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The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley (page 5)

No Depression
September-October 2006

Blaze Foley
Pat MacDonald, Barbara K, and Blaze Foley at the Austin Outhouse. Photograph by Chuck Lamb.

An Austin friend sent Prine "Clay Pigeons", and Prine flipped. "I thought, 'Man, that sounds like me.' I couldn't get the song out of my head. And when I can't get a song out of my head, I have to learn it." Listeners of KGSR, the station that bills itself as Radio Austin, voted Prine's version of "Clay Pigeons" #8 among the best songs of 2005.

"Blaze has had an interesting afterlife," said Kevin Triplett, who should know. For the past seven years, he has been working on a film documentary about Foley's life. He recently completed editing the film and plans to begin entering it in festivals in spring 2007.

"I haven't a clue why I'm doing this," Triplett said by way of introduction at the door of his East Austin studio that doubles as a video rental company. He's never made a film before, and he's up to his ears in credit card debt. "I'm probably not going to make my money back," he said.

But he insists it's worth it. Triplett moved to Austin from Mississippi in 1995 to help a friend design computer game software. His head was turned around by his cousin, Jon Smith, who was working with Ryan Radar on the Blaze Foley tribute records and needed money to press copies of Volume 1 for their Deep South label. Triplett loaned him the cash, although he admitted he wasn't a big Blaze fan. "But when I heard his life story, I realized he was singing about his life."

He's been delving into the saga of Michael David Fuller, Depty Dawg, and Blaze Foley ever since, with time out to pay bills by doing a documentary on the Spacek Family of Granger, Texas, which includes actress Sissy and record promoter Ed, the guy who did indie promo on Willie and Merle's "If I Could Only Fly" back in the mid-'80s.

The more Triplett has learned, the more he hopes the film can heal the wounds of friends and family about Foley's death and Carey (J.J.) January's acquittal. "No one understands why Blaze was shot and why his accused killer got off," he said. "His family has forgiven Carey January. I hope his friends will too. Alcohol was involved. I don't think Carey meant to kill him.

"A lot of this is about forgiveness, starting with Blaze's father."

I'M NOT SURE if Blaze Foley would recognize Austin if he was still alive. The old house at 904 West Mary has been rehabbed and gentrified. He couldn't afford to live in South Austin anymore, or even crash on the back porch. The city has grown almost all the way to the cemetery by Old San Antonio Road where Blaze is buried, amid a sweet little slice of the Hill Country where the oaks and prairie still define the landscape, even as roads, subdivisions and strip malls are creeping in from all directions.

Concho January, the man Blaze Foley was visiting when he died, passed away in 1994 at age 71. Townes died outside of Nashville on the first day of 1997 at age 52. Jubal Clark died in Austin a few months later at age 68. Champ Hood and Cody Hubach both died of cancer in 2001. Calvin Russell is big not just in France but throughout Europe; after a ten-year layoff, he's reunited with the Waddell Brothers. Kimmie Rhodes has been working in Ireland. Pat Mears toured Holland last year. Mandy Mercier tours Europe and also works as a paralegal.

Gurf Morlix's resume is a quick study of American music. He has played with or produced Warren Zevon, Mary Gauthier, Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Buddy Miller, Julie Miller, Ian McLagan, Lucinda Williams, Tom Russell, Eliza Gilkyson, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Neuwirth, Don Walser, Steve Earle, James McMurtry, Flaco Jimenez, Lazy Lester, Rosanne Cash, David Byrne, John Prine, and Dave Alvin.

Blaze Foley
Blaze Foley a few days before his death at Henry's bar and Grill. Photograph courtesy Keith Scroggins.
Newt Gingrich, who called Blaze Foley "my own Bob Dylan," led the takeover of Congress by conservative Republicans in 1994. The other guy fronting the Goats Of Arabia, the band whose name on the marquee at the Hole In The Wall got Blaze's attention and led to his longtime collaboration with Gurf Morlix, was Mark McKinnon, now a member of President George W. Bush's inner circle.

Were Blaze still here, I'm betting he'd be ranting louder than ever. On the other hand, he'd likely approve of the Lost Art folks who issued his Outhouse recordings on CD. One of the label's principals, Craig McDonald, blew the whistle on congressman Tom DeLay, leading to DeLay's downfall.

Sybil Rosen moved back to Georgia three years ago after spending 25 years in New York. She lost all contact with Blaze after they broke up. She realized that "the Blaze Foley I encountered fourteen years after he died was very different than the one I lived with. I have a very strong feeling for that young man who had so much promise. I'm not denigrating who Blaze became. I just know him differently."

She also realized she never grieved his death, so she determined to have a reunion between him and her memory. For the last three years, she has lived in a cabin on the banks of the Chattahoochee River where she and Blaze jumped the broom on the back porch 30 years ago. She has gone deep to learn about his life after they parted ways and to dig into the songs. "This has been the great surprise of my life," she said.

She questions the South Austin outlaws' conviction that you could only create great art if you suffered. "There may be some truth to that, but I don't think it's the only truth," she said. "It's important to remember that the first songs Mike Fuller wrote were when he was happy.

"I hope whatever's happening now will somehow balance the suffering. It's a wonderful thing so many people are getting to know his music and his story. There a perfect irony in this. Depty Dawg aspired to be a legend. And here we are?"

Marsha Weldon, Mike Fuller's sister, assumed the role of executor of the Blaze Foley estate in 1999. She's placing Blaze's songs with other singers ("Merle's still thinking about doing some more," she says), negotiating with a film company to use his songs as a soundtrack, and polishing a solo recording of twelve songs made on a borrowed two-track recorder in Georgia in the mid 1970s.

"So many times, I think all this is great," she said of the belated success. "But it'd be so much better if my brother was here. But that's the way it turned out."

He may be dead and long gone, but his career continues to flourish. In November, Lost Art is releasing its third Blaze disc, Cold, Cold World, credited to Blaze Foley & the Beaver Valley Boys. It's a seventeen-track compilation from studio sessions in Houston in 1979 and at Loma Ranch in Fredricksburg in 1980. Both feature a full band that includes Gurf Morhx, who was involved in the sequencing and mastering of the CD.

As the legend grows, sometimes facts get in the way. According to Marsha, John Prine's manager thought Blaze died in a barroom brawl. Lucinda Williams thought the same thing, according to Gurf Morlix. That's what happens when a good story is told over and over. What is forever frozen in time is a guy who stuck to his guns, stuck up for his drinking buddies, stayed true to his ideals, and was finally vindicated from the grave.

The new fans have it easier, Joe Bucher said from New Orleans, where he's rebuilding his house after Hurricane Katrina. "You can hear great songs without the excessive baggage that came with it. A 20-year-old kid doesn't have to watch him fall off the stage or spit on a guy in the front row. Blaze was a great person when I first met him. What he became later pissed me off and broke my heart at the same time."

Blaze Foley's art
An example of Foley's visual art. Image courtesy Kevin Triplett.
"He's just as interesting now as he was then," Kimmie Rhodes said. "Blaze would be enjoying how famous he's getting these days. And he'd think it's funny."

"My mother said when he was little, he was passionate for the underdog," Marsha Weldon said. "That's why he was like he was."

It must have rubbed off, even on his adversaries. Word is that Carey (.J.J.) January, the man who took Blaze Foley's life, is a preacher now, working with inner-city youth and the homeless in California. And Blaze Foley is more alive than ever.


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