Rodriguez and the South African Vietnam


Rodriguez and the South African Vietnam

In America nobody knew him, but in South Africa he was more popular than Bob Dylan and sold better than The Beatles, says FRED DE VRIES*. The reason for Rodriguez's popularity was that his music in South Africa perfectly matched the zeitgeist defined by a protracted, bloody war against communism, the Border War that had forced the South African army into battles deep in Angola. ‘He was the voice of the disaffected white youth. Generation after generation fell under his spell,’ says a writer, musician and fan.


DAVID BOWIE once beautifully packaged the alien pop hero's mystique in his 1972 single Starman. “Don't tell your poppa or he'll get us locked up in fright," he sang conspiratorially. This was pop music as a teenage secret language, elusive to the parents.

Bowie's song was fantasy. But South Africa got a flesh-and-blood “Starman" in the person of American folk-rock singer Rodriguez, whose career full of ups and downs was captured in the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Rodriguez, according to the documentary, was a kind of hero of outer space. Everything made sense. In America no one knew him, but in South Africa he was more popular than Bob Dylan and sold better than The Beatles.

On the cover of his debut album, Cold Fact, he looked super cool with his hat and sunglasses. He sang rebellious songs about sex and drugs and poverty. And no one knew what had happened to him or where he was hanging out. Were the rumours true that he had committed suicide on stage? Or that he had died of an overdose?

But the documentary is not accurate. First of all, Rodriguez hadn't disappeared at all after his second album, Coming from Reality, from 1971. In fact, it wasn't just South Africa where he was wildly popular. The singer also had a large following in Australia, where he did another tour in 1979 which resulted in a live LP, Alive, a reference to those rumours of a violent death. And in 1981 he did it again with the popular Midnight Oil. The documentary producers conveniently omit all of that.

It is also nonsense that South Africa had no protest music before Rodriguez came into the picture in the early seventies. “There was a whole long period before that that was airbrushed for convenience," says South African protest singer Roger Lucey. “Protest music started here in the late fifties, with people like Jeremy Taylor and Des Lindberg… Jeremy wrote Piece of Ground in 1963, and that's one of the most vicious anti-apartheid songs you'll ever hear."

Idealistic apartheid activists

But the film's biggest shortcoming is that it creates the image that Rodriguez's fans were idealistic anti-apartheid activists. Nothing could be further from the truth, says music fanatic and academic Michael Titlestad, who describes Rodriguez fans as “apolitical rugby supporters".

Titlestad had to start his national service in 1987. At first he settled into the discipline, but after a while he collapsed. He had to go to the military hospital in Cape Town. “In every barrack, at every mandatory braai, and always in the psychiatric ward of that hospital, there was Rodriguez's music." And he saw the conscripts holding their beer in the air and singing along loudly: “How many times have you had sex?"

In the documentary, the songs from Cold Fact are described as alternative battle songs. Indeed, says Titlestad, but for young people who just wanted to break away from their parents. It had nothing to do with anti-apartheid attitudes or political involvement. “It was mostly out of anti-Calvinist amusement, marginal turmoil. There was nothing political about Rodriguez at all. And there is no evidence whatsoever that his fans belonged to a counterculture. They were mainstream, flirting with the idea of being different. Their rebellion was like that of children secretly smoking a cigarette at a party."

So, what happened? The reason for Rodriguez's popularity was that his music — which was already old-fashioned in America — perfectly matched the South African zeitgeist defined by a protracted, bloody war against communism, the Border War that forced the army into battles deep in Angola. “There was a Vietnam feeling here. I saw parallels with ‘68' in the rest of the world," says 45-year-old writer, musician and Rodriguez fan Strato Copteros. “He was the voice of the dissatisfied white youth. Generation after generation fell under his spell."

The Sugarman, American songwriter Rodriguez performs on February 5 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa.
The Sugarman, American songwriter Rodriguez performs on February 5 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Rodney Seale’s books

Copteros grew up as the son of poor Greek immigrants in a conservative eastern suburb of Johannesburg. Growing up meant obeying your father, teacher and church. Religion teachers told you The Doors made devilish music, and they were supported by travelling moralists who visited schools and played records backwards to decipher diabolical messages. For example, Queen's Another One Bites the Dust would encourage smoking dope. There was also a lot of quoting from books such as Rockmusiek, die reg om te weet by Rodney Seale, which stated exactly what was devilish: Venom, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, etc.

At the age of 15, Copteros got the news that he had to enlist after graduating. Since the Border War had now erupted in full force, that was not a pleasant prospect. It was a complex struggle that started on a small scale in 1966, but after Angolan independence in 1975 it turned into the largest African conflict since World War 2. In addition to the South African army and the Namibian liberation movement Swapo, three Angolan rebel movements, Zairian mercenaries, Cuban troops, Russian military advisers (and weapons) and the CIA were involved.

The South African apartheid government feared a communist domino effect in southern Africa, similar to the American fear of a red south-east Asia. At the time of the Border War, the South African army was about 100,000 strong. In total, more than half a million white men (black and brown people were not allowed to serve in the army under apartheid) completed their military service between 1967 and 1994. The Border War lasted until 1990.

‘Silver magic ships you carry’

As in Vietnam, the young men were initially willing to die in the fight against die rooi gevaar. But by the mid-eighties, when Copteros got his first call to conscription and Titlestad was in a mental institution, the situation had changed. The war had reached a dead-end, and in black townships the anger had boiled over and white conscripts had to maintain order. In their barracks or far away in the sweltering bush, those young men listened to Rodriguez. They sang along to the drug song Sugar Man (“Silver magic ships you carry, jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane") and the sex song I Wonder (“I wonder how many times you've had sex").

The Border War was everywhere. Friends and older brothers had to go to the front. Heartening records such as Troepie Tunes were released with the hits Sing Korporaal and Jy's in die army nou. The names of the fallen were read out on the radio. There were programmes in which important battles were reenacted. Schools were also captivated by the conflict. “Many teachers had served as officers in the army. Some had come back as aggressive bastards. Others told stories about how terrible it was at the front," Copteros says. Every week, pupils had to march. Simulation exercises were done in case a terrorist attack took place. And regularly there were “field schools (veldskole)", where the students were drilled and had to sing that they wanted to kill the Namibian rebel leader Sam Nujoma.

The government propaganda was running at full speed. “You had no idea what the fuck was really going on at the front," Copteros says. “And amid all that crap, Rodriguez sounded like something you could hear on Good Morning Vietnam. With the difference that it felt like our [situation]."

‘No one knows who he is or if he’s alive’

He heard Cold Fact in 1984 for the first time. His friend Harry, who played the record, told him in a conspiratorial tone that “no one knows who he is or if he is still alive". Copteros bought his own copy in CNA. Cold Fact was on sale there as a package with a record by Chris de Burgh, whose song Spanish Train was initially banned by the censor because it was about God and the devil playing poker. The fact that even a boring musician like De Burgh could be subversive had to do with the fact that South Africa was a cultural wasteland. Because of the boycott, no international bands could perform here. On Springbok Radio you only heard lame pop music. Protest singers such as Roger Lucey were targeted by the secret police. Anything that smelled of communism, sex or anti-Christian sentiments was banned by the censor.

And then, suddenly, there was Rodriguez, an American singer who probably slipped through the cracks because he was largely  unknown. For lack of an alternative, Rodriguez gradually became synonymous with the underground in South Africa, with exotica, rebellion and danger. “I think it was that line in I Wonder about ‘how many times you've had sex' that caused the viral spread," says Stephen “Sugar" Segerman, the man who started the search for Rodriguez.

Music industry veteran Benjy Mudie can't recall ever hearing Rodriguez's music on the SABC (I Wonder was edited with a sharp object for the SABC, just to be sure.) “As far as I know, the Rodriguez fire spread through cassettes that people made for each other."

Source of inspiration for Voëlvry

Eventually, hundreds of thousands of LPs and cassettes of Cold Fact were sold, and Rodriguez became, as the documentary rightly reports, an important source of inspiration for the Voëlvry movement of alternative Afrikaners who opposed the apartheid triumvirate of father, pastor and teacher in the late eighties.

“I saw Searching for Sugar Man and was moved to tears," says the now 58-year-old Voëlvry frontman Koos Kombuis. “And I think that Rodriguez has undoubtedly contributed to freeing the minds of the youth. There was a line in one of his songs that deeply resonated with me: ‘The system’s gonna fall soon/ To an angry young tune.’ When I was young, I believed in that sentence. With heart and soul."

David Bowie “killed" his fictional Starman in 1973 during a performance in London. Rodriguez was tracked down as a construction worker in Detroit in 1998 and has been performing regularly ever since: an unsteady old singing man who is often drunk on stage. The public doesn't care. Time and time again, they go off the rails for Rodriguez, their own Bob Dylan. Copteros saw him on his first comeback tour in 1998. “Musically, it was disappointing. But it was so beautiful to see him and know that he was still alive. He was ours."

* This article originally appeared on June 22, 2013, in Vrij Nederland #25.

♦ VWB ♦

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