At the Rodriguez show at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom last week the line stretched down the block. What you’d call a mature crowd. The hippies of yesteryear back together again to commune with one of their own: a 70-year-old singer/songwriter who in the early 1970s released two albums of taut socio-political commentary and piercing portraits of romance and heartbreak were ignored, then buried beneath the boots of the hit parade. That they have only now gained public attention makes them cultural paradoxes. They’re oldies that are also new, music through a time warp.
I’m guessing you know Sixto Rodriguez’s backstory by now. If not, go see “Searching for Sugar Man,” the spellbinding documentary that details how the Detroit musician fell into an obscurity so deep that he had no idea that his seemingly ignored music migrated to South Africa, where they sold in quantity. At the same time his songs became totems for the country’s anti-apartheid activists, while their missing-and-presumed-dead creator became symbolic of the sorrow and moral purpose of the struggle against their racist government.
There’s a lot more to the movie, including footage of Rodriguez’s South African debut performance in 1998, where his emergence on the arena stage triggered an emotional onrush — cheers, applause, tears — so intense the musician could only shake his head and smile. His journey from (suspected) death to full, joyous life symbolized their nation’s painful evolution from tyranny to freedom.
In Portland last week the stakes were different. The mostly middle aged-and-older crowd, came in aged denims and vaguely funky shirts and sweaters. Where hair still existed it came in shades of silver or shades of black and brown that only kind of matched the faces beneath. I remembered the adults I squeezed among at shows in the mid-1970s and imagined the night as a kind of time machine. Everyone in pursuit of their younger selves, and a glimmer of the time when they believed they, and their music, really could change the world.
The light at the door beckoned, the drums, amps, keyboards (a vintage Mellotron!) and guitars seemed like a guarantee. The folks crowded against the stage, but after a little while the mistiness began to evaporate. Why weren’t there chairs? Did we really have to wait two hours for Rodriguez to come out? When the opening act came out an indignant woman behind me commanded the woman next to her to put away her cell phone. “It’s distracting,” she snapped. The cell phone woman obeyed, but turned to her male companion seething with rage. “That bitch told me to turn off my phone!” she snarled. He grumbled sympathetically, but by then a more generalized complaint gathered force: Why were those tall people standing in front of us? What gave them the right? The lights came back up and after 15 minutes or so another wave of discontent swept through the crowd: Why wasn’t Rodriguez performing yet? “He’s famous now — maybe it’s all going to his head,” one man proposed. When the headliner finally did take the stage — exactly ten minutes past the official 10 pm start time — the original tardiness monitor actually scolded Rodriguez to his face: “About time!”
Rodriguez emerged in a slow-motion limp, leaning on the arm of an aide guiding him to his place at center stage. When they got there he helped the artist put on his guitar, then placed his hand on the microphone to help get him centered. Kicking off with “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst,” the hobbled and apparently blind musician strummed and sang with confidence, and with the music behind him he seemed to regain the power in his legs, stepping easily towards the drummer, calling instructions to his players. His thick, dark glasses, shoulder-length hair and between-song silence made him seem vaguely shamanic. Opening with the the citified talking blues, “This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues,” the musician sang and strummed his guitar (he’s an excellent rhythm guitarist) with great verve. He didn’t play any new songs, but the 1970s material still crackled and glowed.
Then, about five or six songs into the set, Rodriguez started to talk. At first it was easy — said hello, confirmed he was happy to be there. Then, a few songs later, he passed on that joke where Mickey Mouse is being scolded by a marriage counselor for saying something mean about Minnie. “I didn’t say she was stupid,” Mickey responded through Rodriguez’s grinning face. “I said she was fucking Goofy!”
Can you hear the moment of confused silence that greeted that? The laughter came soon enough (I thought it was pretty funny, anyway), but when Rodriguez thought of other things to say the connection to the Woodstock era — when the guys talked revolution while the chicks tended to the brown rice and tofu — began to seem a bit too vivid. A long tuning session (another blast from the past) concluded with Rodriguez making a joke about how guitars are as much trouble as women, “but less expensive.” Sensing that he’d gone a bit far with that one, Rodriguez set up another song by asserting that after millenia of guys screwing things up, women should be the only ones allowed to run the world. That earned some applause, but after three-plus hours on their feet the crowd felt restless. A man’s youthful vision had been resurrected. But the clock kept ticking, and now it was tugging them away, down the stairs and out to the cars waiting to carry them back to bed and into their own fleeting dreams.