One night in the late ’90s, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom was safe asleep in his South African bed when the phone rang. His wife answered the call. “It’s him,” she said, shocked and drowsy. Craig went into his study and picked up: “Hello?,” the voice on the other end of the line said. Craig instantly recognized that voice, because he had been listening to it his entire life.
The artist known as Rodriguez was a categorical failure in the United States. His first two records, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, flopped on release, and he was subsequently dropped from his label, Sussex Records. Sixto Rodriguez returned to his anonymous life in Detroit, where he played bars and juke joints, ran for city council and mayor, and raised his daughters. Meanwhile, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality were gaining traction in South Africa. Rodriguez’s music is folk, anti-establishment, playful, and ineffably mournful. Frequently compared to Bob Dylan, Rodriguez became “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa; his songs resonated with the opposition to apartheid. Although the South African government attempted to repress Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, bootleg copies circulated freely. After the end of apartheid, South African record companies rereleased Rodriguez’s albums as CDs. While Rodriguez remains an unknown in America, he is a platinum-selling artist in South Africa, as well as a culture hero. But until Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and Stephen Segerman, a Rodriguez aficionado, started probing into Rodriguez’s legend, most South Africans believed that he was dead, the victim of a gruesome on-stage suicide.
The documentary Searching For Sugar Man, currently playing in New York City, includes a well-plotted biography of Rodriguez, but the real story is Craig and Stephen’s quest to find out what really happened to their superstar. Rodriguez’s daughter stumbled Craig and Stephen’s website devoted to the “search” and reached out to her father. Thus the mysterious post-midnight wake-up call.
It is a dramatic and heartbreaking moment in the film. Craig relates the incident to documentarian Malik Bendjelloul. “I knew it was Rodriguez as soon as I heard his voice.” Craig would have known that voice anywhere—and if you have listened to Rodriguez’s haunting albums, you would understand, too: at the risk of slobbering sentimentality, Rodriguez’s voice expresses the sadness of something beautiful but broken, like the decaying industrial landscape of Detroit, or the portrait that Rodriguez cuts against the city he loves, trudging through mountains of uncleared snow and empty lots overgrown with weedy flowers, or peering through the window of his weathered house, hesitant, almost shy to face the camera.
Craig speaks of the phone call reverently. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” he says. The movie theater erupted in laughter, thankful for an easy release from the overbearing emotional pressure of the scene. Perhaps I am an inept interpreter of cinematic tone, but I do not think Craig’s statement was intended to be funny. In fact, Craig’s pronouncement moved me because it expressed his absolute triumph, but simultaneously, marked the conclusion of the organizing narrative of his life. What happens to the hero after he completes the quest? And Craig’s statement, submitted to interpretational scrutiny, casts the value of his obsession as questionable. Why was it so important to Craig to find Sugar Man? Why was it so meaningful to him? Sure, Rodriguez was an emblem of anti-apartheid resistance, counterculture, and freedom; but had the pursuit of Rodriguez substituted for other, potentially more meaningful meta-narratives in the “story of Craig?”
I think the laughter of the audience at my showing of Searching For Sugar Man reflects a dual discomfort: an inability to understand the meaningfulness of obsession, determination, perseverance, and success, however minor; and the realization that “the greatest moments” of our own lives, when submitted to an equal measure of scrutiny, are equally laughable. The recognition that our own personal narratives are, like Craig’s, artificial, cannot help but provoke defensive laughter. The meaningfulness of a greatest moment cannot be contingent on the validation of external authorities. As soon as we subject our personal narratives for institutional review, they disintegrate into cliché. Laughter at the pathos of Craig is itself a kind of pathetic laughter, insofar as it represents the clown’s self-mocking, weeping chuckle. That is not to suggest that there are no intrinsically valuable experiences or narratives. Rather, we must decide, as individuals, what is intrinsically valuable for ourselves.
I don’t think I need to connect the dots from Searching For Sugar Man to startup culture or the production of digital news media. Reach your own, independent conclusions. Suffice to say that our business pursuits, the micro-narratives of our everyday lives, and the macro-narratives of news media all reference the structure of “greatest moments.” We are culturally fixated on narratives of success: how to be successful, what success is, where we can find it, how we will know when we have found it, and so forth. Self-help literature and the popular media toggle back and forth between “greatest moments” and “success” indiscriminately. Instead of relying on external validation—the applause of an audience—we might be better off, as Craig, savoring our favorite moments in the privacy of the mind. Rodriguez, who has given away most of his money from touring in South Africa to family and friends, who still works his construction job, who still lives in the same house in Detroit that he has lived in for 40 years, knows that better than anyone. “Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them,” Rodriguez sang in 1971. Perhaps the most powerful part of Searching For Sugar Man is the implicit juxtaposition of Rodriguez and those who quest after him. Having overpaid his dues, Rodriguez rejected our common narratives of success and greatness. When he plays before sold-out stadiums, it is one moment of greatness; and when he finishes work and goes home, it is another, equivalent variety of greatness—because Rodriguez, still following his original anti-establishment logic, refuses to view victory as bound up in celebrity and royalties.