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The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley

No Depression
September-October 2006

Blaze Foley
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 one…and 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
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."

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