A visit to an American Zero

Today’s post is a tale of two parts.

Last Wednesday night, with MrsAB arriving home late from London and reminding me that I should do more to please myself (code I think for “get off your arse!”), I took myself off to the cinema. I’m lucky, I have a great independent cinema near where I live and like all independents it shows some great and lesser screened films – and you get to take your drinks in with you. With all that going for it there is only one snag: I hate going on my own. It’s quite irrational when you think about it: you go to a cinema to sit in the dark, in silence and watch a film – what other activity is better suited to solitude?  So on Wednesday, for the second time, I pushed through that wall and it felt good.

Andy why? Because, in the second part of this tale, I saw an inspirational and touching story, Searching for Sugar Man. The film tells the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican-American folk musician, born in Detroit and described as being better than Bob Dylan. With these things stacked in his favour you’d be forgiven for wondering how his success had somehow passed you by. That’s the twist: it hasn’t. He released 2 albums, neither did well. In an ironic nod to one of the last song recorded for his second album he was dropped by his record label two weeks before Christmas. The story finishes with his apparent suicide – some say he doused himself in petrol and burnt himself on stage, others that he shot himself after his “final” gig. That seemed to be the end of Rodrigeuz.

I wonder…

That is unless you are South African. Whilst the rest of the world paid scant interest, South Africans started to take an interest in his music. The lyrics spoke for young people growing up in an expressionless society. Under apartheid social control was everywhere, as one person in the film alludes to, it was a military state. A song that includes the line “I wonder how many times you had sex” was taboo for a government which thought television was communist and became an unlikely source of rebellion for South Africa’s youth. His records were censored on radio and were passed around on bootlegged tapes. Rodriguez had become a (seemingly) posthumous anti-apartheid icon.

Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this morn

But that’s not the end of the tale. The film charts the musicological search by two South African’s to find out what happened to Rodrigeuz. Were those stories of a public suicide true? It won’t spoil the film if I tell you that he is alive and well – any internet search will reveal that for you. And whilst the search is interesting but it is the end that moves. Here is a man who for three decades has been living a normal Detroit existence, an American zero, but who for millions of people on another continent is a hero. Ultimately it is these feelings which come through in the film. The awe with which Rodriguez and the two thousand in the crowd in his South African “comeback” is mutual, both surprised yet excited to see each other. Yet there’s a more moving side to this story. Rodriguez remains an unassuming character, living life in a Detroit suburb in an ordinary house. Despite his records sales in South Africa he has never had much money. He has few possessions but he has his family and friends, he has his self spirit and a concern for others and he has his love on music.

The film struck a chord for me. I find it strange the way in which many of us (by which I mean me in particular) search for elusive success and assume that if we don’t see that success then we’ve failed. Here is a moving and inspirational story of someone who tried and failed in those conventional terms. Yet he succeeded in so many other ways and in taking that trip to the cinema, so did I.

And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams

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