In Memory of Blues Guitarist Mike Bloomfield
Mike Bloomfield Was Arguably the Greatest Blues Guitarist of the 1960s
Let’s start at the end. On February 15, 1981, Mike Bloomfield was found dead in a car on a side street in San Francisco. He was 37. Somebody, perhaps a dealer, had dumped him there, not wanting to get involved. His body went unclaimed at the morgue for a time. This was certainly a sad finale for one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.
Like many musicians throughout the twentieth century, Bloomfield had succumbed to drug addiction. At his death, heroin and cocaine were found in his system, and the death was officially listed as an accidental drug overdose. It seemed Mike had lost his way in the 1960s and never found his way back. (At least he lasted longer than Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison.)
At the pinnacle of Mike Bloomfield’s career, 1968 or so, he was perhaps the most gifted blues guitarists of the era, as good or better than Lightnin’ Hopkins, Harvey Mandel, Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters, B.B. King (Mike’s idol), Albert King, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or any others one might choose to list here. Simply put, when Mike was at his best, his playing was spectacular, even transcendent, like the philosophy, ideals and events of that most distinctive of decades–the 1960s.
Please keep reading for more about the life of Mike Bloomfield!
Mike Bloomfield’s Early Days
This bluesman’s origins weren’t typical. Mike Bloomfield was a pudgy white Jewish boy who grew up in an affluent section of Chicago, Illinois. Yes, Mike’s parents had money. Mike went to the best schools and his parents bought him whatever he wanted. This was no black sharecropper’s son from Mississippi! Mike also grew up loving to read, and he valued scholarship, as many Jewish people seem to do.
At the age of 13, Mike picked up his first guitar and, taking lessons along the way, quickly learned rock ‘n’ roll chops, as well as folk, bluegrass, and blues. (Even though Mike was left-handed, he learned to play guitar right-handed. He also learned to play harmonica and piano.)
In his middle teens, Mike started going to blues joints such as Pepper’s Show Lounge, where he first saw Muddy Waters. By the age of 15, Mike had the juice to play in front of an audience, and by 17, he could gig with Muddy’s band, sounding as good as Muddy’s guitarist, blowing minds in the process because he was so young and played... so fast. Many of the black people in the crowd probably asked each other, “Who’s that white kid playing up there?”
About 1961, Mike met three musicians who would have a profound effect on his career: singer/song writer Nick Gravenites, guitarist Elvin Bishop, and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. At first, Mike stayed away from Butterfield, who had the reputation of a tough Irish dude who took no crap from anybody. Mike said, “I was scared to work with Butterfield. He was a bad guy. He carried pistols.”
In 1962, Mike and his band played at a popular Chicago blues venue on Rush Street called the Fickle Pickle, and many of these shows were tape recorded. Mike also played in topless bars and beatnik joints, pretty much wherever he could make some scratch. Sometimes, Mike would play out front of these places wearing dark glasses, imitating a blind musician with a cup, just to make pocket change.
By the age of 20, Mike could play many different styles of guitar. His musical range impressed many people. His friend George Mitchell said, “He could play in virtually anybody’s style. It was phenomenal. It always astounded me.”
By the end of 1964, Mike played in a band simply called The Group, which featured, among others, the soon-to-be-famous harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. Sometimes Mike played the piano and sang, though his lead guitar was the major attraction of the assemblage.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
In early 1965, Paul Butterfield offered Mike a job in his band, and Mike accepted even though Butterfield intimidated him. This meant the Paul Butterfield Blues Band would have two guitar players, the other being Elvin Bishop. About this new arrangement, Bishop said, “I imagine there was a little part of me that resented it. But for the most part, it took a load off me. I was trying to do more than I was able to do at the time, as far as playing leads and keeping up enough rhythm at the same time. I was green, and I knew it.”
About this time, Mike did some studio work with Bob Dylan on his mega-hit “Like a Rolling Stone.” And blues legend Al Kooper played the organ. This was quite a meeting of talent!
Then Dylan, formerly a dyed in the wool folkie, began playing electric blues and rock, particularly at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, irking many of his die-hard fans. Mike, who played lead guitar on the set, had this to say about the experience: “When I played with Dylan, I thought they loved us – but there were booing. I heard a noise. I thought it was, ‘Yeah, great band!’ But they were booing.” Al Kooper insisted the crowd didn’t boo Dylan because he played electric music; it was because the band played only three songs! Moreover, some people thought Bloomfield was playing too loud and too many notes, particularly on “Maggie’s Farm.”
In the fall of 1965, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a multi-racial quintet (soon adding keyboardist Mark Naftalin), began recording their first album. Perhaps its greatest hit was “Born in Chicago,” written by Nick Gravenites. And Mike co-wrote the tunes “Thank you Mr. Poobah,” and “Screamin’.” Because of the rudimentary technology at the time, the recordings for the album were done completely live. Elvin Bishop said, “Some of it was one take; some of it was 50 takes.”
When the band came out west and played at concert halls such as Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, the people in the San Francisco Bay Area couldn’t believe how well these guys played. They were musicians! Members of the area’s various psychedelic bands, who had barely moved beyond acoustic instruments, were particularly impressed. Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane, had this to say about the band: “The Butterfield Band was truly unbelievable. I’d never seen anything like it before. Mike and Elvin Bishop played so well together; the whole band, Mark Naftalin, truly unbelievable, just to see that kind of virtuosity and power.”
To add an unusual visual aspect to the band’s performance, Mike started using his fire-eating routine during the playing of the long instrumental, “East-West.” The stoned-on-acid hippies must have really enjoyed seeing this!
On the band’s second album, East-West, Mike didn’t write any songs, but he was credited, along with Nick Gravenites, for the creation of the album’s title cut, “East-West,” a 13-minute instrumental emphasizing idioms in both Western and Eastern music - what band members called “The Raga.” This revolutionary tune played in D minor had long guitar solos by both Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield, as well as an incendiary harmonica solo by Paul Butterfield. This one-chord jam utilized modal jazz, a tamboura-like droning, several breaks and a rousing crescendo toward the end. At the time, it was said that one could get loaded simply by listening to “East-West.” And, during the years after it was released, you could hear its influence in the sound of numerous guitarists of the era, particularly ones in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But, growing tired with Butterfield’s despotic leadership, Mike decided to quit the band and go his own way in early 1967. And this part of Mike’s career change entailed a move to San Francisco, where he lived the rest of his life.
The Electric Flag
Once in the City, as they called it in northern California, Mike began forming a soulful blues septet that would include horns, which hadn’t been done up to that point (actually just before Al Kooper formed Blood, Sweat and Tears, a similar group utilizing horns). This group, which would come to be known as the Electric Flag, featured guitarist Mike Bloomfield, drummer Buddy Miles, bassist Harvey Brooks, singer Nick Gravenites and a three-man horn ensemble. The band’s first job was doing the film score for the movie The Trip, starring Peter Fonda and written by Jack Nicholson. Then the Electric Flag played at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Of course, every rocker on the planet loved the Monterey Pop Festival. Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks commented, “Monterey was a great experience. It was the first festival of that nature, for one thing. I remember sitting in a room with the guy from the Rolling Stones who passed away, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix and Bloomfield and a few other people. We were just sitting in this room and everybody was tripping on a little acid and talking about how groovy everything was. “
Because of various problems, including Mike’s inability to stay in tune with the horns, the Electric Flag lasted less than a year, producing one album, A Long Time Comin’, though the band influenced many other groups, particularly in Frisco. But it also marked the beginning of Mike’s indulgence in that most addictive of drugs: heroin, a.k.a. smack, horse, skag, brown sugar or junk. (Up to this point, Mike had partied with marijuana or LSD; he didn’t even drink that much alcohol. Too bad he didn’t stick with these relatively safe substances.)
Then keyboardist Al Kooper had an idea. He wanted to record an album with Mike that emphasized his ability as a soloist. Of course, Mike agreed to play on this Super Session, as it came to be called. His contribution to the album, which was recorded in only nine hours, Mike played on five tunes, including three written by himself and Al Kooper – “Albert’s Shuffle,” “His Holy Modal Majesty” and “Really.” (The record’s other side featured the work of guitarist Stephen Stills.) Super Session came to be known as Mike Bloomfield’s greatest work, and after its release, Mike became a rock star.
Unfortunately, Mike Bloomfield never wanted to be a star of any kind, and his behavior thereafter proved it.
Soon afterward, Al Kooper, wanting an encore of sorts to Super Session, recorded a double-album set with Mike entitled The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, recorded over three nights at the Fillmore East in September 1968. But the cuts on this album weren’t near as good as its immediate predecessor, except for Mike’s stirring 11-minute rendition of Albert King’s “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong.” The reason for this letdown was that Mike Bloomfield was becoming undependable; his drug indulgence was getting the better of him, and continuing bouts of insomnia were becoming a chronic problem, which hospitalized him for a short time.
Around December 1968, Mike and Nick Gravenites helped Janis Joplin assemble her Kozmic Blues Band and record an album. Mike also played guitar on “One Good Man,” a tune from that band’s one and only album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Alas, Mike also did junk with Janis – their connection was right down the street from where they rehearsed!
In 1969, Mike did his first solo album, It’s Not Killing Me, which highlighted his vocal work. (Could the title have been an apology for Mike’s drug habit?) That same year Mike also made a live jam album titled, Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, featuring a guest appearance by Taj Mahal.
Mike Bloomfield’s Twilight Years
During the early 1970s, Mike withdrew more and more from the stardom he never really wanted. As much as possible, he kept to himself, though he had girlfriends from time to time, but avoided long-term relationships and generally lived a very modest lifestyle.
By the late 1970s, Mike was taking a sedative-hypnotic called Placidyl to relieve his insomnia. Unfortunately, the drug severely altered Mike’s behavior, making him a kind of walking zombie. Moreover, Placidyl is highly addictive and has numerous bad side effects (as of 1999 it was no longer sold in the United States). At one point, Mike checked himself into a hospital to try to “kick” Placidyl. But this treatment didn’t work, so Mike began doing what other famous musicians such as Eric Clapton have done: he began drinking heavily, essentially becoming a drunk to try to cure another addiction.
At about this time, in 1979, Mike did an album of gospel guitar duets with Woody Harris entitled Bloomfield/Harris. Too bad this interest in spiritual music didn’t alter Mike’s addiction in any way. He’d quit drinking for a month or two and then go on an extended bender.
His girlfriend at the time, Christie Svane, said that even when Mike was struggling with his inner demons, he was still a terrific person. She wrote, “No matter what condition Michael was in, that underlying thread of very pure and very real love for the whole human race was always there, and everybody felt it. And even though he could screw up as an individual, there was something angelic about him.”
During Mike’s last days, he would play from time to time, whenever somebody had the inclination and energy to snatch him and take him somewhere, sometimes when he was still wearing his housecoat and slippers, though even when he was drunk and/or stoned he generally sounded good, if not very good. But he was slowly spiraling out of control, and just about everybody could tell, especially those closest to him.
At one point, Mike wanted to marry Christie Svane, but she was reluctant. Finally, she said, “Okay, I’ll marry you and we can have a kid if you sign a paper and swear you won’t OD until the kid’s out of high school.” And Mike kept saying, “No, no, you don’t get it. The minute I had a child, I would never do any of that again.”
Well, Christie and Mike never got married.
Then it happened.
In Memoriam of Mike Bloomfield
Mike Bloomfield died with a fair amount of cocaine in his system. This didn’t make sense because he hated cocaine and methamphetamine, perhaps due to his bipolar illness. Some have speculated that somebody gave Mike a shot of coke to counteract the load of heroin that he had injected. Nevertheless, this was too little too late. Then they – the dealers or whoever - dumped his body in a parked car, a kind of urban unmarked grave for people who have found oblivion at last.
His body lying on a slab in the morgue, Mike’s mother had to come and identify her son. Such a sad moment that must have been! She buried Mike in a well-known Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.
Mike’s very good friend, Nick Gravenites, had this to say about Mike: “He was quite a forceful personality. He was quite a wit. And he also had a very deep character. He was very generous, very soulful. I can still think in those major terms, those big terms, when I think about Michael. He was a huge giant of a person.”
Unlike many rock stars that went out in a blaze by the age of 27 or so, Mike Bloomfield took another decade to disintegrate, and perhaps we should be happy for that. Or should we? It could be argued that Mike wasted his life; at 37, it was just getting started. Perhaps he could have overcome his self-destructive habits, as many others have, and then helped people avoid making the same mistakes he made. Of course, Mike could have continued to play the guitar as well, which definitely would have been a pleasure to many people.
At any rate, please remember Mike Bloomfield and his magical guitar licks. At least we’ll have those for a very long time. Also remember that he must have been a real cool dude.
By the way, the quotes in this article come from Jan Wolkin and Bill Keenom’s book, Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues.
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© 2009 Kelley Marks