Dissecting the albums that drove South Africa nuts

I bought Coming from Reality, Rodriguez's second LP, at Record Town in Central Park Mall in 1971. However, other than Rodriguez's Mexican-Indio face on the cover, the recording produced in England had little Latino music roots or cultural heritage.

Still, a few cuts soared. My favorite was "A Most Disgusting Song." The lyrics say it all: "I've played faggot bars, hooker bars … opera houses, concert halls, halfway houses." In a word: Rodriguez's own "Desolation Row." It pokes fun at lowlifes: "Yeah, every night it's the same old thing/ getting high, getting drunk, getting horny/ at the Inn-Between, again." Ditto the literary elite from Edward Arlington Robinson's poem "Mr. Flood's Party" and the bohemians in Martha's Vineyard. The record flopped and Rodriguez disappeared.

Not quite.

Forty years later, I learn Rodriguez is actually a Mexican-American musician from Detroit and an urban legend. Young, middle-class white South Africans adopted his earlier LP Cold Fact (1970) as a clarion call for confronting apartheid.

Cold Fact, recorded in Detroit, is a blend of protest and psychedelic folk rock. Its best-known cut "Sugar Man" (about a drug dealer) is gritty and compelling. However, it pales next to that era's "The Pusher" by Steppenwolf or Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."

My favorite cut is "I Wonder." It asks: "I wonder how many times you had sex. And I wonder do you know who'll be next." Its repeating bass motif by Motown's Funk Brothers is catchy, funky and, for South Africans, daring and revolutionary. Rodriguez is on a comeback tour. And while the early albums showed promise then, I'm left hoping that nostalgia isn't the only tune Rodriguez sings these days.

Coming From Reality (1971)

★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Cold Fact (1970)

★★★ (out of 5 stars)

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