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Blaze Foley: Don’t wanna be no star

Blaze Foley’s brown ponytail shimmered on top of a white scarf. A green and gold hair tie held it taut and “C” shaped. Sybil Rosen, who received the ponytail from Blaze in 1977, sat on her couch to my left. We were at “Waller,” a drafty, spacious home hidden by tall pines on the Chattahoochee River, just outside of Whitesburg, Georgia. During the ’70s and ’80s, long before it belonged to Rosen, Waller was a hot-spot for musicians, artists, and hippies. I set the scarf and ponytail on my lap. It felt fresh despite being cut off for 38 years.

*Published in the 2016 Jan-Feb print issue of American Songwriter

 

“I just didn’t get it,” Rosen said, describing when, in ’77, they had moved together from Austin to Chicago. “If you look at some of the pictures from that period, his hair went from being this long to this long.” She showed the distance between her two hands. “The reason he cut it was for me to find it. It really is a part of him. He came back in March and he had written ‘If I Could Only Fly.’ Then he came back in April and that’s when he gave me his ponytail.”

In 1987, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered “If I Could Only Fly” on their sophomore duet record Seashores of Old Mexico, a swerving, Malibu Rum country album. Nelson received Foley’s demo tape from his daughter Lana. On the track, he jump-starts the song in smooth fashion and Haggard closes. This represented a major success for Foley. His nose had been to the pavement for so long; now, the man had finally  broken through. He had been homeless, passing out under pool tables, and banned from almost every bar in Austin. Royalty checks arrived. He rented a place and hung his magic-marker drawings on the walls. But “If I Could Only Fly” was replaced by another song as the album’s single. Blaze’s glimmer faded. Despite the downer, Haggard still sings it today.

More recently, John Prine (one of Foley’s all-time heroes) and The Avett Brothers covered “Clay Pigeons,” a song that lets us in on the slight optimism and contemplation Blaze felt when he left Rosen in Chicago. He aimlessly hops on a Greyhound. Air clears before his first verse:

I’d like to stay but I might have to go to start over again
Might go back down to Texas, might go to somewhere I’ve never been
And get up in the morning and go out at night
And I won’t have to go home, get used to being alone
Change the words to this song and start singing again 

A few years ago, Kevin Triplett, director of the documentary The Duct Tape Messiah which details Foley’s life and career, approached Rosen. (Foley was known as the “Duct Tape Messiah.” He put duct tape on everything.) Being interviewed for the documentary led Rosen to retrace his ghost, their escapades and fall-outs, and to write her memoir, Living In The Woods In A Tree. (They lived in a wall-less tree house not long after they met in ’75.)

Foley sang at The Banning Mill Dinner Club and Rosen acted with the Banning Mill Ensemble at Banning Mill, an eccentric artist-colony-bed-and-breakfast not far from Waller, just north of Whitesburg. Before settling there, Foley went by “Deputy Dawg,” a nickname given to him when he was a roadie for the gypsy-acid bluegrass group Buzzard’s Roost. He was fat and wore a broad, flat hat like the cartoon Deputy Dawg. Between Buzzard’s Roost and the Mill, he underwent a metamorphosis from lonesome hippie-roadie to Prine-esque cowboy. He was fat no more and went by “Deputy.” Whatever his identity, he entered this world as Michael David Fuller in Malvern, Arkansas. He grew up around east Texas and Georgia and contracted polio as a baby, so he walked with a limp.

He and Rosen moved into the tree house because the Mill closed, and he began tinkering with the idea of Blaze Foley. The moniker combined the names of Blaze Starr, a ’50s stripper and burlesque queen, and Red Foley, “Mr. Country Music.” This new identity relinquished him from the trappings of Michael Fuller. He was no longer the frumpy Deputy Dawg or the cutesy Deputy. He’d be taken seriously. He used to tell Rosen, “Don’t wanna be no star. I wanna be a legend.” However, the road to becoming Blaze was years in the making. They stayed in the tree house for a few months, flipped a coin, and then moved to Austin, where he believed he could break in and finally embrace the live music capital of the world, the place where Willie Nelson cut through it all. Stage fright and obscurity led him to leave Rosen and gig around Georgia. He needed to renew his ambitions. He returned to Austin but still felt intimidated, so Chicago, where Prine started, seemed like the best bet.

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Foley’s friend Joe Bucher told me of a time when Foley decorated a toilet with glitter and rhinestones and brought it on stage at a pizza restaurant outside of Atlanta. “He comes out for his second set and he points at it and he says, ‘I guess you folks have noticed we’ve brought up someone special for the second set,’” Bucher laughed, turning in his chair, his eyes on his computer screen. “And he said, ‘I dunno how many people of you out there are familiar with ‘David Allan Commode,’ the mysterious rhinestone toilet.’”

Foley constantly  defied authority, his record label, not to mention anything and anyone who put a heel on the underdog, and most of the time he did this in a wacky state of mind. For one, he was fired from Zephyr Records while playing drunk on stage at the Lone Star Café in New York City while opening for Kinky Friedman. And almost all of his discography has been blasted to obscurity in some way, whether due to defiance or some act of self-sabotage. We’re lucky to have anything at all.

Between a studio in Houston and Loma Ranch Studio in Fredericksburg, Texas, from 1979-’80, he and his band, The Beaver Valley Boys, laid down tracks for what was to be called Blaze Foley Inside. “We just knew we were doing some good work and it was important and it was not a party situation,” said Gurf Morlix, an Austin-based songwriter and producer who was Foley’s best friend during the time. When they finished recording, Foley kept the master tapes with him in his station wagon. The wagon was stolen outside of a night club in Houston. Luckily John Hill, owner of Loma Ranch Studio, had suggested they make a safety tape prior to the theft. He found it in his archives about 10 years ago and sent it to Morlix, who added in Foley’s Houston recordings and pressed it.

The album Cold, Cold World is Foley’s most comprehensive and soberly crafted slice of his discography. He’s at his peak. Opening the record is the title track. “Cold Cold World” is his gospel. He cries his lungs out, “Can’t get no job and can’t get no rest/ Started out east but I ended up west/ And I’m so glad to be here, I’m sure I would guess/ Ain’t it a cold, cold world.” His lyrics draw from earlier days when he, his sister, and mother, who taught him only three chords, bounced throughout Texas and Georgia, harmonizing in their Fuller Family Trio in return for chickens, canned goods, and a place to sleep. This flight was imprinted on him as a child; he’d be itinerant for the rest of his life. His father, a truck driver and a very religious man, who they lived on the run from, exchanged what canned goods they collected for liquor. He followed wherever they hunkered down because Foley’s mother didn’t believe in divorce.

Cold, Cold World ebbs with tales of Foley’s peripatetic and poverty-stricken life in the South, as in the song “No Goodwill Stores in Waikiki.”

I ain’t got no dental floss, never seen an albatross
Never been to Waikiki, been as poor as poor as can be
Get my clothes at Goodwill stores, never do have to lock my doors
I ain’t got no doors to lock and that’s all right with me

He also yearns for faded love, sings about his friends (Bucher in particular on “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries”), tells of hazy nights stoned and driven on speed. He protests religion on “Christian Lady Talkin’ On A Bus” (it clearly stems from his strict religious upbringing), bellows to us on “New Wave Blues” because he’s “got them trouble in my Levi blues again.” Then there’s the very Dylan-esque “Baby Can I Crawl Back To You.” “Sittin’ in a bar room countin’ my dough/ Running out of money and places to go/ Sittin’ at a bar room drunk at night/ Won’t get to sleep until the first daylight/ Baby can I crawl back to you?” The album is the most genuine piece of his oeuvre. This man had nothing but songs, and each stands alone. It is country music at its purest.

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“As a person he had no veneer. What you saw was what you got. He was very emotional, particularly for a man,” Rosen said, securing the ponytail in the scarf. She slid it inside a black paper bag. The ponytail was like a biblical love token that brought to mind Samson and Delilah, only nobody’s gauging out eyeballs or causing temples to collapse. But once he cut it off with his pocketknife and handed it to her, his songwriting powers began to crumble. “He’s very direct. Blaze’s stuff is, ‘This is how I feel and this is why,’ not very cryptic … that’s what we’re all trying to express, what it’s like to live this life,” Rosen said. We left the living room and entered her kitchen. Cobwebs held to the brown rafters. She handed my cousin Jane a jar of pickled okra.

“Townes came a couple of times to here,” Rosen said. “He would stalk Blaze with a butcher knife. They didn’t eat anything, just drank cranberry juice and vodka for days.” Foley and Van Zandt were on their way to record his ’84 self-titled album at Muscle Shoals. (They first met in 1980 at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village around the same time Foley had been fired while on stage. They crashed his room at the Gramercy Park Hotel on Zephyr’s expense, drinking tequila sunrise after sunrise.)

His phrasing sounds crisp yet the Muscle Shoals horns and backing vocals don’t necessarily mesh. There are some classic tracks like “Oval Room,” his dig at Ronald Reagan. Most of the self-titled album covers Cold, Cold World. However, distribution of the album was halted by the DEA as part of their investigation of the record’s executive producer, William French. He was smuggling cocaine to little airstrips all over the South from Colombia. After a while, Blaze received a few boxes of vinyl from a warehouse in Georgia and sold  them for a dollar, or traded them for beer or a ride.

This setback initiated a heavy downward spiral, not to mention the “If I Could Only Fly” flop a few years later. Foley and Van Zandt were the least bit of help for one another. Eating amphetamines and binge drinking day in and day out dragged him away from his songwriting pulse. Living as wild Blaze became more important than poetic Blaze. Also, he no longer had access to his muse, Rosen, nor the attention and focus of Morlix who left him for L.A. Rosen never saw him alive again after his drunk and brief performance at the Lone Star Café.

It’s evident how ravished his vocals are in his later work compared to the earlier work, although they’re still top-notch, as on Live at the Austin Outhouse andWanted More Dead than Alive (both released posthumously). “When he was drinking so heavily in the ’80s, he didn’t write many songs,” said Morlix. “In Houston, we were playing every night in bars and drinking beer and tequila all night but we’d wake up sober the next morning and he’d have energy all day and he wouldn’t drink. He only wrote two or three or four [songs] that I can think of in the ’80s. It was getting worse and worse. I’d see him get beaten up and he deserved it. He was funny at the same time, but people didn’t perceive him as that and they’d either beat him up or kick him out.”

He wasn’t the same  performer Morlix once knew – the sharp-witted and soulful picker who carried a sign that said “free Pap smears” and who wore suspenders, strange ties, wigs, or strung an IV of whiskey from his head to his arm. Throughout the ’80s he grew crazed, his demise imminent, as Lucinda Williams describes him in her song “Drunken Angel,” “Why’d you let go of your guitar/ Why’d you ever let it go that far.”

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Moses and Rosen’s dog Shine trampled down Waller’s wraparound porch, the same porch where she and Blaze “jumped the broom,” where he disappeared to throughout the ’80s to decompress. She dropped sweet potato fries into her electric deep fryer.

Twelve years after Blaze gave her his ponytail, he was shot in the chest and killed by a young man named Carey January, the son of Blaze’s friend Concho January. Blaze Foley died February 1, 1989. For a while he had been defending Concho from Carey who was stealing Concho’s Social Security and veterans’ benefits. It wasn’t the first run-in between the two. They both went to jail for a previous altercation.

The story of what happened after Carey shot him with a .22 varies. Rosen describes the scene in her memoir – he collapses face down in Concho’s yard still alive and bloody, holding his little blue notebook full of cartoons and sketches. But some friends believe he chased after Carey, bleeding to death, an imaginable behavior for a man who never let injustices slip, regardless of their weight. After all, this was Blaze Foley. Paramedics and the police arrived late. “Please,” it’s said he told them, “don’t let me die.”

Published in American Songwriter