Weekly Wire: Dec. 28, 1999: A Walking Contradiction: The Legend
of Blaze Foley By Lee Nichols
At 39, Blaze Foley left this world with little
evidence that he had ever inhabited it. He certainly never had any
wealth -- he was known by his friends for using duct tape to hold
most of his possessions together -- or fame -- being shot to death
probably got the local singer-songwriter more press than anything
he did during his life -- and his recorded musical output was sparse.
To make matters worse, most of it is missing.
What survived compensated the lack of quantity
with quality. Just over a month before his death in February 1989,
Foley recorded 15 tracks at the Austin Outhouse. This now-defunct
neighborhood bar, which made Hole in the Wall seem cavernous
by comparison, was the same watering spot that served as Timbuk
3's launching pad. Backed by quality local musicians, most notably
fiddler Champ Hood and singer-songwriter Sarah Elizabeth Campbell,
Foley put down some of the best -- but not all -- of the gems he
had crafted in his years of drifting around Austin and Houston.
Accompanied by a few additional studio tracks, the end product was
a cassette, Live at the Austin Outhouse (and Not There).
Unfortunately, the tape appeared destined for the
same sort of obscurity as Foley himself, owned only by a few music
critics, friends, and the occasional newcomer to the Outhouse. The
few who heard it, however, held it in high regard. One such person
was Tom Tobin. Coming across a copy of the cassette in 1994, he
liked it enough that, after five years of running it through his
cassette player, he decided this year to make his first jump into
the recording industry. Tobin, along with friend Craig McDonald,
teamed up with "Lost John" Casner, Foley's friend and caretaker
of the original Live tapes, to finance the cassette's reissue on
CD. This month, Live at the Austin Outhouse -- minus the (and Not
There) tracks -- is once again commercially available, more than
a decade after Foley's death.
Perhaps as a measure of the songwriter's skills,
Tobin's work in honor of Foley's memory isn't the first. Foley's
songs have already been fêted on two tribute albums by Austin musicians
in the past year, with a third in the works. The albums include
the cream of the Outhouse crowd, including Timbuk 3, the also now-deceased
Jubal Clark, and Calvin Russell, as well as Foley's hero and friend,
the late, great Townes Van Zandt.
And that's not all. Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams,
two towering giants of the singer-songwriter field, both paid lyrical
tribute to Foley by penning "Blaze's Blues" and "Drunken Angel,"
respectively. He even inspired an unofficial Web page (http://home.earthlink.net/~stewells/),
not to be confused with the official one promoting the new album,
Considering the relatively minor impact Foley made on Austin's music
scene during his life, it's taken a staggering effort to keep his
slim legacy alive. Who was Blaze Foley, and why does he inspire
such devotion from the few who knew him?
For starters, he was Michael David Fuller. Searching
for a stage name, he played off of his love for Red Foley, and tried
"Blue Foley," which eventually mutated into Blaze. Like the character
in the Kris Kristofferson song, Foley was a poet and a picker, a
walking contradiction, and a problem when he was stoned. First and
foremost, he was a songwriter. This occupation defined his being."I
was, first off, really drawn to the songs," says Tobin when asked
what made him a committed fan of Foley's despite having never actually
seen him. "I think he's an exceptional songwriter. I was struck
by the honesty of the songs, and the irreverence of the songs. Blaze
was willing to take on institutions and make strong political statements
that really reflected his beliefs. He didn't pull any punches with
"Blaze was a real craftsman," he continues. "The
term "songwriter's songwriter' has become almost a cliché, but I
think it was really true in Blaze's case. From the things I've read
about him, he was very committed to his craft, and folks say that,
at least while he was in Austin, he never held a day job, and would
even go so far as to gently chide his songwriting friends who did,
because he thought they were in some way compromising themselves.
He, in a sense, lived for the song. That was what was most important
"He had a lot of spiritual awareness," says local
singer-songwriter Mandy Mercier, who was Foley's girlfriend for
a while in the early Eighties. "He was very conscious of the artist's
role in society, that it was a very hard one. He challenged everybody
to absolutely live that 24 hours a day. But it's difficult. Like
if you even had a day job, he had no patience.
"He had no patience with me, even though I was
buying his beers, and he was driving around in my car," she laughs.
"There is an uncompromising honesty," says Casner
of Foley's songs. "Blaze was a fighter for the things he believed
in. Frankly, sometimes when he'd had too much to drink, he was a
fighter for things that he believed in at the moment. There's just
a quality in the way he interacted with people as well as his music;
he looked into the very center of your soul and could tell if you
were full of shit or not.
"It was the music that mattered to him. I think
he realized that if he had wanted to, he was quick enough in terms
of putting songs together that he could have made a living writing
songs in Nashville, but those weren't the kind of songs he wanted
to write. There's a gritty soul to his songs and the way he performed
them. To be honest, Blaze wasn't always pretty. In a lot of ways
he was an outcast. And [he] took that role -- the Blaze persona
with all of the duct tape and all the paraphernalia and stuff. He
was gonna do it his way and revel in it."
His way, and reveling in it, cost Foley. He was
blunt and quite a drinker, and if he inspired love and frustration
among his friends, he also inspired anger and frustration in others.
There were clubs that wouldn't put up with him, and he was rather
proud of being tossed out of the Kerrville Folk Festival by Rod
Kennedy -- and later donning a dress and sneaking back in, legend
"He was really smart and funny and mischievous,
all good qualities for songwriters," says Casey Monahan, who covered
Foley for years as the country and folk music columnist for the
Austin American-Statesman. "I make it a habit of rooting for the
underdog, and I did when I wrote for the Statesman. I tried to cover
people who had been shut out of various things, often through their
own doing. Blaze made some great friends while he was alive; he
also made a couple of enemies. He wouldn't get gigs at the normal
places, and he kind of took it as a badge of honor that he wasn't
allowed to play Kerrville or the Cactus. He certainly didn't try
to cover up the fact that he wasn't allowed in the better rooms
and on the better stages."
Of course, Foley was hardly an original in pursuing
a determinedly iconoclastic path. While it wasn't outright personality
plagiarism, Foley was clearly taking his cues from Townes Van Zandt.
If a gun hadn't killed Foley, his hard living might still have sentenced
him to the same early death that took Van Zandt on New Year's Day
1997 at age 52. And Van Zandt himself personally helped mold the
person who became Blaze Foley; not only was the hard-drinking, hard-living
dean of Texas songwriters a model for Blaze, he was a close friend.
"He certainly looked up to Townes," agrees Lucinda
Williams. "I think Townes was his hero. Unfortunately, I think he
romanticized that whole self-destructive, outlaw lifestyle. A lot
of people do when they're that age. We all went through that to
some extent, but he took it a little bit further than the rest of
"I wrote ["Drunken Angel'] for him, although it
could have been about Townes as well, which I realized after I finished
the song. It really could be about anybody who was a tortured artist
and somewhat self-destructive."
The two of them are intertwined in Casner's early
"When I moved to town in 1980, I took a demo tape
to Spellman's [Lounge]," a Fifth Street acoustic club of the time,
explains Casner, "and played the demo tape and was talking to the
manager. I had noticed that there were a couple of guys out on the
side drinking vodka and Coke. This was about, I don't know, 12:30,
"As I was finishing up talking to the manager,
this guy came out and wanted to know if I knew who Townes Van Zandt
was and if I liked his music. I think "Pancho and Lefty' was about
the next song coming up on my demo tape. But Blaze and Townes were
sitting out on the side porch, so I met Blaze and Townes together
and spent the afternoon hanging out with them."
Van Zandt was also pivotal in bringing Foley to
the attention of KUT's Larry Monroe, one of the few deejays who
has ever played Foley on the radio.
During a columnist stint for the short-lived Austin
Weekly, Monroe wrote a beautiful eulogy for Foley. Monroe described
having a "vaguely negative" awareness of a drunken character who
often slept under the pool table of the fabled folk hangout emmajoe's.
One night, Monroe witnessed a weakened Van Zandt, just out of a
week of detox in the State Hospital, struggle through his monthly
rent gig at emmajoe's.
"During "If I Needed You,'" wrote Monroe, "he forgot
the lyrics and faltered. Blaze glided gracefully to his side and
sang the words for him, then harmonized with him as Townes got back
on track. After the song, Blaze quietly sat back down near the stage.
Townes grew stronger from that point, and it almost seemed that
a direct energy transfer from Blaze had occurred."
"I'd seen Townes kind of crack before and not be
any good the rest of the night," Monroe tells the Chronicle today,
"but Blaze just rescued him that night, and I said, "Well, he's
not just a drunken, irresponsible guy.' And that's actually when
I took it upon myself to get to know him a little bit better. I
don't think I even knew any of his music before I got to know him."
Foley's generosity endeared him to many people,
but is also possibly what got him killed.
"The first night we ever stepped foot in Austin,"
says Barbara K, formerly one-half of Timbuk 3, "it was at Soap Creek
Saloon open mike, and Blaze saw us walking in and followed us in.
He said, "Wow, they look like they might have something going on.
I better check this out,' and came in and heard us. The next night,
we had our first gig at the Austin Outhouse, and if it wasn't for
Blaze, there would have been nobody there. He brought down about
10, 15 people, and kind of got the ball rolling for us here in Austin.
Before we ever knew anybody, he was our first friend.
"It was all about the music," she says of their
friendship. "We were all so close to living on the street when we
first moved to town. Blaze moved from couch to couch, and when we
first moved to town, we didn't really have a place to live, either.
We were actually camping out by Mansfield Dam back when it was free
camping. There were all these people living out there who couldn't
afford to live in Austin. We were living on the edge like Blaze,
and we both were passionate about music. That was the only thing
driving us -- we were just kindred spirits about it all."
Foley's friends claim his altruism toward the weak
and downtrodden led to his death early on the morning of February
1, 1989. According to the official Foley Web site, he was murdered
while trying to protect an elderly friend's pension check. A jury
saw it differently, and acquitted his killer later that year on
the grounds of self-defense. Foley had managed to attend Timbuk
3's Austin City Limits taping days before his death, and when it
finally aired several months later, they dedicated the performance
"He had sobered up," says Gurf Morlix, who played
guitar and bass off and on with Foley from 1977-81, before going
on to a long stint as Lucinda Williams' guitarist and producer.
"He had been on the wagon for like a month and a half or something.
He was at the top of his game at that point. And then like a month
later, I came home one night from playing a gig and there was a
message on my machine from Lucinda. All she said was, "I got something
I want to tell you. I'll call you back tomorrow. I don't want to
tell you on the machine.' And then she hung up. I came home and
played that message, and I just sat down and started crying. I knew
it was Blaze. I don't know how I knew that, but it had to be."
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Foley had intended
for 20% of the sales of the original Live at the Austin Outhouse
cassette to go to an Austin homeless shelter. Instead, it went toward
his burial costs. Somehow, Foley managed to be a pain in the ass
even in death.
"His funeral was just a chaotic clusterfuck," says
Morlix. "It was everything you could expect from a sometime fuck-up.
It was 15 degrees, really cold, and we left the funeral home going
to this cemetery that was way out south of Congress, past Onion
Creek, I think. No one knew where it was, everyone knew it was way
down south somewhere, and there wasn't enough money to pay for a
"So the first four cars that left the funeral home
got through the first light and everybody else was stopped. When
the light turned green we were hoping to catch up with the hearse,
but no one did. And then we're just driving down South Congress
and after about 20 or 25 minutes cars were turning around. You'd
be driving up Congress with four cars behind you and all of a sudden
you'd see a party of four cars coming down Congress, and then you'd
see another party coming in from some side street where they'd turned
around. I think about two-thirds of the people heading for the cemetery
never found it. It was perfect."
Those that did make it were each given a piece
of duct tape, which was used to seal the coffin shut. Despite being
six feet under, however, Foley hadn't yet had his last interaction
with Townes -- if Van Zandt, who was known for yanking people's
chain, is to be believed.
"Blaze's guitar was often in the pawnshops, so
a lot of the shows I saw Blaze play, he was borrowing Townes' guitar,"
says Barbara K. "One of the last stories I ever heard Townes tell
-- I'm sure this was a story -- he was talking about how after Blaze
died, his guitar was still in the pawnshop, and they realized that
the pawn ticket must have been in his suit jacket that he was wearing
in his coffin.
"And so they went out, him and the Waddell brothers
-- they were Townes' bassist and drummer for a while -- they went
out to the cemetery and got some guy with a backhoe to dig up Blaze's
grave. They cut open the duct tape and opened it up, and sure enough,
there in the suit jacket pocket was the pawn ticket for his guitar.
Who knows if it's true or not. He told it as if it were true. Now,
you know, that's just one of those stories that both of them took
to their graves. I would take that with a big shake of salt, not
just a grain. Yep, Blaze and Townes -- they're probably still swapping
that same old guitar back and forth."
"I was playing fiddle with Townes on the air on
Larry Monroe's show right after [Foley] died," Mercier laughs, "and
Townes started telling that story. My jaw was on the floor, and
my eyes were getting bigger and bigger, and I looked over at Larry
like, "Can you believe this?' And Larry, without even moving his
head, he just moved his eyes left and right like, "No, Mandy. No.'"
For lovers of Foley's music, the reissue of Live
at the Austin Outhouse is probably unnecessary; if you were a Foley
fan, you probably got your copy of it the first time around. The
reissue's real value is for those who have not yet discovered his
music, or those who have just heard tell of it, or heard his friends
performing covers.Yet if it weren't for the reissue, Foley's music
would be nothing but a memory, like some legendary blues singer
who died without being recorded. It is known that, in all, he laid
down tracks for four albums. Two of them made it into print and
quickly made it back out of print; Live at the Austin Outhouse was
preceded by Blaze Foley in 1983, a well-done studio album recorded
in Alabama featuring the famed Muscle Shoals Horns and Morlix on
bass. (That bouncing version of "Girl Scout Cookies" and chorus-laden
take on "Oval Room" often heard on Monroe's radio shifts come from
this impossible-to-find album.) Of the four, Live is the only one
for which masters can be located.
One stopgap solution to this was the two local
tribute albums, produced by Jon Smith and Ryan Rader of Deep South
Productions. In Tribute and Loving Memory and BFI Too (Foley always
said the "BFI" on the ubiquitous trash bins stood for "Blaze Foley
Inside") at least make Foley's songs, if not his performances, available
to the public after a long absence.
Smith said that he came to the tribute project
much like Tobin, from outside of Foley's close friendship group.
Rader, a closer friend, had started talking about a tribute project
among Foley's old running buddies back in 1993 at a benefit to buy
him a tombstone.
"No one, of course, wanted his music to be forgotten,
but I think we lost the draw -- it was the short straw kind of thing,"
says Smith. "It seemed like no one else was going to pick it up.
It was being talked about, and Pat Mears had already recorded "Oh
Darlin' for another project, and so it all started from that. I
think we paid two musicians on the second CD who weren't friends
of Blaze, [but other than that] all the time and the talent has
The result is the kind of tribute of which Foley
surely would have approved -- not a bunch of big-name stars (except
for perhaps Timbuk 3 and Van Zandt) and no slick production, just
Foley's longtime friends working on shoestring budgets because they
"We just rolled up a handful of snow and kicked
it off a hill," says Smith. "If we'd had to pay those people --
we paid for the studio time -- but if we'd had to pay for all that
other, we never could have done it. It would have been impossible
for us. It's not our project -- it belongs to everybody on there."
Of course, even the best tribute album can't substitute
for the real thing, and the real thing is extremely scarce.
"For a long time, I struggled with the role of
guardian or caretaker of [the Live tapes]," says Casner, who made
the original recordings. "One of the things that's been real frustrating
over the years is that Blaze was obviously one of the better singer-songwriters
that this town ever produced, but he never got the wider recognition.
People were familiar with "If I Could Only Fly' from the Willie
and Merle version [on the Island in the Sea album], but in terms
of the things he recorded, he had recorded an album with Gurf Morlix
previous to the Muscle Shoals album, had it mastered and ready to
go, trying to find a distributor, but the masters were stolen."
"The master tapes were in Blaze's car, the record
company had bought him this car, and he just left all his stuff
in back of this station wagon, and someone broke in and stole them,"
Morlix recalls. "They were in a box in the back. I said, "Blaze,
why do you think they stole your master tapes?' He said, "Aw, 'cause
they were shiny.' You know, he wasn't perturbed by that very much.
It was pretty unfortunate. It's probably some of the best stuff
that he ever cut. There's a cassette tape that I've got of it, but
it wasn't finished. That was it."
As for the masters to the Muscle Shoals album,
there's a small problem involving the FBI.
"They did a limited pressing, I think just a couple
of hundred, and Blaze probably gave 90% of them away -- in typical
Blaze fashion," says Casner. "All of his friends have signed copies.
Apparently, the recording studio was involved in some illicit activity
and got busted by the FBI, who confiscated everything that the studio
had. I think Blaze enjoyed telling people that, he'd do a song and
say, "This is off my album and the FBI has the master tapes.'
"Then there was a recording going on with [noted
local producer] Spencer Starnes at Cedar Creek studios that was
partially completed before [Foley] was killed. I've heard some scratch
mixes of that on cassette, but nobody knows where those master tapes
are at. Three albums that are mysteries. And what we end up with
is a fucking little cassette recording that I made on four-track
cassette at the Outhouse."
Casner hopes that the lost masters can someday
be found and reissued. He also hopes to reissue the And Not There
tracks, the studio songs originally appended to the Outhouse tape,
as a separate album and perhaps bring in a little more cash for
the beneficiaries. Tobin, McDonald, and Casner expect to keep 20%
of the profits, with another 40% going to Foley's mother, and the
remaining fifth will, as per Foley's original wishes, go to the
Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.
More Foley music should please at least one notable
admirer: Merle Haggard has reportedly become a big fan, thanks not
only to "If I Could Only Fly," but also to Casner's efforts. Last
year, Casner learned Haggard was in town at Ray Benson's Bismeaux
Studios, contributing vocals to Asleep at the Wheel's Bob Wills
tribute album Ride With Bob. Casner says that until then, Haggard
had only known of "Fly" through Willie, who himself had been turned
on to the song by Peggy Underwood, an attorney for Foley and Van
Zandt and friend of Nelson's sister, Lana.
"At that point," says Casner, "I didn't think Merle
had actually heard any of Blaze's recordings. So I made a point
to get over to Bismeaux and left a cassette copy of the Outhouse
tapes to be given to Merle. About a month later, I got a call from
Merle's manager, who was interested in Blaze and the songs.
"They called back a while later and wanted several
more copies. They were playing in a club in Denison, up in North
Texas, and I went up there in June of last year and hand-delivered
four more copies of the tape to Merle and got to spend time on the
bus. He listened to the tape, and had in fact never heard any of
Blaze's recordings. He was only familiar with "If I Could Only Fly,'
which from his version of the story, Willie had already done most
of the recording when he heard the song and said, "You got to let
me sing on that one.'"
Haggard still performs the song during his concerts,
and even sent a videotape of himself performing the song to Tammy
"When "If I Could Only Fly' was first released
by he and Willie, there was some Nashville trade paper that quoted
Merle saying it was the best country song he'd heard in 15 years,"
recalls Casner. "Blaze kept a copy of that magazine rolled up in
his boot for three or four months, so he could show people. When
I told that to Merle he kind of shuddered.
"For Blaze, that quote from Merle was validation
that he was a real songwriter. The commercial success didn't matter.
He had been validated because one of the best country songwriters
of all time had made the point to say that Blaze was good."
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