— Blaze Foley
There was a time when I bought heavily into the whole drunken wildman outlaw poet mystique. Live fast, die young, be a legend. Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Shane McGowan, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt — hell, throw in Robert E. Howard, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, too — practically every one of my musical and literary heroes was also hell bent on self-destruction. Some of ’em pulled out of the dive; some of ’em augered in. All of them paid a steep price.
A month and a half before Ceili was born, I ditched the drunken wildman outlaw poet thing before too much harm was done. Kept the music and the poetry. That was almost two decades ago, and nowadays I find tales of such folk hard to watch. Nevertheless, I expect I’ll be sitting down for Blaze.
Blaze Foley is a cult figure among the Americana cognoscenti. Part of that is earned. He wrote some really good songs, most notably “If I Could Only Fly,” which Merle Haggard delivered with breathtaking pained beauty. And he out-Prined John Prine with “Clay Pigeons.”
But there’s a toxic aspect to the cult. As Lucinda Williams wrote in her brilliant (but also mythologizing) tribute “Drunken Angel,”
Followers would cling to you
Hang around just to meet you
Some threw roses at your feet
And watched you pass out on the street
A lot of people classed Blaze with his running buddy and fellow drunken poet Townes Van Zandt. Steve Earle called bullshit.
“Blaze Foley wrote some good songs, but I don’t get the mystique at all. I know he and Townes (Van Zandt) were close, but they weren’t the same. There’s just no comparison.”
Nothing cements a legend like dying young, and preferably in mysterious or violent circumstances. It’s bullshit, of course. Jim Morrison OD’d on heroin in a bathroom stall at the Rock n Roll Circle in Paris, age 27 (I know that’s not the official story, but it’s the one I think is true)*. Hank Williams wheezed out his last breath in the back seat of a Cadillac, a physical and psychological wreck at 29. Jimi Hendrix and John Bonham choked on their own puke.
Blaze went out Texas style — on the wrong end of a gun. It wasn’t any shootout. As the Houston Chronicle recounts it:
He was shot and killed following a series of confrontations with the son of Concho January, an older man he’d befriended in Austin. Having spent years drifting, Foley had a soft spot for those without much. He thought Carey January was stealing his father’s pension checks. They’d tangled before Feb. 1, 1989, but at 5:30 a.m. that day the younger January pulled a rifle and shot Foley in the chest. Concho January, who has since died, liked to drink and proved an unreliable witness even though he tried to testify against his son. Carey January’s self-defense worked, and he was acquitted that September.
So why the hell am I interested anyway? Hard to explain. Though I have come to reject the “romance” of self-destruction, I still love those men. They’re my people. They created the music that introduced me to myself. And I want to understand, I guess. Understand them. Understand myself. And, if I’m honest, which I try always to be, I guess that drunken poet outlaw mystique still has its pull…
Hell yes it does.
* Jim Morrison was allegedly hanging out with a Scot/Apache Vietnam War deserter at Rock N Roll Circus in Paris in the days immediately preceding his death. Story comes from war photographer and part-time Circus barman Patrick Chauvel. Could be legend, but I tend to believe the Frenchmen when it comes to the Morrison caper:
“He’d come in and sit on a couch, separate to the other clientele. He didn’t dance or make a big noise. I remember him coming in once three nights in a row. He came often, and there were times when I didn’t see him, but it was a big club on two floors, full of French stars – he wasn’t the only big star in the club. He was interested in my friend Sky, a half-breed American Apache. They had things in common: [they both spoke English], Sky’s dad was Scottish, the Vietnam War — Sky was a deserter — and the Indians. Sky said Jim was writing a poem about him, about the fact Sky’s father died in a car crash leaving the family to go back to the reservation in Tucson, Arizona. Jim wanted to replace Sky in Vietnam so he could get an honorable discharge. He was fascinated by the Indian’s story.”
Chauvel describes the scene in Paris, 1971.
“A lot of drugs, yes, a very free time for sex, a lot of jealousy and tension. The night club scene was heavy – gangsters and very bad cops. There were a lot of fistfights inside, which wound up on the stairs and in the street. There was a gunfight outside the club. I used to carry a bayonet for protection. Crazy but necessary. There was a triangle of these places – the Circus/Alcazar, La Bulle and Le Sherwood – big places in the same area. All heavy.”
As for the heroin overdose, read all sordid details here.
And from Morrison’s final notebook — some harrowing honesty:
Last words, Last words. Out.
Regret for wasted nights & wasted years – I pissed it all away – American Music. July 3, 1971. Paris.