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The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley (page 2)

No Depression
September-October 2006

Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt and Rex Bell
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."

Blaze Foley
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.

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