Behind The Song: Blaze Foley, “Clay Pigeons”

Illustration by Courtney Spencer for American Songwriter.

In a world full of songwriting legends, it seems we’re always most drawn to the ones with tragic lives, and particularly, tragic endings. If they’ve got Texas ties, that somehow adds even more sad romance to their tale. In that particular pantheon of lost souls, a few names stand out. One is Blaze Foley’s. 

Videos by American Songwriter

A combination of bad luck, self-destructive tendencies and booze-medicated bi-polar disorder kept his star from rising before his 39-year existence ended with a bullet fired by a friend’s son, but Foley’s talents are revered by his fellow songwriters.

Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Blaze’s Blues” and Kings of Leon’s “Reverend” are about him. Gurf Morlix, who formed one-half of a duo billed as Blaze Foley & the Beaver Valley Boys, wrote “Music You Mighta Made,” for his friend, and in 2011, released the 15-song tribute album, Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream. John Prine’s rendition of “Clay Pigeons” (on his Grammy-winning album, Fair and Square) and Merle Haggard’s versions of “If I Could Only Fly” (one a duet with Willie Nelson) were among the highest-profile Foley covers, but Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and the Avett Brothers are among a lengthening list of artists who have interpreted the Arkansas-born, Texas-raised troubadour’s songs. And with each year, his posthumous popularity grows.

He’s now the subject of two films: the 2011 documentary Duct Tape Messiah and the not-yet-released feature film Blaze, conceived and directed by Ethan Hawke based on a memoir by Foley’s beloved muse, Sybil Rosen.

It’s a loving depiction of a man described by singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes as “earthy and yet not of this world.” Known as both a belligerent bear who managed to get banned from most of Austin’s popular venues, and a caring, sensitive soul who wound up losing his life while protecting a friend, the childhood polio victim and son of an alcoholic once famously declared he’d rather be a legend than a star. Hawke’s film may finally cement that status; at its South By Southwest screening last month, Rosen marveled, “Blaze’s music is gonna be out in the world in a way that it’s never been before. That is so moving to me.”

Ben Dickey, who plays Foley, and Charlie Sexton, who plays Van Zandt, will be heard singing in character on the soundtrack album; sadly, Foley himself never managed to release much of his work. But early in the film, when we hear Dickey sing “Clay Pigeons,” it becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter whether Foley or another singer inhabits these songs. What matters is that they live on. Thankfully, through like-minded troubadours and champions like Hawke, “Clay Pigeons,” “If I Could Only Fly” and other gems, both heartbreaking and humorous, are doing just that.

Fortunately, there is video of Foley singing “Clay Pigeons,” a song so masterful in its simplicity, it contains only three words longer than two syllables: “cigarettes,” “already” and “memories.” The first helps set a vivid scene; the third, well, that’s the grabber.

I’m tired of runnin’ ’round lookin’
For answers to questions that I already know
I could build me a castle of memories
Just to have somewhere to go

By the time it comes around, we’re into the third verse; there is no chorus, unless you count the 13-line first verse, which repeats as the final one. Foley often defied typical verse-chorus-verse structure, just as he eschewed structure in life; a frequently homeless wanderer, he just about never worked “regular” jobs and often lived on the generosity of friends.

In this case, he uses single-syllable rhymes to carry his thoughts along. And it works beautifully.

I’m goin’ down to the Greyhound station
Gonna get a ticket to ride
Gonna find that lady with two or three kids
And sit down by her side

Ride ’til the sun comes up and down around me
‘Bout two or three times
Smokin’ cigarettes in the last seat
Tryin’ to hide my sorrow from the people I meet
And get along with it all

If those lines don’t capture Foley’s restless, tortured spirit, these certainly do.

I’d like to stay
But I might have to go to start over again
Might go back down to Texas
Might go to somewhere that I’ve never been

And get up in the mornin’ and go out at night
And I won’t have to go home
Get used to bein’ alone
Change the words to this song, start singin’ again

Like the name he chose, Michael David Fuller’s life might have blazed out quickly. But what he left behind is, indeed, legendary.

Various Artists: Johnny Cash — Forever Words