Page Two: Counting to 10

Lynd Ward, Blaze Foley, and the impossibility of a simple list

Page Two
This is the first Chronicle of 2011, the issue that traditionally offers our look back at the past year, mostly by offering lists of Top 10s. Even during those times when I regularly wrote film and music reviews, I tried to avoid making such lists. There were a number of times when I contributed to them, but my ways of thinking about such things are so leavened with qualifiers and not entirely thought-through positions that I find it hopeless. Invariably, I end up cheating, shoving in extra choices under any disguise so that my list is actually 12 or 15 or 17, or else it is only six or eight.

Two years ago, I offered a quite random list of interesting items. I wrote: "I don't do Top 10 lists. I don't have a favorite film; I don't even have a handful of favorite films. Instead, I have dozens. Trying to do these lists – whether for movies, music, or whatever – always makes me more crazed than is at all reasonable. Clearly, such lists are very arbitrary, so I am pained over not only what I include but also over what I've left out, and even more over what has been forgotten.

"Here is a list of many different things that I enjoyed this year, force-fitted into 10 slots. This is by no means complete (whatever that may mean in this context) but is random and arbitrary. There was so much great music that I either heard for the first time or revisited in the past year that new, old, and re-released CDs are not included on this list. In that direction lay only madness."

The list included: 1) Lynd Ward; 2) cartoonists Winsor McCay and George Herriman; 3) comic book innovations and innovators Will Eisner's The Spirit and Jack Cole's Plastic Man; 4) detective novelist Craig Rice; 5 & 6) silent screen comedic stars Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle; 7) screenwriter Robert Thom; 8) the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by Sybil Rosen; 9 & 10) my hopeful plan to write a regular series of DVD reviews of such films as Monte Hellman's Cockfighter, with its classic Warren Oates performance; Karen Arthur's Mafu Cage; Payday, directed by Daryl Duke, featuring a brilliant turn by Rip Torn; and Jonathan Demme's Who Am I This Time?

My complete dishonesty when it comes to such lists is immediately apparent above, in that there are 14 individual listings. And why are McCay and Herriman No. 2 and Eisner and Cole No. 3 while Normand and Arbuckle each get their own numerals?

In that context, however, I offer not another list of arbitrarily chosen acts but a reaffirmation of those original choices, coupled with updates on two of my prominent choices. In both cases, this is not just reconsidered nostalgia but is related much more to current events.

1) Lynd Ward: A brilliant woodcut artist, he illustrated approximately 200 books and between 1929 and 1937 published six of what can only be described as "graphic novels," even though that term was half a century away from general usage. The novels – Gods' Man, Madman's Drum, Wild Pilgrimage, Prelude to a Million Years, Song Without Words, and Vertigo – told their stories entirely in stunning woodcuts. Over the decades the books have been reprinted, with Dover Publications reissuing most of them, beginning with Gods' Man in 2004. None of these later editions captured the elegance and artistry of the original editions. In the original printings, each wood block got not just its own page but a blank facing page as well. The Dover editions, probably for economic reasons, printed a woodcut on each page so that they faced each other. Given that the dynamics of these works, though fueled by narrative, evidences a clear, burning aesthetic, some of the power was lost.

The Library of America has just published a beautiful, slipcased two-volume set that includes all six woodcut novels. It was edited and annotated by Art Spiegelman, who one can't help but believe was involved in the production as well, because it is so lovingly rendered.

It is no surprise that the book includes only two endorsing quotes of praise for Ward, because after those anything else would be redundant. "High art-deco romanticism. Me, I love it" is from R. Crumb. No less an artistic innovator than Will Eisner weighs in with "Perhaps the most provocative graphic storyteller of the twentieth century."

Still, it is appropriate to quote from Spiegelman's introduction: "It seems natural now to think of Lynd Ward as one of America's most distinguished and accomplished graphic novelists. He is, in fact, one of only a small handful of artists anywhere who ever made a 'graphic novel' until the day before yesterday. The ungainly neologism seems to have stuck since Will Eisner, creator of the voraciously inventive Spirit comic book of the 1940s, first used it on the cover of a 1978 collection of his seriously intended comics stories for adults, A Contract With God. It was a way to distance himself from the popular prejudices against the medium, and he often cited Ward's 1930s woodcut novels as an inspiration for his work and for the euphemism. But Ward's roots were not in comics, though his work is part of the same large family tree, belonging somewhere among the less worm-ridden branches of printmaking and illustration."

All the above verbiage aside, these books are unique, stunning, and highly recommended.

2) Blaze Foley has long been one of the greatest songwriters to come out of Austin, and easily among the most overlooked and underappreciated. Foley's songs are so carefully crafted that they are often deceptive to the listener, seeming much simpler than they really are. But Foley was also a larger-than-life character, one who had been not only thrown out of almost every music establishment in Austin (the sole exception being the Austin Outhouse, I believe), but banned from returning.

Foley's songs have been recorded by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine. Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams both wrote songs about him: "Blaze's Blues" and "Drunken Angel," respectively. Recently, Joe Nichols recorded "If I Could Only Fly" as a duet with Lee Ann Womack.

Given the quality of Foley's songwriting and a current devoted effort to bring him the attention he has long deserved, we are all hoping that Foley will now be getting the same kind of (even if belated) notice and respect as his longtime running buddy Townes Van Zandt. Although his work was already well-known when Van Zandt died in January 1997, he was still widely regarded as a cult artist. Thus, over the last decade or so, it has been especially gratifying to witness the rising stature of that late, great songwriter/performer. Sadly, it was almost a decade earlier, on Feb. 1, 1989, that Foley was killed.

Van Zandt was also notoriously difficult, often overwhelmed by his addictions. Steve Earle tells the story of how Van Zandt once cautioned him that he was letting his bad habits ruin him. Earle commented that to get cautioned by Van Zandt made it especially meaningful and telling. Van Zandt was not only often at his most extreme with Foley; there were many who regarded Foley as a bad influence on Townes.

Stories of wild living and crazy deeds aside, what should and does define songwriters is not the life they led but the work they produced. Over the years, because of a disaster here and a mishap there, too much of Foley's work has been unavailable. The good news is that in many ways, that is now changing.

There's always been ongoing interest in Foley and his songs, but that interest accelerated a couple of years back because of Sybil Rosen's loving memoir about him, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. The book manages to capture a time of living and a way of thinking as much as it tells Foley's story. Some of Foley's long-unreleased recordings are finally being released, and others are finally getting reissued.

This should all hit some kind of peak this year. Gurf Morlix just released a new CD, Blaze Foley's 113th Wet Dream, on which all 15 tracks are covers of Foley's songs. In the next couple of months, the excellent and absorbing documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah will debut and then play the festival and theatre circuit. This won't just be a film release, however, but a music and movie tour. As filmmaker Kevin Triplett writes in an e-mail: "[W]e're booking songwriter music venues across the country and art film theaters. At the music venues, we'll show the 'club version' (56min) of the film followed by a full set of Gurf performing all Blaze Foley songs from his new CD. ... At the art film theaters, Gurf will open the screening with 3-4 songs followed by the full-length version (79min) of the movie. We're doing Texas/Oklahoma in Feb/Mar, Southeast in April, followed by California, Northeast, Canada, Pacific Northwest and then Europe in the fall (UK/Netherlands/Germany)."

Over the course of this coming year, there will be lots of news and talk about Blaze Foley. He was a larger-than-life character, but what makes him of ongoing interest is not his exploits but his wonderful music. Foley's songs have to be at the heart of the current and coming activity. Just check out Morlix's new CD, see the documentary, and listen to whatever recordings of Foley's you can find for the sheer pleasure of his work. After you do, though, you'll also immediately understand why so many regard this talent as so important and, if anything, are even more actively championing his work now – more than 20 years after his death.

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Top 10s 2010, Lynd Ward, Blaze Foley, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley, Sybil Rosen

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