The black granite headstone is lost among the other markers in the Live Oak Cemetery in deep South Austin. Several small objects including a small plastic toy truck scattered around the simple flat tombstone are the only indication the dead person buried six feet under still resonates among the living, although his bearded likeness and the guitar adorned with song titles are pretty good hints.
The name says Blaze Foley. He was a songwriter who ran with a gaggle of like-minded songwriters who fancied themselves as outlaws and renegades outside the orbit of recognized composers like Willie, Jerry Jeff, Fromholz, Nanci Griffith, Lyle, and Robert Earl. Their guiding light was Townes Van Zandt, the tortured soul who was as inspirational as any writer could be, but who was equally determined to live as an outsider.
Blaze Foley took pride in never having a day job. He adorned himself with duct tape. He championed the downtrodden. And he wrote a few great songs.
He lived 39 years until the first day of February 1989, when a bullet from a gun held by a young man stopped everything. It’s a long story, good enough that seventeen years later, Blaze Foley is bigger than ever.
If I could only fly
If I could only fly
I’d bid this place goodbye
And come and be with you.
– “If I Could Only Fly”, Blaze Foley
“There’s kind of two Blazes,” Townes Van Zandt, his role model and friend, told reporter Casey Monahan of the Austin American-Statesman after Blaze died. “A lot of people saw one or the other. There was the wild one…and then there was the gentle, loving, caring one. I came to know both.”
Van Zandt praised Foley’s generosity on the liner notes of the album Blaze recorded for Vital Records that was never released. “He was a friend of the homeless, poor, elder, a real super caring guy. And he would sometimes seem bitter, you know. The only reason for that is he was brimming over with so much genuine love and caring. To see an injustice sometimes it would just put him over to a frenzy, kind of. He couldn’t stand to see a poor bag lady on the street. It threw him into a rage, almost. It just came from love.
“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.”
He loved duct tape, the miracle binder that kept his clothes and his life together. Foley slapped the adhesive to shoes, jeans, shirts, hats, jackets. Once he made a whole suit out of duct tape. Friends dubbed him the Duct Tape Messiah. He liked to point to trash dumpsters with the BFI logo and say the letters stood for “Blaze Foley Inside.”
Blaze Foley was his made-up name. Before that, when he lived in a treehouse in Georgia, he was Depty Dawg. Before that, he was Michael David Fuller, son of a drunken father who’d left home when Michael was a child, and of a struggling mother who found solace in the Lord, leading the family in a gospel band.
Like all good stories, the saga of Blaze Foley has been embellished over the years, to the point that it’s hard to tell where fact ends and myth begins.
I knew some of the crowd Blaze Foley ran with. Rich Minus was one of the first people I met in Austin back in 1973 in the parking lot of the Split Rail, the finest no-cover beer and music joint in Austin back in the day. He was a fellow Pearl Beer connoisseur when that beer was still brewed in San Antonio. He eventually scored a semi-hit with “Laredo Rose”, covered by the Texas Tornados on their 1990 debut disc.
Jubal Clark sought me out when he hit Austin in 1975. He was holed up in cheap motel room running from who knows what, armed and loaded with a song he wrote called “Gypsy Cowboy” that Jubal said had Willie’s name all over it. Calvin Russell, another South Austin outlaw, would later become huge in France.
They and the rest of the crew they ran with — including Pat Mears, Cody Hubach, George Ensle, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Lost John Casner, Mandy Mercier, Butch Hancock, and a newly arrived gal named Lucinda — pledged fealty to their art. In most cases, that also meant an equal commitment to a vow of poverty and hard living.
Their hangouts were low- and no-cover joints such as Spellman’s, Emmajoe’s, the Austex Lounge and the Austin Outhouse, places rarely frequented by Willie or Jerry Jeff. They could charm your socks off and make you want to run.
So while I can’t claim to have known Blaze Foley, I knew who he was — or thought I did, at least, until he became famous long after he was dead. What I’ve learned since makes for quite a life.
Michael David Fuller was born December 18, 1949 in Malvern, Arkansas. He liked to tell people he was born in Marfa, Texas, perhaps because Marfa, Texas, must have sounded better than Arkansas. Although some say he also claimed that Marfa was where he first saw Willie Nelson, it turns out he grew up in San Antonio and Georgia and spent his teenage years in Irving and Hurst, in the heart of the great suburban sprawl between Dallas and Fort Worth.
His mother Louise was the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. She also led the Singing Fuller Family, the gospel group Mike joined when his older brother Doug left home. Mother and son sang with older sister Pat until she was replaced by younger sister Marsha. They sang mainly in church, but took to the road now and then whenever they were visiting kinfolk. Sometimes, according to many stories, they performed for money or food.