Monday, June 1, 2009

Blaze Foley from a Georgia perspective

My friend Scott Freeman, who wrote the definitive Allman Brothers biography, sent a note recently, having read my No Depression story about Blaze Foley, one of the greatest unsung singer-songwriters to have ever rambled around Austin. Scott sent me a note explaining he knew Blaze from a completely different perspective when he was living in Georgia and known as Dept'y Dawg. That version of Blaze is well told by his former girlfriend Sybil Rosen in her heartfelt book published by University of North Texas Press this year. I asked Scott to flesh out his memories, and here's what he wrote:

I have the rather dubious distinction of having been Blaze Foley's bartender.

In Carrollton, Ga., there’s a restaurant/bar called the Maple Street Mansion. It’s inside an old Victorian mansion that was rumored to be haunted by a ghost. There was a stylish restaurant in the front but back in the bar, back in the day, that was where the local hipsters hung out.

The guy who became my best friend in college took me there not long after I’d moved to Carrollton, with the promise that he was going to play me the best cry-in-your-beer song ever written.

I probably told him that was impossible. I’d grown up on Hank and George Jones and Jim Reeves and those were some pretty serious cry-in-your-beer singers. But after we’d drank a couple, he dramatically and confidently announced that it was time. He walked over to the jukebox, plopped in a quarter, punched 117-A and sat back down. And that was how I first became acquainted with a song that I have held dear for my entire adult life: Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly.”

As he played the song for a third time, my friend told me the back story: The song was written for maybe the most gorgeous of all the Mansion waitresses (working at the Mansion was high social status in the hipster scene). That was why it was put on the Mansion’s jukebox, and why it had remained there for years. Of course, all that turned out not to be so true, but it still made for a great story. And having that song on the jukebox was one of the things that defined why the Mansion was cool.

The Mansion became my hang-out, and I don’t think there was a time I went there without at least once playing that song and the B-side, the hilarious “Let Me Ride (In Your Big Cadillac)". I wasn’t the only one; some nights, “If I Could Only Fly” would play four or five times.

Around the Mansion, Blaze Foley was this mysterious character that you weren’t even sure really existed. Except for the record on the jukebox, he seemed like another ghost that haunted the place. Everyone seemed to have heard of him, a few claimed to have talked to him but it seemed like hardly anyone had ever actually seen him.

The basic information was that he’d grown up near Carrollton and he’d used the moniker of Deputy Dawg before he morphed into Blaze Foley. A few years back, he’d left town and moved out in Texas somewhere to find his fortunes. His single wasn’t ever really released, but the reasons were vague. And at some point word came that he was recording an album in Muscle Shoals.

At the time, I was working my first newspaper job and eventually burned out and quit. That’s when I found myself working as a bartender at the Mansion. By then, I’d met one of Blaze’s friends, Jim Bob Shaw. And Jim Bob walked in one night with a big smile and bearing the most improbable news, “Blaze is coming to town.”

None of us really knew that Blaze had become a fairly big deal in Austin, or that he was hanging out with Townes. Hell, Townes was barely known himself at that point. We just knew Blaze was a local guy with a great 45 on the jukebox who aspired to play country music.

I worked mostly afternoons at the Mansion and Blaze was crashing at Jim Bob’s apartment, conveniently located next door. So we got to know each other fairly well. I was known for giving starving musicians free food and free beer, and I fed Blaze more than once. The Duct-taped shoes gave him away.

As Townes has pointed out, there were two Blaze Foleys. There was the quiet, soft-spoken and thoughtful guy with a wicked sense of humor. Just a beautiful soul. And then there was the drunk Blaze, who could suddenly transform into the kind of asshole that you went out of your way to avoid.

There was one night I’ll never forget. It was a Saturday night and Blaze had obviously spent his afternoon pounding back the Budweisers. He was sitting at the bar, and trying hard to inspire someone, anyone, to fight him. Just saying anything nasty and insulting that came to mind. It was uncomfortable and unbearable. People were getting up and leaving. Both me and the other barkeep kept warning him to chill. Finally, I ordered Blaze to leave the bar. If he wanted to stay, he had to go find an out-of-the-way booth and stop picking on people. That seemed to calm him down.

As it happened, the other barkeep’s parents came in that night. They were standing at the bar, this lovely old couple, talking to their son. And Blaze walked up to get a re-fill. He turned to them and snarled, “Your son’s a fucking asshole.”

Enough was enough. I told Blaze to leave and, instead, he went back to his booth. Finally, I picked up the phone to call the cops. That’s what we did with the occasional unruly customer. And I was pissed, disappointed in Blaze. I dialed the first six numbers, but couldn’t bear to hit the last number. I hung up the phone. How could I call the cops on a guy who’d written one of my favorite songs in the world? I just didn’t have the heart. Instead, I walked over to him. “Blaze, I just almost called the cops on you,” I said very calmly. “And I don’t want to do that. You are going to have to chill out, and you’re going to have to leave.”

Amazingly enough, he did. The next day, he came in to apologize, and to thank me for not calling the police.

He was in and out of town every few months to come see his family. And he’d always hang out at the bar. Blaze always had a free beer with me. And a meal. That fact alone qualified me as one of his best friends.

At one point, I’d put together a band, and Blaze and I played a house party together. My band played a set, then his make-shift band played a set. We traded off until the wee hours. Blaze didn’t have a guitar, so I let him use my Strat. That guitar has never sounded sweeter. I remember I was surprised by the blues influence in his music because “If I Could Only Fly” was my only frame of reference. I’m glad I have that night to remember. I’m glad I got to see him perform. I’m glad I have a guitar that Blaze Foley once played.

During one of his visits, Blaze came armed with 20 or 30 copies of an album he’d recorded in Muscle Shoals. I watched him carry them into Jim Bob’s apartment. Of course, it was Blaze so there was going to be some strange cloud of catastrophe hanging over it. This time, there was some story about how the record label president had been arrested by the DEA, who promptly seized all the copies of Blaze’s album except for this batch that he somehow spirited away.

Not long after he left town, Jim Bob came in and mentioned that Blaze had left the albums in his safekeeping. He must have noticed my face light up. “Do you want one?” he asked, hesitantly, almost as if he was afraid I’d say no. “There aren’t many copies left, but Blaze would want you to have it.”

Oh, I burned to hear that album. I couldn’t get home quickly enough. It was no big-budget production, but the songs … “Picture Cards” and “My Reasons Why” and “Oval Room.” I now know them all by heart. Plus, the deliciously lewd “Girl Scout Cookies.” I played it so often that I decided to record it onto a cassette so I wouldn’t wear out the album. I knew I’d never see another copy.

I eventually moved to Macon to take another newspaper job. On one of my trips home, I ran into Jim Bob and he told me the news. Blaze had been killed in Austin.

When Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded “If I Could Only Fly,” I was filled with pride for the memory of Blaze. And I began to realize that Blaze was a bigger deal than any of us knew. Townes Van Zandt, who had written the liner notes for the Muscle Shoals album, immortalized him in a song. And I also read a Lucinda Williams interview where she mentioned that she’d known Blaze.

I was a big Lucinda fan long before “Car Wheels.” I’m pretty sure I bought my first Lucinda album because she looked so hot in the cover photo, but it was her voice that seduced me. And those great songs.

So I eagerly picked up “Car Wheels” the first day it was released. One of the songs was called “Drunken Angel” and by the third line, I knew the song was about Blaze. Had to be. Then she sang the line about the Duct-tape shoes. That was Blaze. No doubt. And the tears just swelled up in my eyes.

Not long after I moved, I came home and swung by the Mansion. When I walked over to the jukebox and it was like being hit by an electric jolt: 117 was no longer Blaze Foley. The soul of the Mansion had just been taken away.

The manager walked in a couple of hours later, and we sat and talked. After a while, he said, “I’ve been holding something for you.” He got up, walked behind the bar, reached behind the cash register and pulled out a 45 record. “I thought you’d want to have this,” he said.

That single is on my iTunes now and though I cleaned the record the best I could, I could never get all the grit out of its grooves that had accumulated from its years on the Mansion jukebox. But I like it better that way. I still hear it now the same way I heard it then: That deep, otherworldly voice with a lonesome-sounding harmonica blowing behind it. The trembling first line seemed to summon every drop of sadness ever known in the world. And the great kicker: A man who wants to fly but happens to be too drunk and wasted to even stand up.

A record like that should rise out of the static and pop from years spent on a barroom jukebox. That’s only apropos. After all, like my friend said, it does happen to be the greatest cry-in-your-beer song ever written.


Kevin Triplett said...

What a great story -- thanks for sharing, Scott and Joe!

Anonymous said...

Amazing story Scott. Blaze has such a cloudy and twisted history and of course some of it married with a reasonable amount of myth, it is good to see a day-in-the-life recollection of such a talented musician told with such clarity and honesty.

ScrapMetal55 said...

That was an amazing read! I'm from Carrollton, GA, and I've frequented the mansion many times in my life. Even got into one of the worse car accidents I've ever had while leaving my friends behind AT the mansion. I stumbled onto this story while reading about the possible haunting of the mansion, and I was pleased to read such a story. Thank you.