A Walking Contradiction
The Legend of Blaze Foley
By Lee Nichols
DECEMBER 28, 1999: 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, http://www.blazefoley.com. 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?
"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 to him."
"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 has it.
"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 us.
"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 Austin experiences:
"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, noon.
"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 to him.
"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 police escort.
"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.'"
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 been donated."
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 cared.
"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 Wynette's funeral.
"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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