Theses on Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez and the challenge to "posterity"


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


My girlfriend and I have plenty of things to argue about, but, surprisingly enough, the leading topic of argument — the argument that pretty much all others circle back to — is about the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man

You probably already know at least the outlines of the story. Sixto Rodriguez (the “Sugar Man” of the title) was a very talented rock ‘n’ roll musician — a balladeer in the style of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, or Leonard Cohen, but genuinely working class, with an edge of his own, and with lyrics that probably are better than those of anybody else who’s ever written music. He was discovered playing at a club in Detroit in 1970, signed to a record deal with a prominent label. He had industry excitement behind him, the right people pushing for him, and then — for no very clear reason — his two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, both dropped like stones; sold absolutely nothing; made no impact. The label dropped him, he went back to his work as a day laborer in Detroit, doing the dirtiest, roughest jobs and always maintaining a dignity about it — he made a point of showing up to demolition work in a tuxedo. End of story — except that, in 1997, he took what he assumed to be a crank call: an excited South African telling him that he was “bigger than Elvis” and inviting him to do a tour. The plane tickets that showed up at his house turned out to be genuine, the foreman at his construction site, having heard it all before and without asking too many questions, good-naturedly gave him off for his “concert” on the other side of the world. Rodriguez and his daughters got off the plane in Cape Town, tried to walk around a limousine on the tarmac that was waiting for some dignitary, and then were waved into it. Things got really strange when the accompanying band turned out to have been raised on Rodriguez’s music — and when they came across a professional Rodriguez impersonator, outfitted with a Rodriguez tattoo. For the concert, the daughters had expected some kind of coffee shop event, “hopefully 20 people,” but the limousine brought them instead to a stadium, which was fully sold-out, the crowd rising to its feet and applauding for maybe ten minutes before they even let Rodriguez speak — “thanks for keeping me alive,” he said — and then sang along with all of the words to all of his songs.

It turned out — through some sort of rip in space-time, a set of circumstances probably never to be repeated — that bootleg copies of Rodriguez’s albums showed up in South Africa at some point during the ’70s and caught on as the anthem of a generation. “Every liberal household would have three albums,” says a music critic quoted in the film, “Abbey Road by The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Rodriguez.” Embargoes and censorship limited South Africa’s contact with the outside world and Rodriguez moved almost entirely into the realm of legend — the belief was that he had killed himself while onstage. Apartheid ended, some intrepid music critics investigated him — using lyrics in the liner notes as clues — tracked him to Detroit where, all this time, he had been quietly doing construction work. The concert was arranged, the South African music scene went mad, and then — here was the really important thing — Rodriguez started to play and it was like he was home, as if somewhere inside of himself he already knew that on the far side of the world he had a whole other existence, his music was beloved, he had the recognition he deserved.

Since then, a kind of justice has been restored. For a while, Rodriguez had a dual life as a rock star in South Africa and a day laborer in Detroit (“the carriage turns into the pumpkin bus,” he told his daughters) and then, gradually, the music took over. A Swedish filmmaker traveling the world “in search of the most interesting story he could find” came across the Rodriguez story and turned it into an Oscar-winning documentary. Rodriguez’s music became just as popular as it always should have been — I hear it all the time now, in coffee shops and on people’s playlists.  

As far as I’m concerned, the Rodriguez story is as much a parable for our time as the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the Sacrifice of Isaac are for a different ethical régime — and, in the arts ghetto where just about everybody I know finds themselves, this story is parsed like holy writ.

For my girlfriend, Rodriguez confirms what she feels she already knows — that destiny comes into play, that talent will out, and, if America wasn’t quite ready for Rodriguez in the ’70s, his music was so exquisite that one way or another it would eventually find the right listeners. This sense of destiny may not apply to the world in general — everybody knows that virtue will not get its just desserts any more than the meek can expect to inherit the earth — but art has a gravitational force all its own. Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins do get discovered sooner or later. Kafka may ask for his manuscripts to be burned but, inevitably, his friend does not comply with his wishes. Vivian Maier, completely obscure in her own lifetime, has another of these mysterious saints in her future — an antiques hunter who buys a box of negatives sight unseen only to discover it crammed full of world-class photographs.  

There’s an obvious retort to this — which is that this whole line of discourse is like the world’s worst-designed sociological experiment, since the only ones we hear about are the ones who are discovered. If Max Brod had obediently followed his friend’s deathbed wishes, then Kafka would have been remembered (to the extent that he was remembered) as a labor inspector; if the auction house angel hadn’t materialized, Vivian Maier’s legacy would be as a nanny on Chicago’s North Side. Which poses the question of how many other labor inspectors wrote brilliant stories that would have changed literature forever had they not been burned or left in the desk drawer; how many other nannies made world-class photos of their charges that fell into the hands of the wrong bargain hunter and were taken out with the trash. That to me seems like a completely reasonable, statistically-sound argument — but try telling that to my girlfriend.

Because what’s being argued about, of course, isn’t really sociology but theology. “It’s a question of desire, not timing or circumstances, pure want,” says the titular character in Joey Soloway’s series I Love Dick. “Benya Krik had passion and passion rules the world,” writes Isaac Babel. The belief is connected to “law of attraction,” a very pagan sensibility that people are assigned their fates from birth — great artists are born great, it doesn’t really matter how many tens of thousands of hours they grindingly put into it — but people also have a certain freedom of movement both in aligning themselves with their fate and in working with energy and creating their own reality. The image is of some kind of cohesive entity, a small circle of great art — Parnassus — with those who really deserve to be there shuffling themselves around, making way for anyone who has earned their place. Great artists, it must be said, seem to default to this view — Dante has a vivid depiction in his visit to Limbo of how it all works; Rodriguez himself seems to have an almost perfect acceptance of his own fate (watch him in concert or see his interviews and it’s obvious that he’s a musician, not a rock star, that a certain humility is at his core, that everything played out exactly the way it was meant to); Hilma af Klint, the Swedish mystic who was recently discovered and given retroactive pride of place as the founder of abstract art, seemed to know exactly what was going to happen to her — her rediscovery show was at the Guggenheim and she had written that her work would be housed long after her death in a “great spiral-shaped building” — this decades before the construction of the Guggenheim.

This view is intricately connected with spirit; in the case of my girlfriend, with “Russian soul.” Theologically, it presents a path to divinity — in spite of everything, a tough, abiding justice in the world: talent is rewarded; miracles do happen (and, actually, happen fairly often). It’s a kind of frisson theory of art: the artist is, at least in some spiritual, energetic dimension, responsible for their own discovery; the superb work of art that’s left permanently in the desk drawer is in a sense no art at all; the true artist somehow manifests their path towards the center of the culture, towards the electric moment when they are universally (if begrudgingly) recognized. And this view is widely, if tacitly, shared by the culture-at-large. All the stories that you know about artists are, essentially, stories of discovery, and they’re passed around the culture like fairy tales — the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, Bob Dylan appearing in Greenwich Village (as in a memorable scene at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis), the Impressionists’ Salon, Hilma at the Guggenheim, Rodriguez’s bootlegs arriving in South Africa, the culture and some larger fate arranging itself just so for an aesthetic justice to prevail — and, in an ostensibly materialist culture, these stories serve as just as much of homily as “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”

I’ve spent enough time around my girlfriend to be deeply sympathetic to this view — and, actually, this is how I unconsciously thought about art for most of my life. In school, there was a natural tendency to poke at the weak points of the canon — to claim that Milton was church pieties, Poe a lousy writer, Plato a lunatic — and my professors were past masters (and very persuasive) in insisting that the canon was pretty much exactly as it should be, that it was susceptible always to rearrangement but that everybody, whether through the influence they had on others or “being ahead of their time,” was there for a reason. But, now, I just don’t buy it. Simply put, there’s enough injustice in every other sphere of life that I can’t think of any reason why art should be exempt — the wrong books get published all the time, terrible books get terrific reviews and good books are forgotten, whole fields (contemporary art, for instance, of the Jeff Koons/Damien Hirst school) are turned into financial rackets. The pantheistic, cosmic justice theory rests on “word-of-mouth,” on the diligent armies of editors and critics who keep constantly sifting through the slush pile sometimes long after the artists in question are dead, who right artistic wrongs, who manage, eventually, to reshape the inevitable distortions of the marketplace into something more like an enduring canon — “posterity.” But posterity, one comes to realize, pretty much just means people in the future, who turn out to be as gullible, as swayed by reputation, as people in the past or present. There are the inarguable objections to the cosmic justice theory of art — the holocausts of the Library of Alexandria or of the Mayan codices and the incalculable, irretrievable loss of art; the suppression of work by women, by oppressed populations, which will never be rectified — but there’s a common sense to it as well: interesting, overlooked artists are dug up all the time, which suggests, actually, that the number of interesting, overlooked artists who are out there and who haven’t been found is close to infinite.

These are difficult, lonely thoughts. They suggest that luck and certain kinds of prevailing corruption (above all, the human tendency to “front-run” — to glom onto whatever’s already popular) play a larger role in art than any of us would like to admit. I’m thinking of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s article “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” — probably the best piece of music journalism I’ve read. The piece is about Geeshie Wiley and L.V. Thomas, a pair of blues singers who recorded six songs in Milwaukee in 1930 — the records passed down through a chain of dedicated, ectoplasmic blues fans until a song of theirs was played in the 1994 film Crumb and they picked up a cult following and had Sullivan’s lovely piece about them appear in The New York Times Magazine. Just another miracle, one might say. To which the correct response is: oh yeah? As Sullivan writes, “The records had come within a second thought of vanishing in, say, a woman’s decision in cleaning out her parents’ attic to throw out a box of old records or find out what the junk shop gives. . . and for the minor miracle of these discs having survived there had to be an earlier, major one: that of people like Geeshie and [L.V.] ever being recorded.” Meaning that there were countless blues artists just before the phonograph who are completely lost to us and countless others who simply didn’t have their records passed down, who — like Thomas — ended up really filling out their church choir but didn’t have the miracle of that Milwaukee recording session and the perilous transmission of the records. I’m thinking of Charlie Kaufman’s terrific novel Antkind. Kaufman would be a prime candidate for the ‘talent will out’ theory — his screenplay of Being John Malkovich was, for a long time in the ’90s, passed around between assistants at Hollywood studios as a freakish, fantastic script that had no chance of being made; until, as these stories go, John Cusack got sick of everything he was reading and asked his agent to show him “the craziest, most unproduceable script you can find” — but Kaufman isn’t so enamored by the legend of his own success. Antkind is the story of a film — clearly the best film ever made, made over the course of 90 years, with a running time of three months — which is then promptly destroyed in a ludicrous fire and unsalvageable. The most moving aspect of the film, though, is not anything on screen — it’s the presence of the “Unseen,” a vast army of puppets towards whom the filmmaker Ingo dedicates the bulk of his energy and then buries in his backyard. “They’re in the movie, but the camera is facing away from them, as it is for most of us,” Ingo explains. “The puppets have been built. With as much care as the seen puppets. They have been posed movement by movement, just as the seen puppets. They have lived their lives. But they have not been witnessed by the camera.”

It’s somehow difficult even to think this way. We are so used to “posterity” as a kind of ultimate arbiter of justice that it’s not easy even to comprehend that there may be something wrong with that perspective. I’m contending that there is — and that recognizing this requires a massive, terrifying, and, ultimately, freeing and ennobling shift in thinking. This goes well beyond even politics or oppression — the politics of revisionism aims ultimately to just widen out the magic circle, replace the bad actors, substitute in some new names (there’s a scene of exactly what this looks like in the “Barter Economy” episode of I Love Dick, a kind of ballet of revisionism). Without getting too sociological, the point I’m making has most to do with demographics — a certain present-day reality in which we all atavistically imagine ourselves to be in some small community, the sort of community where individual talent and worth actually can be fairly judiciously appraised, and we spend probably most of our creative energy living vicariously through “celebrities” who form a satisfyingly small, surrogate community, while, for those in the global slum city, worth is never even evaluated at all, much less appreciated. As Joseph Brodsky — who one would expect to find in the “Russian soul” camp — surprisingly told an audience of graduating college students in 1989: “Demography is to play a far greater role in your life than any discipline you’ve mastered here. . . by the year 2000 there is going to be such cultural rearrangement as to challenge your notion of your own humanity.” In other words, frisson, the connection with the center of the culture, the fairy tales of discovery, have, at least in our era, very little to do with art — it’s nice if that happens, but, really, that’s more a kind of social phenomenon as opposed to art, which is primarily internal, is expressive, imaginative, and (in a way that is poorly understood) infinite.

Over the course of my life I’ve come across various intimations of what I’m talking about. There’s Voltaire’s line at the end of Candide: “you must make your own garden.” There’s Borges’ line that “every writer creates his own precursors,” which is a more startling thought than it might first appear: the idea is that the canon and the chain of influences are not locked into place and do not move forward chronologically, as everybody would tend to assume; the process starts with the artist who creates a completely idiosyncratic web of influences around him or herself and which do not, as in the standard model, run through the center of the culture. There’s Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which is basically an extension of Alcoholics Anonymous into artistry, the same unremitting process, one foot in front of the other, a day at a time, with creativity as diligent and internal as for the Buddhist monks who spend all their lives stacking rocks on top of each other. There’s the perspective of other cultures, which seem not to have the same mania for celebrity: The Geography of Bliss reports that Iceland scores as the happiest culture in the world, largely because everybody is encouraged to practice art without thinking of it intrinsically (as we do) as a competitive activity. When I traveled to Gabon, I was told that “everybody here is an artist” — and that did seem to be the case, art understood to be a kind of universal form of fulfillment and of social engagement as opposed to a narrowly professional specialization.  

But, really, for me, there is only one line of literary criticism that matters. That’s Walt Whitman’s “there are so many mansions.”

The architecture of this is important. There is no denial of the importance of craft or artistry. While it’s probably true that “everybody has a book in them,” that it’s at some level interesting how anybody anywhere expresses themselves, that sort of aesthetic relativism does not detract from “the mansions” — colossal artistic works to which, more often than not, serious artists dedicate the entirety of their lives. But, at the same time, “the mansions” are self-reliant. When people think about “art” or “literature” — and when it’s not just a parlor game — the usual metaphor that’s reached for is some kind of Haussmannian urban planning (all of academia, for instance, falls into this category): it becomes possible to trace “influences,” to work out flow charts between different artists, even (and this is a real horror — and pretty much the sole activity of “media” in relation to art) to rank, to grade, to bestow awards. Whitman’s mansions function differently. They are individual, capacious, of more worth than the society-at-large can start to compute. They accept visitors but with conditions — that the visitor comes to them and not the other way around, that visitors understand they are not so much taking in a work of “art” as being invited into the soul of someone else. This may be grimmer, less fun than the parlor game or frisson view of art but I’m convinced it’s the only right way to think about it. Rodriguez would have been just as great of an artist without the bootleg records, without the stadium in Cape Town, without the story, if things had continued exactly the way that they had for most of his life, if it was just him as a demolition worker in Detroit, “a failed musician,” strumming along the songs of Cold Fact to his daughters. •


Sam Kahn‘s writing includes the novel Kaleidoscope, the short story collections Altered States and Dirty Stories, the plays Chatter and Ultraviolence, and essays in 3:AM Magazine, AGNI, The Awl, The Brooklyn Rail, The Los Angeles Review of Books. As a producer, he has had work air on Netflix, Showtime, Paramount+, etc.