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

Doug Collette By

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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.


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