Searching for Sugarman: a study of the Individuation ProcessAnja van Kralingen
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
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!
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).
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, 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
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, 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, 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,
 From lyrics of Sugarman, written by Sixto Rodriguez, album Cold Fact.
 A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, p. 76.
 If like me you don’t have any actual friends.
 Cause, from the album Coming from Reality, Sixto Rodriguez
 By the grace of God.
 Ray Kurzwel notwithstanding.