If you play guitar, and know a little bit about the blues, chances are, you'll offer an eager response when I ask, "I just got this Mike Bloomfield show from 1980, wanna hear it?" If you're part of the general public, you'll probably just shrug, or ask, "Michael who?" That's hardly surprising, as his name gradually receded from commercial consciousness after his glorious 1960s run -- first, with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, then, with his incendiary guest shot on Bob Dylan's album, Highway 61 (1965), and his work with the Electric Flag on The Trip soundtrack, and his only album with them, A Long Time Coming.
And, while Michael did his share of inspired work during the '70s -- notably, If You Love These Blues, Play 'Em As You Please, his mail-order-only album for Guitar Player's short-lived recording division -- getting it was no mean feat. As a teenager, it required a lot of detective work to track down, after a high school teacher turned me on to those '60s-era sounds.
For me, it meant scouring rack after rack of discarded "Special Value" eight-tracks, which is how I scored The Best Of The Electric Flag, among other treasures, and Nick Gravenites' My Labors, one of many albums that Michael guested on. (Alas, I never got to hear it in its entirety, after going through two eight-track -- and one cassette -- an omission that I've since remedied, with the bootleg stuff from that era.)
My quest accelerated after Michael's untimely death in February 1981, at just 37, which inspired a fine profile in Rolling Stone -- one that raised bigger questions. How (or why) did someone with such a fiery, instantly recognizable guitar style, fall so firmly off the commercial radar? Why didn't more people acknowledge his influence at the time? What contributions did he make, in the grand scheme of popular music? And what particular hellhounds -- chemical, emotional, psychological, take your pick -- led to Bloomfield's sad and lonely end, abandoned by his partymates in a battered old car, after failing to come around for the final time?
Now, we have a better idea, thanks to Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life In The Blues (University of Texas Press), by David Dann, who addresses all of these issues, and many, many more, in 740 breathtaking pages.
Monumental and massive, Guitar King gives its subject a suitably epic feel, even as it moves at a brisk pace through the peaks and valleys of Bloomfield's life -- building on the foundations laid down by earlier efforts, If You Leave These Blues: An Oral History (Backbeat Books, 2000), by Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom, and Michael Bloomfield: The Rise And Fall Of An American Guitar Hero, by Ed Ward (Cherry Lane Books, 1983, reissued in 2016), and then, taking those works to the next higher level.
As Guitar King takes shape, you feel Bloomfield's larger than life presence all over again, and other bygone figures with whom he hung out, or played, like Albert Grossman, Bill Graham, Janis Joplin, and Buddy Miles, to name just a few -- as well as Paul Butterfield (another figure overdue for rediscovery and reappraisal, which has partially happened with the documentary, Horn From The Heart, now available on DVD).
As a longtime Bloomfield fan, I couldn't pass up the chance to talk with David, to whose website I contributed, as he notes -- and revisit the larger questions that surround Bloomfield's life, and art, which we naturally could only do on the most relevant occasion, as all-American as one you could find...what would have marked the Guitar King's 76th birthday (7/28/19). So sit down, strap yourself in, and...well, hell, enjoy the ride.
PART I: "...VERY, VERY FEW GUYS WHO SOUND LIKE BLOOMFIELD"
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): So what thoughts run through your mind, on that particular occasion (Michael Bloomfield’s birthday)? I worked with you on the site, and watched that grow by leaps and bounds. Then, gradually, I saw you expanding it further. You did the radio special.
DAVID DANN (DD): Well, obviously, it’s a day to think about Bloomfield’s contributions to American pop culture, which is – for me – a fairly large consideration.
The radio broadcast was done in four hour-long segments. I had a show for many years here, at Catskill Public Radio – it was broadcast there, and a few other stations. That was really the very first effort I made to reach out to Bloomfield’s former bandmates, and some of his family members, and get them on tape, so that I could use them for the radio program.
But I had no inkling that I was ever going to write a biography of Michael. Certainly, the radio broadcast, I thought, was going to be the end of whatever my efforts were.
CR: But when I listened to it, I thought, “If you really want to do the excavation work, there’s a hell of a book in here, and a hell of a story to be told.” What got you on that particular path?
DD: Bill Keenom and Jan Mark Wolkin published an excellent oral biography, If You Love These Blues. I had read that book, and that was what got me started on doing the website – you were the first person to make an outside contribution, which I very much appreciated, because it was all about Norman Dayron, who, at that time, was sort of a mystery man. To me, anyway.
CR: And kind of a polarizing figure among some, too.
DD: Indeed! Very much so.
CR: And we’ll get to that, of course…
DD: Sure, sure. On my doorstep one day arrived a large carton, which turned out to be all of Bill Keenom’s interviews – and he very kindly sent them to me, because he saw that I’d been working on the website, and thought they would be helpful.
At least half the material on these tapes never quite made it into their book. I just became more and more fascinated in the story, and started to do interviews of my own for the website. One thing led to another, and I started to write, about seven or eight, nine years ago. Here we are today.
CR: For sure. And then (came) the search for someone to publish it, which, of course, you successfully managed, so…
DD: Yes. I was very lucky in that regard. I first went to the University of Chicago, thinking that –
CR: That would be the logical home.
DD: Yeah, because Bloomfield spent so much time in Hyde Park, he’s from Chicago, and it’s (about the) blues. They said, “This isn’t the kind of book we do, but there’s a place in Austin, Texas, that would love this. The editor there, he’s a big Bloomfield fan. So contact Robert Devens, at University of Texas Press, and see if they’ll go for it.” That’s what I did, and they were very interested. It was very easy. I didn’t…
CR: You didn’t have the struggle.
DD: No, no struggle at all. No agent, no nothing.
CR: I was really glad that they gave you the space and the time that you needed, to get the story told.
DD: They were great, in that way. My editor, at first, was alarmed, because I sent him over 850 manuscript pages (laughs) – he was expecting 300, I think, or 400.
And he said, “You know, this is wonderful, but it’s far too large for us to publish. Economically, we just can’t manage it.” So I spent about a year, hacking away. After seven edits, and (cutting) 140,000 words, we came up with something that was too big for them, but too small for me, so we sort of met in the middle.
CR: But you have the website. And you could put extras from your book on it.
DD: That is, in fact, the plan. A number of interesting anecdotes and side stories are going up on the website, once the book comes out. I’m going to do a fairly detailed thing on Bloomfield’s Les Paul, the guitar that is pretty much identified with Michael, and he lost in 1974.
CR: Right, when he just ran out on the guys at the –
DD: The Cave, in Vancouver. I had a lot of help, from several Canadians – Chris Okey, who owned the guitar after Michael passed. He, unfortunately, has passed, but we had a great couple years’ worth of e-mail conversations about it. He was looking for it, trying to find who had it, and I think he found the person – but he couldn’t confirm it, nor could I, so I didn’t include that.
CR: But do we know where that guitar is, then?
DD: I have a pretty good idea. It’s in the United States.
Tony Bacon, the British writer who’s a guitar expert – in his book, Million Dollar Les Paul, he speculates that Bloomfield’s guitar, should it come on the market, would approach that figure.
Which is wildly absurd, when you think about what Michael thought about his instruments, didn’t take care of them, and didn’t really care whether he played a Les Paul, or a Sears Silvertone. So, to think it could be of that value, is just –
DD: Sweetly ironic.
CR: It is. Well, I remember asking Norman about this, and as he so eloquently said to me: “He didn’t give a shit.”
DD: That’s right (laughs).
CR: It’s an example of how he approached his art, because Norman went on to say, that Michael liked to say, “It’s all bare meat on steel strings.” And the more you use effects, the more you sound like everybody else.
DD: Yes, that’s very true. Well, he certainly didn’t, and that always is an indicator for me. Because there are people who can sound like (Jimi) Hendrix, (or) Robin Trower – and do so convincingly – and there are a legion of people who approximate what Clapton can do. There are guys in every town who play like that. But there are very, very few guys who sound like Bloomfield. Almost nobody.
To me, it’s like a jazz signature. There’s nobody who sounds like Bird, nobody that sounds like Ben Webster. Johnny Hodges had a distinct sound. So that tells you a lot about the quality of Bloomfield’s playing, and the uniqueness of it.
CR: For sure. So what were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered, along the way?
DD: Well, one of the more challenging aspects of the early writing was to find people that he knew in his grade school and teen years, his high school years. There were lots of stories about Bloomfield going to the South Side, and sitting in, all that kind of stuff – but most of it was sort of urban legend-type stuff.
I was very lucky to find a couple of guys, through endless searching on the Internet, and calling wrong numbers, eventually connecting – Gerry Pasternak was one of Michael’s drummers in his high school years. He and Michael played together on Rush Street quite a bit, and that was fascinating. He told me lots of Bloomfield stories.
The other guy was Roy Jespersen, another of Michael’s drummers. And he filled me in on the famous (story of) Michael playing the talent show, his sophomore year – he was supposed to play a Chet Atkins tune, which is nice and mellow, and they played that tune.
And then the curtain came down, and the kids were applauding, and the curtain came back up, so Bloomfield went into this rock ‘n roll number they had rehearsed, and the whole place just broke out in pandemonium. The kids climbed on the stage, and were screaming and yelling, and got him in quite a lot of trouble. But Roy filled that in, with all the color that you might expect. So that was great.
I spoke to maybe a dozen of his childhood friends, and they had some wonderful stories to tell me, family members, as well. But, of course, the other difficult thing was Michael’s death – which was controversial, and sort of shrouded in…
CR: In mystery.
DD: Exactly. Well, I had a number of things to work from. Roy Ruby’s friend, a friend of Michael’s, Brent Pellegrini, who is an investigator, did some research for me.
He came up with some data that very much helped in formulating the story. I mean, no one knows for certain what happened, but I think I’ve gotten pretty close to the circumstances – and there’s no conspiracy involved, or anything really mysterious. It is speculation on my part, to some degree, but I also had some information, that I was unable to use, because I was asked not to publicize it – that pretty much confirms the scenario that I create.
CR: And I assume you had the old police reports, toxicology (reports), and things of that nature, to work with?
DD: Yes. He was poisoned with meth, and some other forms of amphetamine, and that was something, of course, all Michael’s friends knew he would never, ever have taken, because his system was running in high gear, constantly, so…
CR: Sure. So, I guess, it was almost like the scenario in Pulp Fiction, then (the accidental overdose scene).
DD: Yes, I think that’s pretty much what happened. Except that Michael didn’t wake. He woke up, and then, he went back (to unconsciousness).
CR: Right, and then, the second time, they couldn’t bring him around. Or he didn’t come back, basically.
CR: The quote that really got to me was what Norman said, when he had to claim his car, seeing his (Michael’s) leather jacket on the back seat, and that’s when it hit.
DD: That was a powerful moment, when he said that. I think Norman was really shocked by it, because he had just seen Michael the day before. And Bloomfield seemed to be in good spirits, and good shape, relative to how he had been, prior to, the month or two earlier.
PART II: "THINGS WERE COMING TO A HEAD"
CR: Yeah, for sure. So, were there any surprises along the way, as you went through and researched those lesser-known corners of his life – like his involvement with the Mitchell brothers, for instance?
DD: Yes, yes. The Mitchell brothers had opened a theater in San Francisco, the first real porn palace. They had the big theater portion, where they showed their films, but there were rooms for specialized viewing and activities.
And Michael, being an inquisitive guy, wandered in there, at one point, and met them. Being Michael Bloomfield, he struck up a conversation with them, and so, they knew him. They were running into trouble with the censors, because their stuff was seen as gratuitous, defined as pornography, and they wanted to put a high art gloss on it.
So they decided to hire real musicians, to compose real music, to go behind their unseemly movies. I’ve seen a bunch of them, and they’re about as unsexy (laughs) as anything I can imagine.
CR: Well, c’mon, something like Hot Nazis – how sexy could that really be, right?
DD: Exactly! It is not. And something that struck me as interesting, that Michael, being a person who identified very strongly with his Jewish background, Jewish culture and heritage, that he would do music for…
CR: For something like that, yeah.
DD: So I have to think, that he probably never saw any of these things. Or he only saw a few of them, and he was just given a script, and just cooked up some tunes, which is pretty much what Norman said. Norman probably told you about that. (CR mentions the presence of names like vocalist Anna Rizzo, among the all-star talent that Bloomfield recruited.)
DD: I know! She was the vocalist for the Sodom and Gomorrah theme. She obviously recorded it in the studio, and it sounds like “I’ll Be There,” something in that genre. If you heard it, you would recognize it. When she did see the movie, she was like, “This is too weird for me, I’m leaving.”
But you know what, Ralph? The most interesting thing about Sodom & Gomorrah is Michael’s music. If you can get through the visuals… it’s really world music. It’s quite impressive. It’s too bad that he didn’t do it for a legitimate Hollywood-type movie. Because I think he would have been lauded for real creativity, for the soundtrack. It’s pretty impressive.
CR: Because if he had been attached to something more legit – I think it would have done a lot more for him, probably.
DD: I think that’s true, but as you pointed out about Michael’s guitar, he didn’t care. He really didn’t care about his career, at that point, not in the commercial sense.
CR: No, that’s true, and again, we can get into all this. But were there any people that you didn’t get, like (Bob) Dylan?
DD: I had back channels to Dylan, and managed to get to Dylan’s guy. And apparently, the request was passed along, but was politely declined. Which is not unusual. Because, who am I, and he’s Bob Dylan (laughs), so…
CR: Sure. Was there anybody else who fit that category?
DD: This is funny, but I have six or eight hours of in-depth interviews with Nick Gravenites, that Bill Keenom recorded. I reached out to Nick, because I wanted to talk to him about certain aspects, that I wanted to fill in, from Bill’s interviews.
And I sent him to my website, so that he could see the kind of work that I was doing. He went there, and saw your interview with Norman – and he was so incensed, that he refused to ever talk to me again.
CR: Really? What did he object to?
DD: Hey, listen, I have no idea. I tried to reason – I said, “Listen, this is perfectly innocuous. This is an excellent interview.” I hadn’t even talked to Norman at that point.
CR: And we just mostly stuck to the technical aspects, which is what the piece was about.
DD: Exactly, but I think there was such bad blood between Nick and Norman, for one reason or another, over the years, that just the mention of Norman – that definitely will turn Nick off. So that was one thing I regretted, not being able to talk to him. But I did have a lot of wonderful interviews that Bill Keenom did with him.
CR: Yeah, and certainly, in that book, he comes across very colorfully, and very well-spoken.
DD: Yes. He is. He really is exactly that, he’s a marvelous storyteller. And I have to sympathize with these guys, because they’ve told the story many, many times, and here comes another author, who wants to know something or other. And I can see where you’d sort of reach your limit.
CR: Yeah, and of course, if you look at the Jan Mark Wolkin book, there’s some acknowledgment, from Norman’s side, that things were not always what they should have been.
DD: Yeah. Norman is fairly candid about that. He was with me in the week that I spent out at Mill Valley with him. He’s apologetic about it, but Norman is an inveterate storyteller. He’s a real natural raconteur.
And he can just entertain you for hours. And, like, Michael was famous for embroidering the truth, stretching a story, that kind of thing – and I think Norman does that, to some degree. But once you know, you know where the truth is, and where it isn’t. And Michael was doing quite a lot of drugs, off and on, and Norman was, too, and so, judgment was always kind of –
CR: I mean, you point out, quite correctly, some of the flaws (on the Dayron-produced albums). I just took the liberty, before I talked to you, of listening to some of that (material) again. Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’, the title track, the vocal is really garbled.
It’s hard to make out what Michael’s actually saying. And I thought to myself, “Well, somebody should have caught this,” because the track is fine. If you can’t hear what the guy’s saying, I think that does take away your enjoyment, somewhat.
DD: Well, I think that’s true. I forget who it was – maybe it was Susie, when she heard it, she said, “Michael, I don’t know what you’re saying. I can’t understand you.” On that tune, anyway.
But I think, at that time, things were coming to a head – the EMTs in Mill Valley had regular trips up there, to revive people from overdosing. It wasn’t a healthy environment.
CR: No. And we’ll get into this, in a little bit – but my impression, at least of the Takoma albums was, Norman was doing the best with what he had, which wasn’t much.
DD: I think that’s right, and I think that Norman was really making a concerted effort to really have a production company. CT Productions had been incorporated, it had officers, and a base of operations, and he was working with Takoma, and a few other small labels. He was trying to make a product out of Michael’s creative efforts. And so, you got to give him credit. Because if it hadn’t been for Norman, we may not even have had those records. I think we would have not heard from Michael for the last portion of the ‘70s.
PART III: "MICHAEL WAS NONE OF THESE THINGS"
CR: So, to reel it back to the beginning – as you say, at the beginning of the book, the conflict with his father is certainly one of the major driving forces of his life, I would say.
DD: Yes. I think that’s a very important aspect of Bloomfield’s psyche. Harold Bloomfield was a driven man, a very gifted businessman, and someone, who, along with his brother and his father, Sam Bloomfield, created one of the great kitchenware industries in the country.
And so, this is something that only happens if one is quite committed to (being) very responsible, working round the clock. And he had this son, who was casual, to say the least – about, not only about his school work, but his responsibilities…
CR: His approach to life, for that matter.
DD: Approach to life. And the only thing that seemed to interest him was playing this guitar, this music… It wasn’t the kind of music that he would want his son to play, if he would want his son to be a musician, which he certainly didn’t.
He was a professional boxer, for a period – excellent sportsman, horse rider – and Michael was none of these things. He wasn’t particularly coordinated. He was heavy as a kid, clumsy, he was loud and obnoxious, at times. Harold was taciturn, to a fault.
So right away, father and son did not see eye to eye, and pretty quickly, I think, Michael knew, the bright and sensitive kid he was, realized that his father did not love him, did not care for him, was constantly judging him, and judging him negatively.
As Allen Bloomfield, his brother, told me, Michael never felt his father’s love. And he was always looking for it. And I think that created many issues in his life later, where he felt expectations being put upon him… And he either resisted them, or failed to make them.
CR: Where the gatekeepers of the music business, and the audiences he played for, become a surrogate father that he didn’t feel like satisfying.
DD: Absolutely. And his first manager, Joel Harlib, told me over and over again, that Michael had this weird, insecure side to him, where he could be this egotistical guitar player, who would climb up on the stage with Muddy Waters, at the drop of a hat.
He was also a guy who was really uncomfortable doing a solo set, at Mother Blues. Joel said, “I had to drag him to these few gigs that he would do, so he would have a career that I could manage.”
So he was very insecure about certain aspects of his life. Once he felt that he was not measuring up, and being judged as not measuring up – not only in his family life, but in his professional career – he was really overwhelmed, with feeling the inadequacy.
And I think that had a lot to do with, essentially, his breakdown around the Super Session recording dates, where he flipped out, and could not complete the recording. Then had to be sedated to sleep when they did the live Session (album). I think he really just, basically, had panic attacks a great deal.
CR: Yeah. And as Mark Naftalin says, in the Wolkin book, he would walk away again and again, rather than deal with this stuff.
DD: Yeah. He would retreat to the safety of his room, watch TV, play guitar to the commercials.
CR: When you talk about the (Paul) Butterfield, and the Electric Flag experiences – the one thing they had in common was… Well, first of all, how could the departure of one guy make such a difference? And yet, neither band was really ever the same, after he left. So that’s one thing.
DD: Yes. Good point.
CR: The other thing that occurs to me is, even if they hadn’t overbooked them – as he complained to the press – I’m not sure that he would have stuck around that much longer, anyway.
DD: I think you’re right. He began to resent the direction the band was going in, with (drummer-vocalist) Buddy Miles. He wasn’t real happy about that. Also, as I point out in the book, his marriage had just fallen apart, and that was really a difficult time for him.
Plus, he’d been internationally humiliated in (Ralph J.) Gleason’s “Perspectives” column (in Rolling Stone), where he just said, “Hey, Bloomfield’s a phony. He’s not a black man, he never will be a black man, he’s just pretending to play this stuff. Why doesn’t he play his own stuff?” And I think Michael felt that deeply for years afterwards.
All of that came together – he just had to get out of it, he had to hide away. So, you’re right. I think he would have probably left the Flag at some point, anyway, because that’s what he always seemed to do.
CR: OK. So – once he quits those (two) bands, he’s done the Super Session record, which, on paper, makes him somewhat marketable, as a performer, right? It was his only gold record. It should have been the ideal launch pad to establish him as a solo artist. But that didn’t happen, either. How come?
DD: Well, for the reasons we’ve enumerated. He was an emotional basket case at that point. The best indication of his emotional state was his solo recording, which came out six or eight months after Super Session, It’s Not Killing Me. I mean, it was killing his listeners to listen to it, because it was a very, very painful and personal recording.
I asked Michael Melford, one of the co-producers – “Why did he record those tunes?” Melford said, “Well, he had something he wanted to get off his chest. He wanted to really tell his public what had been going on in his emotional life. You know, he didn’t realize this would be painful for people to listen to.”
CR: And (Bloomfield thought) they would take it for what it was.
DD: Exactly. People were used to hearing Super Session, hearing those Butterfield albums, and that was another Michael Bloomfield they knew, not this guy who’d sing these slow country tunes badly (laughs).
CR: It took him, I think, a few years to come to grips with singing, I would say.
DD: I agree. He was never a natural singer, but he found – certainly, in those recordings that were done at the McCabe’s Guitar Shop, in Santa Monica, in ’77, I think? They’ve come out in a million different guises, but his singing there is really, probably, the best that he ever recorded. He’s together, he’s relaxed, he’s not swinging for the fences. It sounds totally natural.
CR: I love his performances, too, on (Between The) Hard Place And The Ground, where his voice careens through things. It gives it, kind of an odd character, that a more polished singer would not have been able to do.
DD: Yes. It occurred to me, one time, listening to one of his very last recordings, that he sounded quite a bit like Ray Charles, in the way that he approached the vocal, and everything?
DD: I don’t know if Michael was consciously or unconsciously thinking of Ray Charles when he sang – he loved Ray – but it had never occurred to me before, and it gave me insight into what he was trying to do.
CR: I have to say, too, when I started doing my thing, I thought, “OK, if he can get away with it, maybe I can, too” (laughs).
DD: Well, yeah, you could, yes. You know, if it comes from the heart, you can do it.
PART IV: "NOT QUITE WHAT THEY HAD IN MIND"
CR: So, in terms of his addiction, which seems to be the filter through which he made a lot of his choices in life –
CR: What was the gateway? Lack of love from his father, or the culture of the time, which began to get more freewheeling? Because I think it started much earlier than most people surmised.
DD: Allen Bloomfield told me an interesting thing about his brother. They used to be shipped off, in the summers, to these dude ranches, camps out in the Southwest, for a couple of months.
He said that Michael developed this thing they would do there – I think he was probably 10 years old. They’d hyperventilate, then, a friend would grab them around the chest, so they couldn’t inhale. Allen would say, “We’d do this, and you’d see stars – you’d be tripping for 10, 15 seconds. A great high.” Which they didn’t understand was a high, but it just was a thrill.
His brother, loved to do this, just for the sensation, the thrill of it, the excitement of it. The other thing he would do, they would ride the Silver Streak at Riverview Park, which is an amusement park, in Chicago. It was the biggest rollercoaster, and it had an 80-foot drop, the first hill. He said that Michael would time it, to get in the front car. And Michael would stand up, just as they were tipping over the hill, so that he would levitate for a second in the car.
CR: Oh, jeez!
DD: He says, “My brother was totally into these wild, crazy sensations and thrills.” I think it was just built into Michael, that’s just his makeup. He was accelerated, and his personality hyper, most of the time. This was just like a peak experience for him, invariably. So drugs were more of the same, I think, and as long as they came along, he was going to take advantage of it.
CR: And in a sense, it was just an extension of his natural brain chemistry, then?
DD: I think that’s true, I really do. But now, it’s interesting, because it didn’t extend to alcohol, not until very late in his life.
CR: And so, now, to open this theme a little further – was Michael bipolar? There’s speculation in the Wolkin book, to that extent.
DD: Well, Allen thinks he was. And Allen also thinks their father, Harold, had issues.
CR: To put it mildly.
DD: Yes. Well, he manifested them in a different way. But I talked with the head of the Psychology Department at Rutgers, who was a fan of Bloomfield’s. I laid out Bloomfield’s personality traits, what I knew of his medical experiences, and this doctor said he really wasn’t convinced that Bloomfield was bipolar in the classic sense.
CR: Why not?
DD: He thought, he might have been OCD, or some other clinical definition – which, I apologize, I don’t have this right in front of me. It’s fairly technical.
CR: Sure. But, at any rate, he didn’t buy it.
DD: He wasn’t convinced. Not being able to actually examine Michael, he couldn’t say for certain. But so, obviously, Bloomfield had lengthy periods of mania, and didn’t have the accompanying depression, which is usually an indication of bipolar condition. At least, there’s not much evidence of Michael having the low moods – he was hyper all the time.
CR: No. But I would say, the OCD part fits. Especially, when we talk about things like that incident in Canada, where all he’s thinking about – he wants to watch that (PBS) TV show he’s on!
DD: Yes (laughs). Correct.
CR: He bitches to the performers. He rushes through the performance, so he can get back in time (to fiddle with his hotel room’s TV set) – this is extraordinary behavior, for sure.
DD: Right, absolutely. And it resulted in him abandoning his signature instrument. The interesting thing is, he never mentioned it again. That guitar, it’s just disappeared, completely off the face of the earth.
So Bloomfield had, I think, obsessive qualities. And he very much had an active mind. He couldn’t calm himself down. That was a large part of his issue. That’s, of course, why he liked heroin, and later, Placidyl.
CR: And, of course, the other issue was his discomfort, and his absolute dislike of going on the road, too, right?
DD: Yes, because he couldn’t sleep.
CR: Well, having been on my book tour with Mark last summer (for We Are The Clash), I thought, “I can empathize completely.” (DD laughs.) And when you do yours, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
DD: I’m sure I will (laughs). Yeah, well, that’s a good insight. Imagine –Bloomfield had been doing it for two and a half years, by the time he quit the Flag. Even gone abroad, and done it with Butterfield – and the tour they did there was rigorous, to say the least. I mean, they slept on the bus, some of the time, they were just dragged here and there. Well, it’s a young man’s game, obviously.
CR: I imagine, that was where a lot of the drug stuff came in. Because you were using it as a tool, just to sort of get through it.
DD: Absolutely. I talked to a couple of guys who played with Michael, in the early ‘60s, on the North Shore of Chicago, and these were older musicians – and they told me quite a bit about amphetamine use, that it was extremely common. You took a couple of pills before the set, and that would get you through the night. And then, you’d take a pill to go to sleep, and you’d repeat that routine seven days a week.
And some of these guys had been doing it for years and years, so, the rigors – and these were people who weren’t on the road. They were just working a local gig. You can see that it’s arduous, it’s really difficult.
CR: What was the moment, for all practical purposes, that he became box office poison to a major label?
DD: Well, he famously did an interview with the LA Times, just prior to the release of the album that he had recorded with Barry Goldberg, and Ric Grech, and Carmen Appice, called KGB.
And Michael said, basically, “This whole scam, I don’t know these guys, the company says we’ve been dying to play with each other, and we’re creating wonderful music.” He said, “We go in the studio, I have no connection to these people whatsoever, I have no idea why I’m doing this, I’m just doing it for the money. It’s all hype and more music industry shenanigans.”
The was published, pretty much verbatim, what he said – and as you might imagine, the label (MCA), was outraged. So Bloomfield wrote a letter, resigning from the band, and later said, “I probably shouldn’t have said all that stuff, that was stupid, what I did,” although what he said was true (laughs).
His records prior to this hadn’t really been selling at all. But now, he was not only a guy who wouldn’t tour, and wasn’t producing hit records, but a guy likely to turn on, to attack his parent company in public. And nobody wanted to deal with him anymore. That was pretty much the end of his major label recording opportunities.
CR: And yet – right after that, you could argue, he gets into a sustained period of creativity and focus, from the Guitar Player record, to Andy’s Bad, and Analine, the all-acoustic album, his first album for Takoma.
DD: I would agree with that. He said, at the time, he had developed this aesthetic that was his own. He called it his “set of Bloomfield criteria.” He realized he didn’t have to play music that had commercial appeal.
He didn’t have to play music that pleased his manager, or his record label, should he have a record label. He could just play what he wanted to play. He didn’t even care if he pleased the audience. And I think he had been greatly impressed by Randy Newman, and by Ry Cooder. He saw those guys making their own kind of music, in their own way, not really worrying about the standards of the industry or what was selling, what wasn’t selling. And that really impressed him.
And that’s why he showed up at Radio City Music Hall, to play the Newport Jazz Festival, the opening night, for the midnight blues show. Bloomfield’s introduced, and the crowd goes wild, because there are so many fans who knew him from the Electric Flag, and Butterfield days, and he very rarely was in New York.
He comes out with a couple of acoustic guitars, sits down on a chair, in the center of this huge, 100-foot stage, and proceeds to play these acoustic blues numbers. Everybody, at first, is like, “What the hell?” No one knew what he was doing.
DD: They were charmed by it, because Michael is such a good player, but then, he played two or three other numbers acoustically, and people began to get restless. Mike Michaels, who was playing harp with him – a friend, from the Hyde Park days – said he could hear people shouting for (songs from) Super Session.
And Bloomfield’s just plucking away on the stage, playing whatever he wanted to play, and that was the first time he did that. And he did that more and more, so that he would always do an acoustic set, sometimes on piano, then bring out the electric band. Toward the end, he was just doing solo sets himself. That played well with some people, but a lot of people in his audience did not understand what he was doing, and that made it…
CR: Yeah, and I think you make some pretty perceptive comments in your book about that, that it could be a rough ride, because he didn’t necessarily explain what he was always about to play.
DD: No, he didn’t put in the context. Even as late as 1980, when he played Washington, D.C., with Woody Harris, and played the acoustic gospel music – the reviewer said, “Everybody was like, ‘Where’s his amps? Where’s the drummer? What’s going on? We don’t understand. This is Michael Bloomfield, the Super Session god.’”
CR: Of course, he didn’t want to be the guitar god anymore, and people deep down, (were) hoping he would be.
DD: Absolutely. Everybody was hoping, “Well, maybe the old fire will come back, and we’ll have Michael Bloomfield again.” But it did not happen.
CR: Exactly, so… Well, we could argue the Takoma relationship arose by necessity, as much as anything else, because nobody else would have been interested in letting him go down that path, right?
DD: I think you’re right. Takoma was issuing lots of acoustic music, and folk music, as well as blues. They were following the path of the early independent record labels of the ‘60s, like Vanguard, and Elektra. And they put out lots of really good records. Some of Bloomfield’s records are good.
CR: So, well, let’s get to that, then. Where does Norman fit into that picture? As we’ve mentioned, he’s fairly polarizing. And to some fans, those records are fairly polarizing, too. People either seem to like them, or not like them.
DD: I think everyone pretty much agrees that they were not quite up to the standard that one expected from Bloomfield, with his talent, and his musical vision. But they were also created on a budget, and at a fairly chaotic time in Michael’s life. Norman had left Chess Records, after the death of Leonard Chess, and it was bought by GRT. And he came out West, and was teaching one of the first audio engineering courses.
CR: Right, as I documented.
DD: Yes, yes. But I think that wasn’t really paying the bills all that well. I think he realized that Michael could take control of his own art. That was the motivation – he was going to help his friend get his music out, but they were going to make some money doing it.
CR: Right, and as you alluded to earlier, he hoped to establish himself as a go-to producer for that kind of thing.
DD: Yes. Yeah, that’s right.
CR: Like I said, I think he did the best with what he had. Which wasn’t much.
DD: I agree. I think you’re right. As you reported in your interview with him, he got $2,000 to record, and then, they spent another $2,000 on production, to actually manufacture the records. But that was it. That was their budget.
CR: I mean, even in the ‘70s, that wasn’t much money, really.
DD: No, you were working with Columbia…Or some of the other (major) labels, which Michael had been. The only time that Michael and CT Productions was working with a real budget was when they recorded the Count Talent album, for TK.
CR: Yeah, and that was $50,000, I think, is the figure Norman quoted.
DD: That’s right. But that was the exception. I mean, that was very unusual.
CR: Because you had somebody that was actually prepared to sink that kind of money into it. Although, as you document, even then, they were less than happy, and they made them go back and redo things, right?
DD: Yes, they tried to remix the recording. But that is an odd record.
CR: It really is. Not without its charms, though. And I thought it was his weakest, although now, I think there’s actually a pretty good double EP trying to get out.
DD: I think that’s right, yeah.
CR: I like his vocal on “Saturday Night.” I like “You Was Wrong.” I like Nick’s song, “Bad Man,” that’s exceptional. He did a good job on that. “Sammy Knows How To Party,” I’ll put on there, too, because it’s so weird, and so unusual, and knowing that it’s about Sammy Davis, I think, “Okay. Now I know what he meant.”
DD: Yeah, but without that context, it is weird.
CR: It is weird, and it doesn’t make sense, right. I would agree with you on that. Those particular ones, I think, are the standouts. Maybe one of the Bob Jones cuts (“Let The People Dance,” “Love Walk”), too. Those were pretty good semi-disco records for the time.
DD: Yeah, the playing is good. It just, it’s certainly not what TK was looking for, because they wanted to launch their Clouds label as a rock ‘n’ roll label.
CR: Right, and he comes back with, as you said, celebrations of rhythm and movement. Not quite what they had in mind.
DD: Not quite what they had in mind, no, that’s true.
PART V: "IT'S A GREAT RELEASE"
CR: So, when we get to the end of that (Takoma) period, marking the downward slope of Michael’s life – could he could have gotten himself out of that? Why didn’t he get better? Why didn’t he make the effort?
DD: Part of it was, that he was surrounded by lot of drug users, heroin users, people who needed things from him. Woody Harris said he was astonished, when they were recording the gospel record… how people took advantage of Michael. They just manipulated him, and were constantly pestering him for various…
CR: Like hitting him up for money?
DD: For money, or a place to stay. So his home environment was just…
DD: Chaotic and toxic, to some degree. So you try to be creative, in an environment like that, and you also are dealing with pretty unsettling emotional stuff. His relationship with Christie Svane was probably the best thing he had in his life at that time.
CR: Yeah, but he couldn’t make the effort (to clean up) even for her, really.
DD: No. He tried, but… And the claim was, at the end of his life, he was cleaning up, getting himself together, and looking healthy. And that he was encouraged, because he was pretty sure that they were going to get married, and he was very excited about that.
CR: So that house must have been like a train station.
DD: I think it was. There were a lot of people in and out, all the time. Chris McDougal, who was Michael’s assistant during the Flag days, said that during that period, and afterward, there would be guys just banging on the door night and day.
There’d be junkies from down in the city, looking for a fix – they were strung out -- or there guys looking to sell whatever they had on hand, psychedelics, or narcotics... That’s a pretty rigorous environment for even a healthy person to deal with, and Michael was not, emotionally, in good shape.
He was drinking toward the end, way to excess, and I actually have a recording of Michael, singing and playing, when I can only think that he’s really, completely knackered, and it’s pretty terrible.
CR: It’s excruciating, I imagine.
DD: It is, yeah – and yet, the playing still is, like, “Wow! Boy, this is really great.” But I also think that Michael was charming. He was a charming guy, even when he was loaded – and that was one way he was able to move in certain circles on the South Side, or the West Side, or to hang out with Polish polka bands, because he could just talk his way into anything.
So when he’s up on stage, in the last portion of his life, and he’s clearly inebriated, and he’s not quite together, he does have this kind of boyish charm that I’ve seen, over and over again, in videos from that period.
CR: Yeah, even on those Italian shows, where the crowd could get fairly difficult.
DD: Yes, exactly! That’s one thing I was thinking of, too. Those were painful, those shows.
CR: But let’s turn it around. What if he had lived? Because (in) the ‘80s, if your name wasn’t Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Robert Cray, you were in for a bumpy ride (DD laughs), really. Well, they were the only two, in my mind, who survived it.
DD: That’s true, if you were going to play in that style. I doubt, very much, that Michael would have been playing that way. If he’d gotten himself cleaned up, somehow gotten his home life together, and got into the hands of a responsible and capable producer, who wasn’t his best friend, and party mate, which Norman was, to some degree…
CR: Right. Yes.
DD: I think he would have done very much what Ry Cooder did, which is, explore different kinds of music. He would have played electric on occasion, but he certainly never would have been in the category of Stevie Ray, or played like that, anyway. I think those days were long gone, and I don’t think he had any regrets about that.
CR: Right, although I’ve seen some things online, which mentioned that, supposedly, he was suffering from arthritis in his hands those last couple years. Did you find any documentation of that?
DD: Yes. In ’76, I believe it was, he was in the hospital, in the summer, for an operation on his thumb. He didn’t say what that was, but I have him on tape saying he’d just gotten out of the hospital for that treatment. I think he probably had a bone spur … I don’t know if that was arthritis, but he did have a problem with one of his hands.
And I speculated for awhile, maybe, that’s why he played so much slide, because his fingers were hurting, toward the end of his career. But (Mark) Nafatlin said to me that he was not aware of Michael ever having any pain in his fingers.
But the way he played, I can’t imagine that he would not have had some physical difficulty on occasion. Just add the intenseness, the intense way he played, particularly with Butterfield…
CR: Yeah. Right. It’s fairly demanding music, right?
DD: Absolutely, and people don’t realize that. As a guitar player yourself, and I am, too – you got to be in good physical shape to play like that.
CR: You do. That part is not negotiable.
DD: Yeah, and so, it wouldn’t surprise me if he had trouble with his fingers.
CR: But you didn’t actually find anything one way or the other, then?
DD: The only thing I know is that he was in the hospital for a procedure on his hand. But I don’t know – it doesn’t sound like that was arthritis. It sounds more like a bone spur, or something…
CR: But when we look back, what do you think his legacy is? For a non-listener, a non-initiate coming late to the party – where they should they start?
DD: Well, they should start with the first Butterfield record. That’s a really good place to start. The tunes are short, the soloing is intense, the playing is first-rate, and that’s how people learned about Bloomfield’s talent.
But I think Michael’s real contribution is that he was a guy who was an amalgamator. He brought together disparate musical styles, and created something more out of them. He took blues, and infused it with rock, sort of a rock sensibility, where the soloing was intense, and it was loud, fast, and exciting, and it was long.
There was that aspect of jazz, Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders taking a 20-minute solo, well, Bloomfield would take a 20-minute solo. No other rock guitar players ever did that. They had 15 or 20 seconds of solo, before the singer came back. But Bloomfield would wail, he would just go. So that was part of it.
And then, of course, taking a bastardization of Indian music, and adding that to the mix, for “East-West,” then, getting into soul music and other world music styles, with the Electric Flag …I like to kick around the idea that Bloomfield’s playing with Butterfield, and later, with the Flag, pointed jazz in the direction of fusion. Because fusion was largely driven by guitars. I think that Michael had a hand in setting the stage for that.
So I see him as somebody who helped pop music to grow up, from the early ‘60s formulaic stuff, to a music where you not only rocked out, but also listened. And, of course, brought blues to the greater consciousness of the American listening public, which was a huge contribution. And pretty much shaped the sound of rock for a good portion of the ‘70s, certainly, the late ‘60s.
CR: Well, and “Another Country” always struck me as the logical sequel to “East-West.”
DD: Absolutely, yes. And it’s sort of like “East-West,” using the studio as an instrument, in addition to the musicians.
CR: Yeah, I actually got introduced to it by, The Best Of The Electric Flag, on eight-track, of all things.
DD: Wow! That’s great.
CR: Yeah. But, as a teenage boy, I remember, when it got to that free-form interlude, my head was completely blown apart. “Wow,” I thought, “this was radical, even for 1967.”
DD: Well, it wasn’t the first time that had happened. But it was within six months of the first time, or seven months. That record is probably my favorite Bloomfield record, just because it encapsulates so many different ideas, and so many different styles. And it’s got some great pop tunes on it, it’s got great soloing, and –
CR: It’s got great everything, really.
CR: And to go back to “Another Country” – what’s exciting, once they blow your mind, with the free-form barrage, and then, how he leads the band back out of it.
DD: It’s a great release.
CR: It is.
DD: And it’s very similar to what he does in “East-West,” with the melodic portion, the third portion… Where you get this intense aural assault going on, and suddenly, boom, it all drops out, and it’s just Bloomfield in rhythm. And it’s, wow!
CR: Exactly. So, yeah, that is masterful. Because, as we know, that kind of thing, especially back then, was pretty deadly when it fell into the wrong hands.
DD: Yes (laughs), that’s certainly true.
CR: Of the later things that he did, what would you recommend? The Guitar Player record, perhaps, if they can get it?
DD: Yes, that would be a good place to start. There’s some exceptional playing on it. I love “Thrift Shop Rag,” that just knocks me out every time I hear it. Some of the other tunes, as well – “Death In My Family,” that’s great. It’s all good. So, yes, that would be the record, I think. (Between The) Hard Place (And The Ground) would be good, too. That’s an excellent recording.
CR: I always enjoyed that.
DD: Yeah, it is good. You know, what’s interesting, too – is that three of the tunes on there are not from the (Old) Waldorf.
CR: Yeah, they’re studio creations, right?
DD: They were recorded for Columbia. And I think Norman just purloined them. They were supposed to be on Try It Before You Buy It, Bloomfield’s second solo album. I guess Norman had to fill out the rest of the record, and he said, “Oh, we got this tape, let’s throw it on there, so…”
CR: Which is surprising, considering how much stuff he did record of them (live), that he couldn’t find enough to fill that record out, right?
DD: It is surprising, but I think he also thought that those were good tunes, and – as I quoted him (saying) in the book, “We were done working with the corporate people. It was Michael’s stuff, and we were gonna put it out.”
CR: Yeah, and that definitely makes sense to me. Because, if you had gone to see him in that time period, those are songs he probably would have been playing anyway, right?
DD: Yes, I think so, yeah.
CR: So, what do you think is next for you? What are you kind of looking at down the road, if anything? Or is this (book) going to be it for awhile, you think?
DD: Well, it’ll be it for a bit of time, but I would love to do a detailed history of the Chicago music scene, starting around 1955, and going up to, maybe 1967, ’68, after Big John’s closed. There was so much stuff going on at that time, and it had such a huge effect on the national scene, by the end of the ‘60s.
The guys from Chicago, or who had been through Chicago, were making huge success and affecting the sound of pop music. Nobody’s talked about those early days, and all the guys in Old Town, the clubs there, who was playing, and who was down on the South Side. That would be a fascinating story.
CR: All right. I think we’ve basically covered what we need to cover – unless you can think of something I’ve forgot.
DD: No, I think you’ve hit all the bases, and then some – I appreciate it. Very good. This has been really terrific. I really appreciate your taking the time, and investing in this interview. I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of covering Mr. Bloomfield on his birthday.
Special thanks to David, and also, Joel Pinckney, University of Texas Press, for images, press materials, and a copy of the book!
Michael Bloomfield: An American Guitarist: