Song 8 – A monkey in silk is a monkey no less

Like Janis – Rodriguez

Growing up we always had music in our house. It wasn’t always good music, but it was always there. I have young parents (my Ma was/is particularly young) and they were lax with a lot of rules, but they had particularly hard rules about TV. Well, my mother did. And it’s kinda something I’m glad for now. No TV in the morning, and no TV in the afternoons when we got home from school. We’d all sit down and watch TV at night though. Usually together. I have foggy (and undoubtedly daggy) memories of A Country Practice and Hey Dad. But there were no such rules about music. There was always, and could always be, music.

All my early memories of music are tied up with situations that actually happened in our house or with our family. The Little River Band drags up memories of my Mum and Dad play fighting through the house over who got to pick the music they put on – I remember my Mum bent over in the middle of the lounge room, laughing her head off, with my Dad wrestling her from behind. Clutched at her middle was one of his LRB records – she’d go through most anything to avoid listening to LRB. Credence Clearwater Revival transports me back to the beer garden at the Shanty Hotel in Ladysmith, and in particular that time I fell from the top of the slippery dip in the pretty basic playground. Some old and probably drunk man had told me that if I climbed right to the top I could see emus and kangaroos in the paddock behind the pub. One fat lip later and I knew he was talking out his ass.

I wish I could remember, though, why Cat Stevens makes me feel sad. I get such a melancholy fall over me when I listen to his music and I have no idea why. I do know, though, that Mum once told me I was given the middle name Lisa after the song Sad Lisa. I’m going to have to ask her about that, because I’m not sure it’s true.

Cold Fact by Rodriguez was my mothers favourite record to play for a lot of years. Particularly while she was cleaning. To this day, when I listen to Sugar Man I can close my eyes and smell the dust. I can see that bolt of sunlight that used to cut through the lounge room from the East facing window (the one that doesn’t exist now owing to a still-unfinished extension to the side of the house), hitting the dead middle of the carpet. When she started vacuuming dust mites would kick up and dance in that yellow shaft of light – I used to sit balled up on the couch, my legs out of the way of the vacuum cleaner, and watch the way those little glittery speckles would fall dancing into the light and then out of it. I’d to sit there, breathing in, knowing that those little particles were moving inside of me. And that used to make me feel warm and alive on the inside.

So by default Rodriguez, and particularly his album Cold Fact, was a massive part of my childhood. And when I consider his music now, I can see how it played a really important part in influencing my music taste today. I don’t think all that political folk like Ani DiFranco I was listening to maybe 5 or 6 years ago (and still now) was any sort of coincidence. I thought at one point it found me, but in hindsight it was definitely the other way around.

Sixto Rodriguez himself is an entirely compelling character. When Cold Fact was initially released in the US in 1970, it got half-assed reviews and really no audience at all. The crazy thing was, somehow it made its way to the Southern Hemisphere (and notably Australia) and found a cult following. Even crazier was that Rodriguez himself had no idea about the level of his cult status until his daughter stumbled across a South African fan site in the late 90s. Prior to that he’d slipped so far into obscurity that fans were rumouring his death.

It’s a shame, really, that he didn’t get the notoriety he deserved when his music was being made. Perhaps he’d gone on to make more. And his songs are so full of cutting political and social commentary, and he has such a straight laced delivery that you can’t help but think, had he had a bigger audience at the time, his music could have been some of the most important of his era.

I re-found his music around 5 years ago. One Christmas at home in Wagga Mum was showing me the wonders of her new computer with broadband. An IT savvy friend had installed Kazaa and for a long time she was the biggest music pirate I knew. Anyway, noodling through her music files I came across some Rodriguez. I hit play and I felt like I was physically whipped backward through time and space. Not only that, I was utterly astounded by the lyrics. It’s stuff that I wouldn’t have noticed as a kid – the acute political tones in all the songs, and the stark stories he was telling. I mean, when I was seven I thought in Sugar Man when he sang about ‘jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane’ he was singing about pullovers, soft drink and some girl. But listening to his songs at the age of around 25 I was utterly staggered, and completely fell in love with the songs.

I bought a copy of Cold Fact pretty much the second I got back to Sydney, and I listened to it solidly for a good few weeks. I immersed myself in those songs, and got to know them all over again. It was a weird sense of both stumbling across something I never knew existed, and also of déjà vu.

Added to alla this, I saw him live with my Mum last year. It was one of those ‘oh my God I never in a million years thought that I would experience this’ moments. A touring company, recognising the crazy level of his Australian fan base, bought him out for the Blues and Roots festival. What we were presented with when he finally took to the stage at The Factory last year was something falling between senility and drunkenness. I wrote about it a little here. But it was an experience I shared with my Mum, and that made it special.

The song that stood out to me most at the time at the time I re-found his music, and the song that is still my favourite on the album, is Like Janis. There’s some contention about the title (on some albums the name is swapped with Jane S. Piddy on the track listing) so to clear things up I’m talking about the song that starts ‘And you measure for wealth’. It’s a cheerful little melody, and catchy as hell, but really what grabbed me from the outset (and what always grabs me) is the lyrics.

In my really cynical moments I tend to declare that people in general suck. Of course that’s not actually the truth, and there are people in this world who feed my soul and body more than I can articulate here, but there are some staggeringly mundane, dull and annoying people in this world. And it seems to be entirely through choice too. I mean, it’s a choice to bitch incessantly about the state of your life while making no move to change it, or to default to blame-making the second something goes wrong with your life, or to not want to explore even the big things (let alone the tiny, little things) with your ears or your eyes, or to lay actual money down on the CD of some Australian Idol contestant. And of course I’m generalizing. But so many people seem to move through life needing A) material possessions and B) to hold on to the idea that the way the world sees you, and the opinion of other people, is the total sum of your being. And they spend their whole lives obsessing about it.

Anyway, in amongst that tirade is the reason I love this song. Sixto has a general dissatisfaction with not only the government and political situation of the time, but also of the people in the world who weren’t true to themselves or to their true sense of being. Lyrically, this song completely hits the nail on the head –

And you measure for wealth by the things you can hold
And you measure for love by the sweet things you’re told
And you live in the past or a dream that you’re in
And your selfishness is your cardinal sin

And you want to be held with highest regard
It delights you so much if he’s trying so hard
And you try to conceal your ordinary way
With a smile or a shrug or some stolen cliché

And also –

‘Cos emotionally you’re the same basic trip
And you know that I know of the times that you slip
So don’t try to impress me, you’re just pins and paint
And don’t try to charm me with things that you ain’t

Simple? Yes. Amazingly effective? Oh yes. And at the time, and still now, it resonates with me more than I wish it did.

So this post turned into being more about the man and the album than about the song, but oh well. I think it probably had to be that way. And while the live experience in 2007 was not really what I’d hoped it would be, it didn’t take away from, in my eyes, the canon of the man. He is totally unappreciated for the music he made and what he was trying to say. If more people saw the world as acutely and articulately as he did back in the 60s and 70s, well, then, it would be a very, very different place.

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3 Replies to “Song 8 – A monkey in silk is a monkey no less

  1. Great post Karen.

    The main thing I primarily garnered from what you’ve written are those really nice moments that generate when you realise you are so musically intertwined with your parents.

    I can’t say it was with any particular artist, but my Dad was a huge Latino / Salsa music fan and really influenced me in my love of the genre when I was more younger when I am now. It was only a short while after he passed away last year that I rummaged through his collection that those lovely feelings came back again, and made me miss him a lot.

    Anyways I think this is a bit long winded for a comment, so I’ll stop myself here…

  2. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    And Philippe – the thing I will always love about music is the power it has to take you back to another time and place. There are so many songs that do that for me. I went through a time in my life where I tried to deny every connection I had with my parents, musical or otherwise, but I came around to realising the gift they gave me. Not even just my music taste, but my love for music generally. I am eternally thankful for that and I guess it’s something your Dad gave to you too.

    And don’t mind about being long winded – this blog is full of hot air 😉

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