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Commentary: Detroit can emerge like Rodriguez in "Searching for Sugarman"


About 15 years ago, someone told me that a man who was Billie Holiday’s alter ego, and had ghostwritten her classic memoir turned movie, “Lady Sings the Blues,”  was living in a little blue house in the Detroit area. That sounded interesting, so I went to see him.

His name was Bill Dufty, and I found out that not only was all that true, he also turned out to be the last husband of Gloria Swanson, the silent film star. What’s more, virtually nobody in the media knew about him. The Dalai Lama knew him, and so did Yoko Ono. But the media did not. His life was worth a book of its own.

Why did nobody know this fascinating man was in Detroit? Well, it‘s largely because as hard as we try to pretend otherwise, the news media are, in large part, stenographers for society’s institutions. Unless you run for office, commit a crime, get dragged into court, put on a concert or do something to call attention to yourself, you may never end up being “covered” in the news media.

I’ve spent most of my life in the Detroit area, and know there are countless other fascinating people beneath the radar. That’s why I wasn’t shocked by the Oscar-winning movie, “Searching for Sugarman.”

If you haven’t seen it by now, you should at least know the story.  The young people who struggled to overthrow apartheid in South Africa in the 1980’s were deeply inspired by a mysterious American singer they knew only as Rodriguez.

Everyone in South Africa believed he had committed suicide on stage. Years later, with the tools of the Internet, a couple of fans decided to see if they could flesh out the story. To their shock, they found him living in the slums of Detroit, doing demolition work to stay alive.

He had no idea that he had sold half a million albums in South Africa. Mostly as a result of that movie, he now has a revitalized career, and is now, at age 70, touring the world and recording new material.

After I saw the movie, I immediately ordered his old albums, and found they were as good, or better than anything the early Bob Dylan had done. 

The bad news was that this talent was sidetracked for so long. The good news is that it’s never over till it’s over.

I like to hope that Rodriguez and his career are metaphors for Detroit. After all, he was born in the city, the child of immigrants. His father worked in a foundry; his mother died when he was a baby. After early promise, he fell on hard times, but became unimaginably successful in the end.

Detroit is about to go through some radical changes. But if Rodriguez can emerge from the shadows, maybe his city can. Incidentally, if you think Detroit’s troubles are new, here’s how one of Rodriguez’s songs begins:

“The mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forgot the vote date…
Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people they’re abusing …
And you tell me this is where it’s at”

He wrote that in 1969. Let’s hope someone writes a different song about Detroit a dozen years from now.

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