Electric Flag History
Michael Bloomfield An American Guitarist Mike Bloomfield
Editor's note: Dave Pearson, a man of many talents and interests, contacted this site in January 2008 and shared several anecdotes about time he spent with Michael Bloomfield one summer in Huntington Beach. Over the course of several months and many more e-mails, I asked Dave if I could compile an essay from his recollections and observations about those formative days with Michael. Dave readily agreed, and the resulting piece follows. I later learned that he was unable to take on the task himself due to a debilitating chronic disease that left him at times incapable of writing. Sadly, that disease claimed him in June 2008, just days before the birth of his first grandchild. A writer of great sensitivity and insight, Dave Pearson created this young man's tribute to Michael Bloomfield as, ironically, one of the last creative efforts of a man well into middle age. His thoughtfulness and gentle spirit will be greatly missed.
In the Thrall of Michael Bloomfield
The Electric Flag played a Pinnacle Concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles one Saturday night in February 1968. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was headlining, and the lineup also included the Soft Machine and Blue Cheer.
I attended that show and recall it vividly.
I wasn't there just because our band members knew Jan Van Hεmersveld, the Pinnacle show's poster artist who lived in our Palos Verdes neighborhood (some of us had worked in his mom's ice plant). I was there because of Michael Bloomfield.
Hendrix was a draw for us, too, because we had the UK edition of "Are You Experienced?" and loved "Red House." We were young guys who thought we already knew boy, were we surprised.
Bloomfield, though, had a longer, much more familiar history with us, and he kept doing unexpected things. Seeing the Flag was a MUST.
The show was conducted in a very formal manner. Audience members were seated by ushers, and then the house lights went down. Each act was presented in traditional theater fashion with the lights dimming between sets. There may have been jamming before the audience arrived or after we filed formally out but there was no mixing of musicians from the bands at any time within our purview. It was straight handbill sequence.
The Flag stole the show even in the opinion of the Hendrix aficionados we knew. Their stage presence - set sequencing, lighting and transitions; with the spotlighted, windblown flag and Buddy in his American flag shirt performing various feats seemed almost choreographed by someone like Gower Champion. When Michael played a solo, the spot was on him alone. It was very theatrical. His hair was puffed up into a natural almost like Stemzie Hunter's, and his facial expressions while playing were of the sort that became legendary with L.A. musicians. Some even copied them.
It was so good, we were all exhausted by the time Jimi got out there.
The Experience's Vox Super-Beatle amp grills were torn, and their outfits were mismatched. Noel Redding was duded up in psychedelic splendor, like the covers of "Are You Experienced?" or "Disraeli Gears." Jimi and Mitch Mitchell looked pretty casual. The lighting remained the same throughout the Experience's set, and despite the amazing pyrotechnics of Jimi's music, the band looked ragged in comparison to the Electric Flag. The Flag-word that obtained for years among musicians I knew was "professionalism.
Because the Electric Flag was so tightly organized, they made everyone else seem relatively sloppy including Jimi Hendrix. It was Mitch Mitchell alone who held the Experience together. Guitarist Andy Summers was there with Soft Machine, but he was not yet playing the incredible stuff that would come in mid-'80s. He was gaping at Bloomfield like everyone else.
No one had heard playing like that, with the amp so loud that the tone got fat. Backstage at The Forum in 1969 Eric Clapton said to me (with his usual modesty) that Bloomfield beat him to "the woman tone.
The Flag had everything miked and direct-lined into the house system. Their sound was the most balanced of the four acts. It was this slick professionalism that blew us away at first. They had the Memphis thing but with much flashier playing. We thought the stagy elements made it. We were wrong it was the music.
The music industry has become predominantly stagy these days, and we all rue the day we thought staginess was the essence of the Electric Flag. Nowadays, if you play anything musically rich from that period for a young person (the Flag, Joni Mitchell, Bobby Hutcherson, the Sons of Champlin), they will often say, "Hey, that's musical music.
[Musicality] is just too instinctual, too visceral and too real. Bill Evans could get away with it because of his context. But not a rock star.
I love Mike's Flag playing because he was dreaming, he said, of being an ensemble player. Even the great solos on "Texas" and "Wine" were obviously designed to make the entire production shine as a totality. His backup playing on "A Long Time Comin'" is nothing short of masterful, to my ears. He admired Steve Cropper so much, and I strained to understand it then, thinking of Mike as a gunslinging lead player (as indeed he was, sometimes fighting that macho part of his own nature). Later I got it. Cropper can't play lead as we understand it he's more a melodic ensemble contributor like Merle Haggard. But Steve did invent R&B backup playing, as Beach Boy Carl Wilson often told people.
Michael said he believed there is "no higher nobility than creating and contributing to a piece as a whole and the emotional universe it can convey." I'm glad he said that rather than using the newer, glib clichι "team player" (thank Yaweh and his consort).
Of course, he said many things. His interests were, as he put it, "scattered." He would emphasize that point by making rapid hand gestures with both pointer fingers shooting out from the center of an imaginary spherical orb.
A musical disciple
Yes, Michael Bloomfield's phrasing was unique, to say the least. He played against the rhythm and messed around with his own counter-rhythms. Nobody else did that, least of all Clapton, who "played the on-beats like a typewriter" according to Mark Naftalin.
Michael could play an improvised line in a way that sounded like a well-thought-out figure by Bach, and never repeat himself. An example of this is "Carmelita Skiffle" from "Live at Bill Graham's Fillmore West," which has now been reissued on the "Don't Say That I Ain't Your Man!" CD. It sounds like a composed, written-out thing.
If you listen to "Gypsy Good Time" from Nick Gravenites' "My Labors," Bloomfield's call-and-response with Nick on the verses and his solo are also like that. As if the solo had been composed for a string quartet. Perfection. Listen closely to the turn-around at the end of the first solo verse, going into the second verse. Who the hell could do that except Michael?
On "Holy Moly," from that same recording, he does some Memphis-style Steve Cropper-backup-player stuff you know, the two- and three-note lead fills. He could easily be mistaken for a Stax/Volt session guy trying to beat Cropper at his own game.
Both Michael and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys insisted you had to get the early '60s Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T and other Stax records to hear "a real rhythm section with horns that had more lung, more dense coloring.
Michael also had a real interest in jazz players like Joe Pass. He wanted to learn the educated approach to improvisation those guys used, but his attention was not captured by jazz the way it was by the feelings of R&B and older folk forms. He was not aware of the Mississippi guys yet, he said. Which I took to mean that he was, but had not taken enough trips in the middle of the night to upstairs East St. Louis bathrooms with giant holes to fall downstairs.
But seriously, having met Joe "the greengrocer" Pass years later at a NAMM show when I was the Ovation rep, I am almost certain Michael would have been attentive enough to study with him. Pass was a scrappy little guy but to use Michael's phrase what a "strong, impassioned player!" Imagine what might have happened if Michael had learned the formal music relationships between notes, chords, families of chords or keys, and modes. He knew the structures, but still played entirely by ear. He was itching to learn but well, you know.
The harp player Cliff Wooley, co-writer of "Me & Bobbie McGee," managed it. He went to Pass's house just four times and was able to pick it up quickly. Joe was a great teacher. I asked Michael what would happen if all rock musicians studied the phrasing and dynamics of players like Pass and the rest of the jazz crowd.
For me, it would be a near religious discipline," Mike replied. "But if we all did it Christ, we might end up becoming FRENCH!
Art is supposed to make you nearly faint.
Meetings with a remarkable man
I became Michael Bloomfield's personal roadie during a summer of Golden Bear gigs in Huntington Beach.
He and Mark Naftalin had retreated to that small venue to try stuff out, he said. "Also, to read some books and get away from the filthy lucre," he added. Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues" was one of a number of books Michael had with him at the Golden Bear. "It was Dylan's thing, man he turned me onto it."
"Allen Ginsberg told Dylan to read it, and it inspired him. Ginsberg said it was Kerouac's 'acme poetry,'" Michael said. "The jive talk in it came from jazz and the streets, and Lord Buckley carried it around to help him re-translate Shakespeare. It's new rhythm, new music."
He was also reading Colin Wilson's "The Mind Parasites," a deeply scientific novel which posited a race of "old ones" that came up from the depths of the human mind to control its conscious levels. Soon he had "The Philosopher's Stone," also by Wilson. It focused even more on scientific theory and experimentation and had as its goal the creation of spiritual enlightenment via a new alloy that would conduct brain waves in a different, more in-the-present direction.
I too read both books as I helped him with the equipment.
Continued on page 2
© 2008 David Pearson
Michael Bloomfield Discography & Performance History
A selection of remembrances of Michael Bloomfield from contributors to this site
A detailed look at the studio and live versions of the Butterfield Blues Band's "East-West"
An interview with producer Norman Dayron by Ralph Heibutzki
A check list of currently available recordings by Michael Bloomfield
© 2008 David Dann
Electric Flag History