motown session musicians. This does not mean, however, that he was from Detroit. In one of his songs he talks about being born in the city with the world's tallest buildings, quite possibly a reference to New York. And we also know that he visited other cities too. London, for one, was where he recorded his first known album, Coming from Reality and, in the song "Can't Get Away", he sings of a being in a hotel in Amsterdam. "Q" magazine, New Musical Express and a host of other music publications including the world's leading music encyclopedias have no mention of Rodriguez. And not even a request to Shawn Phillips personally, who recorded 2nd Contribution in London at about the same time as Coming from Reality, could reveal anything new.

Poet or a prophet is another question that needs to be asked. With lines like, "The night puts its laughter away", it would be hard to view him as being anything less than a poet. His prose-like lyrics function well without music and his words are cutting and frank. Barely a taboo of the day is left untouched and not even religion walks away unscathed. Yet in other songs he becomes the prophet, seemingly prophesying on a morbid and dark future, with words like, "In the third millennium, the crowded madness came, crooked shadows roamed through the night, the wizards overplayed their hand". And elsewhere he sings in spine chilling fashion that "all things in common suddenly grew strange", not unlike the prophesies found in the Book of Revelations.

Probably the biggest question is why, not unlike the artist Vincent Van Gogh, he was so obsessed with an exit from what he saw as a socially ill society, relying on the temporary escape that for him only narcotics could offer. In "It Started Out So Nice" he poses the question: "How many times can you wake up in this comic book and still plant flowers?" And in the song, "Can't Get Away", which did not make it to either the Cold Fact or Coming From Reality albums, he sings of a force that torments him that, even in Amsterdam, he finds inescapable. Who will unlock the truth surrounding Jesus Rodriguez and demystify the man? A musician who's fate seems to have escaped history for now, leaving only his words and music as his legacy. And only in South Africa at that. Adding credence to a line from his song, "Cause": "So I set sail in a tear drop, and escaped beneath the door sill".

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