Rodriguez: Coming from Reality (Light in the Attic)
Rodriguez proved a striking presence when he left his native Detroit to record the successor to Cold Fact, his at times uncompromising debut for Sussex Records. Londoners in the winter of 1970 thought he was a Native American Indian -- the world was smaller then, and their innocent assumption was an understandable stab at the origins of the bohemian exotic in their midst.
Resembling a hybrid of Hendrix in shades and Arthur Lee, Rodriguez was proof positive, and remains so, that some stars are born, no matter what success denies them on their journey forth.
What resulted from this sabbatical abroad, produced by Steve Rowland, whose credits stretch from P. J. Proby to the Cure, remains one of the most hauntingly poetic albums to grace the dark grooves of plastic, and now the silvery digital domain.
The record opens with a spirited invitation to "Climb Up on My Music," the perfect insistent guitar of Chris Spedding driving the song along via a divine air of sophistication. Cold Fact had grit, but these confections are more expansive, urbane, and refined.
The amusingly biting "A Most Disgusting Song" is the perfect travelogue amalgam of dives that Rodriguez has had the dubious privilege of playing. It is casually littered with brilliantly observed vignettes.
Talking is the lawyer in the crumpled up shirt
And everyone's drinking the detergents that will not remove their hurts....
And there's old playboy Ralph who's always been shorter than himself, and there's a man with his chin in his hand who knows more than he'll ever understand.
And there's the bearded schoolboy with the wooden eyes who at every scented skirt whispers up and sighs...
And there's the militant with his store-bought soul
There's someone here who's almost a virgin I've been told.
Who talk to dogs, chase broads, have hopes of being mobbed. who mislay their dreams and later claim that they were robbed."
Rodriguez delivers these verbal Polaroids with the warm, but unsentimental tones of a wearied watcher, but this mood dissolves with a sweet and tender love song, "I Think of You," all Spanish guitar, and an alluring bed of strings. He then kicks things up a notch or three with "Heikki's Suburbia Bus Tour," a catchy acid-edged gem cascading with eloquent strangeness.
"Hospitals for flowers, the matron ladies cry
Itchy trigger fingers as our caravan walks by
Overcrowded laughter, cause they're all four gallons high
On Heikki's suburbia bus tour ride"
Then he slips into a short, touchingly tender, almost throwaway sketch of truth and can't-believe-my-luck yearning, with "Silver Words":
"But oh if you could see
The change you've made in me
That the angels in the skies
Were envious and surprised
That anyone as nice as you
Would chance with me. "
What follows is a subtle surprise, a piece of perfect majesty. "Sandrevan Lullaby / Lifestyles" is a rare combination of harp, raw lyricism, and string-drenched melancholia. The words suggest T.S Eliot in the unlikely guise of troubadour, or Kerouac at his finest.
"The generals hate holidays
Others shoot up to chase the sun blue away
Another store front church is open
Sea of neon lights, a boxer his shadow fights soldier tired and sailor broken....
Judges with metermaid hearts
Order super market justice starts
Frozen children inner city
Walkers in the paper rain
Waiting for those nights that never came
the hi-jacked trying so hard to be pretty"
Songs like this are hard to come by; this level of artistry is sadly scarce -- but again Rodriguez veers away from following the listener's expectations. His moment of sublime suggestion morphs into "To Whom It May Concern," a single that should have been a smash, radio-friendly and commercial. "It Started Out So Nice" stands as a viable follow-up, if one had transpired, but despite blending poetry with hit potential, Rodriguez never released another missive to tackle the charts.
"It started out so nice with butterflies
On a velvet afternoon
With flashing eyes and promises
Caught and held too soon
In a place called Ixea
With its pumpkin oval moon
It started out so nice."
The whole conceit of the songs lies in the suggestion, never expressed, of how things actually ended. "Halfway Up the Stairs" is a near-perfect lullaby, deceptively simple in the way only the masterful achieve, but the album closes with one final punch of heartbreak surrealism. "Cause," like "Sandrevan Lullabye / Lifestyles," is brilliantly scored by Jimmy Horowitz, who worked with the Faces and Lesley Duncan, and is the perfect closer to this -- or any -- album.
Subdued anger and disappointment arc to the point of uniqueness as fractured eloquence and beauty emerge in a street poetics master class.
"My Estonian Archangel came and got me wasted
Cause the sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I never tasted
Oh but they'll take their bonus pay to Molly MacDonald.
Neon ladies, beauty is that which obeys, is bought or borrowed.
'Cause my heart's become a crooked hotel full of rumors
But it's I who pays the rent for those finger-face out-of-tuners
And I make 16 solid half-hour friendships every evening
'Cause your queen of hearts who is half a stone
And likes to laugh alone, is always threatening you with leaving
Oh but they play their token games on Willy Thompson
And give a medal to replace the son of Mrs. Annie Johnson. "
Although we know none of the faceless names in the song, this trick of familiarity gives a sense of closeness and warmth to the bleakness. A fanciful ruse, but one that works, and then, the rest was silence.
Although Coming from Reality was a lavish act of faith by Sussex Records, it fared less well than Cold Fact, which hadn't fared well at all. The label was in financial difficulties, and despite being contracted to do a third album, bar a few initial sessions, Rodriguez saw his career dissolve. That almost four decades on it has been lovingly restored to vinyl, and released on compact disc, on the back of the successful re-surfacing of Cold Fact is a strange consolation that quality eventually finds its deserved level.
The reviews have been full of appreciation and praise and Rodriguez, now 67, has been touring. The missing link between folk and Motown, he still has the air of a major star, the enigma that talent allows. This success can only be gratifying, even if it does arrive long after the expectation of it, has retired. Like they say of revenge, it is a dish best served cold.