Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Experiencing Sugar Man, Then Losing Track of the Song for Decades

One summer, I flew out from Chicago and spent the month of July in Berkeley, California, hanging around the University of California campus for no apparent reason, whiling my time away. I won’t carbon date myself by telling you the year, but it had a “7” in it.  

My friend Sue and I had spent a week in the area the previous summer and fell in love with the east bay. I went back, wanting to explore the area more and actually wait for Sue to again follow me after she finished a summer school session back home.

That previous year we had stayed in San Francisco proper, in the Tenderloin district, and at what seemed a well-kept hotel, even though in reality it was nothing but a $3 a night flophouse filled with its share of drunks, druggies and screamers – which we two little 18-year-olds on a budget found amusing and exciting, even though we didn’t chum up with anyone at the hotel.

After traveling over the Bay Bridge into Berkeley, we discovered a building that served as frat house during the school year but was rented out to both gals and guys by the week during the summer months. This frat house, Theta Delta Chi, was featured in the film “The Graduate,” where on an interior shot you’ll see actor Richard Dreyfuss in his first film role, speaking one line.

That following summer I knocked on this building's door when I got into town, with no reservations, no previous plans. They found a little room for me in a back wing for $10 a week. The room held a twin size mattress on the floor and nothing else. No drawers, mirrors or closets. There wasn’t even any electricity in the room. No lights. So at night, I entered and undressed to a flashlight.

The summer frat house roomed folks of various stripes, with some of the year-long frat boys still in attention. But mind you, in Berkeley even frat boys seemed like hippies, but with shorter hair. There was an open door policy. Meaning, the front door was always open and, as well, we kept the doors to our rooms unlocked. 

That is, until one sunny afternoon I found this short little rasta guy sitting on my room’s mattress, just about to crack open my knapsack to look through its contents. For some reason, I kept very calm. First of all, I knew he couldn’t steal anything because I didn’t have anything. A beat-up aluminum mess-kit, a camping knife and fork, and some well-worn women’s hippy clothing. 

He didn’t look like the violent type. I simply asked him,“What are you doing here?” When he didn’t answer, I just said, “You can’t be in here. This is my rom. You have to leave.” And he did. I was surprised. I locked my door from the inside every night after that, though I didn’t have a key to the outside.

Anyway, on the second floor, a few of the guys had one very large room that they shared and many of the summer residents were invited up there to hang around nearly any time of the day, including myself.  One guy showed me how to play chess for the first time, and I played everyday for a while. Another guy who came back from a local abalone diving adventure treated us all to breaded and fried abalone he made, fresh from the east bay.

And one guy from South Africa, big and blond, who was a summer student at the university brought a record album up to the room and held the cover before me.

“Did you ever hear this album?” he asked.

I stared at the guy in a bubble on the vinyl album cover, in tall hat and sunglasses, sitting cross-legged as if floating in midair.

“I don’t think so. I've never even seen it before,” I said.

“I’ve asked all these California people out here if they knew this guy Rodriguez,” he said. “And nobody does. But he’s from the U.S. I thought since you were from Chicago maybe you knew who he was. Maybe he’s from out there.”

I stared and stared at the cover that said “Rodriguez Cold Fact.”

“This album is a big hit in South Africa. In fact, it’s the number one album,” he said. “And no one here seems to have every heard about it.”

“Number one? And he’s not from South Africa?” I said.

“In South Africa, everything we listen to is either from Britain or the United States. Rodriguez is from here, but nobody knows exactly where,” he said.

"Why would you think he might be from Chicago?" I said.

“I figured Chicago is cold and Cold Fact might have something to do with Chicago," he said. "And the buildings on the cover look like older urban buildings.”

“A number one album from America, and no one here has ever heard about it?" I said. I was incredulous. "Play some of it. Maybe I’ve heard it before and just never saw the album cover,” I said.

He slipped the record out of its jacket and slid it onto the small stereo against the wall. He put the needle to the record, the record turned and the Rodriguez’ song “Sugar Man” began to expound.

Sugar man, won't you hurry
'Cos I'm tired of these scenes
For a blue coin won't you bring back
All those colors to my dreams

Silver magic ships you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane
Sugar man met a false friend
On a lonely dusty road
Lost my heart when I found it
It had turned to dead black coal

It was so quiet in the room besides the echoing lyrics and guitar music of the song, we held our breaths and felt just a gentle breeze enter through those second story windows. We were mesmerized.

I slowly came out of my reverie of the song. “I wish I could help you. The song is terrific. But what does it mean. Who’s sugar man?” I said.

One guy said, “A drug dealer. One who sells drugs, sells sugar, cocaine, pills?”

“What about that Sammy Davis Jr. song, ‘Candyman?’” I said. “You know, ‘Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two, the candy man, the candy man can.’”

Another guy, “That beat tune? I think that’s really about actual candy. But I could be dead wrong.”
"I know it's a beat song. But did he copy this 'Sugar Man' guy?" I said. "You know, like the concept, not the art of it."

I stared and stared at the Cold Fact cover. The image of Rodriguez floating in a bubble seared into my brain. I asked the South African to play “Sugar Man” again. Then again. He did. I blissed out on being in Berkeley, on meeting people from all over the world, on the song “Sugar Man” that seemed to come from nowhere and have no home, except in my heart.

Of course, I didn't travel all the way to California just to listen to records or play chess indoors. I joined the group of friends I made at the house and elsewhere in Berkeley for picnics, waterskiing outings, a day trip north to wine country, long discussions at coffee houses, a evening exploring San Francisco's Chinatown, endless billiards challenges, and a special night at a small, local dance venue where Carlos Santana hopped onstage as a surprise performer during a Tower of Power set.

Eventually, I found out my friend Sue wasn’t able to afford the trip out west after all, even on standby. By the end of July, I headed back to Chicago, saying goodbye to the guys and gals I met in Berkeley from California and other states, from South Africa, from Europe, and goodbye to the song “Sugar Man,” which I never heard again…

Until 2012, when the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” was released, winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary. My husband and I watched the film on our home TV via On Demand.

Rodriguez appeared onscreen and began to play the song “Sugar Man.”  

“I’ve heard that song before. I’ve seen that record album before. I love that song,” I told my husband.
"No one's heard it before. You just heard it now. No one knew who he was until this year," he said. 

“Why is that song so hauntingly familiar?” I asked. “Rodriguez lives not too far away. Didn’t the Chicago radio stations play the song for awhile, back when?”

“Listen, I know a lot about music, and I’m telling you, I never heard it before,” he said.

“Maybe I’m just getting it mixed up with the song ‘Candyman,’” I said.

“Are you kidding me?” he said.

“For some reason, I think I’ve had this silly problem sometime before,” I said. “It’s all unclear. It’s so hard to remember. A number one album no one ever heard of.”

But after a few months of soul-searching, I did remember. I remembered hearing “Sugar Man” in Berkeley so many years before and feeling song all the way up and into my solar plexus. And I remembered the South African student trying to find someone, anyone from the U.S. who knew anything about Rodriguez or where he came from. None of us knew.

But I’m so glad that now, finally now, all of us do. Here's to you, Sixto Rodriguez from Detroit!