Searching For Sugar Man? He Just Popped Into the Record Store

rodriguezCourtesy Andreas Knutsen Rodriguez and Andreas Knutsen

Sunday night, when the Best Documentary feature is announced at the Oscars, you can be certain which film Andreas Knutsen and his fellow staff of Other Music will be rooting for.

Last year, on April 25, the 38-year-old manager and head buyer had barely opened the store when in walked a man with long black hair. Mr. Knutsen almost dropped his coffee.

During his years working for the East Village’s largest indie-music record store, Mr. Knutsen had been pushing customers toward a 2006 reissue of “Cold Fact,” a “tripped-out, fuzz-heavy” 1970 album recorded in Detroit by Rodriguez, a long-forgotten singer who he describes as “part Jose Feliciano, Bob Dylan, and Love’s Arthur Lee, all in one.”

But here before him was unmistakably the same Mexican-American man on the legendary album cover, but face aged by four decades. And Rodriguez, the subject of “Searching for Sugar Man,” wanted to shake his hand.

The musician wasn’t much of a conversationalist. He had a whispery, hard-to-hear voice, Mr. Knutsen recalled by phone in a Texas drawl. His humility only gave him even more star power. “We get a lot of music icons in the store, but I got chills meeting him,” he said. “We were down the block from Joe’s Pub where Rodriguez was rehearsing for a surprise concert that night after his Tribeca Film Festival screening, and he popped in with Matt Sullivan from his reissue label, Light in the Attic. Sullivan had graciously explained to Rodriguez how Other Music supported his career in our own small way, and Rodriguez was as kind as could be.”

In 2006, Mr. Knutsen reviewed “Cold Fact” in the Other Music online weekly newsletter, which does not have the reach of Rolling Stone but holds considerable sway over the buying habits of indie music lovers of New York and across the world. Over 25,000 people read the rave review.

“We’ve since sold 300 copies — that’s a pretty big deal for a marginalized indie album,” said Mr. Knutsen.

Lasting fame seemed just around the corner for Sixto Díaz Rodriguez in 1970 when Sussex, a subsidiary of A&M records, released “Cold Fact,” but that album and his subsequent 1971 release, “Coming from Reality,” were crashing commercial failures in the United States. After A&M cancelled his contract, Rodriguez disappeared. There were widely reported rumors of suicide. He wasn’t dead — just poor and obscure, doing odd jobs in Detroit. Half a world away, a whole other story was unfolding, however.

Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, he was becoming a music legend in South Africa, a demi-god on par with Jimi Hendrix.

An immensely pleasurable film, “Searching for Sugar Man” is as much about the journey of Rodriguez’s diehard fans as it is about the man himself. Its story is at turns mysterious, comedic, and triumphant. The film was an Audience Award winner at Sundance when it debuted, has vacuumed up just about every significant award before the Oscars, and has grossed $3.3 million. This is a number Hollywood execs may laugh at, but for those in the documentary world that kind of box office is the Impossible Dream.

It’s clear that Mr. Knutsen is still as deep a Rodriguez fan as those who championed the musician in the movie. And like the film’s director, the 38-year-old Knutsen is Swedish and came to America in 1997. Swedish? Yes, he explains, he lived in Austin for six years before moving to New York (“A girl, what else?”) nine years ago. He heard about Other Music by word of mouth, and has not wanted to change jobs for a second.

Co-owner and founder Chris Vanderloo is rightly proud of his head buyer’s valuable sonar, but as a 47-year-old he remembers hearing a bootleg copy of “Cold Fact” well before 2006. Such bootlegs are what kept the name Rodriguez on the lips of rock aficionados for three decades while it was out of print. But with Mr. Knutsen’s rabid enthusiasm for the reissue back in 2006, Vanderloo was delighted to stock the nicely-packaged CD. “We keep niche inventory in stock,” he said. “We stay small and stay alive.”

Asked if he has a prescient tip for another undiscovered musical gem, Mr. Vanderloo modestly deferred to Mr. Knutsen, who had a clear choice: the Drag City Records reissue of the 1972 album “Artist Proof,” the first proper album of Chris Darrow, singer-songwriter from the 1960s psychedelic band Kaleidoscope.

But this Oscar weekend, the only music he’s playing is by Rodriguez.