Finding the Way With Sixto Rodriguez
He sang against apartness, and helped bring apartheid to an end
“How many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?” legendary singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez asks at the end of his song, “Cause.” Rodriguez, the subject of the Academy Award-winning 2012 documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, has answered the question with his life, a life in which he’s never stopped planting flowers—in song, in his day labor construction work, in his commitment to social justice.
His question remains urgent for us as we try to cope with an out-of-balance world, a world with too many all-to-real comic book villains and, we fear, too few heroes. The fears are justified, but discouragement and demoralization are weapons the villains use to tame us, and our resistance to them begins by remaining wild, untamed and undaunted. Poet Gary Snyder calls it “the practice of the wild,” which he defines as “a deliberate sustained and conscious effort to be more finely tuned to ourselves and to the way the actual existing world is.” Rodriguez seems to have lived by Snyder’s words.
“Nothing beats reality,” he said in an interview about finding peace in an often cruel world and despite living for years in obscurity and poverty. He actively “tuned” himself to the existing world he found himself in, emphasis on actively. Rodriguez once showed up for day labor demolition work wearing a tuxedo. He’s never stopped trying—with dignity—to change his world for the better.
In the early 1970s, record industry moguls expected Rodriguez to be a star, but his two albums flopped in America. He went back to construction work in Detroit, ultimately getting a degree in philosophy from Wayne State University while remaining politically active. He ran unsuccessfully for local office several times and organized political protests, like the time he loaded a bus with “hippies” and wine and drove them peacefully around Detroit suburbs after some suburbanites mocked an inner city friend of his. He figured familiarity would ease the friction.
Remarkably, Rodriguez lived decades without knowing that his music played a role in mobilizing white Afrikaner youth against apartheid in South Africa. He didn’t even know he had a single fan there. Bootleg copies of his albums had turned up there in the 1970s—in Australia and New Zealand, too—and attracted a widespread following. His fans, of course, knew nothing about him beyond his music. He was a legend, and like many legends he attracted some wild stories. He had shot himself on stage. Set himself on fire on stage. Rodriguez the man remained a mystery.
The film Searching for Sugar Man tells the story well (although some grumble his songs never became anthems like “We Shall Overcome” in the U.S). Its popularity and the Academy Award didn’t change Rodriguez, though it eased his economic circumstances. He stayed home and slept during the awards ceremony and, despite growing popularity around the world he kept his modest home in a poor Detroit neighborhood. Celebrity can domesticate an artist in the eyes of fans. Rodriguez’s story is a romantic tale, after all. It’s a good story with a beginning, middle and fulfilling ending. Fiercely independent artist makes good without compromise. And there the story is complete.
But something is missing in the tale, something about Rodriguez’s character that might put the story in a broader and deeper context. I think we might find it in one of his early songs, “Crucify Your Mind.” Judging from the little that’s available online about this song, most seem to take it as a man scolding a girlfriend, like Dylan in “Don’t Think Twice.” I think that’s wrong. I believe Rodriquez is admonishing himself, as if in a mirror. And what he’s saying is he sees now that he’s been living falsely, claiming a uniqueness that he denies others. Not a bad reminder for the rest of us, either.
And you claim you got something going
Something you call unique
But I've seen your self-pity showing
As the tears rolled down your cheeks
I was lucky enough to talk about blinding claims to uniqueness with philosopher Stanley Cavell in a Harvard Square restaurant many years ago. I brought up a passage he wrote about an insight he had while visiting Jerusalem. He wrote:
Why raise these [troubling] memories here in this city?…because here you know that the worst is known, and for that reason you know that one’s specific pain, small or large, still pain, need not go unsaid and unaccompanied. No place more sternly warns that in seeking for the representativeness of your life you have to watch at the same time for your limitedness, commemorating what is beyond you. One is neither to claim uniqueness for oneself nor deny it to others [my emphasis].
Rodriguez lost his mother at age of three and grew up in a Catholic orphanage. He told an interviewer in 1969 that the Church taught him much, but not how to survive on the street. “Crucify Your Mind” appears on his first album, which he’d just completed at the time of that interview. Nonetheless, in this song he seems to question his judgment. Maybe the pleasures, distractions and dangers of the street aren’t the best teachers.
Were you tortured by your own thirst
In those pleasures that you seek
That made you Tom the Curious
That makes you James the Weak?
He frames the song as some kind of crucifixion story, and maybe Tom the Curious and James the Weak are references to the Apostle Thomas, impatient and curious enough to ask Jesus, “How do we know the way?” and Jesus’s brother James, said to have been among the siblings that thought Jesus was out of his mind, at least until James witnessed the resurrection. Tom and James might have just been characters that hung out in the Detroit bars with Rodriguez, but the reference to seems too loaded for that. Tom the Curious and James the Weak are bystanders, and Rodriguez is done with all that.
In any case, Rodriguez seems to be saying in the song that he will abandon his former life of mindless self-absorption, leaving behind the image of his older self in the mirror.
So con, convince your mirror
As you've always done before
Giving substance to shadows
Giving substance ever more
Whatever “the Way” is, it isn’t the path Rodriguez repudiates in the song. “The Way you can name is not the Way,” Laozi tells us in the Tao de Ching, but maybe we can recognize it by what it is not.
This makes Rodriguez’s role in ending South African apartheid all the more poignant, even if he was ignorant of his part until decades after the fact. In “Crucify Your Mind” Rodriguez pledges that he will no longer live apart from others, selfishly celebrating his own uniqueness at their expense. “Apartheid” is the Afrikans word for “apartness,” and in this song Rodriguez rebels against it, recognizing the power of the Way.
Rodriguez added a coda to the song in 2018 when he performed it at the “Best Kept Secret” festival in the Netherlands. As the music faded, he said to himself, “I know that stuff,” as if recalling what he’d been through at the time he wrote it. He paused and added for the crowd, “Merci beaucoup.”
Merci beaucoup, Sixto Rodriguez.
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