Even while helping publicize the film, Rodriguez seems at a loss when confronted with questions that require him to tap into his emotions. For instance, he was asked how it felt to learn that his music was a big hit in South Africa.
"Oh, jeez," he says, then falls silent. After a moment, he launches into a stream-of-consciousness speech that touches upon Voltaire, Barack Obama, the Berlin Wall and Social Security.
"If I sound political," he says, "it's because I am."
It's not that Rodriguez is evasive; it's that this smart man, who earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from a Michigan college, seems to not completely grasp the nature of the response expected of him. But he's on the spot, so he gamely makes his best guess.
As Bendjelloul puts it: "Rodriguez doesn't engage emotionally with questions. When we were shooting the film, he wanted to do one brief take, and that was it. In four years, I had four interviews with him. I saw it, in a way, as part of his genius. He speaks in his songs. That's where his true voice is."
To support himself, Rodriguez did manual labor for a demolition company. At times, that meant carrying large appliances such as refrigerators on his back. He had no car, so he braved Michigan's ferocious winters on foot.
In the film, Rodriguez's longtime employer says he was perceived as being one step up from a street person. But even then, Rodriguez's work ethic never wavered. Once, his employer recalls, Rodriguez showed up for his construction job wearing a tuxedo. It was his way of showing respect.
"Well, just climb up on my music, and my songs will set you free …"
—Rodriguez's "Climb Up on My Music"
Meanwhile, and without the artist knowing, bootleg copies of Rodriguez's two albums had been smuggled into South Africa, where the anti-authoritarian lyrics were a call to arms to the post-hippie generation. Though some songs were banned, the albums went platinum — and are still selling.
"Rodriguez wrote protest songs that just resonated with the youth in South Africa" says Strydom, "especially those who, like me, were white and born into the role of the oppressor. The albums inspired us to rebel against a very bad and harmful and wrong political system."
By the 1990s, the albums had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. If anything, their popularity was increased by the mystery surrounding the musician. The albums not only contained zero biographical information about the artist, the song credits didn't even agree about his name. And after 1971, Rodriguez inexplicably dropped out of sight.
Why, the South African fans wondered, were there no new albums or songs, and no tours? Perhaps the artist was dead. One rumor had him shooting himself in the head on stage while reciting his own epitaph.
"According to another rumor, he had died in jail after murdering his wife," Strydom says. "Still another rumor said he was blind."
Strydom had no experience as a detective or investigative journalist, but he didn't let that stop him. In 1996, he began trying to locate Rodriguez. After nine months, 72 phone calls, 45 faxes and 142 emails all ended in dead ends, Strydom was out of leads. In desperation, he began mining Rodriguez's symbol-laden verse for clues.
"It was crazy," Strydom acknowledges. "I started looking at the albums almost as if they were codes. The deeper you go into it, the more you turn over words as if they were rocks, the denser and richer the songs become. It's one thing to write an article and quite another to write an article that becomes a journey."
Strydom is one of those people who are as comfortable crossing continents as they are crossing the street. (He moved to the U.S. for the first time in 2000 and hopes to return to this country permanently in a year or two after helping wrap up family business in South Africa.)
Because one of Rodriguez' songs mentioned Amsterdam, Strydom visited the Netherlands. Ditto for London, where "Coming from Reality" was recorded.
During his research, Strydom met record store owner Segerman, who was as obsessed with finding Rodriguez as he was. Segerman launched a website called "The Great Rodriguez Hunt" and put the artist's photograph on a virtual milk carton.
"Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o'clock this morn …"
—Rodriguez's "Inner City Blues"
Strydom stumbled upon this lyric, did some research and learned that Dearborn is a city outside Detroit.
"I'd almost given up," he says. "That was my big breakthrough."
A phone call to London produced a private number for Michigan-based musician Mike Theodore, who co-produced "Cold Fact."
"At first, he thought it was a crank call," Strydom says. "Then he told me that Rodriguez was alive and well and living in Detroit."
Within a few days, both Strydom and Segerman had spoken over the phone to their idol. Plans were made for a six-concert tour of South Africa in 1998.