Searching for Sugarman: a study of the Individuation Process

Searching for Sugarman: a study of the Individuation Process

Sugar man met a false friend
On a lonely dusty road Lost my heart when I found it
It had turned to dead black coal

Silver magic ships you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane

Sugar man you’re the answer
That makes my questions disappear
Sugar man ‘cos I’m weary
Of those double games I hear

Sugar man, Sugar man, Sugar man, Sugar man,
Sugar man, Sugar man, Sugar man

Sugar man, won’t you hurry
‘Cos I’m tired of these scenes
For the blue coin won’t you bring back
All those colors to my dreams[1]

A few days ago I watched the documentary movie, Searching for Sugarman. I tell you candidly, I wept. It was one of the most poignant cinematic stories I have ever seen. Very briefly, it is a semi biographical piece of the singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez aka. Sugarman. Rodriguez released two albums in the early seventies Cold Fact and Coming from Reality in the very early seventies. They were both dismal failures, I mean really, really bad as Clarence Avant put it

“I think it [Coming from Reality] sold 6 copies in the States. I bought one, my wife bought one…”

Ironically though, of all the places in the world, Rodriguez found an audience in South Africa, here he was massive bigger than the Rolling Stones or Elvis. And twenty six years after his still born music career was buried, in 1998, two intrepid South African music aficionados found him and resurrected the artist Rodriguez. Today as a man of seventy he is touring and alive and kicking[2]!

It is always going to be difficult to put into words something that touches you as deeply as this touched me, but let me say what I can, as inadequate as that is bound to be. It is on one level a very, very, sad story. Rodriguez, whose song writing skills were the province of genius by any measure, possessed a haunting voice and an authentic artistic charisma, not unlike Jim Morison, was effectively never seen, and never heard. He never even made it onto the radar, despite having released two albums produced and backed by serious music industry heavyweights. With this failure to launch as an artist, Sixto goes back to doing what he did before, hard manual labour, a very modest (to put it euphemistically) and simple life, unknown and unrecognised.

Twenty six years later… as a man now well into his fifties, he gets to experience redemption and a rebirth as an artist in South Africa. There is a scene, shot on his daughter’s home camera, where he is standing in front of an audience of around 10 000 people at the Cape Town Velodrome. He is on stage, before playing a note, and the audience are on their feet just screaming and applauding wildly as he stands there, and this goes on for at least five minutes. It is a transcendent moment. It is the moment, as Riaan Malan put it,

“It is the moment we all dream about, when the world finally recognises your talent. How many of us die without ever having experienced that moment?”

But, I ask you, does a moment make a life? In fairness it should be acknowledges that it was not a single moment but a growing series of moments, after 98, wherein Rodriguez was give the opportunity to express himself as an artist and receive due recognition. Since the movie, his fame has finally grown even in the States, if very modestly. He is now a man of seventy.

What does his story mean?

Firstly I conceded that the very idea of looking for a meaning presupposes certain questionable assumptions, i.e. that life is inherently meaningful –many claim it is not. Still whether that meaning is a creation of our mind or an objective truth, I think we are called to ask and answer such a question- a kind of categorical imperative in Kant’s terms.

So did Rodriguez miss his destiny?

Does it make sense to say that someone missed their destiny? I think it does, if we mean by destiny the idea of an ‘ideal destiny’, roughly Jung’s idea of individuation. There is a notion, that comes from the Japanese author Murukami, of a moment in each person’s life where he either seizes his destiny or sees it pass by. There is something really unpleasant about this idea that causes us to want to reject it outright, and yet I sense a truth in it, if not the truth.

Maybe, just maybe, Rodriguez missed his destiny. Certainly if the producers and music executives interviewed in the documentary are to be believed he did, and it was an absolute mystery to them why.

I think there is something deeply mysterious about this idea. The idea of having a ‘destiny’ or going further let’s say an ‘ideal destiny’. This leads me to wonder about Jung’s idea of individuation. What is individuation? Ostensibly it is:

A person becoming himself, whole, indivisible and distinct from other people and collective psychology (though also in relation to these).[3]

But we might ask how exactly does one become whole and distinct? Is it not through the realisation of who one is, the idea of becoming oneself in the world? What purpose would it serve, for example, if one were to become ‘whole and distinct’ in one’s living room and never speak that truth into the world. Or sing it as in Rodriguez’ case.

For many years I thought I understood this idea. But I must concede that the more I ponder on it the less I feel as though I have really understood it. There is, as you have no doubt encountered in your own circle of friends, or acquaintances[4], a populist idea that whatever has happened is what was supposed to happen, i.e. I am exactly where I am meant to be, that sort of thing.

That idea has never really resonated for me. If it were true it would seem to undermine all our endeavours to improve ourselves. If whatever happens we say – well that is exactly what was ‘supposed’ to happen, then what, I ask you, is the whole point. No I think that is, more than likely, a way of our wishing to comfort ourselves, make peace with our fate whatever that may be.

Still that leads us back then to the idea of something more than fate, destiny perhaps. So returning to Rodriguez, can we possibly say he missed his destiny?

Somehow I want to say no I don’t think we can say that he did. On the contrary, I think, he realised his destiny. Of course that would be to imply that he had by conventional standards a pretty shitty destiny. A lifetime of hard manual labour in the desolate and dissolute city that is Detroit. A life where his enormous talent is unrecognised. Where he is not given to the opportunity for self-actualisation as an artist. A life lived on the breadline and often on the streets, moving from home to home, or house to house as his daughter put it, many of these houses not deserving the title – home. And then finally what, old age and decrepitude, the inexorable hand of time that robs him as it will all of us of the beauty and grace of our youth.

And yet, and yet despite all of that I somehow continue to believe he realised his destiny. And not because he was given a moment of redemption as an old man, a moment to stand on the stage and be recognised. No I think it’s something deeper than that.

There is a section in the documentary where a colleague of Rodriguez talks about his (i.e. Rodriguez’) fate. I cannot quote it verbatim, but it is along the following lines.

 He says Rodriguez was a consummate artist; he had the soul of the artist, always able to rise above the mundane, the parochial. He would come for example to a day of filthy dirty, messy, physical labour dressed in a suit, and work as hard or harder than any other man on the team, in fact doing work no one else wanted to do. As he put it, Rodriguez is like the silkworm, he took what life gave him and he made something better out of it, something refined, something beautiful, something transcendent, maybe even something eternal- he gave us Sugarman. Have you done something like that, he asks?

But still, you know, I find it difficult. To see this once beautiful man, an almost ethereal being, now old and still walking alone on the snowy roads of Detroit, walking with the difficulties of old age- man that’s tough.

And yet if I really think about it, I have to say it is that very vulnerability, it is in that vulnerability that he transcends himself. His lyrics come alive in a way they never could had he not lived the life he did. He lived the life and the truth that he sang of. It is a sad truth admittedly.

Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas
And I talked to Jesus at the sewer
And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business
While the rain drank champagne

My Estonian Archangel came and got me wasted
Cause the sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I’ve never tasted
Oh but they’ll take their bonus pay to Molly McDonald,
Neon ladies, beauty is that which obeys, is bought or borrowed[5]

But is it not beautiful, beautiful in a form that could never have been unveiled in any other way.

I am old enough now, I’m 45 at the time of writing this post, that whilst I still have limited access to the vitality of my youth, I simultaneously have a sufficient maturity to recognise the impending hand of time bearing down on me. And maybe what I want to say is simply a way I have developed of coming to terms with own aging. Still with that caveat in place let me say this:

I think there is a beauty in the aging process if one is only able to recognise it. God knows it’s not easy in our youth obsessed culture. But an aspect of the person, an essential aspect, can only reveal itself with age and the accompanying maturity. Growing older, frailer and being deprived of certain earlier competencies is after all a fundamental part of being human.

The thought occurred to me whilst working on this post that we should strive to see the entire person, not just the youth. Why should we prize the one so highly at the expense of the other, when both constitute who we are? I have resolved to look with different eyes so that I see the old men my sons will become[6], and the young woman my mother in law once was.

Somehow I believe Rodriguez’ story speaks to this theme. That failure, pain and vulnerability are equally valuable aspects of the human condition as their opposites. That whilst we all strive to succeed, whatever that may be, we should not in the same breadth disavow failure – we are, after all, all destined to grow old and die[7], that one could argue is the greatest metaphysical failure of all. And it is in the acceptance of this pain, of the very absurdity of our fate, that we have the possibility of transcendence.

Until we talk again,

Blessings and salutations,


[1] From lyrics of Sugarman, written by Sixto Rodriguez, album Cold Fact.

[3] A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, p. 76.

[4] If like me you don’t have any actual friends.

[5] Cause, from the album Coming from Reality, Sixto Rodriguez

[6] By the grace of God.

[7] Ray Kurzwel notwithstanding.

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Comments (19)

  • Loudine Heunis Reply

    I don’t agree with the notion that Rodriguez missed his destiny, or that he failed to be a great and recognised musician. As a South African, he was and still is one of my favourite musicians. He is an intergral part of my youth, and a shared experience with my friends across many generations. In our shared musical consciousness, he is on par with Bob Dylan, The Doors, Cat Stevens as being a musician whom we all know and love, we can sing every lyric of the Cold Fact album, it is the music of our lives. Just because he was unaware of it, does that diminish this love and reference for his music? No, it is still as alive, as valid, as much a true appreciation as it would have been had he been aware of it and received that recognition earlier in his life. Maybe his story is unique, but do you think he regards it as sad, as a life wasted? I like to think not.

    September 28, 2012 at 12:43 am
    • Stephen Reply

      Loudine, thanks for your clearly very heartfelt comment.
      Yes I agree with you that he realised his destiny, and that is the central theme of the post. I assume that your comment about not agreeing that he missed his destiny is in response the comments from his producers and record label execs. Let me say in their defence, from their perspective making it in South Africa is not making it, the States is where it is at for them. Consider that Rodriguez did not see a red cent of his royalties prior to 98, and his career simply failed to take off.
      That he is on a par with the artists you mention- yes absolutely.
      That he does not regards his life as sad and wasted, yes absolutely and this comes across strongly in the documentary, that he has no bitterness in relation to what transpired.
      Objectively speaking was his fate a very sad one? I would say so, as would most people I imagine. No one aspires to be sidelined and unrecognised for who they are for the best part of their lives. Does his success in South Africa, unbeknown to him change that, I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting idea.

      September 28, 2012 at 5:24 am
      • Tertia Reply

        Hi Stephen, I also saw the movie and was profoundly moved by it. If one looked at Rodriques, in terms of being a musician, one might say that he missed his destiny, but even that I do not agree with, because his life is not over and I think one can only truelly reflect then ( or maybe not even then because his impact will continue even when he has passed on) because I believe one only needs a moment, one breathe, to fulfill your destiny, because time is relative. But what is even greater for me was what I saw of him as a person- whatever he did, he did with such contemplation, consideration and dignity , and I think they use the word “sacrament” but I am not sure. His life was an incredible example to the marginalised or so called “lesser” person, embodying that, no matter who you are, you have inherent value and greatness, and that to me is his true gift he brought into the world.

        September 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm
        • Stephen Reply

          Hi Tertia
          Thanks for your comment and feedback. I really like your idea about destiny being realised in a single moment, and if we go along with that then possibly that moment, at least from Rodriguez’ perspective, may have been the moment he walked onto stage in Cape town in 98.
          Also I really love you thought about him being an example of and to the marginalised. In fact we could say his life and music speak for the marginalised- beautiful. I’m pretty sure they did describe his life as a ‘sacrament’…
          Picking up on the line of your thinking, I was deeply moved by what one of his daughters said, about the socially and economically marginalised not dreaming any all less richly; that their soul life had no less depth than the more affluent. And if Rodriguez was anything to judge by his inner life seems exceedingly rich.
          Some really nice thoughts, thank you Tertia.

          September 30, 2012 at 4:27 am
  • Cate Neilson Reply

    I haven’t seen the film yet but your article and insight are fascinating. As someone in ‘middle age’ this idea of destiny passing by has been on my mind a lot lately. Also, due to a very traumatic divorce, I feel like some of my ‘fate’ was stripped away at the hands of another. I agree that age gives us who we are, but sometimes who we are is hard-won, and not who we planned to be…

    September 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      Cate many thanks for your kind words. I really pleased the article resonated for you. I suspect ‘who we are’ is very rarely who we thought we were, and ‘hard-won’ yes no doubt…

      September 30, 2012 at 4:27 am
  • Leza Reply

    Best article you have written, in my opinion, Stephen. I felt it came from your heart and not your mind. Thankyou

    October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am
    • Stephen Reply

      Thank you Leza 🙂

      October 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm
  • Charl Roux Reply

    The pain we feel not reaching our pure potentiality is the pain we feel watching the movie or just reading your post.

    October 2, 2012 at 7:48 am
  • Esther Reply

    Hi Stephen I read your article this morning – book on knees – tea in hand. So I remember singing ‘Sugarman’ and ‘I wonder’ to another self years ago. These songs have power and endurance.
    So is destiny only Destiny when one ‘makes it’? I am in two minds again (I have more in the bureau…) Let us accept that for an aspirant public figure recognition and financial reward is the thing. I sense that the ‘missed’ Destiny would be in the self pity when a dream failed to materialise. The sense of powerlessness in the face of impossible odds. He just took the road available. Sad undoubtedly. But a wild thing has no self pity and he still reminds me of the wild child I. ..wanted to be back then. Beautiful piece – thank you

    October 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm
  • Margaret Reply

    Hi Stephen, Lovely insights! We saw the movie last night – absolutely amazing! And we went to his concert in 1998 – a remarkable experience! My feeling after seeing the movie is that Rodriguez was never ‘wasted’. I wondered whether he would be the man he is today, if he had made it in the USA. He remains a humble person with a generous spirit!

    October 12, 2012 at 2:51 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      Hi Margret, many thanks, I tend to agree had his fate been any different ne would not have become the extraordinary man he undoubtedly is. As a sidebar, I was in Cape Town with Jodee and Tanya at the time of the concert in 98, it is a great regret that I did not attended.

      October 15, 2012 at 10:21 am
  • Leonard Reply

    Beautiful well written post! Is having knowlegde of how your work has been received or has affected the wolrd a pre-requiste to having fulfilled or actualised your destiny? Is caring whether or not you have individuated a pre-requiste to individuation?

    October 14, 2012 at 9:52 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      Thank you Leonard! Good questions, to be honest I don’t know. I’ll meditate on it. Thanks for raising them, definitely food for thought.

      October 15, 2012 at 10:23 am
  • Matthew C. Clarke Reply

    “I have resolved to look with different eyes so that I see the old men my sons will become, and the young woman my mother in law once was.”

    — A wonderful resolution Stephen and one I shall seek to remember.

    December 21, 2012 at 12:20 am
  • Chantelle Reply

    I read all your posts but missed this one somehow! I agree with Leza, this is one of your best (I’m sharing the link as I often do). I watched Sugarman never having heard of Rodriguez before and was incredibly moved. I also battled with the idea, which sprung to my mind as a perfect demonstration of our knee-jerk ‘obsession with youth’ as you say, that he had missed his destiny. I think this is mainly because, in addition to his physical beauty, there was a wisdom and knowledge there, even in his youth, that, while it may certainly have deepened and taken on a different grain with age, could (at least by laymen such as me) already be regarded as ‘complete’ and ‘ready’. Rodriguez seems to have been born 60 years old but to have had to face a lot of hardship and deterioration before anyone noticed (beyond his music – the man’s humility and his impressive daughters, or the air they exude) how surprising he was. And there would have been time for people to feel his influence for longer. Maybe ‘long enough’, whatever that is. His music, for an ignoramus like me who’d never heard of it before the film and now owns it all, is a symptom of what Rodriguez is. Which is definitely not (just) a singer/songwriter. I had an opposing argument but it’s lost its steam in my writing what went before. Something to do with the comfort and grounding that ‘working with your hands’ can impart. When my own head is too noisy I long to run off and work as a farm labourer. Actually I want that everyday 🙂 – too many old movies?

    February 5, 2013 at 9:32 am
  • Missouri Dentist Reply

    Really great post! Keep up the great work. I’ll be back to read more!

    July 31, 2016 at 8:00 pm
  • Peter Reply

    I am 57 and remmebr how Rodriguez’ ‘Cold Fact’ made such an impact on us all in 1974. It was in general a golden age of rock music innovation. I loved the movie and saw him in Cape Town on his second SA trip.

    My main point is that he made some conscious choices in not seizing his opportunity for mainstream rock fame. Sure he was ripped off by the moguls, but there is a very telling part in the movie where one of the promotors relates how he had no stage persona. He related the example how Rodriguez at his live gigs would perform with HIS BACK TO THE AUDIENCE! He clearly had a deep sense of himself as an artist and of his ability, and he achieved success in producing amazing poetry and music and heavyweight industry backing. So why did he turn away when it was there for the taking after all his years of had work and struggle? Was there a childhood wound that he felt he was fated to suffer and labour and that he did not deserve rock star fame and adoration? What was so moving about the South African connection (illustrarted by the spontaneous Cape Town applause) was that he discovered he WAS loved and adored for what he had created. Watching the older Rodriguez on stage, just standing there listening to shouts of ‘marry me’ from the fiftysomething audience, I got a sense of surrender on his part as he faced them, smiling bashfully and just letting the love wash over him.

    In my life journey, I feel I have also missed some of those opportunities, and that I have also turned away from what was mine to embrace. Instead choosing to continue suffering in various ways I didnt need to. But emerging from various personal losses and bad choices, I learned that I am still loved by those around me, personal failings and all.

    October 3, 2016 at 7:33 am

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