Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero by Ed Ward
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a pretty short and succinct biography of Michael Bloomfield, a 1960s guitar hero I loved then and today. I knew some of the broad outlines of his story – growing up in Chicago; playing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bob Dylan, and The Electric Flag; and his early death due to alcoholism and/or drug use in 1981.
Bloomfield was devoted to the blues; he grew up in Chicago and became entrenched in the black blues clubs in his teens. I especially enjoyed reading how the musicians of the day discovered and worked with one another as an extended club. As Bloomfield worked at Big John’s “he noticed that Paul Butterfield, a musician he didn’t particularly care for, was coming in to sit in more and more. Despite their personal antipathy, they sounded good playing music together.”[p 42] A little later “Butterfield joined Bloomfield onstage to jam on a Freddie King instrumental. ‘Paul and I exchanged looks,’ [Joe] Boyd wrote later. ‘This was the magic dialectic, Butterfield and Bloomfield. It sounded like a firm of accountants, but we were convinced it was the key to fame and fortune for the band and for us.'” [p 47] The resulting album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was one of the first albums I remember buying. Bloomfield’s guitar playing is sublime. Just listen to “Blues With a Feeling” to get an idea of Bloomfield’s style – at turns laid back and driving it is still one of my favorite songs. On their follow-up album, East West, Bloomfield again lights up the world with his work on “I’ve Got A Mind to Give Up Livin”
Around the same time Bloomfield found his way into Bob Dylan’s orbit for the Highway 61 Revisited album. “Dylan confronted Bloomfield with only one rule: ‘I don’t want any of that B.B. King [$#!+]’, he said”…”Bloomfield sat listening to Dylan reel off song after song, trying to figure out guitar lines that weren’t too bluesy to go along with them.”[p 55] I think he succeeded. Just listen to his work on the subtlety of “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and his strong front work on “Like A Rolling Stone”. Later Bloomfield claimed to not like the album. “‘The session was very chaotic,’ Bloomfield told Tom Yates and Kate Hays. ‘Bob had the vaguest sound … I could probably have put a more formal rock ‘n’ roll sound to it or at least my idea of one, but I was too intimidated by that company.”[p 56] Ed Ward may be stretching a bit when he says “‘Like a Rolling Stone’ went beyond all previous essays into folk-rock. It made history as a pop record that pushed Beatles-era rock ‘n’roll music into the experimental, long-for directions that would characterize the late 1960’s” [p 57] but not by much.
The Newport Folk festival of 1965 is famous for Bob Dylan’s going electric – he was booed heavily by the crowd who expected acoustic. Ed Ward tries to make the argument that the problem wasn’t Dylan going electric; it’s that the stage and amplifier configuration was the problem. I don’t agree with that. In Marc Maron’s WTF podcast #781 Robbie Robertson talks about this whole era when The Band was backing Dylan on tour. The people weren’t getting what they wanted. Regardless, they were getting history. When Dylan came out to play with members of the Butterfield Blues Band, “the next five minutes would mark a turning point in the history of electric guitar. His performance on ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was a radical move… what Bloomfield gave them on the evening of July 25, 1965, was the future of rock guitar.”[p 66] For an idea of Bloomfield’s epic guitar playing, search for ‘Maggie’s Farm Bob Dylan Live at Newport Folk Festival’. The lighting is terrible and you only see Bloomfield for a few seconds but you can sure hear him sit “so hard on top of the beat that it screams, and what he plays amounts to a sardonic running commentary of Dylan’s song.”[p 66]
Michael Bloomfield then formed The Electric Flag with his pals Nick Gravenites and Mark Naftalin. The band was good but Bloomfield’s troubles took their toll on the band. A short – less than one minute – gem from this era is “Easy Rider.”A sweet guitar riff that he must have played between other parts of rehearsal.
Bloomfield was an insomniac and seemed to have stage fright. He famously missed the second day of recording of the “Super Session” recording because he just didn’t want to play. That is why we hear Stephen Stills on side two of the album. Bloomfield would frequently just walk away in the middle of a project if he wasn’t pleased. He was a purist and if a project was commercially successful it was just evidence that it was no good. He played off an on through the 70’s but dropped out of sight for a good part of the time. He died too young in early 1981.
This is a good biography on Bloomfield’s music and is a good read about the music scene of the mid 60s but Ed Ward doesn’t really dive into the personal matters of alcoholism and drug abuse. If you are a fan of Michael Bloomfield and/or the music of his time this is a nice quick read. I especially like the discography which takes up a good part of the second half of the book. It gives evidence of how much work goes into recording a song as well as the breadth of the music industry.
Even if you don’t read the book; listen to Michael Bloomfield play; a good place to start would be the songs I mention.
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