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The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley (page 4)

No Depression
September-October 2006

Texas Showdown Saloon
Blaze with (l. to r.) Elliott Rogers, Paul Sanchez, and Janice Ryals at the Texas Showdown Saloon. Photograph courtesy Elliott Rogers.

"There was something painful in his center, but he never talked to me about it. I knew he was rough and could fuck you up, but I was never scared of him. He was very polite. He was happy to be my friend."

HE WAS HAPPY to be the friend of an older man down the block from where he lived on a couch on the back porch at 904 West Mary. Blaze Foley met Concho January in June 1988 while singing in a backyard song circle. They immediately took to one another. Concho liked to drink as much as Blaze did, and when Blaze believed Concho was being jacked with by his son, Carey, known as J.J.,he was moved to defend him.

J.J. was paid to be Concho's caretaker, which meant showing up on the first day of the month to take Concho's veteran's and welfare check, which he usually spent on himself. Blaze told J.J. he better make sure Concho was getting fed and all he needed with the checks. There were confrontations on the first day of the month for several months. Blaze chased off J.J. brandishing a table leg onetime, prompting call the cops and file a complaint.

But the friendship between Concho and the big bearded guy from down the block endured. Blaze would hustle rides to take Concho to the store or to the laundry. He liked hanging with the old man as much as the old man liked hanging with him.

Blaze sobered up for most of the fall of 1988. He ran into GurfMorlix and informed him, "I've stopped bathing." Gurf asked him what the women thought of that. "My days of sport fucking are over," he declared.

Gurf could tell Blaze had changed. "We stopped in at the Austin Outhouse and I had a beer and he had a coke," Morlix said. But not long after the encounter, Blaze fell off the wagon in a bad way.

In November, David and Leland Waddell, the rhythm section behind Townes and Billy Joe Shaver, organized a session at Spencer Starnes' Bee Creek Studio in Driftwood for Blaze, who wanted to make a country demo tape. The demo might lead to a record deal that could be his calling card on a European tour he said he was going to do with Townes. Charlie Day, brother of Willie's pedal steel player Jimmy Day, was recruited to play pedal steel. Joe Gracey played acoustic guitar.

Ten tracks were recorded live the first day. The second day was devoted to overdubs, including adding Kirnniie Rhodes' voice to "If I Could Only Fly". A contract was prepared with Heartland Records, a small British independent label run by Pete Flanagan. But Blaze signed only one of three copies.

On December 27 and 28, Foley cajoled Lost John Casner into recording performances with his four-trackYamaha cassette deck at the Austin Outhouse, the only club he hadn't been 86ed from. Blaze invited Rich Minus, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Champ Hood, Pat Mears and Tony DiRoadie to join him, along with Outhouse bartender and co-owner Ed Bradfield on harmonica. Some overdubs were done at Casner's home studio on Karen Street in north Austin.

"We ended up with 110 minutes, mixed and edited," Casner said. "I took it to Blaze, who was opening up for Tini.buk 3, who were playing Hole In The Wall as Fred & Wilma. He said he wanted to sell it for five dollars, but with a dollar of that going to the homeless."

He had a good heart, but he was also on a tear. "I knew he wasn't going to last long," Kimmie Rhodes said, "when I went over to his place on the back porch and he had three bottles of bad wine - one he'd just finished, one he was working on, and one that he was going to drink."

Foley visited Kimmie at Lone Star Studios, where she'd asked him to sit in on her recording session. He opened the studio door and stuck his head in to tell her he couldn't. "I'm in a car I've borrowed and it won't turn off; if I leave it running, it'll get stolen," Kimmie remembers Blaze telling her. "The last thing he said to me was, 'I'll be right back."

THE NIGHT OF January 31, 1989, Chuck Lamb called Casner to come fetch Blaze. He'd been picking fights at the Outhouse. He was hanging around an old speed-freak girlfriend. Blaze made his way from the Outhouse to Jubal Clark's house and got even more tore down. He wound up at Concho January's early in the morning, where he worked on some vodka while Concho did his Thunderbird.

It was the first day of Februrary, and Concho's checks were showing up in the mail in a few hours. He was showing Concho some sketches he'd done when J.J. stopped by. The threats started flying, and J.J. ran to the back of the house. He came back holding a .22 rifle and shot Blaze.

The police said Blaze was still alive when they arrived and begged them, "Don't let me die." He died on the operating table at Brackenridge Hospital. Police described the shooting as "a senseless killing." The bullet hit his liver, which was already damaged by years of serious drinking.

His funeral was held during an ice storm. A benefit had to be held to raise enough money to bury him. There still wasn't enough to pay for a police motorcycle escort to the cemetery. Half the cars that left the funeral home didn't make it to the graveyard. Blaze's coffin was covered in duct tape.

A party that had been scheduled in late February for the cassette release of his first live recording, Live At The Austin Outhouse... And Not There, turned into another fundraiser, and a belated wake. There was talk about digging Blaze up and duct-taping him to the walls of the Outhouse. That way, his friends said, he could attend his own benefit.

In September 1989, after two hours of deliberation, Carey January, Foley's accused murderer, was acquitted of first-degree premeditated murder by a jury. The prosecution had relied largely on the testimony of Concho January, who contradicted himself when relating what happened. Concho testified that Carey shot Blaze while Blaze was sitting in his chair, but the forensic evidence did not support this. Before the trial, Concho had told one friend, Carlene Jones, that Blaze was standing up and trying to back out of the house when he was shot. Concho apparently thought it would sound less like Blaze was threatening Carey to say he was sitting down. Carey January, who had been incarcerated since his arrest, went free.

BLAZE FOLEY BECAME what he always wanted to be: a legend. Townes liked to tell the story of having to dig up Blaze's grave so he could fetch the pawn ticket for his guitar. Lucinda Williams honored him with the song "Drunken Angel" on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, her Grammy-winning 1998 album. Townes did him right with "Blaze's Blues" on his 1994 album No Deeper Blue. Townes' sidekick Richard Dobson honored him with "Foley" on his Blue Collar Blues album. Four volumes of tribute albums have been released on Deep South Records, and subsequently packaged as a box set by a Spanish label.

Part of Lost John Casner's Live At The Austin Outhouse tapes were released on CD in 1999 by Lost Art Records, with another disc, Oval Room, issued in 2004. Merle Haggard made "If I Could Only Fly" the title track of his 2000 release, a year after he sang the song at Tammy Wynette's funeral. "There were scruples he believed in that he died for," Merle later said of the composer. Lyle Lovett included Foley's "Election Day" on his 2005 release My Baby Don't Tolerate.

In July 2005, Leland Waddell got a call from a friend named Mel Pouch who'd been living in Indiana and had been rifling through his pickup when he found an old CD. It was a copy of the lost country album done at Spencer Starnes' Bee Creek Studios. With the permission of Blaze's family,Waddell cleaned up the tracks, and in the fall of 2005 he released Wanted More Dead Than Alive on his Waddell Hollow label. The recording includes covers of songs by Calvin Russell ("Life Of A Texas Man") and Jubal Clark ("Black Granite"), and a vocal assist from Kimmie Rhodes on "If I Could Only Fly".

It also features stirring rendition of "Clay Pigeons", which John Prine covered on his 2005 album Fair & Square. Prine heard Haggard sing "If I Could Only Fly" at a concert in Chicago featuring Haggard, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.

"I had to find out who wrote that song," Prine told Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times. "When I really love a song, I always want to hear the songwriter's version of it. When I found out it was Blaze Foley, I really wanted to hear it. I had heard stories about this guy. Lucinda [Williams] wrote 'Drunken Angel' about Blaze. Townes [Van Zandt] had a song ['Blaze's Blues'] he wrote about him."

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