- By Jim Hicks
I assume that you’ve been paying attention lately, and as a result, are suitably outraged, so I won’t have to tell you about Stéphane Hessel. You’ll already know his incredible story: how he moved from Berlin to Paris in 1924, when he was only seven. How, with his father, a German-Jewish writer, and his mother, a painter, musician, and writer, he grew up within that incomparable artistic milieu—Paris between the wars. Duchamp and Calder were family friends. How his studies at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure were interrupted, how he joined the army, and then, after Pétain, the Resistance. How he was captured, and tortured, by the Gestapo, and sentenced to death in Buchenwald. How he miraculously survived, and went on to become one of the youngest and most active members of the postwar committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, finally, how, in his ninety-third year on this planet, he drafted the statement Time for Outrage (Indignez-vous!), and inspired protest movements across Europe, and helped to catalyze the Occupy movement in this country as well.
You know all that already. In fact, you may also know the other story I mean to tell. If you don’t, you will soon. You may have seen him on Letterman, or heard about him on NPR or CNN. Or, maybe, like I was, you were lucky enough to catch his performance last Sunday at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton.
Sixto Rodriguez, a brillant singer-songwriter, recorded two amazing albums in the early seventies. But they didn’t sell, his label dropped him, and the company itself folded a few years after. Hearing the music now, you have to wonder ... how could this have happened? The contagious melodies, the elegant, tight constructions rivaling the Beatles, the lyrics recalling the early invention and engagement of Dylan—it is truly hard to comprehend. If, that is, you actually believe we live in a meritocracy: a land where race and class don’t stack every deck, where talent and hard work are inevitably rewarded. Rodriguez, by the way, knows a thing or two about hard work. After his last recording, for the forty years or so, he has worked in demolition and construction, in his hometown, Detroit. More demolition than construction, we can assume. I’ve been to Detroit.
The reason you’ll soon hear this story (and perhaps at last his music) is simple. During the same forty years, on another continent, Rodriguez has always been a superstar. In South Africa, his albums have quite literally sold more than Elvis. Incredibly, until 1998, the man himself had no clue: he didn’t make a dime from those records, and in South Africa they didn’t even know he was still alive. (The whole story is recounted in—next year’s Oscar-winner for best documentary—Searching for Sugarman.) During the apartheid years in South Africa, the songs of Rodriguez were on the songtrack of the coming revolution. Here’s a taste, from his debut album, Cold Fact:
Gun sales are soaring
Housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer
Smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon
To an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact
Another “Subterrean Homesick Blues,” I’d say, or the Motor City equivalent. Within white supremacist, Calvinist, conservative South Africa, certainly no one else was preaching revolt on the radio—or talking about drugs, and sexual liberation, for that matter. Another tune, an even bigger hit, queried:
I wonder, how many times you’ve been had
And I wonder, how many plans have gone bad
I wonder, how many times you had sex
And I wonder, do you know who’ll be next?
You can imagine how that went over with the Botha crowd. As Sixto himself put it, at a time when he had no idea who would sing along with him, “Papa don’t allow no new ideas here.”
Between songs at the Iron Horse, at one point Rodriguez asked us what we all thought should be done with the real estate shysters and wall street ponzi schemers that recently brought our world to the brink of ruin. He suggested we try them for treason, and compared their deeds to the scorched-earth campaign of Sherman through the Civil War South. Not that he thought they’d really do time... Sixto knows the difference between robbing a bank and founding a bank. Bank robbers don’t own judges. But, after listening to his music, no one will be surprised to hear that Rodriguez once ran for Detroit City Council, and apparently even harbored ideas of running for mayor. They didn’t even spell his name right on the ballot. And instead of Rodriguez, well, they got Kwame.
I have to be utterly frank here. Listening to Rodriguez last Sunday was heart-breaking, and infuriating, not simply inspiring. The ravages of time, yes, but that’s not really it. His voice is still there, though weaker, and his strumming was tentative at first, then progressively stronger. And yet these days, he can barely see. You have to wonder, in short, how his life, and struggles—as well as ours—would have been different if this world were just, and we’d known his music four decades ago. And you have to wonder, during all these years, in this criminal society of ours, what kind of health insurance he’s had.
And then you have to wonder just how many other Rodriguezes there are. Stone cold geniuses, like him, or simply other poor working stiffs—folks who have always done everything right, and are still suffering for no damned reason. That’s a concrete cold fact.
Stéphane Hessel puts it this way:
“I wish all of you to find your reason for indignation. This is a precious thing. When outraged, as I was by Nazism, you will become militant, strong, and engaged. You will join the great course of history as it flows toward greater justice, greater freedom—but not the reckless freedom of the fox in the henhouse.”
As you know, the foxes are running in packs these days. And yet a man in his nineties, and another in his seventies, are still singing a different tune.