By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
On February 15, 1981 rock music lost one of its early favorite sons, a guitarist who oversaw the transition of pop and folk music into a medium that featured electric amplification and extended solo blues performances. That man was Michael Bloomfield and his story is fully explored in Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero.
Written by Ed Ward, this revealing biography with an added discography and catalog of Bloomfield’s live performances, is largely a reissue of a seminal work written by the author and released in 1983 by Cherry Hill Press, shortly after the guitarist had died. Copies of the original paperback book have sold for more than $200 to collectors and it was the publisher’s desire to largely update and expand the original work with new research – “for all intents and purposes, a new book,” it promises.
Also included is the entire 1968 Rolling Stone interview Bloomfield held with young editor Jann S. Wenner in February of that year, timed to coincide with the release of his band The Electric Flag’s first album “A Long Time Comin’.” A foreword by Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons gives further credence to Bloomfield’s influence on the likes of Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Buddy Miles and Mark Naftalin.
Out for the first time in a hardback version, this edition allows new readers and lovers of the rock genre to learn and gain respect about this important, but largely unknown innovator. While members of the millennial generation may recognize many of the notable performers influenced by Bloomfield (e.g. Bob Dylan, The Band and Eric Clapton among many), his star set too soon to remain in the pantheon of worshipped rock deities. Nevertheless, it was Bloomfield in his early days whose trend setting guitar work helped Dylan cross from folk into rock (“Highway 61 Revisited”), gave acceptance to horn sections being incorporated into groups like Blood Sweat and Tears and infused rock with the updated legacy of the blues he had heard and become inspired by as a young Jewish boy growing up in Chicago.
As its subtitle implies, Bloomfield was a talented, but tragic figure, whose death was officially attributed to a combination of cocaine and methamphetamine, his body found slumped over the wheel of a dilapidated sedan. But this book is not about how he died or even the reasons behind his renewed drug use, a habit many of his cohorts believed he had kicked.
No, this book is a survey of the career of a man whose guitar playing was considered so extraordinary, so accomplished that he became the legitimate holder of the title of superstar. His work with what eventually became the members of The Band, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stephen Stills, Al Kooper as well as a slew of the very best of the nation’s bluesmen established Bloomfield as a fiery, but tormented talent.
Live albums that pushed the envelope with Bloomfield at their helm were the so-called “Super Sessions” and “The Live Adventures of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield.”
Bloomfield’s detractors intimated he was nothing more than a rich little boy playing a game that the downtrodden true masters of blues were enduring out of necessity. He could always run back home, they suggested, back home to his affluent family. But Bloomfield, who did receive a stipend of $50,000 per year from his family, shirked the responsibility of paying taxes on it or taking care of his daily business matters. Coupled with his descent into drug addiction, Bloomfield ran into deep financial difficulty, which Ward covers in the book. His extensive interviews with rock, blues and folk luminaries about Bloomfield include B.B. King, Carmine Appice, Mitch Ryder, John Hammond, Muddy Waters and Peter Yarrow.
It is interesting that Bloomfield’s overarching drive initially was to make money. According to Ward, he didn’t relish fame as much as he insisted on being paid for his craftsmanship. Playing before huge crowds, such as those that occurred when Dylan’s band performed at the Newport Folk Festival, made him nervous. But he played like a man possessed. Years later as Bloomfield became more involved with drugs and his consumption of alcohol made him more difficult to be around, his search was more for fulfillment and satisfaction of working on several projects for which he was probably overqualified.
While a study of this true rock star and bluesman will probably never reveal all about Bloomfield, this one comes remarkably close to bearing the term definitive. For those that have never heard of Bloomfield or for those who remember him well, this is volume worth reading.
Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero by Ed Ward (with additional research and material by Edd Hurt). Chicago, 2016. Chicago Review Press. 258 pp.