"He's only gone crazy once. Decided to stay."--Townes Van Zandt
All too often, the artistic brilliance of a person isn't fully appreciated until they're long gone. Whether it's Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe or a host of others, some artists only become legendary once they've passed on.
For Austin, Texas singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, that's been half the story. He's now widely considered as one of the most unique and genuine storytelling songwriters of his day. Yet, he's still virtually an unknown by even the average Country or Americana fan despite multiple appearances in Hollywood postmortem. Kevin Triplett released the documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah in 2011 and Ethan Hawke directed the feature film, Blaze that premiered at Sundance in January in 2018, starring Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat and Charlie Sexton. He adapted the story from the Sybil Rosen novel, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, Foley, born Michael David Fuller in Arkansas, was a staple of Austin's growing country and folk scene. His stage name was inspired by musician Red Foley. Much like Austin's slogan of "Keep Austin Weird," Foley's eccentric lifestyle was as colorful as it was tragic. He lived out on the fringes and never conformed to normalcies of society and was well-known for keeping duct tape on his cowboy boots. Often described as a larger than life character, Foley was committed to the idea of being an artist, for the sake of the song and craft.
For the sake of the song
Like his friend and contemporary Townes Van Zandt, Foley didn't just write songs; he lived them. They were as authentic as possible. Songs like "If I Could Only Fly," "Clay Pigeons" and "Cold, Cold World" found Foley tapping into an honest sincerity that could only be found on the outskirts.
Often homeless, Foley lived much of his time in Austin either living in his car, staying on the couches of friends and spent many nights sleeping in dumpsters to stay warm. This hard-living lifestyle didn't make Foley calloused with contempt though. In many ways, it gave Foley an insight for those who felt marginalized by the world.
When Foley sings "You know sometimes I write happy songs then some little thing goes wrong" on "If I Could Only Fly," it's as vulnerable as it is heartbreaking. Foley's ability to capture the sad sinking moments of loneliness has seldom been surpassed. The song has even been covered by the likes of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard over the years.
Songs like "Livin' in the Woods in a Tree" and "Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries" show that Foley wasn't always seeking for the melancholy or bittersweet moments. There's a clever charm in much of Foley's writing that hinges on his quirkiness. "Girl Scout Cookies" is a prime example of Foley being able to captivate an audience with something as simple and universal as girl scout cookies.
Still, Foley was able to weave a bevy of raw and pure emotions that were often on opposite ends of the spectrum. Though there's a happy-go-lucky innocence to "No Goodwill Stores in Waikiki," lines like "Been as poor as poor can be, get my clothes at goodwill stores. Never do have to lock my doors, I ain't got no doors to lock" display how simple, but effective Foley can be at times. There's a sense of tongue-in-cheek playfulness in his delivery, but you still hear the seed of truth that lies deep within.
Unfortunate recording luck
Foley's rough lifestyle certainly did lend itself to earnest and authentic songwriting and being immortalized as a legendary cult figure. But it also, unfortunately, contributed to his lack of recorded material.
While he never did have the same recording opportunities as Van Zandt, Guy Clark or Steve Earle, Foley did record his songs a handful of times in the studio setting. Chalk it up it purely bad luck, these sessions were often lost, misplaced or outright stolen.
Until his untimely death in 1989, Foley had released only a handful of singles, one full-length (Blaze Foley), and the legendary live album, Live at the Austin Outhouse.
Recorded on his 39th birthday (Dec. 18, 1988) captured Foley at one of his finest hours. While it is raw with the creaks and moans of chairs in the background, Foley is still able to make you shut off everything around and focus solely on his deep baritone voice and sincere lyricism.
In the years following his tragic death, lost recordings by the troubadour slowly, but surely found the light of day. Often unproduced and coarse, they show a rare glimpse into Foley's world. Oval Room, Sittin' By the Road and The Dawg Years remain as some of the best snapshots of not only Foley's career but of Austin's budding folk scene of the '70s and early '80s.
A growing legacy
It's typically cliche to call one a songwriter's songwriter, but Foley is the epitome of the expression. There's a reason why, through all his faults and misfortunes, Foley's legacy as a storyteller and artist has grown over time.
Contemporaries like Lucinda Williams, Van Zandt and Gurf Morlix have written odes to the late Foley with songs like "Drunken Angel," "Blaze's Blues," and "Music You Mighta Made." Even country rockers Kings of Leon wrote the song "Reverend" as an homage to Foley.
The likes of John Prine ("Clay Pigeons"), Merle Haggard ("If I Could Only Fly"), Lyle Lovett ("Election Day") and others have recorded Foley's songs in recent memory. Furthermore, a handful of Foley tribute records have been released.
The reason remains the same in all instances. Foley's songs resonate with people because he was able to describe being down and out in ways others simply couldn't. His understanding of the human condition was real, genuine and ultimately, a double-edged sword.