Sugar Man Revisited…With Love

by Sharon Warr

Since watching the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, I have been catapulted back to a time when life was a lot less complicated. That’s to say, in my young teenage world, the only complicated thing was devising ways to make enough money to buy my next record album, even though “out there”, the very real threat of nuclear war, Vietnam and the dreaded Communist take over of the world was ever present. It was a troubled time and it was reflected in the pop posters stuck on our bedroom walls (Make love - Not war, Peace, Don’t Drop the Bomb) it was peppered throughout the lyrics of the songs we listened to and featured in every news bulletin on the radio (there was no TV in South Africa in the early 70s – yes, you read that correctly).

More than anything, music is the one thing that unites teenagers from all generations. It eases them through those turbulent years when they begin to question things around them. It is the soundtrack to our young lives. Lucky for me, I hit that turbulent time in an era that produced the best rock bands – ever. No offence to later generations, but the evidence is overwhelming.

Back then, my circle of friends would get together with our LP collections and listen for hours - really listen and we would discuss every aspect of the music. We were always listening to new stuff, not all of us liking the same LPs, but we listened together. And of course, the more "way out" the music, the better. This was music that had lyrics that would shock our parents, or worse, would be noticed by the Censor Board and be banned. Like Sugar Man or I Wonder. Censorship has a way of making things really popular. Tell a human being that they can’t have something and they will do everything in their power to get it. Think Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. Well, we all know what happened there. 

In South Africa, there was censorship across every type of media, be it literature, music, theatre, movies and radio. The government was like an autocratic parent, deciding what was "good" for us. So when you could get your hands on albums like Rodriguez’s Cold Fact, and thousands of South Africans did, it blossomed into something of a cult. His lyrics made you think, it had a streetwise poetry to it that struck a chord with many – it was cool and it was frowned upon by "Big Brother" which just added to its popularity. 

In a time when our radio stations served up a popular mix of hits on their Top 20 every Friday night, with clean cut playlists featuring artists like The Monkees, Edison Lighthouse, The Beach Boys or The Mamas and Papas, it wasn’t surprising that the youth turned their attention to alternative "underground" sounds. If you were really "with it" your collection included artists like Wishbone Ash, Ten Years After, Mott the Hoople, Grand Funk Railroad, Free, T Rex, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath (horror!) and Pink Floyd, to name just a few. And then there was Rodriguez.

I am saddened that Rodriguez seemed to have missed the news of his own fame. I think his agent or record company has a lot to answer for but whatever happened back then, it is perhaps worth something now to realise that he knows what an influence he’s had on a whole generation of South Africans who appreciated his music and, judging by the popularity of the documentary Searching For Sugar Man, a whole generation to come who will be saying the same to their children. 

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