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.