WESTLAND, Mass. In this western suburb of Boston, “starter” homes are typically priced just over a million dollars, leaving many in less-affluent communities nearby to say “nice start” when told their neighbors are moving up and on. “It doesn’t really bother me,” says Linda Putzinski, a stay-at-home mom in Walford, the “servant’s town” across the border that regularly beats Westland teams, helping their rich opponents build character. “I grind my teeth and gnaw at the inside of my cheeks, but I wish them well, the bastards.”
The relative comfort in which Westland residents live has one drawback, however; it frustrates many Baby Boomer dads who have been trying without success since their high school days to play or sing the blues, the despairing yet purgative music of humble African-Americans, which grows most readily in poverty-stricken environments. “Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways,” says Buddy Upshaw, a guitarist who’s abandoned life on the road singing in chicken shacks and gutbucket bars for adult education. “You wanna have a 401k that’s bulging with eye-popping returns on equity, you’re probably not gonna be able to express a lot of pain, unless you got a lot of dogs in your portfolio.”
Upshaw has carved out steady work for himself that supplements his meager CD royalties by teaching “Blues for the Eminently Practical,” a ten-week course that helps furnished-basement guitarists realize their dreams of someday being hailed as the baddest white blues musician in their upscale zipcodes. “Buddy has really helped me,” says Dan Overholt, manager of a mutual fund that specializes in international stocks. “Before, my guitar-playing sounded like a car crashing into a Jersey barrier. Now, it sounds like Eric Clapton’s guitar crashing, so that’s an improvement.”
Sunday finds eight blues wannabes in a classroom at Bay State Community College, where Upshaw is putting them through their paces, checking their homework assignment from the week before: write a blues song drawn from their lives, and not one dependent on “mojos,” “black cat bones” and “John the Conqueror” roots, staples of blues lyrics but images unlikely to be encountered as one walks through a neighborhood where half-acre zoning means mega-mansions on every lot.
“Let’s hear what you got,” Upshaw says to Chris Ueberroll, an analyst for Morgan, Everest, a wealth management firm. Ueberroll clears his throat, then launches into “I Ain’t Got No Hangover”:
Went out to dinner last night,
I started out with light beer.
Later I switched to Malbec,
but my wife said “Not too many, dear.”
When I woke up this morning,
My mind was perfectly clear.
Upshaw hems and haws, not wanting to come down too hard on the neophyte, but finally can’t avoid criticizing Ueberoll’s effort. “I don’t think you’ve really gotten to core of your pain, you know what I’m sayin’? You don’t have to get sloppy drunk, but you at least gotta drown your sorrows.”
Ueberoll does his best to accept the criticism gracefully, but one can tell from a bob of his Adam’s apple that he’s hurt. “Thanks,” he says. “Maybe I’ll try a vodka martini next week.”
“Grey Goose, okay? Don’t you go drinkin’ none of that Absolut, that’s for freshmen girls at you all’s high school,” Upshaw says with a toothy grin, then turns to the next student, Michael Reilly, a commercial real estate broker. “I knows you a gambler with all them high rises you puttin’ up with borrowed money–let’s hear what you got!” Upshaw says by way of encouragement.
Reilly tunes the high “E” string of his guitar until he has the pitch just right, then plays a mournful chord underneath his vocal:
I had me a mall in the suburbs,
It was doin’ just fine.
Then we lost our anchor tenant,
‘tho it was no fault of mine.
We signed a lease with The Cheesecake Factory,
it’s a place where your family can dine.
Again, Upshaw hesitates before speaking, then edges gingerly into an oblique criticism of the dramatic arc of the lyrics. “So basically, you avoided Chapter 11, and if anything, you’re better off than you was before–right?”
“Well, right,” Reilly says. “But there were some really hairy moments there for awhile. Lawyer’s letters flying back and forth.”
“Lawyers can’t do nothin’ to a blues man, okay?” Upshaw snaps, for the first time showing signs of impatience. “When they send a lawyer after you, you get yourself a gun or a knife, okay?”
Reilly nods his head, but it is clear that he’s not sure he’s ready for the rough-and-tumble approach to dispute resolution favored by more traditional bluesmen.
“Who’s up next?” Upshaw says, and Frank DiPietro, a tax lawyer at a Boston firm, raises his hand hesitantly and is called on. “What you got for us?” Upshaw asks.
“A song about a woman,” DiPietro says.
“Man, that’s the real blues you talkin’ now,” Upshaw says. “Let’s hear it.”
DiPietro, who has been playing guitar for nearly half a century with only moderate progress to show for it, adjusts his left hand in the formation for a C chord, then begins to croon softly as he plays:
My wife said if I wanted to be her man
for Valentine’s Day this year
she wanted a bracelet by David Yurman
she made herself very clear.
Instead, I got her a knock-off
and she told me I could go . . .
“Yeah!” Upshaw shouts in the sort of spontaneous outburst one might expect at a real down-home blues club. “That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!”