Sixto Rodriguez and the Found Words

Posted on January 5, 2013



I’ve been hiding from words for two months. There were a few reasons for this:

1. Work and words were not compatible, in my case.

Of course, there are work-words, reassuringly angular, unassumingly regular; squat, sturdy and functional. Press releases, emails to clients, dates, times, sizes, weights, bullet-forms. Work-words were plastic pigeons made of cheap material that carried their messages to the intended recipients, and then disintegrated with nary an aggrieved squawk. Even descriptive pieces that I wrote for the artworks that hung heavily on the concrete walls of the gallery where I worked never threatened to breach my carefully constructed dam. Those were just work-words with flowers and heart-shapes painted on, and they consumed almost all of my time.



2. I was moving.

I was moving from a place I’d made my home for two-and-a-half years; not a long time by any stretch, especially considering how old I am, but gargantuan in significance. I was leaving a job I deeply enjoyed, an old hippy apartment I adored, coffee joints I’d “discovered”, cosy grubby pubs I sat at alone, over-priced yummy eateries I went to with friends, nooks and crannies, sights and sounds, and cherished routines that had become familiar companions. I was leaving people. I was leaving a furry little cat.

And if I thought about it too much, using the words I was trying to avoid, my comforting portable force-field of not-words, work-words and words-to-get-by would likely dissolve into a hissing puddle at my feet, exposing me to the bitter winter cold. Too dangerous. Better to avoid.



3. I thought I had nothing more to say.

I was disillusioned with writing, and in the manner of all new converts my new-found disillusionment was generously coated with disdain and over-loud proclamations. I think one time I said “over-rated” five times in a single conversation.

Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugar Man, Malik Bendjellout

But on the plane back home, morose and subdued, I watched a phenomenal movie about a phenomenal person – Searching for Sugar Man, about songwriter and performer Sixto Rodriguez. And through him I remembered the importance of words. His songs, which all disappeared with barely a whisper in his homeland of USA, had profoundly moved a generation of South Africans struggling with the fear and ugliness of apartheid politics in the 1970s. He had never been to South Africa, and his fans had never seen him, but for both of them the first meeting was a home-coming.



When I got back to my own home, lost and listless, I remembered the quiet literary power of Rodriguez, who moved legions with hope, and turned again to words. I really felt like shit, but hey I did have a library of 688 (and counting!) books. So I sank into a deep, warm cocoon of words, and nestled gratefully against meandering sentences that lived because they were beautiful and moving, discursive constructions full of sonorous gravitas, light bubbling phrases that soothed like mother’s balm. I even renewed my appreciation and admiration for that faithful helpmeet of words, the tiny drops or curlicues of ink that made sense of the chunks of arranged alphabet by scything through proliferating letter-jungles bidding fair to run into each other and crowd out the sunlight.



Words suddenly became un-terrifying, like that dear friend you avoided speaking to after a fight, but upon reconnection find that everything that mattered was as before. They fortify me, and when I feel shaken again I silently repeat swathes of familiar, loved words and let them wash over me like a mint shower. Singapore is blisteringly hot and monsoon-humid, but I know if I do get cold again I have those long, ropey scarves of words that I can twine around myself, like a missed, loved embrace.