If you’re drawn to the vitriolic dimension of Rodriguez’s 26-song opus and are tracking reactions to Searching for Sugar Man, you’re probably tempted to respond to the media blitz with a pinch of cynicism. A Wikipedia entry, tweets and a rash of Facebook pages? Tick. Official merch and top-dollar eBay memorabilia? Affirmative. Bandwagoning and profiteering? Maybe, but who the fuck cares? Certainly not Rodriguez. “Fame is fleeting,” is the cold fact that he drops on CNN (video below). It’s his highest profile interview ever. His star has never shone brighter. Yet he responds with an air of cultivated detachment. This is not the man who wrote those songs 40 years ago. He’s even wiser.
And as for the unfortunate “Hispanic Dylan” tag that accompanies most mainstream commentary about Rodriguez, perhaps it’s best to identify the truth in it. While “Dylanesque” has come to describe any guitar-strumming singer-songwriter with a taste for poetry and irony, there are certainly Dylan and Rodriguez songs that make great companions. “Sugar Man” speaks to “Tambourine Man” while “Establishment Blues” sits comfortably next to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “Forget It” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” are both table-turning reactions to being dumped and “Like Janis” and “Like a Rolling Stone” see Rodriguez and Dylan at their most vividly scornful.
As for Rodriguez’s Hispanic credentials, it’s hard to tell. His strumming technique definitely betrays shades of Mexico but he certainly doesn’t lean on Latin pop sensibilities and is unlikely to ever be anthologised alongside troubadours like Trini Lopez or José Feliciano. More useful are parallels with the work of Leonard Cohen (stick on “Cause” and “Suzanne” in rapid succession) or Lou Reed (the same characters of “Most Disgusting Song” inhabit “Walk on the Wild Side.”) Add Rodriguez (Detroit) to Reed (New York) and Bukowski (Los Angeles) and you can trace the coast-to-coast, downtrodden, urban fallout of Hunter S. Thompson’s wave that broke and rolled back at the end of the 60s.
All this in lieu of a legitimate review of the Searching for Sugar Man soundtrack. Suffice to say that this compilation is the most astute way of packaging “the best” of an artist who has only released two albums. It’s a combination of songs from both Cold Fact and Coming from Reality with a trio of non-album singles to boot. In short, if you’re certain you’ll only ever be satisfied with one Rodriguez album, this is your best bet. And if what you’ve already got was released before the “Dead Man” tour, you could do worse than support a remastered playlist that Rodriguez will get a cut from. Who knows, insomuch as it describes itself as an “original motion picture soundtrack,” there may even be room for an Oscar nomination if Sony Legacy can bend the “written specifically for a film” rule. One glaring omission, however, is a track or two from his South African concert album Live Fact. Although a rusty Rodriguez fronts a somewhat staid backing band, his 1998 tour is central to the film and his interaction with the crowd and “thanks for keeping me alive” quip are golden.