The train now departing has been delayed for forty years – all aboard!
In terms of the story behind this gig it is probably one of the strangest concerts I’ve ever been to – performed in a circular warehouse in Camden, London (more on that shortly), by a previously little-known 70-year-old singer/songwriter from Detroit who’s on a huge trans-continental tour, after essentially being ignored for forty years…
The Story and the Myth – I’m still not sure which is which!
In 1970 Rodriguez released an album of songs called Cold Fact, which, although gaining good reviews (some suggesting he could be the new Bob Dylan), it was universally ignored by the general public. A year later another album, Coming From Reality, suffered the same fate and Rodriguez decided enough was enough. He left the music business and became a construction labourer.
Although Cold Fact failed make an impression in the US and most of the rest of the world, for some strange, undefined reason the album was a bit of a hit in South Africa and the album became a cult classic. Because he’d completely disappeared from he music scene a load of myths surrounding the singer popped up and lingered for decades. The one I was told when I was first given a copy of Cold Fact was that he’d shot himself on stage sometime in the 70’s.
His fame in South Africa was completely unbeknown to Sixto Rodriguez who carried on oblivious to the fact as his popularity had been gained largely through bootlegs, so he never saw a penny of his success! Then two documentary makers found out that he was still alive and through their film turned the rest of the world onto his music. I know this is a huge simplification of the story, but what’s wrong with an epic resurrection myth now and again…
Fast forward forty years after the release of his albums and this ex-recording artist has just toured America. Originally intending to be a one-off show at the Royal Festival Hall in London, two additional nights were arranged at the Roundhouse, then because those sold out as well another night was added before all the others on the 14th November. This was the concert I saw. He has also just appeared on the coolest music programme on British television – the BBC’s ‘Later…with Jools Holland’. After London he’ll be performing at Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Dublin, and a host of other cities in the UK before heading off to South Africa and Australia. Quite some tour!
The Roundhouse is one of the venues I’ve wanted to visit for sometime. It has had a long and varied history which began in 1846 as a steam engine repair shed for the London and Birmingham Railway – the center of the building having a turntable platform to position the engines in the different bays (hence the circular construction). It was “the first example of a truly circular engine shed” but was only operational for its original purpose for about ten years – the trains soon became too long to fit in the bays and having seen the venue myself, probably too wide to fit between the cast iron supports that held the roof up.
For fifty years from 1871 it was used by W & A Gilbey Ltd as storage for crates of Gin. By the Second World War the building had been abandoned, but in 1964 plans were drawn-up to convert it into a cultural centre “with a theatre, cinema, art gallery and workshops, committee rooms for local organisations, library, youth club and restaurant dance-hall”. The conversion never really happened but it did become established as a venue for theatre and music.
The controversial theatrical revue ‘Oh! Calcutta!‘ was performed in 1970 for the first time in the UK at The Roundhouse before moving to the West End where it notched up 3,918 performances before coming to and end in 1980. Stomp, the Michael Clark Dance Company, Ballet Boyz, Michael Moore, and the RSC have all performed in the space.
In 1966 the International Times, the underground newspaper (shortened to IT after legal threats from the Times newspaper), held it’s launch party at the Roundhouse where The Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine performed. Other artists to perform at the venue include – The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds, Dantalian’s Chariot, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Incredible String Band, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Ramones, The Clash, and Motörhead.
In 1996 The Norman Trust, led by local businessman Sir Torquil Norman, bought the building and set up the Roundhouse Trust with the intention of properly restoring the building and making it a contemporary venue for theatre and music. The Roundhouse closed in 2004 for a £30m redevelopment and reopened on 1 June 2006, transformed into a professional and modern centre for the performing arts.
Before the main man took to the stage there was support from a lone singer/songwriter called Bhi Bhiman. Most of the songs he played were original and some of them were purely instrumental. I actually preferred the instrumental pieces – his finger picking was quite stunning. That said his songs may have been lacking something due to the fact that he was just recovering from laryngitis.
By the time of the main act the Roundhouse had really filled out and a huge cheer went up as Rodriguez was assisted to the front of the stage (apparently he’s got glaucoma). The first few songs were a little disappointing because the vocals did not come thought at all well and were quite muffled. I was stood in front of the sound desk and part way through the second song an aging hippy pushed his way past and shouted to the sound-man “This is fucking ridiculous – sort the fucking sound out, I can’t hear is voice!”. After discarding the head mounted microphone and reverting to a standard set-up the gig really got going with the full range of his songwriting ability on show.
Of the songs played I only knew the ones from the Cold Fact album, so I assume the others were from his second album, Coming From Reality. The ones I didn’t know seemed a little less naive than those from his first album and, although not quite as quirky, really demonstrated how much his songwriting had progressed.
While listening to the performance I got chatting to an Italian chap who had studied Sound Engineering in London. He’d heard about Rodriguez through the recent and acclaimed documentary ‘Searching For Sugarman’ – I still haven’t seen the documentary but will certainly get round to it soon. We both agreed that the majority of modern music was over produced and essentially sounded the same, it was too perfect and lacking soul – there is honesty in imperfection (see another of my blog postings on this subject – I believe it applies to film and music!). He suggested that I look out for the early albums of Daniel Johnston, which I have yet to do, and I recommended the Love album ‘Forever Changes’, which I was surprised he hadn’t come across.
I personally discovered Rodriguez about ten years ago at university when a girl on my course lent me Cold Fact and a compilation of Nick Drake songs. I found Nick Drake a bit too dry and bit too English, but I loved Cold Fact and kept playing it until I gave the CD back – it took a few years for me to track down the CD and my copy eventually came from Australia.
He seemed to play the majority of Cold Fact, including of course ‘Sugar Man’ and ‘I Wonder’, and he also did a cover of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, which although not bad was not really necessary. He filled in between the songs with short dead-pan observations like “Do you want to know the secret of life…?” long pause “…keep breathing in and out” and, “Do you want to know the mystery of life..?” long pause “…when it’s gonna end.” He also acknowledged the large South African contingent in the crowd when one of them called out something and everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy themselves.
Although I was not overwhelmed by the whole thing it was a good evenings entertainment and I was glad that I got to see someone who finally achieved recognition after years in obscurity. It also proves a point – just because a certain act is not popular does not mean to say they are no good. There’s a whole world of neglected music out there that is far more interesting than the majority of stuff we’re usually fed – it just takes a little effort to find it.