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Book Review

Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of An American Guitar Hero


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Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of An American Guitar Hero
Ed Ward
224 Pages
ISBN: # 1613733283
Chicago Review Press

Whether he meant to or not, in writing Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, Ed Ward mirrors his subject's style of guitar-playing. Flurries of facts precede extended statements of clarification, elongated for the purpose of emphasis, further reaffirmed (and suspense thus created) by the finality of some silence at the end of a paragraph or, more often, a chapter's conclusion.

It's an uncanny resemblance to the subject's musicianship, no doubt rooted in the author's immersion in Bloomfield's music, but also deeply ingrained via his surrender to the infectious enthusiasm the late guitarist brought to his work and his life/ The flip side of that relish, however, was a truly tragic character flaw:an outright inability to confront his demons in a way to keep them at bay, if not fight them off successfully once and for all, even with medical help as described here. No one could summarize the life and times of Mike Bloomfield better than Ward does here: ...'he was a musician out of time,,,if he had outlived his era, he would most certainly have matched up with another one.'

The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero is an appropriately kinetic title for this book because its narrative moves quickly and surely through the childhood years of its subject, during which passages Ward, a member of the earliest staffs of Rolling Stone magazine and co-founder of SXSW, delineates what seems, at least on the surface, an idyllic childhood, the likes of which we might have at one time called 'normal.' Bloomfield explores the neighborhoods of his native Chicago with friends and sibling Allen, during which time he not only becomes a rebellious teen, but also learns to become friendly with the hired help in his well-to-do household.

The latter relationships are a factor that, like his learning to play guitar right-handed contrary to his natural left-handed proclivities, is pivotal in his progression into a love of roots music so deep and abiding, Bloomfield rightly refers to himself as a musicologist. Thus, he had no apprehensions he could not transcend about visiting the southside of his city to satisfy the curiosity about the music he heard from the street riding in his family's car. Such sojourns further fanned the flames of a passion ignited by hearing the sounds of Memphis and Nashville on a transistor radio presented to him at his bar mitzvah.

In his explorations, Bloomfield became acquainted with vaunted blues icons including Muddy Waters and B.B. King, absorbing the personal nature of this music in such a way his academic knowledge, as depicted in an interview dialogue early in the book devoted to Robert Johnson, was simply one cornerstone of his devotion to the genre. Such friendships also maintained Michael's enlightened attitude toward culture in general. Bloomfield's self-awareness broadened in proportion to his absorption of musical style, though sadly it seems, not sufficiently to prevent his early demise in 1981; even prior to that, erratic behavior short-circuited some of his most ambitious and otherwise fulfilling musical projects, such as his collaborations with kindred spirits in the blues, keyboardist/vocalist/composers Barry Goldberg, Mark Naftalin and Nick Gravenites.

Again in a reflection of his subject's peripatetic persona, Ed Ward keeps his account of Mike Bloomfield's life and career moving at a brisk pace, though not so brisk he overlooks pertinent details, such as his subject's membership in The Paul Butterfield Blues Band or the fairly quick formation and dissolution of Bloomfield's pet project devoted to his vision of American music, The Electric Flag. In covering the various sequences of events, the author refuses to pass judgment(s) or belabor the personal aspects involved, such as Bloomfield's relationships with his father and Paul Butterfield, and in taking this high road, heightens his own credibility.

Reaffirmed by the fact this edition of of Rise and Fall is a major expansion of its original. limited distribution, Ward's believability becomes particularly crucial as he recounts Mike Bloomfield's interactions with Bob Dylan, particularly involving their collaboration on the latter's Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965) album and their select live performances together. It may or may not be a startling revelation that Michael, despite some nervousness in the midst of the cream of New York's session musicians, was absolutely integral to the format and feel of the recording sessions for "Like A Rolling Stone," and the rest of that groundbreaking album, as well as the preparation and execution of Dylan's legendary electric appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965.

Elevating the electric guitar and its practitioners to a rarefied respect heretofore unknown in popular music, this high-profile work only reaffirmed Bloomfield's prowess and, in turn, his vaunted position as an instrumentalist and overall musician: Ward comes right out and calls him "the first bonafide American guitar hero." But, as with similarly decisive participation in helping Janis Joplin's Kozmic Blues Band coalesce (at mutual manager Albert Grossman's request), the erstwhile artist also adds prestige to a distinctive persona contrary to the wired mentality that often gave a flighty impression (deepened by candor to a fault in discussing his contemporaries such as the San Francisco bands). Bloomfield was an ultra-serious artist who quite often deliberately and purposely gave short shrift to commercial prospects.

Which his why he chose to remain with Butterfield rather than accept Bob Dylan's invitation to join him on his increasingly successful tours, refused a high-profile gig for the television program 'Shindig' and, in general, eschewed that which was popular in favor of that which was creatively satisfying. Working with a veteran of the Dylan sessions Al Kooper on the Super Session (Columbia, 1968) album allowed Mike Bloomfield to satisfy himself on both fronts largely because the spontaneous creative prospects of the subsequent live shows counterbalanced what he perceived as mere promotion of product.

But the eventual gold record status of the album, and its influence on the musical temper of the times, came in the wake of Mike Bloomfield's abrupt departure from the recording sessions after a single day (supplanted by Stephen Stills, fresh from the breakup of Buffalo Springfield but before connecting with David Crosby and Graham Nash), a similar occurrence of which afflicted the east coast Fillmore concerts arranged under the aegis of devoted fan, entrepreneur Bill Graham. These incidents unfortunately set the tone for the next phase of Bloomfield's career until his early passing; divorced from his wife Susan and more deeply tied to drugs than he would admit, the man's retreat to his Mill Valley, California home was regrettably not the means to rest and recuperation plus recharge for new endeavors. While Ed Ward doesn't come right out and say so, it'd seem the quick and untimely demise of The Electric Flag left an altogether debilitating mark on Mike Bloomfield's psyche.

It may come as no surprise that The Rise and Fall of An American guitar Hero is all too similar to that two-set concert, the first portion of which is stunning, with the second segment hardly so much. To be fair, perhaps the tone and tenor of chapters titled "Unplugged," "Terminally Mellow" and beyond are meant to mirror Michael Bloomfield's life during those periods. It's almost as if these sections are written by a different scribe all together (the Edd Hurt credited with 'with additional research and material?) because the prose moves in fits and starts, with long run-on sentences lacking clarity, as if shoddily cut and pasted together from a different manuscript altogether, lacking the hip, lighthearted tone of Mycah Chevalier, Phaze II Jazz, Brian Christopher, Gwendolyn Collins, Sydni Marie, Kimberly Lewis, Kal-el Gross guitarist Billy Gibbons's foreward.

There might well be good reason for this abrupt shift in tone and tenor of the Bloomfield book, Admittedly, there's little first hand account of the latter years of his subjects life for Ward to go on, as Michael deliberately kept to himself. And the author's own interviews with his subject took place in the Seventies, prior to the man's most sustained withdrawal from social contact. Nonetheless, the latter half of this book might've been condensed, with fluidity comparable to what preceded it, with a more skeletal outline of Michael Bloomfield's final years, the known facts of his passing and, finally, the section quotes from those who knew him best, the most lucid of which comes courtesy sibling Allen; his observations on brother Michael's 'divided consciousness,' (his words) qualify as astute indeed, particularly in relation to his brother's sit-in, at Bob Dylan's invitation, during one of the latter's 1980 performances at The Warfield Theatre in San Francisco: in the most startling way imaginable, Bloomfield's fiery playing belied his woefully disheveled appearance.

In addition to the aforementioned edits, the discography included after the body proper of this book is as fully annotated with minutiae as such a database can be, making it all the more surprising there are no full-length or even capsule reviews of the most salient entries therein, either by Ed Ward himself or a scribe of equal pedigree. With such additions, along with the entirety of the 1968 interview for with Rolling Stone founder/publisher Jann Wenner as it appears here, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of An American Guitar Hero would be an ideally suitable companion piece to Bob Sarles' "Sweet Blues," the movie included on DVD as part of the splendid archive title From His Head to His Heart to His Hands (Legacy Music, 2015). It's a measure of the vast influence of Michael Bloomfield that his legacy requires a combination of media to do it justice.

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