"From Austin, Texas comes the true story of a man destined for obscurity"
— Blaze Foley: The Duct Tape Messiah
That's not the epitaph on Blaze Foley's grave marker in Austin, but it certainly could be. With newly released albums of lost or restored material, homages by the likes of Lucinda Williams, and a sympathetic documentary, Foley is in fact probably better known today than when he was shot and killed more than 20 years ago.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 5, at Heights Live!, Heights Presbyterian Church, 240 W. 18th St., 713-861-1907 or www.heightspres.org.
Little wonder one recent Foley release is titled Wanted More Dead Than Alive.
Foley's footprints are all over Houston, especially Montrose. He lived and worked there from 1978 to 1981 until he returned to Austin when his musical partner Gurf Morlix split for Los Angeles.
Foley was a mercurial, iconoclastic and undeniably gifted singer-songwriter — his mournful tune "If I Could Only Fly" was a hit for Merle Haggard in 2000 — and is now the subject of the documentary Blaze Foley: The Duct Tape Messiah, screening Saturday night at Heights Live. Morlix will play a set from his just-released tribute album, Blaze Foley's 113th Wet Dream, after the screening.
Morlix, whose producing credits include Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard, has wanted to do the album ever since Foley was killed, and his tribute is easily the best presentation yet of Foley's quirky, often heart-ripping songs. None of those songs are quirkier than the ultra-smart title track, a Bob Dylan parody wherein a stripper finds Foley irresistible and has her way with him multiple times.
She fed me wine in a coffee cup
I could not keep my britches up
She said that's alright, just leave 'em down
I have not had a man around
In quite a while
"There are only 65 songs in Blaze's whole catalog," says Morlix from his home in Austin. "I love 'em all, but these are the ones that really stand out for me.
"Every time I do a record, I always cut a few extra songs, so I did 15 for this record thinking we'd trim it ten or 12. But I just couldn't leave any of these off, so we put everything we cut on this one."
Morlix recalls his time in Houston with Foley like some golden era.
"Montrose was just so weird," says Morlix. "I remember driving down Westheimer with Blaze one day and we looked over and there's this guy walking down the sidewalk with a goat on a leash. You just never knew what you might run into from day to day, but there was always something out of the ordinary."
"There were so many places then — Corky's, Hoolihan's, Anderson Fair, maybe a dozen venues where you could play original music and make a decent living," Morlix recalls. "I left Austin because Houston was just more lucrative. We might make $100 dollars between us per gig, and our rent was only $50 a month, so two or three gigs and we had the month made.
"Lots of nights we'd open for someone at one place, then hustle over to another venue where we were the headliners. It wasn't unusual to play 25 gigs a month. It was just a great scene for songwriters and musicians."
"And it was such a strong scene, with guys like John Vandiver, Michael Marcoulier, Shake Russell and Dana Cooper, Townes [Van Zandt] and Rex [Bell]. Houston was booming, people had money and they'd spend it. Of course, we didn't realize at the time how great that scene was."
But as always with Foley, things would fall apart.
"Blaze falling under Townes's spell was probably not the best thing that ever happened," Morlix notes with some degree of understatement. "He really wasn't a binge drinker until he started running with Townes, but those guys would drink for days on end.
"Townes introduced Blaze to vodka, and that didn't help matters either. But Townes just had that effect on a lot of people. They'd meet him and then they'd want to be like him."
When Foley's drinking and lifestyle began to affect Morlix's livelihood, he had to make some drastic changes.
"By 1981, Blaze started missing gigs," he reflects. "He'd go to Austin and hang with Townes or someone, then he'd call and say he couldn't do the gig that night. So I finally had to make some kind of move."
Morlix left Houston for Los Angeles, where he soon fell in with fellow traveler and Houston scene veteran Lucinda Williams. He produced and/or played guitar and a multitude of other instruments on 1988's Lucinda Williams, 1992's Sweet Old World and 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
He recalls one visit by Foley like some kind of Felliniesque nightmare.
"Blaze talked someone into buying him a ticket to L.A., so he showed up and started camping out with me," Morlix says. "But he was binge drinking, and I just finally had to tell him he had to go. It was killing me to see what he was doing to himself, just wasting all this talent and creativity."
"I didn't hear from Blaze for a good while," says Morlix, "and then one day he calls me out of the blue and says he's getting me a plane ticket to Muscle Shoals. He'd found some guys who put up the money, so we went down to Alabama and made a record.
"Later on, I went to Austin and we hung out. He said he wasn't drinking, but I had my doubts, so I took him over to the Austin Outhouse. I had a beer and he ordered a Coke, and I thought, 'I've got my old friend back.' That really was about as good as I ever saw him."
About Foley being better known now than when he was alive, Morlix notes that Foley's sister, who resides in Athens, Texas, has done yeoman's work with Foley's estate.
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"She's had to learn the music business from the ground up," Morlix notes. "But she really puts a lot of effort into getting Blaze's songs out there. And not long ago she opened a barbecue place in Athens called Yelof's — that's Foley spelled backwards, which Blaze would've appreciated.
"She's turned that place into a little shrine to Blaze. They asked me to come up and play a set when it opened and it was just a very pleasant surprise to see what she's done."
Morlix has taken his own lessons away from his time with Foley.
"I've had my fun, but I've managed to find some balance, which was something that was so hard for Blaze," he says. "Nowadays I wake up every day feeling good, and I like that."