Texas musician Blaze Foley is gone, but Sybil Rosen helps keep his legend alive

It's got to be a rather surreal, life-rattling jolt to see an actor on screen answering to your name, reciting your words and reliving dramatic moments from your own storage of memories. Thanks to Texas-born actor and director Ethan Hawke, Sybil Rosen has recently felt that very jolt.

In the new film Blaze, written and directed by Hawke, Alia Shawkat (of Arrested Development fame) portrays Rosen, the artistic and romantic partner of the film's titular character, the doomed, drunken songwriter Blaze Foley. "I'm still trying to find the words to describe the feeling," Rosen says.

Where Foley's physical timeline ends with his 1989 murder in Austin, Rosen's verdant artistic life was beginning to fully bloom at that point.

In the ensuing decades, Rosen has received a number of awards and accolades for her plays and writings, yet in the scope of Foley's life story, Rosen is a supporting player, although an unavoidably impactful one.

"It's sort of the way the dice rolls," she says with a laugh over the phone. "I'm very moved to be a part of his story. There was actually a line in the movie that didn't make the final cut where Sybil asks Blaze 'How did I get to be the girl in your story?' I can remember the moment our paths crossed 40 years ago and trace it to where I am now and it's knee-weakening to think about."

Unlike legendary contemporaries such as Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver or Willie Nelson, Foley never made a large splash in the music business. His alcohol-fueled unpredictability and unreliability regularly steered him away from the types of breaks one needs in order to find their way into icon status. He was an influential songwriter -- two of his songs, "Clay Pigeons" and "If I Could Only Fly," have enjoyed a long second life as regularly-covered tunes from some of the biggest names in country and folk music. "Drunken Angel," from Lucinda Williams' acclaimed 1998 Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is an achingly gorgeous tribute to the man many called "the Duct Tape Messiah."

Because Foley never landed the big chart-topping hits his drinking buddy Van Zandt did, or become as widely respected of storyteller like his hero John Prine was while he was alive, his name has long been left out of conversations regarding the greatest Texas songwriters. To his friends and fellow performers, he wasn't a secret, but to the greater population he has been. With the film winning justifiably favorable reviews, thanks in large part to musician Ben Dickey's engaging portrayal, that could soon change.

The infamous evenings of Blaze's sloppy, profane honky-tonk performances primarily took place after he and Rosen split in the late '70s, but his musical journey started quietly in a spare treehouse in the Georgia woods he shared with Rosen early in their relationship in 1975. They were two artists, working in different mediums, in love and seeking their own voices.

"Blaze's path to his art wasn't an introspective one," Rosen says. "He got his energy form being in front of people and from his exploits. But in the treehouse, he had a tremendous explosion of new songs. For him, a moment of inspiration would hit and boom, he would write a song right that moment."

His exploits were often fueled by his heavy drinking. The folks he ran with in the '80s were used to Foley's self-medicating, but in the documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, his mother, Louise Fuller, says that drinking wasn't something he picked up from her in his youngest days. The erratic tantrums that trademarked his final years weren't prevalent in his days as a banker in the '70s before he grew out his hair and started singing, either. It seems there were forces at play that Foley couldn't quite get a grip on, much less anyone else, no matter how close they may be.

"The notion that you have to suffer, and invite suffering, in order to make great art is sad to me," Rosen says. "I think Blaze was in a great deal of pain for different reasons, and that pain gave him compassion and a passion for communicating and storytelling. I do think he had an intractable, deep wound that couldn't be assuaged."

Though those oft-reputation destroying exploits were numerous as the '80s rolled on, perhaps the most damaging of them all was the 1980 night in New York City where he ruined an outside chance he and Rosen had of getting back together after a time apart. Foley's high profile gig at the Lone Star Club opening for Kinky Friedman seemed like a mature step for him and it gave Rosen a glimmer of hope, though it was a short-lived spark. In the film, it's a heartbreaking moment.

"After we split in Chicago, and before we met in New York," Rosen says, "he was pursuing his career and I was pursuing mine. My path was solidifying and I finally felt like I could really be a writer. I thought this would give us enough to get back together, but when I saw him on stage that night it was chaos and I left the club in order to protect my artistic self as much as my emotional self."

But there were other, more heartening, real life moments depicted in the film. One such instance from is a conversation which takes place while the pair ride in the back of a pickup truck and Foley seems to foreshadow his short earthly life, but lasting artistic contribution. He didn't "want to be a star," because they burn out, but "legends live forever," he explained to Rosen.

"That conversation did take place, but it was indoors and not in a truck," she says. "But it has stayed with me ever since. To live forever through his music was always a serious intention of his."

Through songs written about him, newly unearthed and released recordings of his, and high-profile movies, it's not likely the name Blaze Foley will be forgotten anytime soon. Of course, none of this would be happening had it not been for the transcendent tunes he left behind, and it's likely that without Rosen's love, those songs may not have ever been created to begin with. Either way, Blaze's legend burns brightly, just as he hoped.

Rosen says "I feel that in whatever space Blaze occupies right now at this very moment, he's saying to me, 'See? I told you this would happen."

Blaze opens on Friday, August 24th. The Blaze Original Cast Recording will be available on September 21 from Light in the Attic Records.

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