These days, great songs can grow and flourish without necessarily having to rely on the sales and marketing mechanisms of record labels.
This was also possible in 1970, just at a much slower pace.
Like the patient, careful plodding of his footsteps through Detroit’s winter snow in the 2012 film Waiting For Sugarman, the debut album by Sixto Rodriguez embarked on its own unhurried but purposeful path to music fans in the Southern Hemisphere.
It’s just one of those incredible meetings of the artist and producers which you just can’t calculate.Rob Hirst
For an artist virtually unknown and ignored in his homeland, Cold Fact’s broad and enduring impact on hundreds of thousands of lives outside of the US is nothing short of miraculous.
Long time Rodriguez fan, one-time member of his band, and Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst, says how the album found its way to Australia was “like the man himself, quite a mystery.”
“People started to play the album at parties and were immediately captivated by that voice and the power of the songs and how damn real it was,” he tells Double J. “It really became a word of mouth thing.”
A combination of factors ensured the album would continue to find its way into more homes.
“The voice is incredibly distinctive in the same way as say Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan; we immediately know who they are,” Hirst says.
“The second thing is that you can’t write that sort of street poetry unless you’ve lived it. And Rodriguez, clearly, was someone who knew what he was talking about. He was only in his 20s when he recorded Cold Fact and it seemed like he knew all the characters in all of those songs.
“In Australia, we had heard about what was happening in the United States with the burning of towns like Washington, Watts, Detroit and Chicago in the mid-‘60s. We knew about the crime and corruption in places like Detroit. Here was someone who could put it all in poetry who came from that background and it was absolutely captivating.”
The album also has a unique, hypnotic sonic allure.
“Apart from his extraordinary voice and the poetry and the earworm melodies that he had in his songs, a lot of the appeal goes to the two producers, Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey,” Hirst says. “They constructed this incredibly haunting album with enormous depth. A very quirky album.
“They used everything from their friends in the Funk Brothers, like Bob Babbitt on bass and the Detroit Strings, for all that ethereal string work that gives it such a haunting quality. Brass players which played like foghorns, percussion that comes and goes and is really loud in the mix. It’s just one of those incredible meetings of the artist and producers which you just can’t calculate that they managed to get just right.”
But not everyone was happy with the production.
“To this day Rodriguez doesn’t like the production of the album,” Hirst explains. “All the fans love it but he would have liked to be just him and his acoustic guitar. But for my way of thinking and for most, it’s the production and all the interesting, quirky instruments that make that album and bring alive all the songs.”
Cold Fact’s stories still ring true 46 years on.
“After all these years Detroit is still a basket case,” Hirst says. “They’ve tried to resurrect the town on 3 or 4 occasions, like a lot of those North Eastern American post-industrial towns, there’s still a hell of a lot of crime and drugs and dangerous places. So a lot of those problems that Rodriguez was speaking of in the late-‘60s early-‘70s still apply to his home town and a lot of places around the world. So the subject matter remains the same.
“But I could put on Cold Fact right now and I would still love it to death, you know. It’s the real deal. It’s really Rodriguez in the raw and a really timeless record.”