It’s taken him close to 30 years, but Danny Blueberry finally released the songs he recorded half a lifetime ago.
Growing up, Blueberry’s musical exposure had been limited to religious songs because his family were Hasidim who shunned the secular world. His father is one of the founders of Yeshiva Gedola Merkaz Hatorah De Montreal, a haredi school in Montreal that Blueberry, who was then known as Danny Fonfeder, attended.
The yeshivah favoured religious and Hebrew studies and kept the secular curriculum to a minimum. “Just enough to get government funding,” he said.
When he was 12, Blueberry got his first taste of rock ‘n’ roll music when “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith’s ode to teenage lust, came on in the car before his religious parents could turn off the radio.
Sparked by the Aerosmith tune, Blueberry’s passion for rock grew. He listened to albums by the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Queen and Heart, sometimes obsessively until the vinyl wore out. “My parents didn’t have a problem with me listening to music. Somehow it was so far away from anything they viewed as a risk,” he said.
One Purim, Blueberry dressed up as Elvis Presley and discovered how little his Hasidic community knew about secular music. “People kept asking me who I was,” Blueberry said.
Blueberry’s cousins gave him a guitar for his bar mitzvah, not expecting that he would play rock. At 15, he spent a year at a strict religious boarding school in Scranton, Pa., and he remembers it as his most isolated year. But he was able to play guitar there. “I couldn’t find a single person that I had anything in common with,” Blueberry said. “I had that bar mitzvah guitar and I had ridiculous amounts of hours to practise it.”
At 17, he wrote his first song, “Have a Happy Birthday,” a tune with punk and progressive rock influences. No one in his community ever showed any interest in his music. “It was almost like they were allergic to listening to my music,” he said.
Blueberry was able to record some of his original rock songs in the early 1990s, after he met two musicians, guitarist Gary Kober and drummer Walter Ze’ev Macklin, who were baal teshuvah. Up until that point, Blueberry had never had any contact with a working musician. “We started practising with the goal of making an album. It was a big learning process. Ze’ev was a perfectionist and he taught me a lot about recording,” Blueberry said.
The album wasn’t released at the time, though. “While I was in the religious community, I had no idea what to do with it. I wasn’t even used to speaking to non-Jews. I didn’t know record companies and managers. I didn’t know anything about it and I just shelved it,” Blueberry said.
He left the Hasidic community in 2005, after a bitter divorce. “My ex outed me, that I was a rebel and not religious. I had been living pretty much a lie anyway,” he said.
Beginning in 2008, he began performing at open mikes in Montreal, which eventually led to club dates. Now 54, he finally released the album he recorded 27 years ago, along with several new songs, last August.
Some songs on the album, appropriately titled Isolation, are unintentionally funny, even when he sings about a painful situation. One example is “One Bedroom Apartment Blues,” about his failing marriage. “When the marriage was falling apart, my ex-wife said to me, ‘You know you’re going to feel really terrible sitting in a one-bedroom apartment and I’m going to be sitting in the house with the kids.’ That was such a strong statement and the song came right away,” Blueberry said.
“I just write as I see it and a lot of people burst out laughing. I write things not the way other people would write them because most people have college education or regular high school education. We didn’t have access to literature. So my pool of judgment and experience is different than everyone else’s.”