Lifestyle & Belief

‘Searching for Sugar Man’ star tours South Africa


Musician Rodriguez attends the "Searching For Sugar Man" during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on April 24, 2012 in New York City.


Andy Kropa

BRAKPAN, South Africa — This was less a rock show than a pilgrimage, a rare chance to see one of South Africa's musical heroes — a mystical figure from decades past.

When the lights went down and the curtains dropped, a 70-year-old man from Detroit with long, raven hair stood center stage, dressed in leather pants, a scarf, a hobo hat and a blazer. The audience of mostly white, middle-aged South African fans went wild.

There were more cheers when Rodriguez, ever the rock star, put on his sunglasses and began to play "I Wonder," an obvious favorite of this crowd of aging hippies and businessmen in button-down shirts. They danced and sang along with every word.

Cries of "I love you Rodriguez!" rang out around the arena.

“I know it’s the drinks, but I love you back,” he replied.

“I want your babies!” screamed a man with a heavy Afrikaans accent.

Rodriguez is the subject of “Searching for Sugar Man,” nominated for best documentary at the Academy Awards.

The film tells the story of two fans from Cape Town who set out to discover what happened to the rock star that never was — while Rodriguez was madly popular among liberal white youth in closed-off apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and '80s, he was completely unknown back home in the United States.

The documentary, which tracked Rodriguez to his present-day humble life in run-down Detroit, has brought fresh attention to his music in the United States after decades of living in obscurity and even poverty.

In the early 1970s Rodriguez recorded two albums with Sussex Records, an offshoot of A&M. Producers expected him to be massive but the albums "Cold Fact" and "Coming from Reality" went nowhere, selling next to no copies. Rodriguez was dropped from the label.

At some point the albums found their way to South Africa — rumors abound as to how exactly this happened — and struck an immediate chord. Banned from radio airplay under strict apartheid-era censorship laws, the album's young fans passed copies around. They became cult hits.

On Rodriguez's first South African tour since the film was released, tickets sold out in minutes.

On Feb. 15 he played an unusual rock venue: a big top circus-themed arena in a casino 40 minutes by car from Johannesburg, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

James Thompson, 48, and wife Chantal, 45, from the nearby town of Springs, have been fans since the 1970s, but had never before seen Rodriguez perform.

"It was beyond awesome,” Chantal Thompson said.

“Rodriguez — magic. Major star. In South Africa he was the ultimate in the 1970s and '80s and '90s,” her husband said.

“We identified with his message. As we’ve grown older, he has still spoken to us. Rodriguez will never die.”

A South African journalist attending the concert posted on Twitter that after two days of covering the disturbing arrest of sports star Oscar Pistorius, charged in the murder of his girlfriend, seeing Rodriguez play live was "great tonic."

"Old and tired but still magnetic and such a presence," Mandy Weiner tweeted.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is considered a favorite in the best documentary category at the Oscars this Sunday. Last year it was a hit on the festival circuit, winning a special jury prize and an audience award at Sundance.

Buoyed by the newfound popularity, Rodriguez is scheduled to play a number of US concert dates in April, including a performance at Coachella.

James Thompson said of Rodriguez’ burgeoning fame in the United States: “They'd better appreciate him.”

Rodriguez, meanwhile, seemed thrilled to be playing for some of his most devoted fans, here in South Africa.

“The only time I ever felt so young was the last time I was in South Africa,” he said, and then speaking Afrikaans, thanked the crowd: “Baie danke.”