He was standing at the microphone when the curtain rose, glasses and hat in place, Rodriguez, exactly as we’d seen him in the movie.
Some performers explode onto the stage. Not this one. He simply presented himself to the audience and that audience, as one, rose to their feet and welcomed him. Some audiences surge. Not this one. Not any of these South African audiences. These audiences, rose from their seats and stood and without wanting to stretch the point, the energy washing over the arena towards him was nothing less than an embrace. Before a word was spoken, a chord struck, or a note sung he had met all expectations just by being there.
There were of course, people who saw no point in going to his shows because, they said, he was old, frail, and ‘past it’. They missed the point entirely. This South African tour had little to do with performance and everything to do welcoming home someone who had been a part of our youth; someone who no one else had noticed but who we’d recognized and whose music had resonated with us in an absolutely unique way. And his South African concerts were booked out long before ‘Searching for Sugarman’ was ever nominated for an Oscar. Long, long before it ever won an Oscar.
So when he did sing, the audience sang with him; word perfectly, with every nuance and stress in place and he looked bemused and declared himself humbled. But he should not have been surprised: He’d provided the seventies soundtrack to our lives and given us a frame of reference for the era in which we found ourselves. Banned from the national airwaves, Cold Fact was a cherished LP and his songs found their way onto thousands of car cassettes, accompanying a generation on their journeys to campus and back, beach parties and cross-country roadtrips.
He’d been there and then he’d vanished. Legends unfurled and wrapped themselves around his name; mystery and make-believe took over and theories abounded. We’d lost the man but we still had the music and then, very quietly, an unheard-of documentary slipped onto our screens; we saw the trailer when we went to see other, big, Hollywood movies and as the first chords of ‘I wonder’ boomed into the theatres, we knew this little film was one we’d have to see. It started small but word spread like wild-fire and soon the theatres were booked out and they’ve stayed that way for months as we’ve revisited our past and encouraged our children to visit it too, to get a glimpse into what was happening then and what stirred and moved us. And we were fascinated that this man we’d found and lost, had been found again and when we heard he was coming on tour, we wanted to see him. We wanted to thank him for the memories he gave us, to let him know how much we’d loved him and, very simply, to wish him well. This tour brought him to a very different country from the one we lived in back then; he will probably never know how different; but we have only to hear one opening chord or lyric to be transported back there in an instant. Then, he wouldn’t have been allowed to visit us; now aged seventy, he can. It’s like finding the last, missing jigsaw piece, like closing a circle, like filling in the last elusive crossword clue. Finally, after all these years, when a whole new generation has taken our place and from a whole new multi-cultural society, we can say thank you, goodbye, totsiens and hamba kahle. And we will always have his music.