I was sitting in a coffee shop above another coffee shop on a street lined with coffee shops when a man from Detroit came onto the speakers.
Americana folk music mixed with the familiar whirl of the espresso machine and soft chatter of my neighboring caffeine fanatics filled the room as the melodic tunes travelled skyward. A lone, raw voice droned on about love and loss, the lies of The Man and The Establishment, and the transient wonders of youth against a backdrop of Motown rhythm fused with acoustic folk.
This was one of those rare, delicious moments when music creates a tangible atmosphere — permeating the coffee shop with jazzy riffs and hazy, long forgotten memories — as it wormed its way into my ears and my heart. The singer’s name, I later found out, was Rodríguez, and his game was universality.
Rarely does music wash over me in such an all-encompassing wave as it did with Rodríguez. His lyrics followed me down the block, up my apartment stairs and to bed that night. Like Rodríguez, I “woke up this morning with an ache in my head / Splashed on my clothes and I spilled out of bed” and throughout the day seemed to find myself in a world where “all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues.”
Rodríguez’s relatability struck a chord, but more so it was the fact that he was telling it as it really was — he was a wise poet and I was his student, seeing the world anew through his teachings. Why had it taken me so long to find him?
I had to do a fair bit of research before I could discover the identity of the man who I couldn’t get out of my head. Arguably one of the biggest musical enigmas of the 20th century, Rodríguez burst onto the 1960s Detroit scene as the city’s Motown answer to Bob Dylan. Although critics praised his two albums, his public reception was lukewarm and he faded into musical obscurity, save for a small but loyal cult fan base.This fan base spread far from his native Midwest and, thanks to the help of music-loving, anthem-seeking South African anti-apartheid activists, found its way onto the very speakers I was listening to.
Artists like Rodríguez — or more so the feeling that I got from listening to Rodríguez — are few and far between. His strand of dreamy yet politically charged and culturally aware folk music swept me from the coffee shop, from the present and transported me somewhere else entirely. Listening to Rodríguez, I step outside myself and into a kaleidoscopic world of poetic lyrics and crystalline images. Depending on the song, my memory turns to lazy days in my backyard or to wandering the city streets in the heat of summer.
Rodríguez’s sepia-toned lyrics capture the mood of so many of my memories and bring me back. Yet they simultaneously plant me firmly in the present. Enveloped in an impenetrable cocoon of sound, I find mental clarity otherwise muddled by the whiz of the world around me. Listening to music like Rodríguez creates a space in which I can truly just be.
Music speaks on a multitude of levels. Lyrics say one thing, reading between the lines says another, the instruments (or DJing or lack thereof) create an additional atmosphere and how we interpret this lyric and music combination brings us to another level altogether. For me, Rodríguez was a magic combination of all of the above. For friends, family, professors, strangers on the street and everyone in between, the combination can be, and most likely is, something completely different.
But how does our taste in music impact our daily lives? What music starts the day off right, carries you on your way to class, aids you studying late at night? What is breakfast music — is there such a thing — and how does that differ from lunch or dinner or (God forbid) elevator music? Rodríguez became the musical voice of the South African counterculture in the 1990s; who is the voice of our counterculture today and why?
This semester, I want to explore how we, the greater Georgetown community, experience and interact with music. I fully believe that there is a story behind every pair of headphones walking across campus, song composed in the music rooms of the Healey Family Student Center and Reynolds or voice in the shower. Within this space, I hope to study “music” in its broadest terms — think albums, artists, Hoya musicians and so on — through speaking with any and everyone.
Maybe through all this talk and listening I can pinpoint that sense of wonder I felt when I first heard Rodríguez. Maybe we’ll find a whole new Rodríguez altogether, if we just stop and take a listen.
Margie Fuchs is a junior in the College. Face the Music appears every other Friday.