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Who Was Blaze Foley: Inside the Life of Enigmatic Texas Songwriter

Born Michael David Fuller, the focus of the new biopic ‘Blaze’ directed by Ethan Hawke remains a mysterious figure

blaze foley

The new biopic 'Blaze,' directed by Ethan Hawke, is based on the love story of Blaze Foley and Sybil Rosen.

Courtesy of Sybil Rosen

A quintessential Americana artist before such a thing existed, Blaze Foley’s songs were, at various turns, plaintive, hilarious and darkly intense. Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and John Prine were among those who recorded his songs, while Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt wrote odes to Foley. And future Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once reportedly referred to him as his “own Bob Dylan.” Yet, between two indisputable facts there is little about Foley that hasn’t been shrouded in mystery and duct-taped together in mythical fashion. These are the facts: Blaze Foley was born Michael David Fuller in December 1949. Thirty-nine years and two months later, he was shot dead.

The life and legend of Blaze Foley is now being resurrected with Blaze, a new biopic directed by actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke, who, true to Foley’s confounding legend, once believed the singer had died taking a bullet for a homeless man at the unemployment office. The film opens in Nashville this weekend with sold-out screenings that feature Q&As with Hawke, musician-actor Charlie Sexton (who portrays Townes Van Zandt) and lead actor Ben Dickey, who gives an astonishing and heartfelt performance as the witty yet painfully insecure Foley.

Hawke co-wrote Blaze with the singer-songwriter’s muse, Sybil Rosen (played onscreen by Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat), and based it on her memoir, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. The love affair that blossomed between Foley and Rosen would span “two years and 10 states,” she wrote in the book, first published in 2008 by the University of North Texas Press.

To the entirely uninitiated, Blaze Foley was the man responsible for “If I Could Only Fly,” a devastating piece of songwriting that Merle Haggard clearly recognized as such, cutting it as both a duet with Willie Nelson in 1987, and then later as the title track of his remarkable 2000 comeback album. To others, including Rosen, Foley was “Depty Dawg,” a nickname he acquired from the members of Buzzards Roost, a bluegrass band from north Georgia, based on his resemblance to the Fifties cartoon character who donned a flat, broad hat. He would also be christened the “Duct Tape Messiah,” for the copious amounts of the adhesive material he used to hold together everything from his hats to his shoes, even making an entire suit out of the stuff at one time. Lucinda Williams would allude to his duct-taped shoes and his disparate traits in “Drunken Angel,” from 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and Townes Van Zandt, a close friend from whom Foley seemed to crib some of his more self-destructive behavior, wrote and recorded “Blaze’s Blues” for him in the intervening few years between Foley’s death and his own in 1997.

Although he was born in Malvern, Arkansas, Michael David Fuller grew up in San Antonio and Georgia and spent his teenage years in Texas, often telling people he was from Marfa in the Lone Star State, perhaps because he longed to be considered a Texas troubadour. His parents were Louise, the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, and Edwin Fuller, a rambling alcoholic with movie-star looks who left home when Mike was still young. Afflicted with polio as a baby, he was hospitalized and in isolation at just seven months old.

A gifted singer like his older siblings, Doug and Pat, “Mike” performed with their mother in a gospel trio, the Singing Fuller Family, joining the act when his brother left home. Later, Pat would be replaced in the group by Mike’s younger sister, Marsha. While the trio would perform at various churches, with Louise playing ukulele, Edwin Fuller frequently sat outside in the family station wagon downing bottles of Ripple.

Overweight throughout his adolescence, Fuller began writing true-to-life songs, including his first known composition titled “Fat Boy.” (Years later, he would often pass a photo of his younger, heavier self through the crowd as he performed the tune). Briefly living with his brother in Arlington, Texas, after earning his GED, he took off to live with relatives in Memphis before landing in northern Georgia, working as roadie for Buzzards Roost, where Mike Fuller would next morph into Depty Dawg. In 1974, he began playing rhythm guitar in the house band at Banning Mill, an alternative arts complex 45 miles west of Atlanta. A converted yarn mill populated by local hippies, actors, musicians and others, it’s where in early 1975, he met and fell in love with Rosen, an actress in the mill’s theater troupe. Enthralled with his voice and his original songs, which she praised for their honesty and depth, Rosen soon took up with Depty, and for the next nine months the two of them were living – and loving – like hippies in a treehouse built on land owned by his friend Joe Bucher.

Backstage at the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, the pair met John Prine, but Foley was too shy about his own songwriting to mention it to the seasoned songwriter. He did, however, come away from the venue with a souvenir – an empty Heineken bottle Prine left onstage during the show’s intermission. In 2005, Prine’s cover of Foley’s “Clay Pigeons,” appeared on his Grammy-winning Fair and Square LP.

Foley and Rosen “jumped the broom” in an unofficial wedding ceremony in 1976 before hitchhiking to New Orleans on their way to Austin, where the bustling live music scene at the outset of the Outlaw movement meant more opportunity yet more competition. Rosen waited tables while Foley wrote songs, but his time in the Texas capital was short-lived and he soon returned to Georgia and Rosen stayed in Austin.

By that time, Fuller/Dawg was also toying with a new stage name, “Blue Foley,” inspired in part by country singer and TV star Red Foley, settling eventually on the more romantic-sounding “Blaze.” Foley and Rosen were still living apart when they hatched a plan to reunite and relocate to Chicago, which was, not coincidentally, Prine’s hometown. In the Windy – and bitterly cold – City, Rosen took note of Foley’s increasing tendency to self-sabotage his performances, numbing the sting of an inattentive or worse, hostile, crowd with alcohol. Foley soon told her he was returning to Austin, but in March 1977, was back in Chicago, sitting at the foot of her bed to play the song he’d just written: “If I Could Only Fly.” They would see each other again just once.

Foley eventually met musician and producer Gurf Morlix, who would produce albums for Lucinda Williams, Mary Gauthier and Ray Wylie Hubbard, among others. Together they relocated to Houston, with Foley opening several shows for Morlix throughout the region. As the Urban Cowboy-inspired craze took hold in Texas and beyond, Foley’s response was to affix duct tape to the tips of his boots in a gesture mocking the silver tips of the ersatz cowboys emulating the film’s star, John Travolta. Foley signed a deal with Zephyr Records, with the release of a 45 of “If I Could Only Fly,” which led to a gig in 1980 opening for Kinky Friedman at New York’s Lone Star Café.

Rosen, who was appearing in a play in the city, met up with him in the club where he gave her a copy of the single. A few days later, she went back to the Lone Star to watch him perform, but he was so intoxicated she left almost immediately — Friedman fired him that night. Townes Van Zandt was also in town, and his presence in Foley’s life coincided, friends would say, with his increasing binge drinking. Foley would return to Austin where —when he wasn’t making a spectacle of himself by overindulging in alcohol — he impressed audiences with deft finger-picking guitar skills and rough-hewn vocals.

“There’s kind of two Blazes,” Van Zandt told the Austin American-Statesman in 1989. “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 would also say of his friend, “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.”

While forging his own serpentine path to stardom, such as it was during his lifetime, Foley also came to champion and befriend fellow artists including prolific Texas songwriter Kimmie Rhodes, and Pat MacDonald and Barbara K — the couple who performed as Timbuk3 and earned a Top 20 pop hit in 1986 with “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” Although 1987 would bring the release of the Willie and Merle duet version of “If I Could Only Fly,” the release of the song as a single was hampered by a label shakeup. Still, with his first royalty check from the album release, Foley made an investment – in several rolls of colored duct tape. Although he sobered up for a short period, his rough and rowdy ways continued throughout Austin, getting him barred from nearly every local club, save for the Austin Outhouse, where, at the end of 1988, he would play a two-night gig that was captured on a four-track cassette recorder.

On the night of January 31, 1989, Foley had been drinking and picking fights at the Outhouse, before ending up at the home of his friend, Concho January, in the early hours of the next morning. When January’s son, Carey, also known as J.J., showed up, an argument ensued during which he shot Foley with a .22 rifle. Foley was rushed to the hospital, but the bullet had entered his already severely compromised liver and he died on the operating table. Carey January was acquitted of first-degree meditated murder in September 1989.

Foley was buried in a duct-tape-covered coffin in South Austin’s Live Oak Cemetery, where his tombstone bears his profile as well as the outline of a guitar with several of his song titles engraved inside. The stone also features these lyrics to his song “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries”: “Think I’m crazy, but that depends/ I don’t seem that crazy to me.”

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