A Blazing Gurf- Gurf Morlix & Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah

A Blazing Gurf- Gurf Morlix & Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah– The Hideout, Red Deer June 12, 2011

A sixty-minute film to sum up a life is more than most of us will get, but it seems a bit inadequate for a life that was as obviously full as that lived by Blaze Foley.

Complemented by a superior set of lyric-centric post-hippie, country music from Gurf Morlix, for the past week Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah has been touring the roots venues of Alberta. Marred as it was this night by a sound system that seemed to be working against itself, the movie expanded on the many stories we’ve heard recently about the Texas songwriter who was killed in 1989.

Fifty or sixty like-minded folks- many devotees of Morlix, several others in attendance by little more than chance- gathered in a Gasoline Alley eatery along Alberta’s busiest highway this Sunday evening to watch a documentary about a singer most had never heard of a year ago. I didn’t know Blaze Foley, of course, but I can’t help but wonder what the might have thought about such an event. From what I have learned about the towering troubadour, I suppose he most likely would mutter, “Where the hell is Red Deer?”

To be featured this week at Toronto’s NXNE, Kevin Triplett’s Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah is an impressive creation. Interviews with family members- siblings, his mother- friends and songwriters- including Morlix, Mandy Mercier, Ky Hote and many others- his soul mate Sybil Rosen, as well as admirers including Merle Haggard place Blaze Foley’s seemingly contradictory behaviours in context. A defender of those facing injustices- a character trait that ultimately led to his death- had its foundation in the erratic and violent actions of his father, an abusive man according to Foley’s sister.

The many interviews weave into a solid fabric that tells Foley’s tale. Providing extra depth and insight are archival photos from throughout Foley’s life, handwritten lyrics, and brief bits of colourful animation. While the interviews provide the background and the visuals absorbing detail, the unearthed performances of Foley- in Austin television studios, on assorted stages, and on recordings- provide the substance. He was most obviously more than the drunken poet, in the words of Townes Van Zandt, “Who only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.”

Through the remembrances of those who knew him best, the film reveals Foley to have been both a self-saboteur and a victim of unparalleled circumstances. The stories told by Morlix about Foley during previous live shows sketched the outline- Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah completes the portrait.

Here’s a guy who seriously considered converting to Judaism while ordering sausage for breakfast. A man who lost one album’s master tapes when his car was broken into and hundreds of copies of another album to a raid by federal agents. Through no fault of his own, his most endearing- and enduring- song “If I Could Only Fly” was about the only song Willie Nelson recorded in the 80s that wasn’t a hit.

The missed opportunities and bad fortune are not unique to Foley, but they are amplified with the knowledge that he never got that next chance that might have turned out differently: the man made Van Zandt’s career trajectory appear comparatively well-executed. The documentary appeared to appeal equally to those who thought they knew most of the stories already and those who entered the roadhouse having never heard of Mike Fuller.

What did I take from the film? While I realize Blaze Foley wasn’t the greatest singer who ever darkened an Austin dive’s doorway, I came away with a greater appreciation for his gently awkward voice and finely crafted words. His first song- the first bleeding song the guy wrote- is as beautiful as anything I’ve heard. “Livin’ in the Woods in a Tree” is a personal song capturing his love for Sybil and their carefree life in a treehouse, but its images and sincerity provide universal appeal.

I’ve heard “If I Could Only Fly” sung by Foley (and others) any number of times, but the sparseness of the performance captured in Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah reveals an innocence of spirit that brings to mind Nick Drake at his most exposed. And I love the story shared about Foley helping Van Zandt get through “If I Needed You” one night on stage.

As stated earlier, it was unfortunate that a film that rivals Be Here to Love Me was provided an exhibition less than ideal. The sound was horrible, frequently rendering the artistry of Foley’s lyrics indiscernible. Audience members were leaning forward, searching for the nugget that was every word and were too frequently left wanting. While one appreciates the efforts it took to bring the production to the city, one hopes the film has a better fate elsewhere. It certainly deserves such.

Outside of a screening of Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, the closest many of us will ever get experiencing Blaze Foley may be through an evening with Gurf Morlix. Morlix’s affection for his friend comes through in every conversation, and his performance in Red Deer on Sunday evening was certainly a suitable tribute.

Morlix performed about a dozen Foley songs in his hour-long set, each punctuated by his recollection of experiences with Foley starting in 1977. Several of the stories were poignant and all of them were humourous.

Having caught Morlix a couple times as both a sideman for and on a co-bill with Sam Baker, as well as fronting his own outfit at a Calgary fest a half-dozen years or more ago, I was very much looking forward to hearing him run through his interpretation of the Foley songbook.

He didn’t disappoint.

Even more than usual, Morlix’s guitar playing was spectacular, each note delicately but assuredly picked. The sound was significantly better for Morlix’s performance than it had been for the movie, and again the audience was hanging onto every word spoken and sang.

I’m not a Foley expert and I don’t know every one of his songs. Morlix’s renditions of “Clay Pigeons,” “For Anything Less,” and “Baby Can I Crawl Back to You” were quite impressive, equalling the performances contained on his tribute album Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream. “If I Could Only Fly” silenced the house. “Cold Cold World” brought the evening to a close on just the right notes, while Morlix’s own “Music You Mighta Made” contained clever echoes of Foley’s music…at least, to my ears.

As Morlix sang “Cold Cold World,” perspective was delivered. Had Blaze Foley not died in 1989, there is no telling what he might have accomplished. As past behaviour is most frequently the best indicator of future behaviour, Foley’s future- had he not stood up for his friend Concho- might not have been as rosy as some may like to imagine. Dying as Foley did short of his 40th birthday, we are left with a legacy of accomplishment magnified by its unrealized potential. But, imagine if it had turned out differently.

Maybe Blaze Foley would have stopped getting in his own way finally finding a modicum of success. Maybe Blaze Foley would be a household name outside of Austin and outside of select CKUA-listening Alberta homes. Maybe Blaze Foley would be as well-known as Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, and Ray Wylie Hubbard.

Maybe. But not likely.

A blazing grace, indeed.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

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