Home  *  Books  *  Plays  *  Bio  *  Reviews  *  Contact - Links  *  Blaze  *  Riding the Dog

Riding the Dog

Living in the Woods in a Tree:
Remembering Blaze Foley


Book Review: Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley

by Sybil Rosen
University of North Texas Press, 288 pp., $24.95

More famous dead than alive, Blaze Foley continues growing in legend. With Living in the Woods in a Tree, Sybil Rosen moves the story along in a way that's bewitching and remarkably down to earth. Rosen offers the rare point of view of being intimately involved with the man born Michael Fuller, describing their life together sharing a tree house in the Georgia woods during the counterculture of the mid-1970s. At the time, he was known as Depty Dawg, and the fabulous songwriter he became was still in gestation. Rosen writes of the times with such clarity and thoughtfulness that one can almost smell the red earth and glimpse the moon hovering over the roofless shack. For anyone curious about Foley's life or the piece of Texas music history he occupies, she fills lots of holes, even visiting Austin in the recent past to speak to cohorts like Gurf Morlix and Mandy Mercier. Yet her tale is as much about her journey through life as it is an encapsulation of the man whose songs have been sung by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine. Romantic without being cloying, Living in the Woods in a Tree is perhaps the most complete vision of the Duct Tape Messiah as we're likely to get, and Rosen portrays a complex, confounding subject with a simplicity and seductiveness that's all too rare.

return to top


Faded Love

Blaze Foley's long lost muse, Sybil Rosen

Photo Courtesy of The University of North Texas Press

On Dec. 28, 1988, Blaze Foley took the stage at the Austin Outhouse, one of the few bars left in town that would still allow him to play. His beard was long and scraggly, grazing the top of his borrowed guitar. His voice was gruff and slurring, conceding to too many drinks. Behind the boards, his friend Lost John Casner sat taping the show, securing the set as one of few recordings that remain of Foley. It would be one of his final performances. Less than five weeks later, Foley was shot and killed.

On that rainy Wednesday night, Foley seemed lost in his alcohol haze, playfully and poignantly reeling through memories preserved in the amber cast of his songs. In an unreleased portion of Casner's recordings, a voice from the crowd can be heard requesting, "Play the first song you ever wrote!"

"I wouldn't even sing that to myself in the dark," Foley replies coyly.

"What was it about?" the requester presses.

"It was about living in a tree house," says Foley. "I lived with a half-black Jewish girl. ... It was called 'Livin' in the Woods in a Tree.'"

If I Could Only Fly

In the spring of 1975, Blaze Foley didn't yet exist. The songwriter whose legacy remains cloaked in local myth was still years away from taking root in Austin. In his place was a tall and trim 25-year-old calling himself "Depty Dawg" and kicking around a small artists' community just outside Whitesburg, Ga.

Sybil Rosen was a 24-year-old aspiring actress, recently graduated from college and returned to her parents' house in Virginia. When a friend invited her to visit the makeshift commune and help establish a theatre at Banning Mill, she jumped on the opportunity for a new adventure.

"I had read about [Depty] in this letter that my friend wrote me, so I was looking for him, in a way, when I got to the Mill," laughs Rosen. "What was so great was to meet him and not be disappointed. We were both really, really shy, so we kind of circled around each other for a while, but I think what was so powerful for me was once I heard him sing and I saw that incredible depth of feeling and his gift. It seemed that there was a certain inevitability to our getting together."

Rosen and Depty became nearly inseparable that summer. Broke but wrapped in the passion and invincibility of young lovers, they took to a small wooden shelter deep in the pine forest of a friend's nearby property. They made the tree house into a home, food and beer kept cool in a nearby stream. The hideout was dubbed "Udo," and the two existed in a state of willful bliss. Big artistic dreams were balanced with the restive contentedness of carefree midnight whispers. Depty soon began writing his own songs and talked of becoming a legend. He decided one day he would perform under the name "Blaze Foley."

"Aside from the tree house, which was such an incredible opportunity to share and so romantic and adventurous, we were also surrounded by this community that was just so generous to us," attests Rosen. "Those friendships really allowed us to nest down into each other in a way that wasn't fraught, so we both had this experience of eight months of happiness."

By the next year, the couple decided that if Foley was going to pursue his songwriting, they should be in Austin. They hitchhiked across the South and arrived that May, but life in the city soon brought its pressures to bear on their relationship.

"I think that we went to Austin with so much expectation of what was going to happen and how fast it was going to happen," admits Rosen. "But in Austin the stakes were so high for him because it was about the success of his career and validation as a musician, and it was scary. So there were a lot of things for us to grapple with, because we had come from this bucolic, sustained happiness, and suddenly it got much more complicated.

"And one of the things that complicated it was because it was a bar scene and the way that Depty felt there was a certain behavior expected of him to be that wild, crazy drunken guy, and perhaps he was right.

"For me it was a whole other experience. I was on my own."

Their stay in Austin was brief. Though they returned to Georgia that July, the singer soon decided he needed to hone his talent on the road. The couple eventually decided Chicago might be a less intimidating scene and moved there in November 1976, but the rambling, drinking Blaze Foley had already supplanted the Depty Dawg with whom Rosen fell in love.

In March, Foley returned to Rosen in Chicago, but they recognized they were slipping apart. Rosen was settling into a life of her own, and the legend Foley hoped to forge lay somewhere beyond their relationship. There were no definitive goodbyes, only a song before he left. Sitting on the edge of the bed, tears in both their eyes, he offered a final tune to break their hearts: "If I Could Only Fly."

Picture Cards Can't Picture You

Foley's life has become so obfuscated by his legend that even his close friends knew little of his life before. Rosen, meanwhile, was equally unaware of his reputation spawned since the years they shared together. She didn't know his songs had been recorded by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and John Prine or the praise he had achieved in Austin and around the world. Their relationship was buried in the bruised disconnect of time.

In 2002, local filmmaker Kevin Triplett, whose documentary on Foley has long been in production, finally found Rosen living in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, an award-winning screenwriter and playwright grappling with ghosts both recognized and repressed.

She had heard of Foley's death in 1989 but had never resolved his memory or the ultimate disillusion of their relationship. Triplett's unexpected contact finally forced her to reconcile his still-substantial pull in her life, and her new memoir is a beautifully wrought waltz with memory and longing, love and loss.

"As painful as it was to come back to those places where I felt like I had abandoned him in my heart, asking myself all those what-ifs that can really plague you and pursue you in the wee small hours of the night, all of that was extremely hard because it was so big and because I felt a certain amount of guilt and a tremendous amount of regret," she says.

"When I sat down to write, I felt like the only way I could make real peace with Blaze's memory was to be as honest as I could about who I was in that relationship. I just feel so incredibly lucky that I got to know him at the time of his life that I did."

Sybil Rosen will be signing her book in the Texas A&M University Press Consortium Tent at the Capitol on Saturday, Nov. 1, 1-3pm.

return to top

Robert Earl Hardy

Remembering Blaze Foley

Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley

Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley, by Sybil Rosen (Number 2 in the University of North Texas Press’ Lives of Musicians series) arrived in my mailbox this gray, rainy Saturday morning, courtesy of Amazon. The rain fell and steam rose from my coffee and the book drew me in. Sybil lived with Blaze in the seventies, during a time of transformation in both of their lives. He wrote his best-known song, the beautiful "If I Could Only Fly," for her. Her relationship with Blaze may have been, as she describes it, a "fleeting idyll" in the grand scheme of things, but as she looks back from the distance of years through the uncertain filter of memory, through the light of Blaze’s subsequent notoriety and stature, she finds deep, resonant meaning. And this journey into her personal past also illuminates overall the vibrant times of these southern hippies, artists and musicians living the underground life in the seventies and eighties, and takes us down some of the little-known backwaters of the Texas music scene of the period, providing a depth and color missing from many accounts of this rich, creative milieu. And, on top of everything else, Sybil Rosen is a skilled writer of beautiful, moving prose. This book is not only a welcome addition to UNT Press’ fine Lives of Musicians series, but also to the literature of Texas music and to the literature of the counterculture. It is a fine memoir of a sensitive soul.

return to top


Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley
by: Sybil Rosen

Issue Month: November/December 2008
Publisher:University of North Texas
Softcover $24.95 (288pp)
ISBN: 9781574412505

“If I could only fly / I’d bid this place good-bye / To come and be with you / But I can hardly stand / Got nowhere to run / Another sinkin’ sun / And one more lonely night.” These words from country music singer and songwriter Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly,” embody more than the lonesome yearnings of a rambling man; they represent the search that every dedicated artist must go through—whatever the personal cost—in order to make tangible what they see in their own heart and mind. Living in the Woods in a Tree captures that quest perfectly. Author Sybil Rosen, who lived with and loved Foley in the late 1970s, records both Foley’s artistic struggles and her own with disarming honesty and emotion.

Rosen met Foley, who at that time went by the name Depty Dawg, in 1975 at an old Virginia mill. Rosen and several friends were working to rehabilitate the mill into a theater and studio for budding actors. Rosen was an aspiring actress of Jewish descent; Depty Dawg was a lanky, quiet-spoken, Protestant-raised musician who wanted not just to become a star, but a country music legend. Despite their differences, Rosen and Depty were drawn together. Before long, they were traveling about the Southern countryside together, staying with various friends and relations until they settled down to a lean but happy life in a Georgia treehouse Depty christened Udo.

Before long, however, their dreams of artistic fulfillment began to clamor for attention: Depty wanted to pursue the hard-drinking, hard-living, nomadic life that is the stuff raw country music legends are made of. Rosen wanted to pursue her acting and a new love—writing. The two slowly began to realize that, despite their love for one another, they couldn’t chase their vastly different rainbows and remain together.

Living in the Woods in a Tree is written from two different perspectives, both arising from Rosen’s memories of Depty—old memories of her young life with Depty and new memories from her recent journey to retrace his life after the two parted and Depty went on to reinvent himself as country singer Blaze Foley. Rosen deftly weaves both sets of memories into one harmonious whole. Readers see through Rosen’s eyes her joyous life with Depty in Udo, her tears at Depty/Blaze Foley’s graveside, and her ambivalence at meeting women Depty loved after she exited his life. Rosen’s book is a triumph of straightforward, honest writing, and a fitting tribute for the enigmatic and dedicated artist that Blaze Foley became. (October)

Review by: Michelle Kerns

return to top Kevin Mattingly's review of Living In The Woods In A Tree: Remembering...

Customer Review
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitve Look At Blaze's Early Creativity, September 21, 2008
By Kevin Mattingly
"Living In The Woods In A Tree" by Sybil Rosen

The name Blaze Foley is spoken with the kind of certain reverence reserved for very few among many artists, guitar pickers, and folk and country music aficionados. Since his murder in 1989 he has been eternally elusive as a person and the landscape and music communities around both the country and world reverberate and are replete with anecdotal tales of his life, in all of its virtuoso beauty and heartbreaking squalor, which have since made him a legend in death despite the fact that he was a musical vagabond and unknown to the masses as an artist for most of his life.

Blaze's story is one of constant evolutions of the personae while polishing his art much the same as the mourners now polish his black granite gravestone. Blaze Foley was an expert guitar picker and songwriter who was known almost as much for his rampant eccentricities as he was for his soulful blues and heartfelt performances. Before Blaze Foley was a moniker he was Depty Dawg and before that Tex and before that Michael David Fuller.

Depty Dawg happened to be the version that Sybil Rosen encountered and fell in love with in the mid 1970s. He was already an accomplished musician and harmonist after having traveled with his itinerant family as a gospel group for the majority of his youth. He was soon to have a creative hemorrhage and bleed out beauty with both the pen and the guitar which Sybil was to witness firsthand during her time with him when he wrote many of the achingly ethereal and enduring songs of his cherished oeuvre. In fact, most of the early ones are either for her or about her. Merle Haggard, John Prine, and a hundred other musicians of high regard have covered Blaze's ballad "If I Could Only Fly" and that was written as an ode of an inevitable tortured parting of ways with Sybil Rosen, the author of this book.

This creative breakthrough occurred while; due to poverty, romanticism, and the counterculture nature of the times the two were, in fact, living in the woods in a tree in the boondocks of Georgia. It was an old shell of a house that was never finished due to the constructor's love of a woman being thwarted. He had no reason to finish the project. After having ingratiated themselves to the good graces of the proprietor of the property at that time they were allowed to live in their symbiotic isolation and further grow their bond as soul mates. The Depty created and kept improving and it wasn't long until the only step left for him to take was the trial by fire rite of musical passage of playing his own songs live. He started playing little gigs in Georgia and as their love grew it wasn't too long before his talent was clearly of the caliber to take him elsewhere. It was now time to invent Blaze Foley.

Blaze wrote, sang, and played his drunken heart out in New York, Chicago, Georgia, Muscle Shoals, Alabama and, most famously and infamously in Austin and Houston, Texas. Texas was where Blaze would become a legend. Blaze never held a job due to his own version of artistic integrity and this, in small part, is what led to his and Sybil's parting in Chicago. Sybil went her way and Blaze went his.

Sybil Rosen had been inspired by Blaze and by a professor for whom she was a nanny to stretch her own creative wings. She began with short poems and quickly found her own literary way. She was on her own and with new loves and prodigiously producing manuscripts for plays and children's books after a short time. She even wrote for daytime soap operas but just for the check. Still, the lightning in her creative mind had struck. She gained more and more strength as a person with each success and with the help from her counselor who helped her to confront an identity problem in which she had always struggled to define herself. She shared that neurosis with Blaze but he confronted it by creating new selves. She had simply felt like a Jewish girl "Without a face."

The world then spun at a different angle and dropped a meteor on Sybil's perception. She received a phone call in 1989 to inform her that Blaze Foley was dead. The exact circumstances were unknown when she received the call except that he had been shot in Austin and it had been fatal. It had been nearly 10 years since she had seen Blaze and in going on with her life she had seldom thought about him although she kept reminders of her time in the woods with him on display wherever she lived. Also, she had saved her letters from him and a lock of his ponytail along with his 45 of "If I Could Only Fly" among her discarded drafts of her own plays from the same time period. She hadn't bothered to look at any of these in years but the idyllic time in the woods and their parting would soon come to haunt her in a regretful yet nostalgic way. Regretful in that she felt guilty about not thinking of her first true love in years and nostalgic to the tune of the wind in the trees and the memory of Blaze first playing the beautiful songs that he'd written for her in their Thoreau-like seclusion.

Many different winds began to blow chillingly and warmly of new revelations that were soon to adorn and ornament Sybil's perceptions and memories of who Blaze was by revealing who he had became in the years following his departure from her life. He had resumed his nomadic ways and kept playing and singing ceaselessly. He had kept his sensitive side intact but revealed little of himself outside his music. He had also become a legendary drunk who wore his politics and internal issues as belligerence toward other people. That notwithstanding, he also had an extremely devoted flock of admirers which was what kept him in bed and board most of the time. Everywhere she turned Sybil was finding out new stories about him posthumously from his Austin contingent and, in turn, she was able to innumerate the intimacies and qualities of the Depty Dawg she had known, loved, and lived with for those years in the 70s. For both sides these revelations were a shock and welcome elaboration on a life that was very compartmentalized. Blaze was many different things to many different people but above all, he was a master musician, songwriter, and guitar player.

It was certainly news to Sybil that Blaze had become a legend in his own time. The manner in which he was murdered (defending an elderly black friend) had duct taped the legitimacy of his legend forever as The Duct Tape Messiah. He was thusly named for his penchant for using duct tape on everything. Now Sybil was finally able to hear recorded songs that he had written while with and without her presence. She was left grasping and wondering about her personal influence and contribution to it all. She was left to wonder if she was Blaze's one true love and he was hers. His lyrics left the roadmap of a heart savagely traveled and abused, by self and others, and now she was to gas up the engine in her fertile mind to try to decipher it all.

There are throngs of new Blaze fans every year. There is a festival dedicated to him in Austin. The multitudes are now hearing what wasn't available for years. And his legend grows like jasmine.

Ms. Rosen has written one of the most compelling books that I have ever read and I read voraciously. Even if I didn't know every Blaze lyric I would have been enthralled. She seamlessly weaves the past and present through her narrative with such skill that it's never clunky or out of place exposition. Her analogies and timeless resonance with words had me reading individual sentences over again. I read the book twice in a row. Ms. Rosen's autobiographical segments are every bit as engrossing as her dialogue with Blaze, Marsha, Gurf and all of the unique people she talked to. Everyone had something to offer. This gem was also exquisitely edited and I can't over emphasize the gift of prose that churns through this book like one of their observed leaves effortlessly spinning toward the ground from the tree house of long ago.

"Stars burn out. Legends last forever."-Blaze Foley

Kevin W. Mattingly© 9-21-2008 Harrisburg Times

return to top


By Bliss 12/11/2008

Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by Sybil Rosen

Texas cult legend Blaze Foley, celebrated in Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Blaze’s Blues,” is immortalized by the muse with whom he “jumped the broom” and who inspired early songs including “If I Could Only Fly,” later recorded by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Rosen was long estranged from Foley when he was killed in 1989; her beautifully written memoir retraces their history after documentary filmmakers track her down in 2002. Brimming with in-the-moment revelations and unearthed memories, it’s a vividly evocative chronicle of late-1970s counterculture, and a poetic discourse on self-discovery, creativity and love.

return to top

Living in the Woods in a Tree:
Remembering Blaze Foley
Sybil Rosen
University of North Texas Press, 2008, $24.95

Anyone who’s ever loved someone with a larger-than-life talent and troubles to match will devour this perceptive memoir. Reliving her hippie treehouse idyll with legendary singer/songwriter Blaze Foley and tracing the complex paths walked by poet and muse, Rosen writes with the tenderness and heartache of a great country song. Reading at Inquiring Minds in New Paltz, 4/5 at 5pm.

return to top