The story's over five years old, but lately the social/cultural ruse perpetrated by renowned violinist Joshua Bell and the Washington Post in 2007 has been making the meme rounds. Here's the story. But here's the gist: after being paid heaps of money to saw out some classics for the stuffed shirts of the cultural elite, this Josh guys dons some dirty dugs, and sets up in the subway with his open violin case to play for the great unwashed. After playing the same or similar material from the fancy night before, he's accrued barely enough to take a family of three out to see a 3D movie.
Which reminds me of a story I heard about Toronto's living and breathing Kilgore Trout, Crad Kilodney. Feeling raw about rejections from higher-brow mags, Crad began to retype and submit lesser-known short fictions by the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner. All these stories were rejected by the best journals.
Here's the raised questions: To what extent are talent, quality, and the like inherent? How much do we rely on context when making judgements about these things? Pepsi® or Coke®? What do you mean you haven't seen The Wire?
The stones that Sixto Rodriguez threw at culture in the early 70s made little-to-no splash. Apparently his second album sold only six copies. The aptest description of his voice I've come across calls it a mix of Bob Dylan and Nick Drake. The character-driven streetwiseness of the songwriting comes close to Lou Reed. Some of the tracks on Cold Fact and Coming from Reality hit such a sweet spot that you both feel as though you've heard them before and can't believe that you never have. So why didn't this guy take off? How did everybody miss him?
There are more questions on the other side of this story, questions that come after Rodriguez's two albums landed in South Africa like so much cane toad. What is it about those songs, that voice, that perspective that fit so snugly into the political tumult of that apartheid-riven culture? What elusive chord did Rodriguez manage to strike over there that he missed here? As compelling a documentary as Searching for Sugar Man is, it can't answer this question. Chock it up to striking that secret chord everyone's been talking about.
Grouped with those stories of Bell and Kilodney, Rodriguez's story is an uncanny but apposite argument for inherent quality in art. But quality is like a tree falling outside earshot, unfortunately. All the questions these scenarios raise are, really, silly and otiose, and are maybe better addressed by Dr. John. What's certain and pertinent, though, is that Searching for Sugar Man makes for a great wood to gather in and hear Rodriguez fall.