The Ballad of Townes & Blaze

The twisted but not-so-tall tale of Van Zandt and Foley, Lonesome Dove meets Barfly

Blaze Foley (Photo by C.P. Vaughan)

The jigsaw of geography in filmmaking is such that one day during the making of Blaze we were in Baton Rouge, La., at a venue called the Texas Club, shooting a scene that takes place in the New York City of the Eighties.

Townes Van Zandt, played by Austin's Charlie Sexton, is hearing Blaze Foley, portrayed by Arkansas singer Ben Dickey, perform for the first time. The cavernous bar is dim and bluish, as if the entire place were underwater.

The Texan stands in the back listening. Cigarette smoke eddies around his face like ghostly seaweed as he's absorbed into "Our Little Town." Director Ethan Hawke whispers, "Cut."

I turn to him.

"This is a love story too," I say.

I know because I also fell in love with Blaze Foley the first time I heard him sing.

Great Guys to Drink With

Blaze and I fell in love before he and Townes met. At that juncture, Blaze was in his mid-20s and just beginning to write songs. He showed up in West Georgia from who-knows-where, a lanky, bashful, country boy. We fell into a tree house in the woods, gleefully poor and frequently mind-altered, and there he began to dream up the legend of Blaze Foley.

After a time, we moved on to Austin, where stage fright kept him from the limelight, and finally to Chicago, where I broke up with him or he broke up with me, something like that. His memory pursued me nonetheless, popping up as idealized characters in unfinished plays attempted during the decade leading up to his death in 1989. In 2002, Austin's Kevin Triplett, director of the documentary film Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, asked for an interview.

“Their friendship was kind of like a marriage. In the sense of partnership,” adds Ky Hote. “Of knowing that there’s someone out there who always has your back.”

Flood­gates of grief, regret, and longing opened, and in getting reacquainted with Blaze Foley, I made the acquaintance of Townes Van Zandt.

There's an iconic photo of Townes, relaxed and inscrutable, standing between Blaze and another Houston comrade, bass player Rex Bell. They're all wearing noticeable hats. Rex has on sunglasses, Townes gazes steadily into the camera, and Blaze is leaning in, a manly hand clamped on Townes' shoulder, the beaked brim of his cowboy hat dipping over one eye. Townes is said to have called that snapshot "a picture of my three best friends."

New Orleans resident Joe Bucher, a longtime Georgia pal of Blaze and our tree house landlord [revisit "Faded Love," Oct. 31, 2008], spent time with Blaze and Townes in Houston and Austin in the late Seventies, early Eighties. Joe suffered a brain aneurysm but his intellect and memory are astonishingly intact.

"Townes and Blaze were great guys to have a drink with," he tells me. "They made you feel comfortable and always had something funny or smart to say. It may have worked to their detriment, but even when people knew what their problems were, they were still great guys to have a drink with."

It's more than 20 years since Townes died, nearly 30 years for Blaze. To this day, some people maintain that Townes Van Zandt was the worst thing to happen to Blaze Foley. Some say the opposite. Every tragedy needs a villain, I suppose.

In an article in The Austin Chronicle by Lee Nichols three years after Townes' death ["A Walking Contradiction," Dec. 24, 1999], Lucinda Williams stated that she wrote "Drunken Angel" for Blaze, "although it could have been about Townes as well," she concludes and goes on to include any other "tortured artist [who was] somewhat self-destructive."

If their existences were painful and short, their lives were also a given – in the sense that their songs have moved, lifted, and inspired so many for so long. Death expanded their legacies, but by now myth has overtaken history. No one bothers to ask any more if some caper actually occurred.

Most famously, there's the tale of Townes' digging up Blaze's body to retrieve a pawn ticket for a guitar. Charlie Sexton's Townes tells the story within the first 10 minutes of Blaze. It walks the line between fact and fiction irresistibly.

Neither man was known to be loyal to the truth – the larger truths, yes – but not the details. Everything else was just stories, which by necessity includes whoever's telling the tale, and why. An old Yiddish riddle asks, "What is truer than the truth?" The answer is "The story."

My search for Blaze's memory produced a story I'd been trying to tell for almost 30 years. This time it took shape as the memoir of a twentysomething Jewish-American belle enamored of a gifted, endearing hillbilly. Buried tree house memories were unearthed by the need to reclaim the man I had known and make some sort of peace with his legend.

Sybil Rosen and Blaze Foley at their treehouse (Courtesy of Sybil Rosen / IFC)

Published by the University of North Tex­as Press in 2008, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley is the second in the series Lives of Musicians [peruse the "Book Review," Oct. 31, 2008]. No. 1 is A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt, a biography by Robert Earl Hardy. Blaze and Townes, together again.

Ironically, neither Hardy nor I give much space in our books to the relationship. Hardy makes brief mention of the possibility that Blaze may have been a bad influence on Townes. Again, the villain thing. Yet for whatever reason, we both pretty much sidestepped their story.

Was their friendship too small – or too big – to weave into a broader narrative? Too complex and thus its own story waiting to be told? Or was their exchange just that old and by now too-familiar cliche: a couple of charismatic white dudes sittin' around validating each other's demise?

Lonesome Dove meets Barfly, the ultimate country music buddy movie.

Blaze's Blues

I got a guitar all my own

Got a quarter for the telephone

I ain't headed down this highway all alone

One, two, three, and maybe four

Honey, they're knockin' at my door

You know I'm gonna miss you when I'm gone

– Townes Van Zandt, "Blaze's Blues," 1990

John Townes Van Zandt was born in Fort Worth in 1944, five years before Michael David Fuller – Blaze Foley – came into the world in Malvern, Ark., outside of Hot Springs. Townes outlives his running buddy by eight years, dying in 1997 at the age of 52.

They first collided in New York City in 1978 or thereabouts. Blaze was 28, Townes 33. Townes had already released six albums and played Carnegie Hall, while Blaze carried around a battered attaché case of mostly unheard lyrics and tried to get used to calling himself Blaze. In an interview on the Townes Van Zandt Documentary CD, produced by late great music historian and Austin deejay Larry Monroe, Townes describes their first encounter at the Bitter End where he was concluding the last night of a gig.

"I finished playin'," says Townes in a soft patter that manages to convey strong affection and mild dismay. "And up walked this strange-lookin' guy."

I try to picture Blaze in the year after we said goodbye. His hair might still be short since he'd cut off his ponytail to give to me. Lyrics to "If I Could Only Fly" would be in his attaché case. He'd be thin, awkward, with a soft belly left over from his teenage fat-boy days, and the rest all sharp elbows, knuckles, and knees held together loosely on a large frame.

Almost always carrying a borrowed guitar, he had a rocking gait from a bout of infant polio. Usually shy, he made the effort to approach other musicians, emboldened by the core conviction that musicians – everybody really, but especially artists – needed to take care of each other. Townes continues:

"He introduced himself. Said he was Blaze Foley."

Blaze was also a Texan, from Austin he allowed, a place Townes had been absent from for a while, living in Nashville and on the road. Blaze was on the road too.

"He had heard about me," adds Townes.

We'd heard about him the first time together. It was late June 1976 and we were wrapped around each other in the backseat of a blue VW Rabbit carrying us from Texas to Georgia to get hitched or at least jump a broom. Our driver Lindsey Horton, who'd known Blaze as teenage Mike Fuller, pulled out an 8-track cassette of Townes Van Zandt.

"Y'all ever heard of this guy?"

Lindsey was born and raised in Van Zandt County in East Texas, so it could have been a case of local-boy-makes-good. To my mind, the moment unfolded in cinematic perfection: the entirely innocent introduction of Townes and his music coming as a foreshadowing of the seductions that would keep the vows of an equally innocent broom jump from ever being fulfilled. As interviewed by Larry Monroe, Townes recounts the impact of meeting Blaze.

If their existences were painful and short, their lives were also a given – in the sense that their songs have moved, lifted, and inspired so many for so long.

"We became immediate, uh, friends," he declares. "Two Texans. Two West Texans," he emphasizes. "In New York. I'd been there kind of before. He never had."

What West Texans is he talking about? Fort Worth is west of Arkansas maybe, but if you had moved around as much as these two, you might feel like you hailed from nowhere and everywhere all in the same breath. Blaze liked to tell people he was from Marfa. He liked the ring of it, I think, and the thought of tumbleweeds scudding through a dirt-street town under the glare of a metallic sky. Marfa sounded like the sort of harsh dry place a Texas music legend ought to be from.

And Blaze knew the town firsthand. Mike Fuller had lived there for a time, a chunky, acne-prone, gospel-singing tweener. In Marfa, he heard Willie Nelson perform live.

There was just something about Texas. At one point, teenage Mike took to calling himself "Tex." That solitary, hardscrabble, big-sky, Lone Star mystique mirrored an immense sensibility he yearned to belong to.

By birthright and inclination, Townes already belonged. In many ways, he was Texas' most eloquent bard. Listening to Townes songs with new ears – Blaze's ears – I'm reminded of Blaze's conversation with Kathleen Hudson, founder and director of the Texas Heritage Music Foundation, for her compilation of interviews with Texas songwriters, Telling Stories, Writing Songs.

She and Blaze sat on the edge of the bed in Townes' bedroom watching the goings-on in a big fish tank. Kathleen asked Blaze what was so important about Townes' music.

"It's spiritual," he replied. "It's scary at times. 'Cause you just don't sit down and write songs like 'Nothin',' 'Waiting Around to Die,' or 'Sad Cinderella' without really knowing something. He's the best I ever heard. He's a poet. He amazes me."

Spiritual Revolutionaries

The voices in Townes' story-songs seep up out of the earth, raw spirits destined to rove a borderless landscape of farmland, moonlight, and railroad tracks. Townes might have been drawn to the very quality in Mike Fuller that the myth of Blaze Foley was seeking to erase – his bone-deep Southern-country Ozark roots.

"I sound like a hillbilly," Blaze said of himself, making his last live recording at the Austin Outhouse in December 1988, just weeks before he was killed. He was still embarrassed by his backwoods twang.

Encountering Blaze for the first time in New York, Townes surely would have noticed that his newfound pal was a greenhorn, road-worn and game, but indelibly naive. Blaze was staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel, a sedate and classy hangout for musicians performing in the city. As Townes tells the story, "Somebody – some well-meaning record guy – had given Blaze the power to sign his own tab. I mean carte blanche room tab."

Townes moved out of his hotel and in with Blaze.

"We bankrupted the record company," declares the former. "We just drove room service into the ground."

Their orders were "30 tequila sunrises, one hamburger cut in half," with a $60 or $70 tip for the elderly black waiter. This went on for three days and nights until the record producers got wind of it and arranged to have Blaze and company checked out of the hotel.

"It was cheaper to fly us to Nashville than to put up with Blaze," opines Townes, amused and vaguely triumphant. "Wild times."

He pauses.

"Every day with ol' Blaze was some kind of an adventure."

Translated to film in Blaze, the story expands. The Gramercy Park hotel room becomes an entire ballroom peopled with the derelicts, addicts, transvestites, and prostitutes Blaze and Townes invite to party with them. Their guests, Townes explains to an irate record producer, are the artists' guide into the human condition and should be worth the expense.

His argument underscores the pair's mutual intention, misguided or not, to bring to their songwriting a hard-won authenticity.

Six years later, Blaze recorded an album in Muscle Shoals, Ala., for which Townes penned the liner notes. He wrote that he met Blaze in New York City "six years ago." (He also says Blaze was born in Marfa.) Townes goes on to state that Blaze had come to the city to record a single of "If I Could Only Fly."

That session never happened, but assuming Townes is directionally correct and Blaze did come to New York to record the song, it means a lost recording opportunity for Blaze – a precedent to the debacle at Muscle Shoals, with memorable cameos by Townes in both. Eventually, a single of "If I Could Only Fly" was recorded, pressed, and released in Houston and Austin.

If his songs are any indication, Townes was by nature a stark realist. Blaze by contrast was a stark romantic. His allegiance to his friends was absolute, all or nothing – the only way he knew how to give.

Townes was a songwriter's version of a songwriter, an aristocrat of the spirit, and a magnet for women, already mythic if not famous. Friendship with Townes lent Blaze a contagious stature. In Townes' orbit, Blaze could absorb more of that Texas mythology. And by all accounts, Townes loved Blaze's music. That had to strengthen Blaze's growing belief in himself as a songwriter.

Speaking with writer William Hedgepeth in 1972, Townes calls himself a "spiritual revolutionary." In the liner notes for the Muscle Shoals album, he refers to Blaze as "one of the most spiritual cats I've ever met." That spirituality was expressed by their outspoken disregard for ambition and commercial success, though it sometimes feels that they protested too much.

Blaze took pride in the fact that he never held a day job. He preferred to be homeless or sleep in dumpsters so he could devote himself to writing and playing music. Success curtailed the purity of his artistry – not to mention his gypsy feet – while freedom was the holy grail of his and Townes' mutual resistance.

Townes' example of not showing up for gigs or showing up drunk no doubt acted like lighter fluid on Blaze's already combustible refusal to abide by the rules. Fear also fed his self-sabotaging behavior. I'd seen firsthand his reticence to perform. Stage fright made him fragile; fragility made him drink.

Like Townes, Blaze closed his eyes when he sang, as if they needed privacy to reveal their most vulnerable selves. He liked to offer Townes' explanation that "if we close our eyes, the audience won't have to."

In Austin, some still argue that Blaze's irresponsibility had greater consequences for him than for Townes. Apparently, Blaze got kicked out of the Kerrville Folk Festival for either saying "fuck" onstage, singing the lewdly hilarious "Springtime in Uganda," or crushing a porta-potty he and Townes backed over in Townes' truck. In any event, Townes was allowed to remain at the festival while Blaze had to sneak back in dressed as a woman.

Ejected again, Blaze sat at the gates in a sundress and makeup, wearing a sign that read "Too Weird for Kerrville."

River of Memories

Got no daddy but I got a ma

Think she lives in Arkansas

I might just go and see her some old day

Ain't like she'd really care

Ain't like she'd pay the fare

I might just blow on through there anyway

– "Blaze's Blues"

A tribute song is a mirror of its subject. In paying homage to his absent friend, Townes invokes Blaze's darkness musically and psychically as if his fingers allowed Blaze to take over and midwife the melody into being. I've always been struck by the verse about his mother. It breaks my heart for Blaze – and for her.

Louise and I met 14 years after her son Mike, as she still called him, had passed. In her 80s then, the late Louise Underwood Fuller Hacker was an ever-playful, radically innocent, deeply devout Christian lady, her love of gospel music inseparable from her love of the Lord. We shared a deep regret about Blaze, each in our own story. No one escapes a legend without regret.

Joe Bucher described a visit Blaze made to his mother sometime in the mid-Eighties. Blaze may have told the tale to Townes and that's what inspired these lines. It seems Blaze decided to drop in unannounced on Louise, who was then living with her second husband Howard on a farm in Missouri.

They hadn't seen each other in six or seven years. The last time they were together, Mike was thin and clean-shaven, singing beautiful new songs whose origins were unknown to Louise. When this stout, unrecognizable fellow comes to her kitchen door, ragtag in duct tape, bearded and gruff, she's frightened. Until he says, "It's Mike."

And as Blaze would tell Joe later, his mother's response was, "Will you be staying for supper?"

Louise never told me that story and I never asked her about it, but I always wondered if that moment – assuming it happened – sliced through her whenever she spoke out her regret. Her grief for her son was very real, as was her pride in the music he had made. I picture that encounter, their last together, facing one another through a barrier like visitors to maximum-security inmates, each in a prison of their own ­making.

Louise had been unlucky in her choice of a first husband. Mike's father Edwin was a rogue, a gambler, and an addict, fierce-tempered and often mean. When he died in 1981, his son didn't go to his funeral. Louise's inability to deflect her husband's madness shaped her children's tumultuous lives.

By contrast, her second husband was a musician who sang with her in church. Howard Hacker loved Louise, though he proved critical of her more wayward kids. And once again, she couldn't override her husband's intractable mindset. Mike wasn't welcome in her home.

The mother I came to know questioned her actions with real remorse.

"I don't know what I was thinking," Louise allowed, a hand fluttering nervously at her throat.

She suffered over her lack of affection toward a son now missed beyond almost every other sorrow of her long, loss-filled life. Whereas on the Muscle Shoals album Townes writes, "I've never met his family, but they must be fine people," in the song he paints Blaze's mom as an ogre. She's uncaring and wouldn't think of coughing up the cash for her grown son's ticket home.

Even so, Townes plants a seed of longing in Blaze: "I might just blow on through there anyway." Some read that as defiance.

Could it be Townes understood the nature of Blaze's relationship to memory that was so different from his own? In 1972, Townes explained to William Hedgepeth that he'd lost all recollection of his childhood as a result of the electroshock therapy given him as a young man. Without those imprints that define and root us for better or worse, Townes possessed an unmoored sense of identity. At age 28, he minced no words with Hedgepeth:

"I feel aloneness all the time. Loneliness I hardly ever feel during the day. At night sometimes after a gig, I feel it a bunch. But loneliness is a state of feeling, whereas aloneness is a state of being, like the difference between being broke and being poor."

Blaze, on the other hand, was overrun with memory, plagued with minute, searing details, doomed to remember ancient grief and sacrificed joys. Rex Bell, that other best friend of Townes', kept Blaze's wallet until Hurricane Ike washed it away in 2008. Folded up in the wallet, Rex found handwritten lyrics to old hymn "River of Memories," which leads to a "ramshackle cabin" and "a gray-haired mother" waiting for him there.

Townes and Blaze on a 1984 episode of Austin Pickers
The voices in Townes’ story-songs seep up out of the earth, raw spirits destined to rove a borderless landscape of farmland, moonlight, and railroad tracks.

Regret is memory's unwanted stepchild, the offspring of moments we wish we could forget or better yet undo. Full of longing, Blaze remembered not only his mother's love but also the reasons for its disappearance. He was scalded by a childhood that caused him anguish all his life.

In Giovanni's Room, novelist James Baldwin wrote that "there are madmen who remember and madmen who forget," and heroes are the ones who do both. As Blaze remembered and Townes forgot, the two madmen exchanged notes on suffering. It carved out in them far-flung compassion. Townes wrote about his friend: "Blaze is a lover of things alive, and pleads their cause with every word."

Both gave away money to those less fortunate. They defended the weak against bullies. This quality in Blaze, defiled by alcohol and speed, cost him his life.

Larry Monroe wrote a eulogy for his martyred pal in The Austin Chronicle after Blaze was shot and killed in 1989. In it, he describes the moment he became aware of Blaze's sensitive side. It occurred the same week Townes' "Pancho and Lefty," sung by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, hit No. 1 on the country charts. That Tuesday, Townes checked himself into the State Hospital; by Saturday he had checked out to play his end-of-the-month rent gig at Emmajoe's in Austin.

Larry sets the stage:

"Sober and determined but strained and weak, Townes struggled through his set that night. During 'If I Needed You,' he forgot the lyrics and faltered. Blaze glided gracefully to his side and sang the words for him, then harmonized with him as Townes got back on track. After the song, Blaze quietly sat back down near the stage. Townes grew stronger from that point and it almost seemed that a direct energy transfer from Blaze had occurred."

Muscle Shoals

Headed down to Alabama

Cause some trouble if I can

Old buddy, would you like to come along

It's a place I've never been

Boy, you know I could use a friend

They say they'll give us 20 bucks a song

– "Blaze's Blues"

March 1983: Blaze heads to Muscle Shoals to finally record his first album, an opportunity that had come through Georgia connections. A previous attempt to record, under the auspices of hapless record producers from Houston, had resulted in a set of master tapes that were ultimately stolen from Blaze's station wagon and probably ended up in a dumpster somewhere. Years after Blaze's death, a version of those recordings was released as Cold, Cold World: Blaze Foley & the Beaver Valley Boys, produced by Gurf Morlix.

Talking to Larry Monroe about the Muscle Shoals experience, Townes describes going to Alabama with Blaze days after his second son, Will, was born. He sounds a bit peeved. He says the only reason he went was because Blaze wouldn't stop pestering him. Villain!

The record company bought Townes a plane ticket. Blaze met him at the Atlanta airport and whisked him out to Waller, the old fishing camp on the Chattahoochee River where Blaze and I had partied in our tree house days. He'd returned there almost every summer beginning in 1977. He likely wanted to introduce Townes to the place and to longtime Georgia friends like Waller's host and patriarch, the late Glyn Thomas.

When I spoke to Glyn about that visit, he was already in his 70s, a congenial, perennial hippie. Certain details of Townes' visit had stayed with him over the years.

"The whole time, I never saw Townes eat a thing," he recalled wonderingly. "Blaze may have had a cheeseburger."

They each drank about a half a gallon of vodka a day, claiming to get their nourishment from the cranberry juice mixed with it. Blaze would say, "My liver's shot but my kidneys work great." Glyn went on:

"At one point, Townes was spied stalking Blaze with a butcher knife from the kitchen. A friend grabbed Townes' wrist. He was thin as a matchstick and [my friend] easily took the knife away. A few minutes later, Townes was at it again. The knife was removed from his hand a second time."

Glyn smiled brightly, revealing teeth as tilted as a crowded graveyard.

"We hid all the kitchen knives and that was the end of it!"

A knife shows up in another Townes story Glyn recalled. This was an incident Blaze told him about a few years after Townes' visit to Waller. Blaze had overstayed his welcome at Townes' house in Austin, but by his own admission, he was impossible to evict. One day, he woke to a loud thud on the headboard of the bed where he lay sprawled. Directly above his head, a machete twanged from the impact.

"Go!" Townes yelled from the doorway, his throwing arm still outstretched.

"Blaze got the message," laughed Glyn. "He hightailed it out of there and hit the road for Georgia."

There are certain stories men find funnier than women. This is one of them. Fortunately, Glyn had another Townes story we both found hilarious. He heard it from Townes himself during his stay at Waller.

It concerned an earlier visit Townes had made to nearby Carrollton in the late Sixties. He'd played a Saturday night concert at the University of West Georgia, then West Georgia College. The college was unable to cut him and his band a check for their performance until the following Monday morning.

Unperturbed, they parked their van in front of the college president's home and proceeded to take LSD. To pass the time, they painted their fingernails different colors. Eventually, the president called the police and the musicians were jailed for trespassing. As their fingerprints were being taken, an officer remarked on their variously hued nails. Townes explained they were poor musicians who couldn't read music, so they color-coded their fingers to help navigate the frets of their guitars.

The weekend of storytelling and knife stalking at Waller ended when Townes and Blaze were flown by private plane to Alabama. The record company put them up in a motel, gave them $300, and told them they'd be back for them the next day. It took no time to figure out how to get across the Tennessee River to a wet county where they could buy vodka, and as Townes described to Larry Monroe, they settled in serenely to watch a football game.

The next day came and no record company. Repeat.

"It started dawning on me," remarked Townes. "Like, 'Blaze, I think I know what kind of guys you're mixed up with. They're not thinking about you sitting in this hotel room. It may be a week before they get back.'

"So Blaze kind of kicked into gear. I maybe shouldn't even have said that."

Meaning that after four days, a vodka-drenched Blaze kept peeking out from behind the curtains, certain he'd seen Iranians with Uzi submachine guns lurking around the pool. He refused to leave the room, which was already trashed – Blaze's half anyway, according to Townes.

"I was trying to keep him under control," recounts the latter. "And I was, like, no angel this whole time," he admits, chuckling. "It was terrible."

Townes decided he couldn't take any more. He sat down on the bed to call Guy Clark in Nashville for a bus ticket home. Blaze jumped across the bed and ripped the phone out of the wall. The Florence, Ala., police arrived soon thereafter.

"I was put in the unenviable position of being the peacemaker," recalled Townes. "All I managed to do was keep Blaze from being beaten to death or maybe even shot. Blaze was in a rage, which he really could do. I've seen Blaze at his most gentle and his most outrageous. The Alabama police were not amused at being called Nazi pigs by this screaming giant hippie."

Both men were handcuffed and taken to jail. In a remarkably short time, someone from the record company came to bail them out. Townes recalled, "The owners were mad, I mean blazingly angry, at me for throwing a wrench in their record operation."

Townes said all they had to do was give him $10 for a bus ticket, a pint of vodka and a Coke, and he'd be out of their hair. Blaze felt terrible. He explained to the producers how Townes had left his day-old baby to come to Muscle Shoals, how he had saved Blaze from the wrath of the Florence police.

The producers apologized and even encouraged Townes to stick around, an invitation he didn't take them up on. He left on the next bus to Nashville and Blaze's recording sessions began.

Rex Bell (l), Townes Van Zandt, and Blaze Foley, in a snapshot Townes called "a picture of my three best friends."

If I Could Only Fly

Blaze's mood remained grim. His antics had cost him artistic control. He'd wanted to call the album Yard Cars, but now it would be titled simply Blaze Foley. And the same Georgia friends swear he had to be threatened with a baseball bat to sing in the studio.

When he did, his voice came off quavery and layered with artifice. The sound itself, as many have noted, was too brassy, too overlaid for the heartfelt simplicity that was Blaze's trademark. Fortunately, Lost Art Records recently remastered the recording [see "The Lost Muscle Shoals Recordings," May 5, 2017]. It's beautifully balanced, and Blaze's voice shines through.

“I sound like a hillbilly,” Blaze said of himself, making his last live recording at the Austin Outhouse in December 1988, just weeks before he was killed.

The rest was history, more or less. The original album Blaze Foley was recorded, pressed, and never released in the Eighties. Instead, the executive producer was indicted on drug charges and, according to Blaze, the albums ended up in the hands of the FBI, through no fault of Townes I might add.

"I hope they listen to it," Townes concluded to Larry Monroe.

The records were stored in a warehouse in West Georgia. From time to time, Blaze would get his hands on a stack of them to sell for $1 out of the back of a friend's truck or give away if you were broke. He used them to barter cab rides and beers. At closing time, a bar would be littered with the albums, left by fans too drunk to remember to take them home, a situation neither sex finds funny.

1987 was a better year for Townes and Blaze. Townes released the album At My Window and Blaze saw "If I Could Only Fly" sung by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard on their album Seashores of Old Mexico. Royalties gave Blaze a little money, which wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Townes was worried about his friend. He bought him the guitar Blaze eventually pawned (hence the grave-digging story). Townes encouraged Blaze to make another studio album, which he took to heart.

Aided by Lost John Casner, Blaze made a live recording with a borrowed guitar at the Austin Outhouse. This served as a demo tape for the European tour he and Townes were planning. Townes told his handlers not to worry – he could handle Blaze.

Even so, no one could keep Blaze from showing up for a fate of his own making. At the beginning of February, while Townes was away in Nashville, Blaze was shot in a friend's living room in South Austin. He died in surgery at Brackenridge Hospital.

Austin singer-songwriter Ky Hote, who frequents the Kerrville Folk Festival and can boast that he saw Blaze Foley face to face in a dress, observed Blaze and Townes in tandem throughout much of the Eighties. He's surprised Townes survived as long as he did after Blaze was killed.

"Their friendship was kind of like a marriage. In the sense of partnership," adds Ky. "Of knowing that there's someone out there who always has your back."

Townes immortalized Blaze in a blues song. Glyn Thomas remembered seeing Townes perform "Blaze's Blues" at the Cactus Cafe in Austin some time in the early Nineties.

"Townes was talking about Blaze's death," Glyn recalled. "And he began to cry. 'If I'd only been in town,' he lamented, 'I could have saved him.'"

They couldn't save themselves, but Townes continued to transform his grief into ravishing art. Blaze's empathy would find its way into his woeful tune "Marie," a finely etched portrait of homelessness and despair.

"I wish Blaze could have heard that song," Townes told Larry Monroe. "Because he was really interested in, you know, the dispossessed in the world, in America and in the world. I thought about Blaze a lot when I was writing that song. I wasn't writing it about him or anything, but part of the reason I wrote it, you know, was because he had so much to do with turning me on to that problem. I'm convinced he had a lot to do somehow with that song."

Death doesn't end relationships, not even after both participants are long gone. We're still listening to their songs, telling their stories, remaking their histories into books and films. One of the most memorable moments of our New York City shoot at the Texas Club in Baton Rouge took place after we had wrapped for the day.

As a way of saying thank you to the extras in the bar scenes, Charlie and Ben performed "Blaze's Blues." Sung by the two actor/musicians playing Townes and Blaze, the song had an eerie resonance, as if ghosts had gathered onstage and time had again left the building.

Watching Charlie and Ben sing, I couldn't help think that this is where Blaze Foley would most like to be these days: onstage with his friend Townes Van Zandt, their eyes closed, singing the songs they gave their lives to create.

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