Blaze

Since the late 1970s, I’ve rarely listened to commercial radio. By the time the Saturday Night Fever disco craze had scrubbed the Top 40 clean of all its heart and soul – and it all became about your clothes, and what you have to put up your nose – I couldn’t find anything on the radio I found worth listening to.

But I’ve been lucky in life, in so many ways. And I’ve always had more than my share of musical benefactors, people who made sure they saw to my growth and development as a lifelong music lover and aspiring musician.

Looking back, so many of my benefactors weren’t actually musicians. My most important benefactor of all, my mother Frances Cooper Collins, was not a musician. But she was what I like to call a carrier. She was so totally infected by the love of good music (i.e., Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Flatt and Scruggs, Mahalia Jackson) that she was highly contagious.

I’m sure you know folks like that.

You might even be a carrier yourself.

Two carriers who helped me through the lean times of the late 70s and 80s were Bruce Winkworth and Don Henchel. Both worked at the North Hills Record Bar in Raleigh, and both had well-tuned ears. A package would show up in the mail and it would contain a half-dozen or so burned cassettes of some bands or singer/songwriters that they were convinced I just had to hear.

And invariably, they were right.

Eventually the cassettes became CDs, but thankfully, they kept coming. Without benefactors like Bruce and Don (and later another buddy named Billy Armour) it would have taken me way too long to get hip to the really good music that’s out there if you know where to look – music that informed my own songwriting the deeper I got into it.

One day a CD from Bruce showed up titled Blaze Foley, Live at the Austin Outhouse. He cautioned me that it was a little ragged and unpolished, but he felt sure I’d like it.

And he felt right.

So I thought of Bruce yesterday when my compadre Lenox Rawlings and I made our way down to Aperture Cinema on Fourth Street in Winston to see the biopick about Blaze Foley titled, appropriately enough, Blaze It’s a movie getting some buzz, directed by Ethan Hawke and featuring cameos from such luminaries as Kris Kristofferson, Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), Steve Zahn (That Thing You Do) and Hawke himself.

The title role was played by Ben Dickey, who I was unfamiliar with. And playing Townes Van Zandt was Charlie Sexton, known more for his musical and producing abilities than his acting chops.

I’m here to say I really like the movie. It’s not the kind of film my bride Tybee is apt to enjoy, because Tybee is one of those folks who gravitates more toward light upbeat movies that make her laugh. She’s a teacher who works hard, and when she sits down in front of a TV or movie screen she’s looking for escape and chuckles, not life’s lessons and tears.

There were some really funny scenes in Blaze, particularly when Blaze and Townes start telling the kind of stupid cornball jokes only a drunk cowboy singer could ever come up with. And some of the movie was happy and upbeat, especially when Blaze was living sans electricity or running water in a tree house with his true love Sybil (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development).

But I knew enough of Blaze Foley’s life story to know it would not end well. And of course, it didn’t.

The movie is mostly about that harsh, cruel and unforgiving hinterland on the edges of society – filled with addiction, rage, heartbreak and deep, deep sorrow – that the true artists among us go to find the kind of truth and level of consciousness essential to any art worth producing.

Blaze and Townes are incorrigible drunks. They snort cocaine and they screw over their friends. They’re totally unreliable and not good for anything other than raising hell and making music the way they themselves feel it has to be made.

Commercial? No way.

Authentic? All day and all night long.

Honest? As honest as it gets.

I was lucky enough to see Townes Van Zandt at the legendary Cats Cradle on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill circa 1978. I was drinking. Townes was drunk. But he was lucid enough to blow me away.

And I knew his story pretty well from having watched the documentary on his life, Be Here to Love Me a number of times. As he recounts in Blaze, Townes lived his life knowing that if one wanted to write songs and really do it the way it should be done, they had to be willing to blow off everything else – money, security, health, love and any semblance of a normal nourishing relationship.

That’s what the two of them spend most of the movie doing, blowing off everything but their music, everything but their art.

As grim as it sounds, the movie does have a heart. Blaze has a heart hidden deep in all that gruff, hairy, sodden, hidebound exterior. It certainly comes out in his music, most notably in the song If I Could Only Fly, famously covered by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

And Lucinda Williams clearly saw into Blaze’s heart when she paid homage to him with the song Drunken Angel.

Blaze, by all accounts, could be a mean drunk. My sense is that Hawke and those he worked with softened Blaze’s persona some to give Ben Dickey (and the viewer) a break.

But I’m not a movie critic and never professed to be. I will say, however, that watching Blaze in a cozy, hip downtown cinema was a wonderful way for two retired sportswriters to spend an Autumn afternoon.

Will Clawson Adjust, Bye and Bye?

Dave Clawson is a football coach, and as such shouldn’t be expected to know the proper usage of the English language as well as, say, a retired sportswriter blogging his way down from 40 years in the business

And this particular retired sportswriter blogging his way down from 40 years in the business wouldn’t know the English language as well as I should without the direction of Terry Oberle, the best editor any sportswriter could ever hope to have.

Terry was the one who drilled incessantly into his staff how a team with a bye is one that advances in a tournament without having to play.

So Wake has no bye after Saturday’s 63-3 undressing by Clemson in front of a sea of orange at BB&T Field. The Deacons, thankfully for the sake of everyone save perhaps a prospective opponent, are simply off this coming Saturday.

Terry also warned against the use of decimated as a synonym of annihilated or destroyed. The word, as the first syllable suggests, comes from the understanding that any Roman legion guilty of cowardice or dishonor in battle would have one  of every 10 legionnaires yanked from the ranks and killed.

Unless precisely one of every 10 Wake players has been knocked out of action because of injury, the Deacons have not been decimated. They have been ravaged. They have been devastated. And they have been gutted.

They have not, technically speaking, been decimated.

But again, as a football coach, Dave Clawson can certainly be forgiven for the kind of linguistic mistakes that pretty much 98.3 percent of all those conversant in the English language make constantly. And for me to even point out his misuse could be seen as petty.

OK, those who feel that are right. It’s petty, and I own it.

Yet that still leaves me with the question of how willing are those who still care about Wake football to forgive Clawson for the much more consequential mistakes he has made with this, his fifth team in Winston-Salem.

The mistake that is becoming more and more apparent with every passing pasting was implementing a warp-speed, RPO offense without a defense capable of shouldering its share of the load. Making matters worse, he did so with a freshman quarterback not ready for prime-time Power Five football.

In losses to BC, Notre Dame and Clemson, Sam Hartman has completed 39 of 89 passes (44 percent) for 133 yards per game while throwing more interceptions (3) than touchdowns (2).

The Deacons, through six games, have run 511 plays, 30 more than any other ACC team. Their pace, along with the inability to sustain drives, has required the Wake defense to defend 451 plays. Among ACC teams, only BC (475 defensive plays) and FSU (455 defensive plays) have asked as much from their defenses.

The work load has also contributed heavily to the ever-lengthening disabled list, which going into the off week, appears longer on defense than the list of those available to play. And like me, you’ve probably noticed Clawson mentioning the epidemic of injuries more and more often as the losses pile up.

Spending four decades covering sports can make a man rather hard-bitten. Again I admit it. I own it. But every time I hear a football coach bellyache about injuries, I recall a conversation with my fast friend Ron Morris, who spent part of his career as sports editor of the Tallahassee Democrat.

Ron would have an opening on staff, and fly a candidate in for interviews. The first words the prospect would mention upon deplaning was how hot it was in Tallahassee.

To which Ron would reply, “Well, it’s July in Florida. So yeah, you’re right. It’s hot.’’

And that’s pretty much my answer to any football coach who complains about injuries. Well, football is a collision sport. So yeah, you’re right. Players get hurt.’’

Good teams overcome injuries through recruiting and development. Bad teams don’t.

Throughout fall camp and the first games, I kept wondering if Wake had enough players on defense who were, in the words of Clawson, playable. And that’s another reason to question his decision to run a warp-speed offense.

It’s hard to recall a team in more need of an off-week, which, coming from a sportswriter who rode the Wake beat for 25 years, is really saying something. And I go into the off-week curious as can be about what adjustments Clawson and his staff will make before returning to the field at Florida State on Oct. 20.

Clawson entered the season pretty much compelled to play Hartman. One quarterback candidate, Kendall Hinton, was suspended for the first three games for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules” and another, Jamie Newman, was hurt.

But now that he has two weeks to retool his offense, Clawson has some options. He can certainly insert the more experienced Hinton, and see what his speed and elusiveness might do to jump-start a stalled-out attack. And obviously he can down-shift on offense, and run fewer plays to give his defense a chance to catch its breath between three-and-outs.

Clawson is a good football coach. Other than the ill-fated season spent as offensive coordinator at Tennessee, he has proven it everywhere he has been – just as he proved it his first four seasons at Wake.

But good coaches have bad seasons, and thus far Clawson has had a bad season. He has already pulled one lever by dispatching his defensive coordinator, Jay Sawvel, four games into the season. What other moves will he be willing to make, and will they make a difference?

To those questions, your guess is as good as mine. But I do feel comfortable making one prediction.

The identity of the starting quarterback for Wake will be as closely-guarded a secret as the nuclear code. If a coach is unwilling to reveal an injury to a back-up quarterback (Newman) going into a home game against an opponent as inept as Rice, he’s certainly not going to tip his hand as to who starts at FSU.

Where Did Cubs’ Mojo Go?

A word I use with increasing regularity these days is DONE.

That’s done, as in the last year or two I was working as a sportswriter, I was DONE. I endeavored to put in an honest day’s work, and I feel my experience and network of contacts and friends allowed me to, more often than not, do so. But long before I retired a year ago August, I was DONE.

That’s done, as in, my bride Tybee has been teaching elementary school pretty much all her adult life, she’s seen and dealt with it all, and now she’s DONE. She still loves the kids, she knows she spent her career doing what she should be doing, and she’s still a teacher any student or parent should be thankful to have. But each day it gets a little harder to haul her cart of books and papers and notebooks up the steps of our house at the end of another interminable day.

Trust me on this one. She’s DONE.

That’s done, as in even if my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs had somehow clawed past the Colorado Rockies in last night’s Wild Card game, as far as the 2018 season goes, they were long since DONE.

Slugger Kris Bryant, battling a bum shoulder that may well need off-season surgery, was clearly not the same Kris Bryant opposing pitchers had come to know and fear.

Shortstop Addison Russell was put on ice for an undetermined length of time while the accusations of domestic abuse hopefully get sorted out one way or another.

Closer Brandon Morrow, nursing a bone bruise in his pitching arm, had long since been shut down for the season.

Catcher Willson Contreras, such a beast in the first half of the season, had transformed before our very eyes into a patsy at the plate who never could frame pitches well enough to for his pitchers to get an honest strike.

The bats had gone so limp, in fact, that the Cubs managed all of two runs over the final 22 innings of the season. Even manager Joe Maddon was under the weather in the final game, watching his once mighty team stagger through 13 innings to the 2-1 collapse he had to see coming.

Again, even if they had somehow pulled it out, the Cubs appeared to be no threat to the Brewers or anyone else they might match up with along the way. The Cubs were clearly DONE.

We who pulled for the Cubs hoped like hell they would somehow pull a Muddy Waters (he of Windy City fame) and finally at long last Get Their Mojo Working. But the record will show that the Cubs Mojo had long since packed and gone, leaving the Cubs, indubitably DONE.

And that’s OK. It had better be, because that’s the story of life.

The fan who expects their team to win it all all the time is destined for heartbreak and sorrow. The best we can hope for really is that our team plays well enough to give us something to follow until the end. Not every season is going to be 2016. It took the Cubs 108 years to reign again over the baseball world, and I’m thankful I lived long enough to see it.

Besides, there’s always next season. Hope spring eternal, and all that.

One great hope I had from watching the game on ESPN2’s Statcast (which I really got off on) is that Major League Baseball will, sooner rather than later, turn to the electronic strike zone. And I’m not saying this as sour grapes. My own take was that the Cubs got at least as many calls go their way as the Rockies, and besides, as I stated at length earlier, the Cubs were already a dead team walking.

Home plate umpire Chris Guccione, the stat freaks on ESPN keep noting, is said to be a “Hitter’s Ump,’’ in that he calls fewer strikes than most his eagle-eyed brethren. To hear that really, really disturbs me.

The strike zone is the strike zone. It’s to be called, not interpreted.

And it pains me to see a pitcher make the perfect pitch – especially in a “High-Leverage Situation” – and it be called a ball. It pains me equally to see the batter take the cutter two inches off the plate, and be rung up for the final out.

The three-dimension strike zone they kept showing on ESPN was, to me at least, further evidence that the technology exists for lasers and cameras and monitors to do what the human eye simply cannot always do. As I’ve written before, a pitch from a Major League pitcher darts, slides, cuts and veers toward the plate at 95 miles an hour, and the umpire is expected to determine whether it dissected at any point on its path the strike zone.

This is no knock on Guccione, who, surprisingly, turned into a pitcher’s umpire on this particular occasion. He’s only a human being asked to do what humanly cannot be done.

In time, baseball will turn to the electronic strike zone. It’s inevitable. I just wish the powers that be would go along and make the move, for the benefit of all. It’ll then be a far better game, giving managers, and players and fans something other than balls and strikes to bitch about.

The pitcher who paints the corner will get the call. The batter who has the sand to take a pitch two inches off the plate, will get the call. Baseball will be a better game.

And when baseball finally does turn to the electronic strike zone, I hope it’s done right. Wire home plate in a way that it turns a bright scarlet – bright enough for everyone in the park to see – when the pitch catches the zone.

Doing so would certainly make the rest of the playoffs more fun to watch. And speaking of the rest of the playoffs, go Braves. I was around Brian Snitker enough during his lifetime in the Carolina League to get to know and like him, and he’s a great story.

So go Braves and go Yankees. Here’s hoping for an Atlanta/Big Apple series.

The Cubs may be DONE, but the 2018 season, thankfully, roars on.

Rice Shows Up Right on Time

Of all the characters I met over my four decades of writing sports, among the most colorful, and certainly one of the most profane, had to be the Frank Howard, the coach/philosopher who was Clemson football from the time he became head coach in 1940 until long after he retired in 1969.

He was still hanging around the program when I started making trips down I-85 in the early 70s, spinning stories that were at times nakedly racist, at times banal, and at times as dead-on insightful of the human condition as any words I’ve ever heard spoken.

Frank Howard was a man of his times, and as such, he could have never had lasted coaching more than a game or two in the 21st century. The reason he lasted back then was that the sportswriting community – of which I was, admittedly, a young convert – chose to scrub the N-bombs Howard dropped with such casual regularity from the transcripts of post-game and post-practice observations, as well as talks to civic groups so well-received throughout the upstate area of South Carolina.

Should I, as a 22-year-old neophyte in the business, have exposed Frank Howard for his racist language? Looking back, the answer is probably yes.

But that’s a rhetorical question I’ll leave for another post. On Saturday I was reminded of the words of wisdom Howard had for any fellow coach hoping to scratch out a living in the dog-eat-dog world of college football.

Find somebody you can beat, Howard would prescribe in his most red-dirt of all red-dirt Southern drawls, and play them every Saturday.

Wake found somebody it could beat Saturday. In Rice, the Deacons found a team pretty much any FBS college team could beat.

Anybody watching needed only a possession or two to see just how bad the Owls are. On Saturday, in front of a sparse gathering at BB&T Field, they were bad enough to be down 45 points by halftime to a team that had spent the previous two weeks getting knocked around its own home turf.

Dave Clawson is too smart a man to deny the obvious, and I was glad to see Conor O’Neill of my old shop the Winston-Salem Journal, lead with the caveat that provided all the context the reader might need.

Still, beating Rice 56-24 had to be fun for the Deacons and their fans, all of whom had been licking their wounds from the 41-34 cuffing by Boston College and the 56-27 drubbing by Notre Dame. But was the win just a sugar-high that will wear off long before Wake kicks off against No. 3 Clemson Saturday?

And just what did we learn from the fun and frivolity?

What I personally learned was that given enough time to stand in the pocket and survey the options available, freshman Sam Hartman certainly looks the part of an ACC quarterback. Trouble was, BC and Notre Dame didn’t give Hartman enough time and Hartman, consequently, looked like the raw freshman he is.

But given the luxury of time Saturday, Hartman shredded Rice for 15 completions on 17 attempts for 241 yards and four touchdowns, while playing turnover-free football. As Conor pointed out in Monday’s follow story, Hartman’s quarterback efficiency rating of 284.96 is the best ever at Wake for any quarterback with at least 11 completions.

How close can Hartman come to performing at that level under the duress he is sure to face against Clemson? I’m sure that’s a question Clawson, offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero and Hartman himself will be asking in the hours leading up to Saturday’s 3:30 kickoff at BB&T Field.

Saturday’s win also convinced me that Greg Dortch is far too great a weapon to allow to run free through the secondary. Notre Dame kept close tabs on Dortch, and held him to six catches for 56 yards and – most important – no touchdowns. Rice didn’t, and most likely couldn’t, and Dortch torched the Owls for 11 catches for 163 yards and – most important – four touchdowns.

Brent Venable is a good defensive coordinator, good enough in the eyes of Clemson to pay $11.6 million to lock him up for five years. He’s paid those big bucks to determine which opponents are most likely to make him and his defense look bad.

Greg Dortch will be a marked man again Saturday. I’m as curious as you to see how he and the Deacons will respond.

One question that was clearly not answered Saturday was what effect canning defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel four games into the season had on Wake’s performance. Clawson was not overjoyed to see Rice score three touchdowns in the second half, but he did express satisfaction with how the Deacons’ defense got lined up.

That may well not be enough against Clemson, but it will be a requisite for any semblance of success.

The Deacons emerged from September with a 3-2 record and a litany of questions remaining – most of which, I’m willing to predict, will be answered in October. Wake gets the second weekend off, and then will hit the road again for the first time since August to play at Florida State on Oct. 20 and at Louisville on Oct. 27.

Neither the Seminoles nor Cardinals appear to be the powerhouses they’ve been known to be, so maybe Wake can pick off one or the other and roll into November at 4-4 with Syracuse (home), N.C. State (away), Pitt (home) and Duke (away) left to play. That would leave the Deacons with at least a viable path to the six wins needed for a third-straight bowl.

But to beat Clemson, FSU or Louisville, Wake will have to play better football that it has played.

Dave Clawson, to his credit, knows this, as does anybody who has been paying attention this season.