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The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley (page 3)

No Depression
September-October 2006

Blaze Foley, Gurf Morlix
Blaze foley, unknown ghost and Gurf Morlix. Photograph courtesy Gurf Morlix.

The club scene was drying up with the end of the oil boom. Morlix left to seek his fortune in Los Angeles in 1981, tired of Blaze's increasing drunkenness. Townes was rubbing off on Blaze, maybe too much. It was time to go back to Austin.

PAT MEARS WAS the first folk musician Lost John Casner ran in to when he hit Austin in November 1980. Mears suggested that Casner, a budding singer-songwriter from Cleveland, should try to get a gig at Spellman's on 5th Street. Casner took a music demo to the club manager one early afternoon. As his music played, Casner was distracted by three men sitting outside on the porch who were having way too much fun for so early in the day.

"One of them came inside to tell me how much they'd enjoyed the songs," Casner said. "That was Bobby Martinez. Then he asked me if I'd heard of Townes Van Zandt. My eyes got real big because 'Pancho & Lefty' was coming up next on my demo tape. I turned off the tape. I was afraid Townes wouldn't like my version.

"I went out to meet Townes. The other person was Blaze. He had duct tape and tinfoil on his clothes and he wore weird jewelry. They were drinking Kamchatka vodka and coke. They told me all the places I should go to get a gig. One of those places was the Bentwood Tavern, which became the Austin Outhouse. I told the manager, Chuck Lamb, that I'd just been at Spellman's and Townes and Blaze said to come talk to you. He went over and penciled me in on the next open date."

Casner was already a Townes fan. He quickly became an admirer of Blaze too. "He had a nice fingerpicking style and a full baritone that got ragged over the years. The first song that got me was 'Small Town Hero'. You could tell this was a guy who was always the outsider and had some scars from that. In between songs were jokes he'd heard from Townes, or things Townes told him, like when he wondered why songwriters sang with their eyes closed. Blaze said, 'Like my friend Townes says, it's so the audience won't have to."

Blaze was becoming somebody, a charter member of the South Austin outlaw songwriter circle. He took up with Mandy Mercier, a singer-songwriter who assumed the familiar role of working a day job while Blaze and his buddies got blitzed. When he didn't have a girlfriend, he did the couch circuit, staying with whoever would let him as long as he could. Even Townes had to kick him out.

"He felt strongly that if he took a day job, that would divert him from his artistic mission," Casner said. "He didn't do nothing except sing and play and try to sell his songs. Chuck Lamb from the Outhouse says he'd book a gig a few weeks in advance and try to start a tab. By the time the gig came around, the tab was more than he was going to make."

Blaze turned Townes on to the plight of the homeless and took him to hobo camps by the railroad tracks around Town Lake. Townes turned Blaze on to Kamchatka Vodka. They spent a night together in a dumpster once, just to see what it was like. It was probably harder for Townes, who came from a good family and had to work hard to get down. To Blaze, it came naturally.

Foley had been banned from the Kerrville Folk Festival either for smoking pot with Townes or for dumping over some portable toilets with Townes.Whatever the reason, Townes, being the draw he was, was let back in. Blaze tried to sneak back in wearing a woman's dress, only to be thrown out again. So when the festival's director, Rod Kennedy, walked into Emmajoe's while Blaze was playing one night, Blaze took the opportunity to spit on him. Kennedy proceeded to jump Blaze onstage and beat the shit out of him.

Foley kept in touch with Gurf Morlix. But when he went to see him in Los Angeles, he quickly wore out his welcome. Someone had given him a plane ticket," Morlix said. "He was binge drinking. There had been a change in him. It was pretty bad. I booted him out. We had a big scene. I said, 'I can't take seeing you like this. I want you to leave until you clean up your act.' He told me, 'Don't tell me how to ruin my life.' I didn't hear from him for a year or two."

Blaze Foley at Corky's in Houston
Blaze Foley at Corky's in Houston, late 1970s. Photograph courtesy Debbie Wilson.
It was on this visit that Morlix remembers witnessing a bizarre event which become a strange premonition. "He'd met this stripper and had me drive him 40 miles across L.A. to see her at this strip club when he got off work. Blaze wanted to talk to her but her boyfriend showed up with a gun and told him to leave. Blaze wouldn't go. He kept saying, 'Go ahead and shoot me. Just fuckin' do it.' I got him out of there. He could have been shot."

BLAZE ACCEPTED an offer from a Georgia friend to make a record at the storied Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama in 1984. Understand, Blaze would accept any offer to record. This was a high-dollar deal involving the Muscle Shoals Horns, with a budget to fly in Townes and Gurf at separate times.

A ten-song album and a 45 rpm single came out of the sessions, but the project was put on hold when the producer was busted by the DEA. "Oval Room" b/w "Girl Scout Cookies" did manage to get pressed as a 45 on the Vital label. Blaze got his hands on some copies and used them to barter for drinks or food. The albums show up occasionally on eBay; one recently sold for $165.

Peggy Underwood, an Austin attorney who liked hanging with the outlaws, especially Townes, brokered the deal that validated Blaze Foley. She knew Lana Nelson,Willie Nelson's daughter, and through Lana had placed Townes' "Pancho & Lefty" with Willie and his duet partner, Merle Haggard. The single hit #1 on the country charts in 1983, boosting Van Zandt's career like no other song. (Though the week it was released, Townes checked himself into the state hospital and checked himself out to play at Emmajoe's to make the rent - a tentative performance saved by Blaze quietly helping him sing through some forgotten passages. The story is better told by KUT radio DJ Larry Monroe on his website.)

Underwood did the same for Blaze, pitching Lana to pitch Willie & Merle while they were making the album Seashores Of Old Mexico. "If I Could Only Fly" was recorded as the session wound down, but stood out well enough to be the first radio single off the album. Regional airplay was strong the week of release. You could hear "If I Could Only Fly" all over Texas. Blaze was following in Townes' footsteps.

Underwood hired Ed Spacek to promote the record independently in addition to Columbia Records' promo team. But two weeks into the campaign, the label suddenly pulled promotion of the single after a shakeup of company personnel that had nothing to do with the song. The climb up the charts halted. Haggard nonetheless allowed to a trade paper that "If I Could Only Fly" was the best country song he'd heard in fifteen years. "Blaze kept a copy of the magazine rolled up in his boot for weeks," John Casner said.

Blaze kept playing, drinking and drugging, and getting kicked out of bars and beer joints for being obnoxious, abusive, or going on rants. He'd been arrested so many times on drunk and disorderly and vagrancy charges that when he called to report a fire and told the dispatcher he was Blaze Foley, the dispatcher hung up. Or so the story goes.

His reputation as a carouser belied the empathy that drove him. He was the first person in Austin to befriend Pat MacDonald and Barbara K, a Wisconsin couple who became known as Timbuk 3 and scored a pop hit in 1986 with "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades". He was a regular at the Supernatural Family Band's regular gig at the Shorthorn Bar. And he took to an unheralded singer from Lubbock named Kimmie Rhodes.

"I guess it was the first time I ever saw inside a person you'd normally try to get away from if you saw him walking down the street," Rhodes said. "He'd come over to our house. For my daughter's second birthday, he brought her a giant teddy bear and a flashlight he got at Goodwill. I thought, 'Now that's wisdom. He knows what a two-year-old needs.' He was real, he was a good person, and he was an artist."

Kimmie met Blaze through her husband Joe Gracey, who had been recording Blaze cohort Calvin Russell. "I loved to sing harmony with him," she said. "He had one of those voices like Waylon -- real deep, straight out of the heart. I loved his songs. He had an honest way of building songs from the ground up.

"He'd come to this art gallery I was working at and show me his artwork while tripping on acid wearing that duct tape suit. It got to where I'd save my daughter's broken toys for him because he had the whole ceiling of the back porch where he was staying covered with hair curlers and broken toys and old 45s.You could have put that room in the Pompidou in Paris. When he got his first royalty check for Willie and Merle, he bought all these colored rolls of duct tape.

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