Michael Bloomfield

Michael Bloomfield’s Groundbreaking Blues

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 03.17.14 in Features

From His Head to His Heart to His Hands

Michael Bloomfield

For three or four decades now, perhaps the most influential electric guitarist in American popular music has been relegated to near-anonymity. Were he still alive, Michael Bloomfield presumably wouldn’t have it any other way; for him, the music itself was always the only thing that really counted. But interest in Bloomfield’s groundbreaking work has been escalating lately — his name seems to pop up more often than it used to, usually with musicians and fans who were around for his ’60s heyday and are being drawn back to him. Helping the buzz along, and perhaps attracting new fans in the process, is the recent three-CD/one DVD box set From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, which bundles his “greatest hits” with Paul Butterfield, the Electric Flag and Al Kooper’s Super Session projects together with a little of his work as a sideman (most notably, for Bob Dylan) and a whole bunch of previously unreleased stuff, much of it acoustic. Kooper made some questionable decisions, such as editing the Flag gem “Killing Floor” and including his own tribute “They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore” as an unlisted bonus track. But the music that’s there remains hard to beat, and the box offers a roadmap to Bloomfield’s oft-baffling career, which ended conclusively with a fatal drug overdose early in 1981, but which had been essentially moribund for a decade at that point. “The whole idea was to get as much of his good and most diverse guitar playing in there as possible,” Kooper says. “We’re trying to educate people as to how influential he’d been, and how innovative he’d been.” It’s a tall order — despite his influence at the time, Bloomfield himself never fit comfortably into a music business that was more business than music, and that is even more so today.

It’s hard to convey Bloomfield’s impact after he emerged nationally at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival as the lead guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. While several acoustic bluesmen had already penetrated the folk world, few music fans outside Chicago were even aware of electric blues bands, especially an integrated one like Butterfield’s. Bloomfield had grown up in a wealthy Chicago household and had been sitting in at South Side blues clubs for several years at that point. He’d already mastered virtually every blues guitar style (as well as rock and country ones), making his own sweet, singing sound a singular combination of all his influences; he sounded a bit like B.B. King as filtered through the thicker tones of Chicago greats like Muddy Waters and Hubert Sumlin, but there was also a healthy dose of Albert King’s physical attack, bent notes and distinct tone. Of course, at this time the rock audience didn’t know who these blues greats were, and Bloomfield’s brash playing was a shocker. The Butterfield Band was such a hit at Newport that Bob Dylan, whose “Like a Rolling Stone” was climbing the charts at the time, impulsively decided to go ahead and play electric for part of his festival-closing set. He asked Bloomfield, whom he’d met a couple years earlier in Chicago, and who’d played on the hit single and the rest of the as-yet-unreleased Highway 61 Revisited, to put a band together for him. What ensued that Sunday night in Newport is history, or myth, or folklore, or whatever you want to call it. Dylan asked Bloomfield to join the road band he was forming, but the guitarist chose instead to stick with Butterfield and play the blues.

‘It seemed like every white guitarist in the country had taken up a Les Paul in recognition of Bloomfield’s 1954 model.’

That band began touring regularly, playing blues authentic enough to stand with the masters back home, but with just enough of a rock edge to capture the hip young audience searching for a new thing. Their attention focused on Bloomfield’s guitar as much as it did on Butterfield’s harp and vocals. In a shockingly short span of time, it seemed like every white guitarist in the country had taken up a Les Paul in recognition of Bloomfield’s 1954 model; the guitar, which Gibson had stopped making in 1960, was reintroduced by the company due to popular demand. When the Butterfield Band came to San Francisco, all the fledgling psychedelic guitarists, most of them former folkies who’d only recently plugged in, studied Bloomfield’s every move. Over in England, Eric Clapton professed awe. The phrase “guitar hero” started getting tossed around, and the next several generations of rock guitarists were nearly all blues-based. Electric bluesmen like the three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were getting booked into the white hippie ballrooms. Butterfield’s eponymous 1965 debut, while not a big seller, was the hippest album in the hippest circles, in no small part because of Bloomfield. But what many overlooked was that he was more than just a great soloist; he was a complete guitarist, whether playing rhythm with the ensemble, comping behind another soloist, or tossing off fiery fills to embellish the end of a line.

As they toured, Bloomfield began developing the 13-minute epic that became the title song of the group’s August 1966 follow-up. “East-West” was a raga-like, modal instrumental consisting of a series of improvisations broken up by explosive crescendos, and ending with Bloomfield himself soloing in several different modes. It’s like John Coltrane meets Ravi Shankar, only with blues and rock dynamics, and all these years later, it sounds as fresh and fearless as it did when first released. But Bloomfield left the band just months later, because rhythm guitarist Elvin Bishop was itching to play more lead and Bloomfield was itching to play his own music. Moving out to Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, he formed the “American music” horn band Electric Flag, with old Chicago friends like singer Nick Gravenites and keyboard man Barry Goldberg. The eagerly-anticipated group barely got off the ground after debuting with a brief set at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Despite their enthusiastic reception, Bloomfield claimed with disgust that they’d sounded terrible — but as usual, he was being hard on himself. The recorded evidence from Monterey reveals a fledgling group of power, ingenuity, chops and conviction.

‘When hotshot new guitarists came along, they claimed their influences to be not Bloomfield himself, but names like Jimmy Page and others who’d been either inspired or influenced by Bloomfield.’

But the guitarist’s opposing belief suggests the difficulties that were to come. Bloomfield loathed the whole idea of stardom, hype, commerciality and musicians as “products,” but now he and the Flag were the Next Big Thing, and he was ostensibly the leader of a band that industry insiders believed was worth a million bucks (and they were going to make sure it turned out that way). And there were other problems just as destructive. Seemingly always pumped up, Bloomfield suffered chronic insomnia that grew unbearable on the road. Worse yet, several members, including the guitarist, were nurturing serious heroin habits. And drummer-singer Buddy Miles loved showbiz flash as much as Bloomfield hated it, and was maneuvering to make the band over in his own self-image. Bloomfield quit shortly after A Long Time Comin’, a rich and punchy mélange of blues, soul, rock and musique concrete, hit the stores. The pop intelligentsia found it a disappointing debut; given how high expectations were, that was inevitable.

As Bloomfield was removing himself from the Flag, Al Kooper convinced him to take part in the jam album that, much to Bloomfield’s consternation, came to be called Super Session. Though his playing was both focused and dreamy, some of his best ever captured on record, Bloomfield’s insomnia forced him home after one session and Kooper frantically called in Stephen Stills to finish the album. It proved the only resounding commercial success of Bloomfield’s career, but while he also played a few live gigs with Kooper (one of which promptly became a live album), the “guitar hero” had had it. For the next decade, he rarely left the Bay Area, and his interactions with the mushrooming rock scene he’d helped create were few and far between. Mainly, he stayed home to shoot heroin, watch television and read. Most of the records he released — listless, sloppy sets under his own name and that of faux supergroups, as well as a few soundtracks, on a variety of small labels — suggested he was completely fried, but that wasn’t exactly true. Gigging around the Bay Area as Mike Bloomfield and Friends — including Gravenites, Goldberg and a rotating cast of others — he had more than a few good nights away from the music biz spotlight; and he was especially good on those occasions when he performed solo. Still, despite the occasional Butterfield or Flag reunion, for most fans Michael Bloomfield was a goner. When hotshot new guitarists came along, they claimed their influences to be not Bloomfield himself, but names like Jimmy Page and others who’d been either inspired or influenced by Bloomfield. That has remained true — by removing himself from the spotlight out of contempt for the starmaking machinery, Bloomfield undermined his entire legacy. By making his playing the only thing that mattered, he assured that once it ended he would disappear along with it. That’s showbiz, folks. Bloomfield deserved — had earned — better.

On November 15, 1980, Bloomfield joined Dylan onstage in San Francisco for two songs. Kooper cites his work on “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” included in the Head Heart Hands box, as proof that the guitarist might have been pulling himself together. In truth, he’d been up and down and sideways so many times that there’s just no telling. But his playing on that song really is exquisite. Yet three months later he was found dead, behind the wheel of his 1971 Mercury parked on a San Francisco street. With no ID on him, he was initially registered by the medical examiner as John Doe #15, but family members soon identified him. When the autopsy was finished, the cause of death was listed as cocaine and methamphetamine poisoning. That was stunning news to those who knew him, because those were two drugs Bloomfield avoided; naturally wired and hyper all his life, he used drugs to slow himself down, not to speed himself up. Though friends had several theories, that mystery was never solved. But finally, as he never could in life, Michael Bloomfield could rest in peace.