Ding-dong, just a song

About three decades ago, the conservative British politician Maggie Thatcher provoked an unprecedented flood of protest songs.

Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher “inspired” many bands and songwriters to compose protest songs which ranged from extremely critical to downright cynical. And in the last 70 years, few politicians have so often and so explicitly become a target of song lyrics as the British Prime Minister. Politics during her term of office (1979-1990) was characterised by privatisation, deregulation, and the destruction of trade unions, which – despite all economic success – led to an increase in unemployment, social hardship, and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. Her political reputation was further tarnished by the foolish war in the Falklands and by regulations which led to discrimination against homosexuals. A situation full of conflict for songwriters: On the one hand they were experiencing an increasingly tough struggle for existence, on the other they were getting lots of inspiration for moving songs. However, Bruce Robert Howard alias Dr. Robert, once a singer of the Blow Monkeys, doesn’t believe in the idea of Maggie Thatcher “as the ‘midwife’ of a thriving British counter-culture during the 80s and early 90s,” as the German newspaper “taz” puts it in a 2013 interview. “No,” Howard protests. “She was a polarising figure who encouraged greed and selfishness and destroyed people’s lives. Art may be able to flourish under these kinds of circumstances, but that’s nothing to be thankful for. In my opinion, Thatcher had a cynical view of human nature.”

In the 1980s, the Blow Monkeys not only belonged to “Red Wedge”, an initiative led by the musicians Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, and Jimmy Somerville to support the Labour Party, but also “dedicated” their 1987 album She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter to the daughter of a grocer. It included the hit (Celebrate) The Day After You, which the BBC banned from its radio programme at the time. But where others only celebrated the “day after”, i.e. the end of the Prime Minister’s term of office, Morrissey went even further. The former front man of the Smiths, who had already declared The Queen Is Dead in 1986, even used his 1988 solo album Viva Hate to imagine the despised leader’s execution, not without conjuring up an anti-aristocratic popular uprising scenario like that of the French Revolution. ”The kind people have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine / Cause people like you make me feel so tired / When will you die?” Of course only a first name is mentioned in the lyrics, but the allusion is more than clear. So clear that – as the singer revealed in his 2013 autobiography – Morrissey was questioned by Scotland Yard. According to the star, the goal at that time was to find out whether he posed a real threat to the famous politician.

Numerous other songs from that era used clear or veiled references to provoke: I’m in Love With Margret Thatcher by The Not Sensibles, Kick Out the Tories by the Newton Neurotics, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie (Out, Out, Out) by the Larks, Thatcherites by Billy Bragg or Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello – a song that cynically revolves around the construction of warships for the Falkland War, juxtaposing possible new jobs with future casualties of war. In 1986 even a French singer, Renaud Sechan, joined in the Thatcher bashing. His song Miss Maggie formulated nasty declarations of love to womanhood itself, each topped by a gibe aimed at the hated British politician. Always the same boorish line of reasoning: women, no matter how underprivileged they are, can never be as stupid, as brutal, as warmongering as men – with one exception: Madame Thatcher …

When “Madame Thatcher” actually died in 2013, it helped a punk song of the band Hefner, which had already been released in 2000, to get heavy rotation on the internet. The Day That Thatcher Dies lets a song protagonist look back on the 1980s and his political socialisation by the Labour Party. The lyrics are defiant: „We will laugh the day that Thatcher dies / Even though we know it’s not right / We will dance and sing all night.“ Towards the end, the piece also quotes a cheerful children’s song from The Wizard of Oz, the famous 1939 film musical, namely Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead. Ding-dong, the witch is dead? For many of Thatcher’s critics, that seemed to fit all too well. Ding-Dong! itself promptly experienced a revival, even advancing into the top echelons of the British charts thanks to social media promotion – and was also boycotted by the BBC. But nobody really cared.

Cashing in on Sugar Man?

First belated fame, then the award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” – and now a book is out on the search for the legendary 70s songwriter Rodriguez. Does the “Sugar Man” deserve that? And: Aren’t a few self-promoters just repeatedly fuelling the myth they have created?

Just to be clear: I think the long-forgotten 1970s
singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his songs are really extraordinary. And also
extraordinarily good. But I belong to the growing number of sceptics who have
been uncovering more and more holes and weak spots in the hype surrounding
Rodriguez that has prevailed for the last several years. This criticism is
directed less against the artist, whose demeanour has certainly been reserved,
if not downright modest, than against those who have capitalised on his
miraculous rediscovery and are still capitalising on it. These include South
African record store owner Stephen Segerman, journalist Craig Bartholomew
Strydom, also from South Africa, and Swedish documentary filmmaker Malik
Bendjelloul. Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom have recently published their
book Sugar Man – The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez. In
it, they describe once again how they set out in the 1990s to search for the
songwriter – who was believed to be dead – finally tracking him down and
helping him to his well-deserved fame after a quarter century’s delay.

This search and Rodriguez’s incredible
subsequent success are also at the heart of the film Searching for Sugar Man,
released by Malik Bendjelloul in 2012, which in 2013 earned him the most
prestigious award a director can receive: an Oscar. Bendjelloul committed
suicide in May of this year, allegedly he was depressed. Not least because of the
publication of Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom’s book, I was motivated to finally
watch the highly acclaimed film, the DVD of which I had put on my 2014
Christmas wish list. At first glance, it is a really beautiful, touching film.
It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American songwriter who
released Cold Fact and Coming from Reality in the early 1970s,
two fantastic psychedelic folk albums with great melodies and unusually
profound lyrics. The tragedy: Both albums, although praised by the critics,
were total flops. Which is why, the film continues, Rodriguez withdrew
completely – unaware of the fact that in the 1970s and 80s his music became
extremely popular in South Africa, of all places. Via audio cassettes brought
into the country by tourists, as well as through bootlegs and later re-releases,
Cold Fact and Coming from Reality became the soundtrack of the
South African anti-apartheid movement and were sold hundreds of thousands of
times. But also because of apartheid, established facts about dissident artists
were rare on the ground and at some point, rumours spread that Rodriguez had committed
suicide on stage at one of his concerts.

Some people said he had set himself on fire,
others that he had shot himself. Which of course strengthened his mythological
status. Until two South American fans, the aforementioned Segerman and
Bartholomew Strydom, laboriously tracked down Sixto Rodriguez in the late 1990s
and brought him to South Africa for a highly acclaimed concert tour. So in the
end, the film concludes, the whole world got a chance to hear about this
extraordinary artist.

According to the film, the two protagonists
took three paths, among other things, in their tear-jerking search for
Rodriguez. Firstly: They tried to follow the flow of money. Because, they
reasoned correctly, whoever has sold that many records must have been paid some
kind of royalties. But the two men quickly reached the limits of this line of
enquiry and met dodgy ex-label bosses who stonewalled them. Hmmmm, very
suspicious! Secondly: They used the emerging internet and created a website
called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt” where they encouraged people to hunt for Rodriguez
and asked fans all over the world to help them. And thirdly: They carefully listened
to Rodriguez’s songs again. Where, in the piece Inner City Blues, they
came across the magic line “Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this
morn / A cold fact”. The film revels in once again setting the scene where one
of the two heroes, as if electrified, reaches for the atlas to find out where
Dearborn is. And – what a surprise! – Dearborn turns out to be a small town
southwest of Detroit! Which finally leads to a turn of events. Eventually – the
film implies that the search took several years – all the different paths
finally converge: Our South African heroes find one of the producers of
Rodriguez’ first album, and the singer’s daughter actually gets in touch via
the website. Rodriguez is said to be alive; he lives right next door in
Detroit. And one day, this moment is also recapitulated in a highly dramatic
way, Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman finally get to talk to the man himself on
the phone.

Gosh, golly, gee, goose bumps!!!!!

But this is the point, if not sooner, at which
I began to have doubts. Not about whether the two had even contacted Rodriguez,
because that was indisputable. No, I had doubts about the way they said they
had tracked Rodriguez down – about the supposed detective work, about all the
crime-story elements that the film presents in such a compelling way; about the
glorification of these two fans who purport to have done something amazing in
order to look behind the myth, in order to help their idol to his deserved
fame. One aspect in particular made me wonder: Every record contains
information about the authors of the songs and about the producers in the
studio. And even the most obscure records are listed in telephone book-like
directories with every label number, which applies both to the original
releases and to re-releases, even when the labels switch. How was it possible
that a record store owner and an investigative journalist of all people, even
if they worked in restrictive South Africa, shouldn’t have been able to take
the simplest path in such a case? To consult catalogues or simply search directly
for the producers listed on the record covers? Mind you: The process of liberalisation
and the transition from apartheid to legal equality for blacks in South Africa
had already begun in the late 1980s, with Nelson Mandela elected president in
1994. Therefore, the country was no longer isolated during the search for “Sugar
Man”. And in the meantime, the internet had also been born and was available!
Plus: At least one of Rodriguez’ producers was a known entity.

We are talking about Dennis Coffey, a session guitarist of those Funk Brothers who worked for the famous soul label Motown. It was Coffey and his partner Mike Theodore who produced the first Rodriguez album, Cold Fact, in the heart of America’s music industry! They had discovered the artist in his native Detroit, and, looking at the issue today, it seems like a bad joke that the two South African master researchers, after a long and arduous search, finally, well, tracked Rodriguez down exactly there: in his hometown Detroit!

To put it simply: Why didn’t they go through the labels and recording studios? Why didn’t they just call the Detroit city council and/or Dennis Coffey or write a letter or an e-mail and inquire about Sixto Rodriguez?The Swedish documentary filmmaker Bendjelloul only appeared on the scene in 2006, when the whole thing had actually been over for years. Rodriguez had already performed in South Africa in 1998 after his rediscovery. But now a really big spotlight was trained on everything that was happening. After all, there were still a lot of music lovers all over the world who had never heard of Rodriguez before. The film’s enormous impact seems even more grotesque the more you find out about Rodriguez and his career afterwards, quite simply through various newspaper articles. Because in all those years, the artist had by no means been as obscure and forgotten as Searching for Sugar Man so strenuously implies to cinema and DVD audiences. Apart from the fact that Rodriguez had even campaigned to become mayor in his hometown of Detroit in the late 1980s, he had also had some success as an artist beyond the 1970s. A household name not only in American and European indie circles for several decades, he was also a veritable star in New Zealand and Australia. Down Under one of his records had reached gold status, and in 1981 he toured there with superstars like Midnight Oil. Of course he was somewhat forgotten in the 1990s – but someone who was really interested in him, especially if he was a record store owner or an investigative journalist, should have found it easy to quickly discover the basic facts. Even from South Africa.

And let’s be honest: A rock star who self-immolates
or shoots himself with a gun on stage – is anyone really supposed to believe that? If
something like that had actually happened, wouldn’t it have become one of the global
stories of the century? It’s a bit silly to build something up that big and
then spectacularly prove the unbelievable opposite against all rumours… So all
those years it must have been crystal clear that Rodriguez was leading a pretty
normal life somewhere. The whole fuss might have been totally unnecessary. Against
this backdrop and in hindsight, the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man
seems increasingly annoying to me. I’m joined here by a number of journalists
and film critics, especially from the English-speaking world, who have expanded
on the film’s gaps and inconsistencies. A typical example is Bill Cody’s
January 21, 2013 article on ‘comingsoon.net’, in which he sceptically asks
whether Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman really seriously searched for
Rodriguez and how much artistic freedom is allowed in a documentary film that is
supposed to reflect something like the truth: “Is it okay to bend the truth in
order to make the story better than it really is?”

One of the movie’s weak points, apart from all
the facts being withheld and the dramatizations, is that it asks the right
question about the unpaid royalties and implies many heinous things, but doesn’t
ultimately offer satisfying answers. The same way that the film actually raises
more questions than it answers. Because it focuses on all sorts of narrative
strands and hardly ever finishes any of them. Least of all about Rodriguez himself.
Highly mysterious smokescreens are created, and complicated explanations touted
in view of the different names “Sixto Rodriguez” and “Jesus Rodriguez” in the
song writing credits, which can somehow be explained at the (long-winded) end. People
from the music business talk, the feverish seekers talk, then the daughters of
Rodriguez, one of whom – yet another touching story – fell in love with a crew
member and promptly started a family, and also two incredibly eloquent
Rodriguez colleagues and friends from Detroit, who describe their buddy “Sugar
Man” as a noble hero. Were they the only two people from the artist’s circle of
friends that the filmmakers could find? Rodriguez himself only speaks in a few
scenes – in other words, it is ironic that we learn least about the main
character.

If we really needed another book on the subject at the moment, then it should be an
(auto-)biography about the artist or the true story from Rodriguez’ point of view. Or an investigative report that really uncovers where the money went, so that the songs’ author can finally get his well-deserved royalties. But instead, Messrs. Bartholomew Strydom/Segerman go centre stage again, with the same old story. And if you glance into the book, you’ll be amazed at the style: the two authors write about themselves in the third person! That leaves an impression not only of extreme self-absorption and artificiality, but also of blatant profiteering.

The site ‘sugarman.org’, which calls itself
the official Rodriguez website, is also significant in this context. It starts with
movie posters and record covers, followed by a 360-degree view of “Mabu Vinyl”,
Segerman’s book and record store in Cape Town, as well as announcements,
interviews, and reviews of the new book by Segerman and Bartholmew Strydom.
Other questions arise, e.g.: What does ‘sugarman.org’ say about the legal
disputes that have arisen in recent months, because after the success of the
film all sorts of people suddenly came out of the woodwork to find out whether
they too could earn some money? And what does the artist himself say about all of
this? Here, too, it’s striking: It’s all about the researchers presenting
themselves – if you want to discover anything new about Rodriguez, you have to
click through for quite a while to learn just a little bit. It almost reminds
you of the brilliant but psychologically unstable Beach Boy Brian Wilson, whose
career was steered by psychotherapist Eugene Landy for a few years. It seems as
if the movers and shakers have primarily created their own profitable myth.
Whether any of this ties in with Bendjelloul’s suicide is not known.