Meet Dan Blakeslee, the Toothless Troubadour of a Gentrifying Somerville

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dan blakeslee somerville

Photo by Kyle Clauss

They put Dan Blakeslee in a parking lot festooned with weeds, in front of a bus bearing the giant likeness of a sneering muskrat. Its carotene teeth are the same color as Blakeslee’s shirt, which clings to his wiry frame in the humidity. It could rain on the Ignite! Festival in Union Square any second, so Blakeslee tunes his guitar with some uncharacteristic urgency.

Stage-right from Blakeslee—and “stage” is an awfully generous word for his patch of asphalt, folding chair, and chain-link fence—20-somethings are shredding cabbage and carrots in a canning seminar. He introduces himself and launches into “Lazy-Eyed Girl.” A man approaches him and hoists his infant inches from Blakeslee’s face while his wife snaps a picture. Blakeslee stops mid-line and smiles politely. A middle-aged mom at her wit’s end flushes her gaggle of three squealing kids out from behind the muskrat bus, and they run through the folk musician’s performance, back to the plastic-lined picnic table, to their untouched curry dinners.

To say Blakeslee belongs here is not to say he deserves all this disrespect. He belongs in Somerville, amidst all its inexplicable quirks, strumming his guitar—its pick guard, the silhouette of an octopus he carved with an X-Acto blade—along to the Brubeckian beat of New England’s most densely populated municipality.

Not far from the muskrat, 197 Union Square has reached its tipping point, with more than half of its 30 luxury units leased. The asking price for one of its 1,061-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments starts at $695,000—nearly $200,000 more than the city’s median home value.

“Somerville itself is rapidly becoming a vibrant epicenter of arts, music, and culinary excellence,” the complex boasts on its website. “Come live it!”

Blakeslee and scores of other artists who call Somerville home already do live it, and have done so for decades. If the proliferation of luxury condominiums continues at this breakneck pace, the creative class used to lure well-heeled homebuyers to the banks of the Mystic River could soon find themselves shut out of the city they call home.

• • •

I walk along the Mystic as the river it curls,
Under ice and the snow, it’s shinin’ like pearls.
The stars came with me, and a horseshoe did too.
Maybe luck will be there waitin’, in the year of the new.

• • •

I find Blakeslee in a booth in the back of Diesel Cafe in Davis Square. An Italian restaurant in Salem commissioned Blakeslee to make their placemats, so he dips his nib into a bottle of black ink and crosshatches a comic strip about a Boston terrier chasing a pizza through the cosmos.

In between shows, he sustains himself on gigs like these. A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, his best-known work is the label for the Alchemist’s Heady Topper, an unfiltered, unpasteurized double IPA widely regarded to be the greatest beer in the world, inspiring ad fontes pilgrimages to Waterbury, Vermont, where it sells out within seconds.

“I was sitting, doing one of my show posters for a music event at a cafe up in Burlington, Vermont, and this guy kept peeking over my shoulder, and eventually said, ‘Hey would you ever want to do a beer label?’” Blakeslee says. “It was funny, because he said quietly to me, ‘Man, I’ve got this beer that I think is gonna knock people out. Everyone I’ve shared it with is kind of mystified.’”

The label is a self-portrait of Blakeslee with a plume of hops and steam erupting from his head as he takes a sip. But the real Blakeslee’s never had a beer before, and only tried the legendary brew by accident when he tried mimicking the label at a party with what he thought was an empty can.

“I got a big sip in my mouth, and man, that is potent. That is, in capital letters, POTENT, is the word. I’ve had seven sips of alcohol in my life, and I just never like that feeling—that tingly esophagus, I just don’t like it,” says Blakeslee. “I’ve never had anything against it. A lot of my friends drink and I sort of feel like I haven’t needed it this far. You know what I mean? It’s like my natural high.”

He leans in. “Wanna know the inner secret? Orange juice and molasses cookies. Not together. Orange juice—I feel like that makes me high.”

“What brand?” I ask.

“It can’t be just any brand. What’s that one, Simply…?”

“Simply Orange?”

“Yep. Or Tropicana.”

“Minute Maid is shit, though.”

“Yeah, Minute Maid is not good,” he says. “Not good.”

• • •

I walk along the Mystic, on this wintry morn.
On this coin I wish, to mend a heart that’s torn.
To the wind I tossed it, frozen it flew.
Now it rests on the ice, till spring takes it through.

• • •

This is Blakeslee’s 20th year as a performing musician and perhaps his most auspicious yet. After years of busking outside the entrance to the Newport Folk Festival, Blakeslee earned a spot on the lineup and performed onstage. He has a new car, a 2012 Honda Civic named Wanda, to carry him from gig to gig across the country, after his last steed, an “incredible lemon” called Numbnuts, split its frame going 8 m.p.h. over train tracks. “It’s the first time ever I’ve gotten a modern vehicle,” he says. “Every single car I’ve ever had has been 10-plus years old. One of my favorite longtime companion cars was my 1970 Chevy Impala that I had for four years, and I bought it for $50. I’m a sucker for a cheap guitar and a cheap car.”

Blakeslee finally got around to taking a guitar lesson, a birthday present from his jazz pianist father. “It was so great to actually learn what I was doing, because I never knew. I would play a chord not knowing what it was until this year,” he says. And the broken tooth that threatened to derail Blakeslee’s third studio album, Owed to the Tanglin’ Wind, is just about healed. In the meantime, his friend, a dentist to whom the album is dedicated, fashioned him a makeshift putty tooth so he could sing.

Blakeslee grew up on a farm in South Berwick, Maine, surrounded by music and art supplies. After a brief foray into breakdancing (“I was damn good!”), he discovered punk in seventh grade when he saw Five Balls of Power, Dropkick Murphys frontman Al Barr’s high school band, play in Portsmouth. He was 18 when he picked up a guitar for the first time and headed to Baltimore for art school.

“Both my parents have always nurtured my brothers and I to follow our hearts and do what fulfills us passionately. Music and art was always a gigantic part of my life, and they just urged me to jump in fully without any reservation,” says Blakeslee, his thumb still stained with ink. “So I’m definitely, hugely grateful to have a supportive family. Because when I went to art school, there were a lot of friends of mine that would say, ‘Yeah, well, my parents want me to become a lawyer or doctor.’”

He moved into a friend’s place in Davis Square in 1995, “back when it was cheap,” and busked on the MBTA to get by. He took a break from it when, after performing underground for eight hours without eating, his roommate found him at their kitchen table passed out from malnourishment.

Earlier, a woman leapt off her idling train at Copley Station and slipped something into his pocket. Delirious from exhaustion that night, Blakeslee found a $100 bill and a note requesting a copy of his recordings. He sent the woman everything he had and used the money to move back to Maine for a year, before bouncing around between Jamaica Plain, Allston, Brighton, and New Hampshire. He settled in Somerville a decade ago.

“I just feel so endlessly creative here by the people I’m surrounded by—musically, artistically, other ways,” he says before rattling off his favorite haunts: Groove Records, Bloc 11 Cafe, Petsi Pies, Forge Bakery, Izzy’s, the Neighborhood (whose citrus-tinged cream-of-wheat he has tried and failed to recreate).

“I’m forever charmed by it.”

• • •

I looked upon the Mystic, and it gazed in return.
That copper kept heat, and began to burn.
So the river began talkin’, it asked me your name.
I spoke it tender and clear, and the ice broke with flame.

• • •

Since Blakeslee first moved to Somerville, the most densely populated municipality in Massachusetts, housing costs have skyrocketed. In a 2009 report, Mayor Joe Curtatone’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development admitted that since 2000, Somerville had experienced “dramatic increases to housing prices,” as well as “far greater rates of condominium activity” than in neighboring cities—a 323-percent increase in condominium units in just nine years.

“Because condo conversions remove housing units from the rental market, this trend can restrict housing choice for low- and moderate-income renters,” the report says.

Consider Anna Feder, director of programming of the Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College and a former Somerville resident of two and a half years.

“Rents are just obscene. I had to leave Boston,” she says. Feder now resides in Providence’s West End, in a $1,200-a-month, top-floor apartment in a Victorian house. “I commute into Boston three days a week for work, but then I’m not really part of this community anymore.”

Feder, like Blakeslee, fawns over the giant portions at the Neighborhood. She says the artists are already leaving, fleeing south to Quincy, and north to Salem and Lowell. “They are just squeezing every last dime out of artists, and it’s kind of heartbreaking.”

Alyssa Alarcon, an illustrator for Allston Pudding, an award-winning music blog, says artists are migrating to Arlington too, though the lack of public transit makes things tricky. She’s planning her exodus from Somerville after three years there, upon receiving word from her elderly landlord’s sons that her rent will see a “substantial raise” come September.

“I don’t even know who still lives in Somerville anymore. It’s probably just me and Adam,” she says, referring to her friend, musician Adam McElreath of Big Big Buildings. “I know that he lives in a tiny, tiny studio and he’s just barely scraping by right now. I can’t imagine that he’ll be able to stay much longer, which is really unfortunate because he grew up here.”

When Blakeslee first moved to Somerville in 1995, he and his buddy split a two-bedroom apartment for $250. Twenty years later, the average two-bedroom in Davis costs between $1,500 and $2,000, according to the Somerville-based Boston Rental Exchange.

“That’s crazy! I’m not getting paid four times what I used to,” he says. “I don’t know many people who are.”

A 3,300-square-foot, nine-room home on College Avenue in Davis, placed on the market in October, is poised to break the record for the most expensive home ever sold in Somerville, starting at $1.69 million with potential bidding expected to lift it past the previous record of $1,725,000, set by a two-family converted to a single in April. Three condos have sold in Two Square Lofts at 211 Tremont Street in Union Square, each hovering around $1 million.

“We’re beyond the time to address. It’s gone into crisis mode,” Feder says. “Except for a few people who were smart enough to buy 20 years ago, I don’t know many people who can afford to live here anymore.”

“But on a nice note, Providence has been really great,” she laughs.

Blakeslee searched for two months before he found his current place in a stroke of luck. But for the first time, he thought he might have to leave Somerville for good. If that ever happens, he says he would head back up north to Portland, Burlington, or Portsmouth, where he previously spent five years.

“But the rent there is the same here,” he says. “Everyone up there, all my artist and musician friends moved to the town over. And then they beautified that town. Then they have to move to the next town out. Even the ones that were not the prettiest towns when I was growing up there have become the most beautiful places, and now the artists can’t live there anymore.”

Madeleine Gallagher, an interdisciplinary artist on staff at MIT, says it’s in the best interest of any city to subsidize the creative class, not only by making housing affordable for artists, but fostering the places where people experience the arts as well.

“There are so many corporate venues you can go to before everything becomes homogenous and you lose the whole cultural identity of a city,” she says.

“I know folks who are taking advantage of artist housing at the Waterfront, and that’s fantastic,” Feder says. “But a little project here and there that benefits a handful of artists isn’t the solution. The solution is to deal with rising housing costs all around.”

Blakeslee says the four rent hikes he’s received over the last 20 years have forced him to be more selective about the art projects he takes on. Now more than ever, he encounters clients who fail to budget for quality art. I tell him about an interview with sci-fi screenwriter Harlan Ellison, in which he complains how often writers are asked to work for nothing.

“Would you go to a gas station and ask for free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have him take out your spleen for nothing?” Ellison rants. “How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing.”

“When it all comes down to it, I love doing art and music so deeply, I couldn’t imagine one day without doing it,” Blakeslee tells me. “On my days off, I wander around and by the end of the day I’m thinking about music, I go see music, I’m writing music, I go to a museum, I make artwork. I can’t help it. I try so hard to take a day off when I’m not doing it. I can’t.”

• • •

Now the river’s on fire, so is the moon
with love’s desire, she’ll see the flame soon.
For I know that she’s quick
To respond to the flame…

“Along the Mystic,” Dan Blakeslee, Owed to the Tanglin’ Wind

• • •

On a brisk night in September, I come in from the cold and haggle with the doorman at Bull McCabe’s, a cozy Irish pub in Union Square, explaining that I’m here as press and don’t need to pay the $5 cover. (Only upon writing this does the full extent of my hypocrisy become painfully apparent.)

“Let the tall man in,” Dan Blakeslee calls from deep inside the bar, interrupting his duet with a woman in a cloche. I take a seat at the end of the bar and place my brown paper bag at the foot of my stool.

He plays “The North Woods” next. In the table closest to Blakeslee’s perch sits a couple in the middle of dinner. Both of them are on their cellphones, paying little attention to each other and less to Blakeslee as he stomps and strums to a toe-tapping beat. It reminds me of something he told me the day before, at Diesel, about how after four years, he’ll never play Austin’s SXSW festival again.

“It’s the strangest thing. Everything is just trying to see what’s coming up next. Everyone’s on their phone. Even if like, say, Bruce Springsteen is playing solo, people would be on their phones seeing what they’re missing, what’s coming next,” he says. “No one is actually listening.”

His sound weaves the steady, locomotive fervor of a train bounding though Maine’s blushing expanses of sugar maple and yellow birch, with the ambling unpredictability of filigree fingerpicking that never quite lands on the note you’d expect. He introduces songs with nonsensical origin tales, chuckling to himself as he readjusts his capo until he remembers where it’s supposed to go.

“I was listening to these two guys at a bar, and one said to another, ‘My lover gave me a white horse named Valentino as a gift,’” he says, introducing the next song. “I interrupted that conversation and asked him to tell me the story of that horse. He certainly did, and I could certainly not sleep a wink that night. So I wrote this song.”

Photo by Kyle Clauss

Photo by Kyle Clauss

In between sets, I rush to the stage and hand him the brown paper bag. Inside, a package of molasses cookies and a quart of Tropicana orange juice. He’s overjoyed.

He introduces me to the woman in the cloche, his girlfriend and fellow Somerville musician, Amy Kucharik. While Blakeslee chats with old friends, she tells me about the upcoming race for alderman in Ward 6, which includes Davis Square. She composed a “ballad of rising rents” in Somerville on ukulele for one candidate, Elizabeth Weinbloom. Its chorus goes like this:

They called you a slum but I called you home

A place where I could hold my own

A city built on broken cars,

Shady deals and biker bars

The only rent I could afford

A sandwich shop on every hill

Somerville

Blakeslee begins his second set. An uneaten burger and fries still sits on the fireplace mantle behind him. He plays a song off the new album, “Love and Confection,” about stumbling into a bakery “for a cup and a crumb,” and falling in love instead.

The crowd thins as the night wears on, and fittingly, Blakeslee’s selections begin to stray from his MBTA-tested repertoire. He plays two Nancy Sinatra covers, first a plodding, ominous “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” then “Summer Wine,” another duet with Kucharik, whose smooth, saccharine voice would render the eponymous vintage tart in comparison. Through fits of laughter, he debuts a song about meeting all the other Dan Blakeslees of the world in Blakeslee, Pennsylvania, and it becomes awfully apparent why “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is his favorite song off Bringing It All Back Home, his favorite Dylan album.

A fireman, a hockey player, and a priest walk into bar.

I was sitting at the stage, it came from very far.

“Is this some kind of joke?” I said as he told me something strange.

“We’re Dan Blakeslee too. We all share the same name.”

“Oh, by the way, I wrote this in the Market Basket parking lot,” he says, “and I finished it there. In Union Square.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2015/11/04/dan-blakeslee-somerville/