Tell Me About That Song: Rodriguez's "I Wonder"

A mysterious hit, a Seattle label, and a simple question about sex.

Thanks to a batch of South African bootlegs, a Mexican-American artist named Sixto Rodriguez became a platinum-selling star in that country without even knowing it—as recounted in the new documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. And thanks to a crate-digging Seattle record label, Rodriguez, 70, now has a stateside home for his albums, reissue label Light in the Attic.

Looking ahead to LITA's 10th- anniversary celebration this Friday featuring Rodriguez and a handful of other label personalities, label founder Matt Sullivan talks about discovering a lost classic, and Rodriguez goes on the record about his song "I Wonder" being banned in apartheid-era South Africa yet finding a legion of underground fans.

SW: How were you first introduced to Rodriguez?

Sullivan: There was a compilation that David Holmes put out, the producer who did the Ocean's Eleven soundtrack. One of the songs was "Sugar Man" by Rodriguez. I bought the CD at Jam Records in Seattle and loved it, and that's when I started trying to find out more about him and the record.

So were you talking with Rodriguez at the same time the documentary was being put together?

We had already been working on the re-issues [Cold Fact, Coming From Reality] for a couple years. The movie was put together by Malik Bendjelloul, who's from Sweden. He was coincidentally in South Africa looking for stories to do a movie about, and then he met the South Africans [who were looking for Rodriguez]. Our thing was totally separate from the movie. It's a very odd coincidence.

What about Cold Fact made you realize it was worth reissuing?

There are just so many elements about it that stand out. The lyrics, production, his vocals, the songwriting—lyrically, it's just as relevant today as it was then. I was floored. It's my favorite thing we've ever released. We've done about 100 records in 10 years, and for me I think it's my personal favorite.

What about "I Wonder"? What does the song mean to you?

"I Wonder" is a big part of the film. It had a lot to do with the people in South Africa being so in love with his music. It got banned from the radio because of the line that says, "I wonder how many times you've had sex." Once it got banned, people wanted to hear it. It's not like he was a shock-value guy. He's a guy that was writing poetry about what he saw on the streets of Detroit.

SW: How did you first find out about Cold Fact's success in South Africa?

Rodriguez: When Sugar [South African record-store owner Stephen "Sugar" Segerman] came in 1996 and showed me the CD and told me about this "fan base," and told me some of the story. He went back to South Africa, and then two years later, 1998, I went there for my first tour. I've been there four times now. [On] one tour, I did 12 cities.

Was the line "I wonder how many times you've had sex" written about someone in particular?

No, it's not autobiographical. It's just a song. I'm a writer. I take things from the world and I put them on paper . . . It's very much just questions about the war. I describe myself as musical-political. I use satire and a thesaurus when I write. I try to write a good piece. I've only written 30 songs, so it's not like I've written a lot. I didn't know I was going to succeed.

Does any certain performance of "I Wonder" stand out as your favorite?

Each night is the best night. I was doing a Dylan song, and somebody asked me, "Are you doing Dylan?" . . . No, I was doing Shakespeare. Dylan is Shakespeare to me. I do a lot of covers.

What do you hope fans take away from "I Wonder" and your music as a whole?

What I really want for them to take away, if I could have my own way, I really want to give more than hope and inspiration. I want to give them something tangible. Like if it's a job, they should have that job. If it's a student, then they should have that education. They should be able to do that. They should give youngbloods in America a better chance for life than the war.

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