Sugar Rush: Letter from Cape Town
February 26, 2013 | by Anna Hartford
Grand West Casino is decorated in the theme of “Cape Town’s Maritime Tradition.” A tradition which involves, for the most part, magenta skies painted on oppressively low ceilings, so that your subconscious incessantly implores you to hunch. At Grand West you may gamble or ice skate or play miniature golf or watch a show. We’ve arrived—my sister and I—for option four. I’ve option foured here a few times, most often with regret. South Africans have a certain obsequious gratitude when it comes to international acts (a holdover, I assume, from three decades of cultural boycotts), so that we now seem to provide palliative care for washed up music careers the world over, one rung above, or perhaps below, the cruise ship circuit. In the last few years we’ve offered our gushy services to Helmut Lotti, Belinda Carlisle, Gladys Knight, Roxette, and, incessantly, Michael Learns to Rock.
But not tonight. Tonight isn’t the usual Southern Hemisphere rent-a-crowd. Quite the opposite. Because tonight we’re here for the grand reunion of the guru and his gurees: it’s Wednesday, February 20, and Rodriguez is on his first tour of South Africa since all the hullabaloo around Searching for Sugar Man. Letterman hullabaloo, Leno hullabaloo, iTunes hullabaloo, Oscars hullabaloo. They say the first audience at Sundance was laughing and sobbing and talking in tongues. What a story; what a man. Stoic. Poet. Prophet. Maybe a bit of an alcoholic, rumor has it, but who isn’t? I tell you, as a South African, to finally see him get international recognition ... it’s pretty irritating, actually. This was our one thing. And now, whooshhh: gone. Well, not gone, but omnipresent, which is just as bad. I watched the film with a viper of vexation writhing around in my gut. Not because there was much wrong with it but because, I mean, why hadn’t I made it? Just imagine how actual documentary filmmakers must’ve felt! After repeatedly scratching “Rodriguez story” off their project lists for fear it was too obvious. And then, enter Malik Bendjelloul. Malik Bendjelloul from Sweden. Malik Bendjelloul from Sweden comes all the way to South Africa on a “story-finding” excursion, and he finds our story.
Where once I could have indulgently filled you in, with the rare confidence of someone who has something interesting to say, I believe the abridged version will now suffice. In Detroit it goes like this: construction, construction—Whoa, fame!—construction, construction. In the parallel world of Cape Town it simultaneously goes like this: he’s dead and famous everywhere; he’s dead and only famous here; he’s not even dead. Now, back in the present, not only is he alive, but he’s also genuinely famous everywhere. And if we’re gradually accepting that Rodriguez is no longer our tale to tell, we’re not yet willing to give up the lead in his adulation. There has been rampant appreciation inflation. If you once only owned Cold Fact, you now have to memorize all the lyrics in Coming from Reality. If you once boasted that you'd been listening to him since childhood, it now emerges that you’d actually been listening to him in utero. And you definitely, no question, have to see him perform.
Terrible things have happened to concerts. The seats are more comfortable than ever, sure, but as for everything else ... There were no lighters to be waved, no lumo bracelets, no hard tack, no glass bottles, no smoking, barely any dancing. We sat as if watching a TED talk. You could, if you were risqué, shuffle a little above your seat. But if you tried to shuffle beyond your seat, into an aisle, a neon-vested fire marshal would soon shuffle you right back. You understand: this was not to be one of those “intimate” affairs, which you can recount annoyingly for eons, like that time you walked into an abandoned hall to avoid the rain only to find Nick Cave standing there in the dim light of a chandelier, and he composed a song about you before biting off the head of a rose and sprinkling you with petals. No. This was one of those regular, stranger concerts. Where the star walks out and you make a minute-long effort to stare at the “real” them, register their bizarre material minuteness (Celebs! Just like us!), and then content yourself with the accompanying screens for the rest of the night; watching, in effect, the simulcast of the very event you’re at.
Some people at Grand West hadn’t quite accepted the limitations of the venue. A gung-ho group in block H tried to rally a Mexican wave and failed embarrassingly about four times, before succeeding, to my surprise, so we were all compelled to half-raise ourselves and make whooping noises which had nothing to do with our mood. When this festivity was done I heard the man behind me repeat the nation’s favorite false utterance: “Only in South Africa, hey, only in South Africa.” This man’s running commentary was to be my constant companion: I am so familiar with his thoughts on the entire Rodriguez concert experience that I could easily be writing this from his perspective instead of my own. (He enjoyed the whole thing a helluva lot more). Among the things I now know about my constant companion is that he doesn’t think Oscar Pistorius meant to shoot Reeva Steenkamp. He’s also a huge Rodriguez fan. Huge. He’s seen the film twice, and this was his second concert. Though after the monotone opening act, with the screen still hanging over the stage, when the first song began to play, he said “Do you think this is him already, or just his CD?” And his friend had to say, “This is, um, Cat Stevens.”
The time arrived. The screen lifted. A small posse of musicians dispersed to their respective instruments. Rodriguez (vest, dark glasses, bird bolo tie) said nothing as he adjusted his guitar, and pulled on a black felt hat, perfectly completing his resemblance to Yoko Ono. And then, hallelujah, he began to strum the first magical chords to ... I don’t know. May we pretend from now on that my memory has perfectly retained the order of songs? Thank you. The first magical chords to ... “Like Janis.” And you measure for wealth by the things you can hold, and you measure for love by the sweet things you’re told, and you live in the past of a dream that you’re in, and your selfishness is your cardinal sin—
That was written well over forty years ago. Rodriguez is seventy now, and in declining health. No one came expecting a showman. The first Detroit concert described in Searching for Sugar Man has him hunched in the corner of the room, back to the audience. And you still get the feeling that’s how he’d prefer it. It’s as good as perfect. There are some concerts you go to for the razzmatazz, but others you go to as a pilgrimage. This was the latter. The only way the messiah can get it wrong is by failing to show. But a big part of any pilgrimage is also the other pilgrims; a community of shared faith, or its modern substitute—shared taste. And here is where the problems began. On this February night, at Grand West, I was made complicit in The Worst Audience.
This realization arrived to me as fact but with very little justification. At first it was just a lingering prejudice, which grew a little more every time I overheard the phrase “soundtrack to my life.” In time I would make a little headway in articulating it, which I’ll get to, but on the night it just clung to me irrationally, like a lemur or a child. One distinct aspect of The Worst Audience was that it discovered early on that it had acoustic power. For whatever reason, the miraculous design of Grand West stadium allows ordinary mortal voices to travel freely throughout the enormous space, without much need for amplification—with just a slightly raised voice, any fool could be heard by all, including the venerated Sugar Man. Between every flippin song: “I love you!” “Me too!” “Me threeee!” “Marry me!” “Sixto!” “Rodriguez for president!” “I’d vote for you!” “Move here!” “Are you still in that same house?!” “Hello Frikkie! Hello Johan! Hahaha, Sorry I couldn’t resist!”
Occasionally Rodriguez would sip from a bottle of water, or sometimes from one of those small ceramic hotel-room mugs. This mug, with its mysterious contents, became an object of fixation for The Worst Audience. “Hey! Sixto! What’s in the mug?!” “What’s that you’re drinking?!” My constant companions decided early it contained tequila, “because he’s Mexican,” and amused themselves by screaming “Tequila!” every time he took a sip. Once when Rodriguez went for the mug (“Tequila!”), another woman also screamed “Café!” A ripple of mortification ran through the hall, and the crier realized her innocuous café had been mistaken for the most egregious South African racial slur. The confusion probably started with how absurd it is to share a two-syllable observation as banal as café with an audience of several thousand: we are more accustomed, it seems, to the Tourette’s of bigotry than that of beanery. “Oh no!” she screamed again, desperate to recover. “I meant ‘café!’” (Silence). “As in ‘coffee’!” (Silence). “In Spanish!” (Silence). “Oh no!! I wasn’t being racist!”
Only in South Africa, hey, only in South Africa. A brief adjournment among the musicians commenced, and the next song began at last (“Hate Street Dialogue”?). During the quieter bits you could still hear Café’s mumbled explanations. I want to acknowledge something about The Worst Audience: I was in it. This is the bitch about group membership. There are some collectives I’d just as happily bow out of, but if we all took that option, who would be left to take responsibility for abominations like ... well, everything. To be sure there was a counter-presence there that night: the anti-establishment within the self-proclaimed anti-establishment crowd. “Shhhh,” they hissed. “Shut up!” “Quiet.” Maybe those were the people I’d paid handsomely to sidle up beside, though I wasn’t seated near any of them.
And frankly I wasn’t faultless. As Rodriguez began singing “Crucify Your Mind” I leaned over to my sister, stage whispering, “This is my favorite,” and then I sang it loudly just to prove to all and sundry and no one in particular that I knew all the lyrics. No doubt, through those refrains, the Tequila Guys resented me with the same heft with which I’d been resenting them. (As it turns out, matched resentment is what we arrived at instead of sincere tolerance. Democracy, you scoundrel!) But once “Crucify” was done the delicate balance between the allure of the messiah and the detestation of the pilgrims began to tip, tip and tumble. We were stuck in a pie-sliver of seats which had no direct relationship with aisles; undeterred, we shoved past our fellow citizens, our huffing early exit intended as a variation of rebuke. We sprinted in the parking lot, though we are not runners by nature, which I use here as a symbol for freedom. We took the N1 back into the city bowl, listening to Johnny Cash: the severe topography of Cape Town growing in our windscreen; a thousand climbers descending Lion’s Head in the dark, their flashlights strung like tinsel across its crown.
When I got home and took a dip in the Google I could finally start to put words to what had been so iffy about that crowd. The indicative words came from Rian Malan. Malan—The Great, it must be said—penned a piece for a local newspaper a couple of weeks ago in which he thought, Why not take Rodriguez’s recent mega-success as a kind of existential endorsement for his ilk? Malan features in the documentary: that long-haired hippy who thought the whole spandangle of Rodriguez being alive was a poorly-conceived hoax. “The royal ‘we’,” he writes, “As in old white hippies—at last have a movie we can be proud of.” He also writes: “Rodriguez’s global triumph is actually a huge compliment to people like me—white South Africans born in the baby boom, raised on the apartheid moonbase and converted in the Sixties to the cause of long hair and teen rebellion ... We got it; Americans did not.”
A few things are going on here. Thing one: hubris. But why dwell on it; who doesn’t when they have the chance? Thing two: nostalgia. When you grew up in a country like this, on the oppressor side of the frontier lines, nostalgia can feel a tad morally problematic. What’s that you miss? The eighties? Oh you liked those, did you? I think part of the recent Rodriguez high around here has been about this condoned nostalgia for an older white generation. Suddenly you can reminisce about which suburb you grew up in, which dances you went to, what music you were listening to, and not really have to mention apartheid. “I grew up in Linden!” “I grew up in Emmarentia!” “We danced at the Lemon Squeezer!” And maybe that’s okay. I’m not intent on having my say on the matter here, one way or the other. Nostalgia is an issue. But not the issue.
Thing three: the “anti-establishment.” The lore in Searching for Sugar Man (which, in fairness, Malan also disputes) is that Rodriguez’s albums were part of a wider political movement. It’s a strange kind of algebra: Rodriguez was anti-establishment, I was into Rodriguez, therefore I was anti-establishment. It turns out everyone was a liberation hero. Which, phew, is a real load off the old conscience. It also turns out that they were all part of a “scene.” And let’s not kid: our adult lives are lived in desperate search for a scene. It’s a more affirming thing than anyone would care to admit. Accept that by fairly authoritative accounts, the Rodriguez scene of yesteryear is being amply misremembered. Anton Kannemeyer—also The Great, while I’m at it—wrote into the newspaper too. “My brother and I were once beaten up by Rodriguez jocks because we listened to Kiss and the Sex Pistols. So what is all this ‘white hippy’ shit I'm hearing now? For me, Rodriguez was right up there with rugby and Die Stem.”
Rodriguez jocks? There are lots of ways to be a fan, and all these generalizations will be more false than true. But I think there’s something telling about the biggest hits from Cold Fact in South Africa. They’re great songs, but they’re also of the worst of them (the actual worst is that nursery rhyme song: track 10). And for a nation that’s now calling this album its theme song to political freedom, it’s worth remembering that these are the two tracks that have the least to do with freedom. Forgive me, but with hindsight these look like the songs chosen by a populace made puerile by censorship and patriarchy. “I Wonder”: the sex one. “Sugarman”: the drug one. And if in South Africa the song of the eigties was “I Wonder,” then the song of the nineties, as I remember it, was probably Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.” I leave the rest of the deductions to your perverted minds; mine is out gathering forget-me-nots.
The final thing is ownership. This, at last, was how I came to understand what felt wrong at Grand West. Something was off-kilter with the star/fan relationship. You got the sense that we thought he was ours, that maybe he even owed us. That it wasn’t just us who chose him, but he who chose us. It’s worth remembering that he didn’t. Back when, in the early incarnations of the Rodriguez story—told to one another at dinner parties every time the songs shuffled on (“Did you know he’s only famous here?”)—this question often arose: Why didn’t he just move here? The Worst Audience certainly wanted to know. “Stay here!” “Stay with me!” For fifteen long years: no need to walk slowly through the snow (it never snows here!), no need to do roofing (we’ll start paying for CDs!), no need to play to an empty room, no need, even, to introduce yourself. Of course, as it stands, the story ends happily. That seems about right. Recognition, acknowledgement, attention, some money. But since all that is already so well established, let me say this. It also sounds like a drag. To suddenly have to be cast as this inspirational tale: The little folksinger who could. The man-as-metaphor. No need to carry a fridge again, just carry this: a few million people’s projections, misinterpretation, mismemory.
“How does that feel? You weren’t aware of something that would’ve changed your life completely, probably for the better,” Bendjelloul asks, towards the end of the film. “Well, I don’t know if it would’ve been for the better,” says Rodriguez (Buddha, most likely), coy, hand pulling his shirt collar together. “It’s certainly a thought, you know.” It is a thought. It’s also a thought whether it would’ve been better never to have been noticed at all. One can imagine in some ways that that’s the career Dylan would’ve preferred: unsullied, somehow. There’s an angle from which fans look like a vulgarizing force. We think of the artist as requiring an audience, but maybe an artist is complete on their own. Maybe it’s just trash that requires an audience. Rick Emmerson seemed to know something about this. Emmerson is the other construction worker who appears in Searching for Sugar Man, leaving me with the final impression that you can’t trip on a street in Detroit without falling into the arms of a philosopher. “He had this kind of magical quality that all genuine artists and poets have,” Emmerson muses about his friend. “You take this raw material, and you transform it. You come out with something that wasn’t there before. Something beautiful. Something, perhaps, transcendent; something, perhaps, eternal.”
That might be enough. That might be the only thing that’s enough. And if it is—and maybe it is—then Rodriguez never needed any of us, or any of this, and he still doesn’t.
Anna Hartford is a writer based in Cape Town.