The story of the late, Texas-based songwriter Blaze Foley has for years been dusted with mythology.
He was born in Arkansas, and grew up in a traveling musical family. He spent time living in a treehouse in Georgia with writer and actor Sybil Rosen, who is a central part of “Blaze.” Then he settled in Texas, where he made music and ran with songwriters like Townes Van Zandt. He had songs covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and after he was shot and killed in Austin in 1989, Foley had songs written about him by Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams.
None of his music was released until 1999, which allowed the mythology to grow. He became the subject of a documentary and a book, and now is the focus of “Blaze,” a film directed by Ethan Hawke, which opens Friday.
When I wrote about Foley 17 years ago, I found a friend of Foley’s named Joe Bucher, who remembered the songwriter’s time in Georgia, a crucial period of creativity in his career.
Bucher told me I needed to track down Sybil Rosen, a writer/actor/artist Foley was dating during the time he lived in the treehouse in the ’70s. But connections then weren’t quite as easy to make as they are now that Foley is the subject of a feature film.
After writing about Foley again in 2009, I received a book in the mail: “Living in the Woods in a Tree,” Rosen’s account of her time with Foley, in Georgia … in a treehouse. She’d documented the early creative years of Foley’s life in a way I could not, because one, she was there, and two, she possessed a poet’s heart and skill.
Rosen’s book covers one stage among three or four in Foley’s life. But it became the backbone of Hawke’s new film. And justifiably so. Rosen wrote openly and beautifully about their time together. In a love story — about a muse and about music — the music lives on in one way, and the muse in another, even when they’re intertwined.
Rosen was connected to Foley before he became a myth, and before he bought into his own myth, which ultimately proved ruinous. She was there when he was an aspiring artist trying to bottle lightning.
Hawke describes Rosen’s involvement in the film as crucial, even beyond her book. During a promotional appearance for the film at Houston’s Rockefeller’s a week ago, he told a story about Rosen urging him to shoot one last scene of Foley and her howling at a full moon. Hawke knew the moon doesn’t show up on film, and he got his director of photography to back him up. Rosen persisted. So they put actors Benjamin Dickey (Foley) and Alia Shawkat (Rosen) in the treehouse, and had them howl at the moon with film rolling.
Hawke recounted an unscripted magical moment when nearby wolves howled back.
Nearly 20 years after writing about Foley the first time, I finally had an audience with Rosen, who talked about specifics but also touched on the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” which she describes as being related to “The Velveteen Rabbit,” an appreciation of something old and worn, like slippers or a plush toy with a value that extends well beyond its initial importance. Through Foley was a guy who loved duct tape, Rosen frames his myth as being something appreciated as “wabi-sabi.” The softness is softer and any rougher edges also have been worn away 20 years after Foley died.
Q: You may not know this, but I tried to find you with no small amount of effort. But failed. On two occasions.
A: Well difficult connections can be rewarding. I think it bodes well. There’s a Blaze-ian level of (expletive) up that feels appropriate there.
Q: The two of you split up, what, 40 years ago? There has to be some oddness to all the attention he commands years later.
A: I know, the story seems endless. But it’s the momentum from the force of his, I don’t know … what do you call it? His spirit? His intention? But I think it’s all anchored in the music, which is amazing. And there are times where I still kind of feel him there. Like he’s looking down and saying, “I told you so.”
Q: Did you start to see him as a footnote? There was a decade after he died where nobody could hear his music. And then everything started to change around 2000.
A: Yes, it was interesting because there was a period of stasis, in a way, and then kaboom. A lot of that changed. And it’s been amazing. When Ethan pulled together a film crew for the movie, it was mostly young people. And all of them seemed to know Blaze. I knew people were interested in him, young people, too, like Kings of Leon and the Avett Brothers. But it’s been interesting to see others find him and his songs.
Q: The treehouse is such a big part of his story even before people in Texas knew him.
A: Yes, the treehouse element in Blaze’s story is now sort of mythic. I really have come to believe everybody has a treehouse in them. It’s something you get to live out, or long for your entire life. But you say the words, “tree house,” and people light up. It’s ancient, I suppose. Translate that into film and imagery and it becomes something more interesting. It has stunned me because I’m this real participant in a myth. It’s very, very odd. But it’s funny I was emailing with Alia Shawkat, who played me. And we’re physically quite similar. And she said, “I can’t wait to get into the treehouse. I might never want to leave.” There are people who are just drawn to that. I’m a playwright, so there are aspects of that I see in other actors and characters. It’s been a layered experience. I watch it with so many different minds about it.
Q: Ethan described the story as elusive until he found your book. Did you trust him from go? Or did it take a while?
A: From the first encounter I trusted him, because of what he was telling me. It was his feeling for the music, first of all. Which was the heart of his intention and the whole enterprise. Music is at the heart of it. And making a movie about a homeless musician who loved duct tape, that made sense to me. And the integrity of what he wanted to do was undeniable. We all brought things to the story. We’d tussle about things, but he found a great structure that moved back and forth across time. We had similar questions about the structure about time and space. But the script is kind of this thing that touches on all these different lives. It’s not a script, it’s a story. Because of Ethan’s theater background, he was open to improvisation. I know that’s something people say. But he was playful and spontaneous and there are scenes in the movie that happened in an instant. He saw some possibility.
Q: Your part of this story ends before a lot of his recorded music. What have you thought about the music that has been released over the past 15 years?
A: It’s been interesting. There’s one place he’s talking on the “Outhouse” album, where he says he has a picture of the treehouse in his pocket. I wanted to know if that was true. I was so curious about what was in his wallet.
Q: Did he talk much about the years before you knew him? There’s not a lot of documentation for those missing years.
A: He had some missing years, but he also had this band Buzzard’s Roost with his cousins. He was a roadie, and they gave him the name Deputy Dog. He was heavy then, and wore this flat hat. I don’t think it was a very good experience. But he realized he wanted to play music instead of moving other people’s guitars around. The next thing anybody knows, he’s in Carrollton, Ga., and skinny. There’s a scene in the movie about how he lost all the weight, and he answered “Thorazine.” I don’t know what to say about that. But he may have spent some time in the Georgia mental health system. They wouldn’t give me the information because I wasn’t a family member. We jumped the broom to get married, I thought that might count. It didn’t.
Q: There’s still a lot of mystery to him. But it seems better to let some of that be.
A: Sure. Part of the mystique is the mystery. For a long time the mystique was his obscurity. That’s not really true any more. After this movie comes out, we’ll see what it does for awareness. I’m curious to see if he’ll become less compelling the more people know who he is. But I don’t think that will happen.