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Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - Page updated at 11:00 a.m.
Rodriguez helps Light in the Attic celebrate 10 years of revivals
By Andrew Matson
Special to The Seattle Times
"Firewood! Yeah, man! Sure. And God bless their hearts."
That's 70-year-old singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez on the phone from Detroit. He's talking about his label, Seattle's Light in the Attic, which sends him firewood every winter.
"Sometimes it's not the money. ... Firewood is what you need. If you can make it through February in Detroit, man, you can make it," Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez plays Showbox at the Market on Friday as part of Light in the Attic's 10-year anniversary. Back in August, on the "Late Show with David Letterman" he looked like a rock star with his dark sunglasses and long black hair. But he is not your typical rock star. And his label, Seattle's Light in the Attic (LITA), is not a typical label.
It is a leader in a special echelon of the music business, reissuing old music on CD and LP — obscure personal favorites co-owners Matt Sullivan and Josh Wright think have crossover appeal.
Its most well-known project locally is "Wheedle's Groove," which brought to light underrecognized Seattle soul/funk musicians from the 1960s and '70s.
Sullivan and Wright are especially good at this kind of musical detective work. The Los Angeles Times wrote they have "a 'CSI'-worthy knack for finding hidden clues to overlooked old albums." With far-reaching distribution, deluxe packaging and elaborate liner notes, LITA starts with music but ends up with a story.
"We look at it like a coffee-table book," says co-owner Matt Sullivan, "something tangible that you read from cover to cover, that you get inside and really enjoy."
Story magic — and a genuine interest in their artists, whether they make money or not (their top two albums have only sold 40,000) — are the keys to Light in the Attic.
And it would be hard to find a more genuine or magical story than Rodriguez's.
If you've never heard of him before, welcome to the club. But soon you may. And not just because of Light in the Attic.
A segment about him airs on "60 Minutes" this month and Malik Bendjellou's biographical documentary, "Searching for Sugar Man," named after Rodriguez's best-known song, is already playing in theaters. Film critic Robert Ebert, among others, gave it a glowing review, writing "I hope you're able to see this film."
The story in brief: Rodriguez's albums "Cold Fact" and "Coming From Reality" came out in the 1970s and were commercial failures in America. But their anti-establishment, street-wise folk songs resonated in Australia and South Africa, where they became protest anthems for middle-class whites during apartheid. In the movie, South African fans say Rodriguez was their Bob Dylan. Bigger than the Rolling Stones.
Weirdly, Rodriguez was unaware of all this. For over 30 years he worked construction in Detroit, while his music spread from the U.S. all over South Africa on bootleg vinyl records and cassettes and got heavy airplay on Australian radio. In the U.S., he ran for mayor of Detroit (he lost), raised his daughters, read books, worked hard. When he finally caught wind of his fame in South Africa, he performed the surreal task of touring there in 1998.
He was greeted by screaming audiences in sold-out concert halls. Weirder still, when he came home, he gave away the money he made on tour and went back to his regular life.
"Rodriguez is the nicest person in the world," says Sullivan. "That part in the movie where he gives away all his money when he gets back from the South Africa tours: totally true."
That would have been the end of the story, if Sullivan hadn't chanced on "Sugarman" at JAM Records in Wallingford. He loved the song and started obsessing over Rodriguez on the Internet, buying his bootleg albums. In 2006, he and Wright went to Detroit to find Rodriguez and officially reissued his albums in 2008 and 2009.
Now Rodriguez is a full-time touring musician, with the movie working as cross-promotion. The movie's opening in new cities all the time, and Rodriguez is selling out concerts, too — from New York to San Francisco. Seattle has now sold out.
Other acts on the show have had their careers revived by Light in the Attic, too: Donnie and Joe Emerson, middle aged yacht-rock dreamers from Fruitland, Stevens County, and Michael Chapman, star of the British "stoner folk" scene in the '60s and '70s that included Nick Drake. The reputation of ghostly Oklahoma folky Karen Dalton, who died in 1993, has gotten a bump from LITA, too.
"We work these artists like they're current contemporary artists," says Sullivan. "Even if they're dead."
All this belated success wouldn't work if Rodriguez didn't still have that thin, focused tenor voice that sticks in your mind. But he credits the machine behind him.
"The success of it, I have to say, goes to Uncle Sony — Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Legacy and Sony Video — and then Light in the Attic. That's what makes it happen."
He's being too modest. The Guardian in England described a "jaw-dropped, so-silent-you-could-hear-a-pin-drop crowd" at his concert.
But Rodriguez isn't going to crumble or get puffed up because of a review. He's made of stronger stuff. He's a survivor.
"I live below my means," he says. "Because then you can always brace. You can splurge a little bit. And I got some real lifesaving skills, like cooking, ironing, sewing. All those pedestrian, but real, things that can help."
Andrew Matson blogs about music at www.seattletimes.com/
matsononmusic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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