The story of Blaze Foley, the songwriter, is too often lost in the legend of Blaze Foley, the “Duct Tape Messiah”. Hard drinking, homelessness, and a squalid death all contribute to the sad story that can overshadow this poet’s spare, aching songs and searching voice. But legend springs from a life like Foley’s, and this particular legend is made up of equal parts inspiration, irony and plain old bad luck.
Born Michael David Fuller in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, Foley had music in his veins. From a young age he performed itinerant gospel with his mother, brother and sisters as The Singing Fuller Family, and the stage life stuck. Over the years the troubled troubadour would be known as “Depty Dawg”, “Blue Foley” (after his admiration for country artist Red Foley), and then “Blaze Foley”.
After roaming across Georgia and other parts of Texas, Blaze hit Austin in 1976 with Sybil Rosen, the love of his life, in tow. Over the next decade he gained the status of artist savant or court jester, depending on whom you asked. But the people that mattered loved him. Lucinda Williams called him a “genius and a beautiful loser”. Townes Van Zandt, with whom he developed a deep but reckless friendship, said “…he is one of the most spiritual cats I’ve ever met: an ace picker, a writer who never shirks from the truth; never fails to rhyme; and one of the flashiest wits I’ve ever had to put up with.”
When the “Urban Cowboy” frenzy hit Texas, and folks were walking around with silver tips on brand new cowboy boots, Foley took to putting silver duct tape on the tips of his beat up pair. Later he walked around Austin is a suit made completely of duct tape. The legend of the “Duct Tape Messiah” was born.
Other parts of his legend were not so shiny. Blaze had serious problems with alcohol, and was banned from playing, or even entering, such landmark Texas venues as the Cactus Cafe of the Kerrville Folk Festival. He often slept in his car, sometimes on the street. In February of 1989, when he was thirty-nine, Foley was shot and killed by the son of his friend Concho January. Carey January claimed self-defense and was acquitted of murder.
Just a month before his death, Foley recorded Live at the Austin Outhouse. Backed by Champ Hood and Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, this is the definitive collection of his small but profound catalog of music. Try “Oooh Love”, a stunningly simple sketch of the spark of new love, and you will smile and remember.
During his short life Foley worked with Gurf Morlix, Van Zandt and Calvin Russell, among others. His songs have been covered by Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine. Townes wrote “Blaze’s Blues” about his friend, and Williams wrote “Drunken Angel” as a tribute to Blaze. Morlix released Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream, a collection of Foley’s songs, and a documentary film, Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, was released in 2011. The “beautiful loser” lives on.
Three things to know about (the death of) Blaze Foley (1) he is buried in Live Oak Cemetery in South Austin, (2) at his funeral his friends wrapped his casket in duct tape, and (3) Van Zandt claimed that he and friends dug up Foley’s body to retrieve a pawn ticket for Townes’ guitar.