The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley
The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Mike Fuller loved his friends, drank too much, applied duct tape liberally, and was shot to death in 1989. His songs have made him a legend.
THE BLACK GRANITE headstone is lost among the other markers in the Live Oak Cemetery in deep South Austin. Several small objects including a small plastic toy truck scattered around the simple flat tombstone are the only indication the dead person buried six feet under still resonates among the living, although his bearded likeness and the guitar adorned with song titles are pretty good hints.
The name says Blaze Foley. He was a songwriter who ran with a gaggle of like-minded songwriters who fancied themselves as outlaws and renegades outside the orbit of recognized composers like Willie, Jerry Jeff, Fromholz, Nanci Griffith, Lyle, and Robert Earl. Their guiding light was Townes Van Zandt, the tortured soul who was as inspirational as any writer could be, but who was equally determined to live as an outsider.
Blaze Foley took pride in never having a day job. He adorned himself with duct tape. He championed the downtrodden. And he wrote a few great songs.
He lived 39 years until the first day of February 1989, when a bullet from a gun held by a young man stopped everything. It’s a long story, good enough that seventeen years later, Blaze Foley is bigger than ever.
If I could only fly
If I could only fly
I’d bid this place goodbye
And come and be with you.
-”If I Could Only Fly”, Blaze Foley
“There’s kind of two Blazes,” Townes Van Zandt, his role model and friend, told reporter Casey Monahan of the Austin American-Statesman after Blaze died. “A lot of people saw one or the other. There was the wild oneÉand then there was the gentle, loving, caring one. I came to know both.”
Van Zandt praised Foley’s generosity on the liner notes of the album Blaze recorded for Vital Records that was never released. “He was a friend of the homeless, poor, elder, a real super caring guy. And he would sometimes seem bitter, you know. The only reason for that is he was brimming over with so much genuine love and caring. To see an injustice sometimes it would just put him over to a frenzy, kind of. He couldn’t stand to see a poor bag lady on the street. It threw him into a rage, almost. It just came from love.
“He is one of the most spiritual cats I’ve ever met: an ace picker, a writer who never shirks from the truth; never fails to rhyme; and one of the flashiest wits I’ve ever had to put up with.”
He loved duct tape, the miracle binder that kept his clothes and his life together. Foley slapped the adhesive to shoes, jeans, shirts, hats, jackets. Once he made a whole suit out of duct tape. Friends dubbed him the Duct Tape Messiah. He liked to point to trash dumpsters with the BFI logo and say the letters stood for “Blaze Foley Inside.”
Blaze Foley was his made-up name. Before that, when he lived in a treehouse in Georgia, he was Depty Dawg. Before that, he was Michael David Fuller, son of a drunken father who’d left home when Michael was a child, and of a struggling mother who found solace in the Lord, leading the family in a gospel band.
Like all good stories, the saga of Blaze Foley has been embellished over the years, to the point that it’s hard to tell where fact ends and myth begins.
I knew some of the crowd Blaze Foley ran with. Rich Minus was one of the first people I met in Austin back in 1973 in the parking lot of the Split Rail, the finest no-cover beer and music joint in Austin back in the day. He was a fellow Pearl Beer connoisseur when that beer was still brewed in San Antonio. He eventually scored a semi-hit with “Laredo Rose”, covered by the Texas Tornados on their 1990 debut.
Blaze Foley at Mickey White and Pat Mears’ place in Austin, ca. 1981-82. Photograph by Dana Kolflat.
Jubal Clark sought me out when he hit Austin in 1975. He was holed up in cheap motel room running from who knows what, armed and loaded with a song he wrote called “Gypsy Cowboy” that Jubal said had Willie’s name all over it. Calvin Russell, another South Austin outlaw, would later become huge in France.
They and the rest of the crew they ran with — including Pat Mears, Cody Hubach, George Ensle, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Lost John Casner, Mandy Mercier, Butch Hancock, and a newly arrived gal named Lucinda — pledged fealty to their art. In most cases, that also meant an equal commitment to a vow of poverty and hard living.
Their hangouts were low- and no-cover joints such as Spellman’s, Emmajoe’s, the Austex Lounge and the Austin Outhouse, places rarely frequented by Willie or Jerry Jeff. They could charm your socks off and make you want to run.
So while I can’t claim to have known Blaze Foley, I knew who he was — or thought I did, at least, until he became famous long after he was dead. What I’ve learned since makes for quite a life.
MICHAEL DAVID FULLER was born December 18, 1949 in Malvern, Arkansas. He liked to tell people he was born in Marfa,Texas, perhaps because Marfa, Texas, must have sounded better than Arkansas. Although some say he also claimed that Marfa was where he first saw Willie Nelson, it turns out he grew up in San Antonio and Georgia and spent his teenage years in Irving and Hurst, in the heart of the great suburban sprawl between Dallas and Fort Worth.
His mother Louise was the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. She also led the Singing Fuller Family, the gospel group Mike joined when his older brother Doug left home. Mother and son sang with older sister Pat until she was replaced by younger sister Marsha. They sang mainly in church, but took to the road now and then whenever they were visiting kinfolk. Sometimes, according to many stories, they performed for money or food.
Edwin Fuller, the handsome father who was a gambler and a rambler and a ladies man, came and went. When he was with the family, he was known to trade food the Singing Fuller Family brought in for liquor. Edwin worked as a trucker when he worked, and battled demons most of his life. But after going to a Christian rehab facility, he played it straight for almost four years, long enough to buy the family home in Irving. After Edwin’s mother passed away, his dark side emerged for good. “Ours was a dysfunctional family,” Blaze’s sister Marsha, now Marsha Weldon, said with understatement.
Mike had polio as a baby. Despite that affliction, he was known for his sweet disposition. His interest in music transcended the family gospel band. In his early teens, “he’d go into the bedroom and shut the door, playing a Chet Atkins record on and on until he learned the notes,” Marsha recalled.
From the beginning, he was driven to tell his life in songs. His first known composition was “Fat Boy”, which expressed the frustration of being fat during adolescence. He dropped out of MacArthur High School in Irving during his senior year and moved in with his brother Doug in Arlington, where he took a GED test to get the equivalent of a high school degree in 1968.
He took a coat-and-tie gig at Sears Store #4017 in Irving, working alongside his buddy Lindsey Horton (“He was in paint; I was in automotive,” Lindsey said) and was engaged to Neil, the sister of his older brother’s wife. But when Mike started going out to clubs to listen to music, Nell broke off the engagement.
He quit his job and left town, drifting around on his motorcycle. He first landed in Memphis, where he lived with relatives and then in a small trailer until his father Edwin showed up and tried to move in. He spent a year and a half in northern Georgia as a roadie for a progressive bluegrass band called Buzzard’s Roost that moved around like gypsies and gave him the nickname Depty Dawg.
IN 1974, FULLER showed up at Banning Mill, a hippie art colony in the ruins of a 19th-century yarn mill 45 miles west of Atlanta. The mill had been purchased by a wealthy young visionary named Mike McGukin, who refashioned the space as an alternative arts complex with a theater, studios, and a restaurant and bar with a music stage.
Fuller wound up playing rhythm guitar in the mill’s house band.Whenever the band tired of playing, Depty Dawg stepped out to do a solo set. One night, Dep solicited requests. Joe Bucher, who did carpentry work at the mill, asked for “anything by John Prine.” An instant bond formed. They drank beer and talked about Prine, who they both thought was the best songwriter in the world, and about life. Sometimes Depty helped Bucher when an extra carpenter was needed.
Depty Dawg had arrived at the mill accompanied by a girlfriend and her child. But in the spring of 1975, he fell in love with Sybil Rosen, an actress in the mill’s theater troupe. “I thought he was the most gifted person I ever met,” Rosen said. “The first real dose of him was his voice, hearing him sing in the bar. The simplicity and honesty, it was very deep and really compelling. There was something very vulnerable about him, very open and very emotional. He was handsome, tall, funny and smart. There were many, many things to recommend him.”
Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt and Rex Bell. Photograph courtesy Kevin Triplett.
They took up residence in a treehouse that was being built on land owned by Joe Bucher. It was a sweet setup. After five solid years of drifting, Fuller found his place living in the branches. He’d dropped 150 pounds in weight and felt like a new man. He was loved by a woman who encouraged his art, as he encouraged hers. What more could anyone want?
The next nine months were about as idyllic as life got for Mike Fuller, Depty Dawg, and Blaze Foley. He and Sybil cooled off in the trees, took long drives in the countryside, listened to music, encouraged each other’s creativity, and hung out with their friends at the mill just down the road. They lived the hippie life, smoking a little weed, drinking a little beer, even dropping LSD a few times. Dep and Joe Bucher went to Atlanta and actually met John Prine, backstage at the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta. Depty Dawg told Prine he lived in a treehouse. “Then you must be one squirrelly motherfucker,” Prine replied.
“He had pieces of songs he’d been working on, but he was very shy about his own work,” Sybil Rosen observed. “That summer was the start of a torrent of songwriting that lasted for the next four years.”
Fuller and Rosen gave each other enough confidence to dream. For him, that meant going to Austin, where Willie Nelson and outsiders like himself were making authentic music. Depty Dawg had written at least ten solid songs, and Austin was the place to sell them.
FULLER AND ROSEN hit Austin in the spring of 1976 after hitchhiking to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and detouring through Dallas. They dived in to the music scene. Sybil quickly figured she had neither the stamina nor appetite to stay out all night thinking and listening to music, though Depty Dawg did. He had to, if he was going to be a songwriter. “It was a different emotional landscape for us,” she admitted.
For all its vaunted reputation as a hippified musicianfriendly place with the lowest cost-of-living of any major Amencan city, Austin proved a tough nut to crack for an aspiring singersongwriter. Pickers and writers were a dime a dozen. Scoring stage time was a job unto itself. While Sybil hustled rent money by waiting tables at Les Antis (the inspiration for Richard Linklater’s film Slacker), the Nighthawk and La Fonda and appeared in a couple of student films, her boyfriend wrote songs. But he was too shy, or too intimidated, to perform them.
Depty Dawg retreated to more familiar ground in the late summer. People knew him in Georgia, which made it easier to take the stage. He was transforming from Depty Dawg to Blaze Foley; he’d always liked the last name of country legend Red Foley and was going to call himself Blue Foley until Blaze popped into his head.
In Atlanta, he worked his way up to opening sets at Rosa’s Cantina, a well-known touring stop for acoustic and roots acts. One of his first high-profile fans was an aspiring politician named Newt Gingrich who liked hanging around the hippies and even smoked dope according to some witnesses. Gingrich showed up often enough to declare Blaze Foley “my own Bob Dylan.”
Poster from Corky’s Bar in Houston, TX, late 1970s.
Foley gigged around Atlanta for four months, maintaining his relationhip with Sybil via postcards, love letters (“Some of his most beautiful writing is in those letters,” Sybil said) and phone calls. Writing became more of an outlet than ever, the themes shifting from upbeat and sometimes offbeat to expressions of regret and remorse on songs such as “Baby, Can I Crawl Back To You” and “I Should’ve Been Home With You”.
In December 1976, Sybil and Blaze moved to Chicago. That’s where John Prine lived, and Blaze had been hearing about an alternative country music scene emerging there. It had to be easier to break in to than Austin was.
Again, Sybil took a job to pay the bills, and Blaze wrote. “I thought we were going so we could be together and both pursue our art,” she said. It was at a country bar called Kiley’s where Sybil first saw Blaze Foley perform. “It was thrilling and hard to watch,” she said. There was validation because he was actually playing his songs onstage in front of an audience, but she was concerned that he had to get drunk to do it. “If someone in the audience irritated him, he wasn’t able to deflect that,” she said. “I so believed in him, but I saw him sabotage himself. I didn’t understand why he was doing that.”
Within a month, Blaze announced he was going back to Austin. Chicago wasn’t his kind of town.
In March 1977, he came back to sit at the foot of her bed to play a song he’d just written. It was called “If I Could Only Fly”. She didn’t realize it then, but he was saying goodbye.
BLAZE WAS TOOLING down Guadalupe Street, the Drag across from the University of Texas, one day when he spied the marquee at a dive bar called the Hole In The Wall. The headliner was the Goats Of Arabia. Any band with a name like that was worth checking out, he figured. Between sets he introduced himself to one of the Goats, a wide-eyed character named Gurf Morlix. They struck up a friendship, and when Blaze booked his first Austin gig, a happy-hour set at a disco behind the Hole In The Wall, Gurf was there.
It was not like any set he’d heard before. The songs were solid if uneven. “Fat Boy” and “Springtime In Uganda” were a hoot. Some were achingly intimate and personal. During “Fat Boy”, Blaze passed around a photograph of himself as a fat teenager. He passed around pictures of girlfriends before other songs. “It was like a show-and-tell with audio-visual aids,” Morlix said with a trace of wonder. “It was like being in somebody’s living room. Obviously he had something different going on. So we started hanging.out.”
The next year, Gurf relocated to Houston because there was more work in the clubs there. Blaze tagged along. It was a heady period in the energy boomtown. Blaze would open shows for Gurf, and they would share bills with known entities such as Shake Russell, Dana Cooper and John Vandiver. The money was good enough to afford an apartment while they worked Montrose-area venues including Corky’s, Damien’s, Houlihan’s, Fitzgerald’s, and Anderson Fair.
Blaze became a known entity and a colorful addition to the rich folk scene. In reaction to the Urban Cowboy craze sweeping across the city, he mocked the make-believe cowboys with their shiny silver boot tips by putting duct tape on the tips of his boots — the beginning of his storied duct tape fetish.
Foley became so high-profile around the Houston clubs that some oil traders taking advantage of a tax break sought him out to be the first act on their start-up record label.They bought Blaze a car and studio time to make an album. The result was a single of “If I Could Only Fly” backed with “Let Me Ride In Your Big Cadillac”, released on the Zephyr label. The other tracks were stolen out of Blaze’s car, but it was a moot point. When the tax break went away, so did Zephyr Records. Blaze was left with a box of 45s and posters he used as barter mostly to buy drinks.
“At that point he hadn’t started binge drinking,” Morlix said. “That didn’t come ’til after he met Townes. He really loved Townes’ songwriting. Once he met him, he became enamored of that lifestyle. He started getting bitter that he hadn’t gotten recognition, but he was just starting out. Blaze was ambitious. He wanted to get something going.”
The Zephyr single got Blaze to New York’s renowned Lone Star Cafe, where he opened for Kinky Friedman in 1980 with Gurf playing alongside. Sybil Rosen was appearing in a play in the city, and they went to see her perform. She showed up to watch her old boyfriend play, but he was drunk, so she slipped away like she’d never been there.
“I was so disappointed,” Sybil said. “Here was this person with so much natural talent, and for some reason he couldn’t fulfill it without getting drunk.” She was saddened, knowing how deep his despair really was.
Friedman proceeded to make his boozy opening act the punchline of a string of jokes. Embarrassed, Blaze returned to the Gramercy Park Hotel where Zephyr Records had put him up and smashed his Kinky Friedman albums.
Townes Van Zandt, who was also playing in New York, did not disappoint. Blaze ended up running around the city with Townes, cementing a friendship that would transcend their craft.
A new woman came into Blaze’s life, a Houston lady known as Fifi LaRue whose given name was Phyllis Childs. Fifi was a clubgoer and she quickly fell for Blaze. He followed suit and proposed marriage, asking her father, a wealthy denizen of River Oaks, the most affluent neighborhood in Houston, for her hand. But just before the wedding date, Fifi called it off. She didn’t want to support a musician.
Blaze foley, unknown ghost and Gurf Morlix. Photograph courtesy Gurf Morlix.
The club scene was drying up with the end of the oil boom. Morlix left to seek his fortune in Los Angeles in 1981, tired of Blaze’s increasing drunkenness. Townes was rubbing off on Blaze, maybe too much. It was time to go back to Austin.
PAT MEARS WAS the first folk musician Lost John Casner ran in to when he hit Austin in November 1980. Mears suggested that Casner, a budding singer-songwriter from Cleveland, should try to get a gig at Spellman’s on 5th Street. Casner took a music demo to the club manager one early afternoon. As his music played, Casner was distracted by three men sitting outside on the porch who were having way too much fun for so early in the day.
“One of them came inside to tell me how much they’d enjoyed the songs,” Casner said. “That was Bobby Martinez. Then he asked me if I’d heard of Townes Van Zandt. My eyes got real big because ‘Pancho & Lefty’ was coming up next on my demo tape. I turned off the tape. I was afraid Townes wouldn’t like my version.
“I went out to meet Townes. The other person was Blaze. He had duct tape and tinfoil on his clothes and he wore weird jewelry. They were drinking Kamchatka vodka and coke. They told me all the places I should go to get a gig. One of those places was the Bentwood Tavern, which became the Austin Outhouse. I told the manager, Chuck Lamb, that I’d just been at Spellman’s and Townes and Blaze said to come talk to you. He went over and penciled me in on the next open date.”
Casner was already a Townes fan. He quickly became an admirer of Blaze too. “He had a nice fingerpicking style and a full baritone that got ragged over the years. The first song that got me was ‘Small Town Hero’. You could tell this was a guy who was always the outsider and had some scars from that. In between songs were jokes he’d heard from Townes, or things Townes told him, like when he wondered why songwriters sang with their eyes closed. Blaze said, ‘Like my friend Townes says, it’s so the audience won’t have to.”
Blaze was becoming somebody, a charter member of the South Austin outlaw songwriter circle. He took up with Mandy Mercier, a singer-songwriter who assumed the familiar role of working a day job while Blaze and his buddies got blitzed. When he didn’t have a girlfriend, he did the couch circuit, staying with whoever would let him as long as he could. Even Townes had to kick him out.
“He felt strongly that if he took a day job, that would divert him from his artistic mission,” Casner said. “He didn’t do nothing except sing and play and try to sell his songs. Chuck Lamb from the Outhouse says he’d book a gig a few weeks in advance and try to start a tab. By the time the gig came around, the tab was more than he was going to make.”
Blaze turned Townes on to the plight of the homeless and took him to hobo camps by the railroad tracks around Town Lake. Townes turned Blaze on to Kamchatka Vodka. They spent a night together in a dumpster once, just to see what it was like. It was probably harder for Townes, who came from a good family and had to work hard to get down. To Blaze, it came naturally.
Foley had been banned from the Kerrville Folk Festival either for smoking pot with Townes or for dumping over some portable toilets with Townes.Whatever the reason, Townes, being the draw he was, was let back in. Blaze tried to sneak back in wearing a woman’s dress, only to be thrown out again. So when the festival’s director, Rod Kennedy, walked into Emmajoe’s while Blaze was playing one night, Blaze took the opportunity to spit on him. Kennedy proceeded to jump Blaze onstage and beat the shit out of him.
Foley kept in touch with Gurf Morlix. But when he went to see him in Los Angeles, he quickly wore out his welcome. Someone had given him a plane ticket,” Morlix said. “He was binge drinking. There had been a change in him. It was pretty bad. I booted him out. We had a big scene. I said, ‘I can’t take seeing you like this. I want you to leave until you clean up your act.’ He told me, ‘Don’t tell me how to ruin my life.’ I didn’t hear from him for a year or two.”
Blaze Foley at Corky’s in Houston, late 1970s. Photograph courtesy Debbie Wilson.
It was on this visit that Morlix remembers witnessing a bizarre event which become a strange premonition. “He’d met this stripper and had me drive him 40 miles across L.A. to see her at this strip club when he got off work. Blaze wanted to talk to her but her boyfriend showed up with a gun and told him to leave. Blaze wouldn’t go. He kept saying, ‘Go ahead and shoot me. Just fuckin’ do it.’ I got him out of there. He could have been shot.”
BLAZE ACCEPTED an offer from a Georgia friend to make a record at the storied Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama in 1984. Understand, Blaze would accept any offer to record. This was a high-dollar deal involving the Muscle Shoals Horns, with a budget to fly in Townes and Gurf at separate times.
A ten-song album and a 45 rpm single came out of the sessions, but the project was put on hold when the producer was busted by the DEA. “Oval Room” b/w “Girl Scout Cookies” did manage to get pressed as a 45 on the Vital label. Blaze got his hands on some copies and used them to barter for drinks or food. The albums show up occasionally on eBay; one recently sold for $165.
Peggy Underwood, an Austin attorney who liked hanging with the outlaws, especially Townes, brokered the deal that validated Blaze Foley. She knew Lana Nelson,Willie Nelson’s daughter, and through Lana had placed Townes’ “Pancho & Lefty” with Willie and his duet partner, Merle Haggard. The single hit #1 on the country charts in 1983, boosting Van Zandt’s career like no other song. (Though the week it was released, Townes checked himself into the state hospital and checked himself out to play at Emmajoe’s to make the rent – a tentative performance saved by Blaze quietly helping him sing through some forgotten passages. The story is better told by KUT radio DJ Larry Monroe on his website.)
Underwood did the same for Blaze, pitching Lana to pitch Willie & Merle while they were making the album Seashores Of Old Mexico. “If I Could Only Fly” was recorded as the session wound down, but stood out well enough to be the first radio single off the album. Regional airplay was strong the week of release. You could hear “If I Could Only Fly” all over Texas. Blaze was following in Townes’ footsteps.
Underwood hired Ed Spacek to promote the record independently in addition to Columbia Records’ promo team. But two weeks into the campaign, the label suddenly pulled promotion of the single after a shakeup of company personnel that had nothing to do with the song. The climb up the charts halted. Haggard nonetheless allowed to a trade paper that “If I Could Only Fly” was the best country song he’d heard in fifteen years. “Blaze kept a copy of the magazine rolled up in his boot for weeks,” John Casner said.
Blaze kept playing, drinking and drugging, and getting kicked out of bars and beer joints for being obnoxious, abusive, or going on rants. He’d been arrested so many times on drunk and disorderly and vagrancy charges that when he called to report a fire and told the dispatcher he was Blaze Foley, the dispatcher hung up. Or so the story goes.
His reputation as a carouser belied the empathy that drove him. He was the first person in Austin to befriend Pat MacDonald and Barbara K, a Wisconsin couple who became known as Timbuk 3 and scored a pop hit in 1986 with “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”. He was a regular at the Supernatural Family Band’s regular gig at the Shorthorn Bar. And he took to an unheralded singer from Lubbock named Kimmie Rhodes.
“I guess it was the first time I ever saw inside a person you’d normally try to get away from if you saw him walking down the street,” Rhodes said. “He’d come over to our house. For my daughter’s second birthday, he brought her a giant teddy bear and a flashlight he got at Goodwill. I thought, ‘Now that’s wisdom. He knows what a two-year-old needs.’ He was real, he was a good person, and he was an artist.”
Kimmie met Blaze through her husband Joe Gracey, who had been recording Blaze cohort Calvin Russell. “I loved to sing harmony with him,” she said. “He had one of those voices like Waylon — real deep, straight out of the heart. I loved his songs. He had an honest way of building songs from the ground up.
“He’d come to this art gallery I was working at and show me his artwork while tripping on acid wearing that duct tape suit. It got to where I’d save my daughter’s broken toys for him because he had the whole ceiling of the back porch where he was staying covered with hair curlers and broken toys and old 45s.You could have put that room in the Pompidou in Paris. When he got his first royalty check for Willie and Merle, he bought all these colored rolls of duct tape.
Blaze with (l. to r.) Elliott Rogers, Paul Sanchez, and Janice Ryals at the Texas Showdown Saloon. Photograph courtesy Elliott Rogers.
“There was something painful in his center, but he never talked to me about it. I knew he was rough and could fuck you up, but I was never scared of him. He was very polite. He was happy to be my friend.”
HE WAS HAPPY to be the friend of an older man down the block from where he lived on a couch on the back porch at 904 West Mary. Blaze Foley met Concho January in June 1988 while singing in a backyard song circle. They immediately took to one another. Concho liked to drink as much as Blaze did, and when Blaze believed Concho was being jacked with by his son, Carey, known as J.J.,he was moved to defend him.
J.J. was paid to be Concho’s caretaker, which meant showing up on the first day of the month to take Concho’s veteran’s and welfare check, which he usually spent on himself. Blaze told J.J. he better make sure Concho was getting fed and all he needed with the checks. There were confrontations on the first day of the month for several months. Blaze chased off J.J. brandishing a table leg onetime, prompting J.J.to call the cops and file a complaint.
But the friendship between Concho and the big bearded guy from down the block endured. Blaze would hustle rides to take Concho to the store or to the laundry. He liked hanging with the old man as much as the old man liked hanging with him.
Blaze sobered up for most of the fall of 1988. He ran into GurfMorlix and informed him, “I’ve stopped bathing.” Gurf asked him what the women thought of that. “My days of sport fucking are over,” he declared.
Gurf could tell Blaze had changed. “We stopped in at the Austin Outhouse and I had a beer and he had a coke,” Morlix said. But not long after the encounter, Blaze fell off the wagon in a bad way.
In November, David and Leland Waddell, the rhythm section behind Townes and Billy Joe Shaver, organized a session at Spencer Starnes’ Bee Creek Studio in Driftwood for Blaze, who wanted to make a country demo tape. The demo might lead to a record deal that could be his calling card on a European tour he said he was going to do with Townes. Charlie Day, brother of Willie’s pedal steel player Jimmy Day, was recruited to play pedal steel. Joe Gracey played acoustic guitar.
Ten tracks were recorded live the first day. The second day was devoted to overdubs, including adding Kirnniie Rhodes’ voice to “If I Could Only Fly”. A contract was prepared with Heartland Records, a small British independent label run by Pete Flanagan. But Blaze signed only one of three copies.
On December 27 and 28, Foley cajoled Lost John Casner into recording performances with his four-trackYamaha cassette deck at the Austin Outhouse, the only club he hadn’t been 86ed from. Blaze invited Rich Minus, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Champ Hood, Pat Mears and Tony DiRoadie to join him, along with Outhouse bartender and co-owner Ed Bradfield on harmonica. Some overdubs were done at Casner’s home studio on Karen Street in north Austin.
“We ended up with 110 minutes, mixed and edited,” Casner said. “I took it to Blaze, who was opening up for Tini.buk 3, who were playing Hole In The Wall as Fred & Wilma. He said he wanted to sell it for five dollars, but with a dollar of that going to the homeless.”
He had a good heart, but he was also on a tear. “I knew he wasn’t going to last long,” Kimmie Rhodes said, “when I went over to his place on the back porch and he had three bottles of bad wine – one he’d just finished, one he was working on, and one that he was going to drink.”
Foley visited Kimmie at Lone Star Studios, where she’d asked him to sit in on her recording session. He opened the studio door and stuck his head in to tell her he couldn’t. “I’m in a car I’ve borrowed and it won’t turn off; if I leave it running, it’ll get stolen,” Kimmie remembers Blaze telling her. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘I’ll be right back.”
THE NIGHT OF January 31, 1989, Chuck Lamb called Casner to come fetch Blaze. He’d been picking fights at the Outhouse. He was hanging around an old speed-freak girlfriend. Blaze made his way from the Outhouse to Jubal Clark’s house and got even more tore down. He wound up at Concho January’s early in the morning, where he worked on some vodka while Concho did his Thunderbird.
It was the first day of Februrary, and Concho’s checks were showing up in the mail in a few hours. He was showing Concho some sketches he’d done when J.J. stopped by. The threats started flying, and J.J. ran to the back of the house. He came back holding a .22 rifle and shot Blaze.
The police said Blaze was still alive when they arrived and begged them, “Don’t let me die.” He died on the operating table at Brackenridge Hospital. Police described the shooting as “a senseless killing.” The bullet hit his liver, which was already damaged by years of serious drinking.
His funeral was held during an ice storm. A benefit had to be held to raise enough money to bury him. There still wasn’t enough to pay for a police motorcycle escort to the cemetery. Half the cars that left the funeral home didn’t make it to the graveyard. Blaze’s coffin was covered in duct tape.
A party that had been scheduled in late February for the cassette release of his first live recording, Live At The Austin Outhouse… And Not There, turned into another fundraiser, and a belated wake. There was talk about digging Blaze up and duct-taping him to the walls of the Outhouse. That way, his friends said, he could attend his own benefit.
In September 1989, after two hours of deliberation, Carey January, Foley’s accused murderer, was acquitted of first-degree premeditated murder by a jury. The prosecution had relied largely on the testimony of Concho January, who contradicted himself when relating what happened. Concho testified that Carey shot Blaze while Blaze was sitting in his chair, but the forensic evidence did not support this. Before the trial, Concho had told one friend, Carlene Jones, that Blaze was standing up and trying to back out of the house when he was shot. Concho apparently thought it would sound less like Blaze was threatening Carey to say he was sitting down. Carey January, who had been incarcerated since his arrest, went free.
BLAZE FOLEY BECAME what he always wanted to be: a legend. Townes liked to tell the story of having to dig up Blaze’s grave so he could fetch the pawn ticket for his guitar. Lucinda Williams honored him with the song “Drunken Angel” on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, her Grammy-winning 1998 album. Townes did him right with “Blaze’s Blues” on his 1994 album No Deeper Blue. Townes’ sidekick Richard Dobson honored him with “Foley” on his Blue Collar Blues album. Four volumes of tribute albums have been released on Deep South Records, and subsequently packaged as a box set by a Spanish label.
Part of Lost John Casner’s Live At The Austin Outhouse tapes were released on CD in 1999 by Lost Art Records, with another disc, Oval Room, issued in 2004. Merle Haggard made “If I Could Only Fly” the title track of his 2000 release, a year after he sang the song at Tammy Wynette’s funeral. “There were scruples he believed in that he died for,” Merle later said of the composer. Lyle Lovett included Foley’s “Election Day” on his 2005 release My Baby Don’t Tolerate.
In July 2005, Leland Waddell got a call from a friend named Mel Pouch who’d been living in Indiana and had been rifling through his pickup when he found an old CD. It was a copy of the lost country album done at Spencer Starnes’ Bee Creek Studios. With the permission of Blaze’s family,Waddell cleaned up the tracks, and in the fall of 2005 he released Wanted More Dead Than Alive on his Waddell Hollow label. The recording includes covers of songs by Calvin Russell (“Life Of A Texas Man”) and Jubal Clark (“Black Granite”), and a vocal assist from Kimmie Rhodes on “If I Could Only Fly”.
It also features stirring rendition of “Clay Pigeons”, which John Prine covered on his 2005 album Fair & Square. Prine heard Haggard sing “If I Could Only Fly” at a concert in Chicago featuring Haggard, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.
“I had to find out who wrote that song,” Prine told Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times. “When I really love a song, I always want to hear the songwriter’s version of it. When I found out it was Blaze Foley, I really wanted to hear it. I had heard stories about this guy. Lucinda [Williams] wrote ‘Drunken Angel’ about Blaze. Townes [Van Zandt] had a song ['Blaze's Blues'] he wrote about him.”
Pat MacDonald, Barbara K, and Blaze Foley at the Austin Outhouse. Photograph by Chuck Lamb.
An Austin friend sent Prine “Clay Pigeons”, and Prine flipped. “I thought, ‘Man, that sounds like me.’ I couldn’t get the song out of my head. And when I can’t get a song out of my head, I have to learn it.” Listeners of KGSR, the station that bills itself as Radio Austin, voted Prine’s version of “Clay Pigeons” #8 among the best songs of 2005.
“Blaze has had an interesting afterlife,” said Kevin Triplett, who should know. For the past seven years, he has been working on a film documentary about Foley’s life. He recently completed editing the film and plans to begin entering it in festivals in spring 2007.
“I haven’t a clue why I’m doing this,” Triplett said by way of introduction at the door of his East Austin studio that doubles as a video rental company. He’s never made a film before, and he’s up to his ears in credit card debt. “I’m probably not going to make my money back,” he said.
But he insists it’s worth it. Triplett moved to Austin from Mississippi in 1995 to help a friend design computer game software. His head was turned around by his cousin, Jon Smith, who was working with Ryan Radar on the Blaze Foley tribute records and needed money to press copies of Volume 1 for their Deep South label. Triplett loaned him the cash, although he admitted he wasn’t a big Blaze fan. “But when I heard his life story, I realized he was singing about his life.”
He’s been delving into the saga of Michael David Fuller, Depty Dawg, and Blaze Foley ever since, with time out to pay bills by doing a documentary on the Spacek Family of Granger, Texas, which includes actress Sissy and record promoter Ed, the guy who did indie promo on Willie and Merle’s “If I Could Only Fly” back in the mid-’80s.
The more Triplett has learned, the more he hopes the film can heal the wounds of friends and family about Foley’s death and Carey (J.J.) January’s acquittal. “No one understands why Blaze was shot and why his accused killer got off,” he said. “His family has forgiven Carey January. I hope his friends will too. Alcohol was involved. I don’t think Carey meant to kill him.
“A lot of this is about forgiveness, starting with Blaze’s father.”
I’M NOT SURE if Blaze Foley would recognize Austin if he was still alive. The old house at 904 West Mary has been rehabbed and gentrified. He couldn’t afford to live in South Austin anymore, or even crash on the back porch. The city has grown almost all the way to the cemetery by Old San Antonio Road where Blaze is buried, amid a sweet little slice of the Hill Country where the oaks and prairie still define the landscape, even as roads, subdivisions and strip malls are creeping in from all directions.
Concho January, the man Blaze Foley was visiting when he died, passed away in 1994 at age 71. Townes died outside of Nashville on the first day of 1997 at age 52. Jubal Clark died in Austin a few months later at age 68. Champ Hood and Cody Hubach both died of cancer in 2001. Calvin Russell is big not just in France but throughout Europe; after a ten-year layoff, he’s reunited with the Waddell Brothers. Kimmie Rhodes has been working in Ireland. Pat Mears toured Holland last year. Mandy Mercier tours Europe and also works as a paralegal.
Gurf Morlix’s resume is a quick study of American music. He has played with or produced Warren Zevon, Mary Gauthier, Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Buddy Miller, Julie Miller, Ian McLagan, Lucinda Williams, Tom Russell, Eliza Gilkyson, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Neuwirth, Don Walser, Steve Earle, James McMurtry, Flaco Jimenez, Lazy Lester, Rosanne Cash, David Byrne, John Prine, and Dave Alvin.
Blaze Foley a few days before his death at Henry’s bar and Grill. Photograph courtesy Keith Scroggins.
Newt Gingrich, who called Blaze Foley “my own Bob Dylan,” led the takeover of Congress by conservative Republicans in 1994. The other guy fronting the Goats Of Arabia, the band whose name on the marquee at the Hole In The Wall got Blaze’s attention and led to his longtime collaboration with Gurf Morlix, was Mark McKinnon, now a member of President George W. Bush’s inner circle.
Were Blaze still here, I’m betting he’d be ranting louder than ever. On the other hand, he’d likely approve of the Lost Art folks who issued his Outhouse recordings on CD. One of the label’s principals, Craig McDonald, blew the whistle on congressman Tom DeLay, leading to DeLay’s downfall.
Sybil Rosen moved back to Georgia three years ago after spending 25 years in New York. She lost all contact with Blaze after they broke up. She realized that “the Blaze Foley I encountered fourteen years after he died was very different than the one I lived with. I have a very strong feeling for that young man who had so much promise. I’m not denigrating who Blaze became. I just know him differently.”
She also realized she never grieved his death, so she determined to have a reunion between him and her memory. For the last three years, she has lived in a cabin on the banks of the Chattahoochee River where she and Blaze jumped the broom on the back porch 30 years ago. She has gone deep to learn about his life after they parted ways and to dig into the songs. “This has been the great surprise of my life,” she said.
She questions the South Austin outlaws’ conviction that you could only create great art if you suffered. “There may be some truth to that, but I don’t think it’s the only truth,” she said. “It’s important to remember that the first songs Mike Fuller wrote were when he was happy.
“I hope whatever’s happening now will somehow balance the suffering. It’s a wonderful thing so many people are getting to know his music and his story. There a perfect irony in this. Depty Dawg aspired to be a legend. And here we are?”
Marsha Weldon, Mike Fuller’s sister, assumed the role of executor of the Blaze Foley estate in 1999. She’s placing Blaze’s songs with other singers (“Merle’s still thinking about doing some more,” she says), negotiating with a film company to use his songs as a soundtrack, and polishing a solo recording of twelve songs made on a borrowed two-track recorder in Georgia in the mid 1970s.
“So many times, I think all this is great,” she said of the belated success. “But it’d be so much better if my brother was here. But that’s the way it turned out.”
He may be dead and long gone, but his career continues to flourish. In November, Lost Art is releasing its third Blaze disc, Cold, Cold World, credited to Blaze Foley & the Beaver Valley Boys. It’s a seventeen-track compilation from studio sessions in Houston in 1979 and at Loma Ranch in Fredricksburg in 1980. Both feature a full band that includes Gurf Morhx, who was involved in the sequencing and mastering of the CD.
As the legend grows, sometimes facts get in the way. According to Marsha, John Prine’s manager thought Blaze died in a barroom brawl. Lucinda Williams thought the same thing, according to Gurf Morlix. That’s what happens when a good story is told over and over. What is forever frozen in time is a guy who stuck to his guns, stuck up for his drinking buddies, stayed true to his ideals, and was finally vindicated from the grave.
The new fans have it easier, Joe Bucher said from New Orleans, where he’s rebuilding his house after Hurricane Katrina. “You can hear great songs without the excessive baggage that came with it. A 20-year-old kid doesn’t have to watch him fall off the stage or spit on a guy in the front row. Blaze was a great person when I first met him. What he became later pissed me off and broke my heart at the same time.”
An example of Foley’s visual art. Image courtesy Kevin Triplett.
“He’s just as interesting now as he was then,” Kimmie Rhodes said. “Blaze would be enjoying how famous he’s getting these days. And he’d think it’s funny.”
“My mother said when he was little, he was passionate for the underdog,” Marsha Weldon said. “That’s why he was like he was.”
It must have rubbed off, even on his adversaries. Word is that Carey (.J.J.) January, the man who took Blaze Foley’s life, is a preacher now, working with inner-city youth and the homeless in California. And Blaze Foley is more alive than ever.