Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life
In The Blues
University Of Texas Press (Hardcover)
By Mike Greenblatt
When Bob Dylan freaked out the folk-music purists at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, it was Michael Bloomfield’s loud electric guitar that presaged the passage of folk into folk-rock. With booing in the air, it was an incendiary moment for rock and roll culture and it was Bloomfield instigating it at Dylan’s behest. “He’s the best guitar player I ever heard,” said Dylan. It is also Bloomfield’s electric lead guitar all over Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” mega-hit. Dylan asks him to tour but Michael opts instead to join The Paul Butterfield Blues Band wherein he basically invents jazz-rock fusion with “East-West,” the 13:10 instrumental that closes their second album, making this band the first jam-band, and again changing the course of modern music (four years before Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew to popularize fusion). Then he leaves Butterfield to start rock’s first horn band, The Electric Flag, a year before Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. He introduces Johnny Winter to a larger audience, is assigned the task of getting Janis Joplin’s solo band arranged upon her exit from Big Brother & The Holding Company (Janis and Michael spent many an hour sticking needles in their arms when they supposed to be in the studio) and he was the guitar teacher of Carlos Santana.
So what happened?
Guitar King answers that question and more. Author David Dann’s incredible research into a man destined to be the American Clapton but who was his own worst enemy has made this exhaustive 740-page monster of a book essential reading for serious rock and blues fans. As a white Jewish Chicago rich kid with a trust fund, he baffled his parents by leaving the life laid out for him to jam with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who took him in like a son. He was so damn good that they’d let him come up on stage with them and be in their bands in front of tough Windy City crowds.
Ferociously upbeat, energetic, talking a mile-a-minute to whomever would listen, he was approachable, friendly, outgoing, a voracious reader and had an encyclopedic knowledge of blues, jazz, rock and country. Only problem was he couldn’t turn it off. And it drove him crazy. Upon recording the now-legendary Super Session album with Al Kooper that resulted in Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch” becoming an FM Radio staple, he wound up hating the song so much, he’d yell at the audience when they’d invariably request it by saying, “I hate that song! If my mother was dying and made it her last request, I still wouldn’t do it!” Stephen Stills had to replace Bloomfield on the original Super Session when Bloomfield simply disappeared in the middle of the night leaving Kooper hung out to dry.
Only heroin could slow him down and he loved it. He loved the fact that on heroin, he didn’t have to live life at 100 mph. It was soothing, all-comforting, and he easily nestled into its womb-like pleasures. Dann treats the Guitar Hero’s demise with the proper amount of mystery. Bloomfield’s dead body was found in his car. At the autopsy, cocaine and meth were discovered in his system. He was 38. The mystery comes when those who know him knew those were two drugs he would never do. He was already wired naturally! Dann then satisfyingly proposes what might have happened and all indications point to a crime being committed.
Bloomfield hated performing. He hated touring. He hated the demands of being a rock star. He suffered horrible bouts of insomnia on the road. He felt like a monkey on a leash. (This, after Hendrix probably got the idea of setting his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival by watching Bloomfield actually eat fire on stage.) In the latter half of his career, though, he went into a downward spiral of what he liked to call “stoned leisure,” just watching a ton of TV, playing his guitar, making tapes and staying high. He wanted…he craved…total obscurity after being America’s First Great Blues-Rock Guitar Hero. He got what he wanted. It’s a damn shame.