How I Met Michael Bloomfield
By Paul Lerman
Photos courtesy of Paul Lerman
Well, as Michael Bloomfield would have said (and did say, actually): "So, man, here is the thing of this gig, you see ..."
First, I must note that
obviously Michael was a great guitarist and a unique stylist. He truly had his
own amazing sound that really no one has gotten close to either before or since.
All of us, who are his devoted fans, love his playing because it had such energy
and subtle elements. He was also a genuine authority on blues styles and his
vast, encyclopedic knowledge of both electric and acoustic blues guitar and
piano styles has been well documented. The following is the story of how I came
to know him. Many details are of course available in the various books that have
been written about him. I read "Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues" a
couple of years ago and thought it presented a good picture of what I think
Michael was like.
An unexpected house guest
My background: I started playing folk style guitar when I was ten. But pretty soon switched to classical guitar lessons (some family friends had told my parents that this was a better way to learn because it would make other styles simpler). This turned out to be very good advice – I was able to pretty much teach myself folk style fingerpicking, rock 'n' roll styles and a bit of flamenco and blues, too. When I was 16, my main teacher (Vince Bredice, though there were others before him) asked if I had my driver's license yet; I said I did and he gave me a list of names and said, "Call these people, they want guitar lessons." I asked how I was supposed to do that and he said he'd gladly show me how to teach, which he did, and so I began teaching – I did that until I was about 32 (when I got my first fulltime job – as a recording engineer). I taught classical guitar and advanced lead-guitar styles, mostly to adults and older teens. It was something I enjoyed, but when I didn't have time to do it the right way, I stopped.
I had always been a big fan of the Butterfield Blues Band, mostly because of Michael. When I was in high school I saw them at the Newport Folk Festival when he sat in with Bob Dylan – a great, great concert, as you can imagine. I saw Butterfield later that year in New York City when they played at Town Hall (an amazing venue for a blues band). After the show, I saw Michael hanging around outside grabbing a smoke, and it was a real thrill to see him just standing around out there like anyone else. He was playing the white Fender Telecaster at that time, if my memory is correct.
Anyway, a year or two later, he had formed the Electric Flag, and the band was getting great reviews. I was in college by this time and the Flag was to play at a small club in the Philadelphia area – I think it was called the Trauma at that point. I eventually got a bootleg recording of the show thanks to my friend German Muinoz from Madrid – a Bloomfield super-fan (Michael's appeal is international).
There was a guy in one of my literature classes named Mark, I think, who was a pot dealer/hipster kind of fellow (doing a bit of business with the band, no doubt). He came up to me at the show (since he knew that my girlfriend and I had our own apartment that was fairly large) and told me that the band had a problem. They hadn't reserved any hotel rooms and, because there were several large conventions in the city, no rooms were available. Some of the band had places to stay but, he asked, could Michael stay with me? Of course, I could not believe this was really happening!
But it really did happen, and Michael stayed for three or four days – if I remember rightly – since they were playing the following weekend, too. He was a cool though very weird guy (he stayed up all night reading and slept all day), but we soon became friends. One afternoon when I got back from class, he was gone and there was a long, rambling note thanking me and saying that we'd be on any guest list for any future shows and that he would stay in touch (he wrote that he left because the band finally did get hotel rooms near the gig).
He gave me a band promo/DJ copy of the soon-to-be released Flag album, which I still have and treasure, of course. He also left behind a small brass hash pipe and when I took it to him that Friday night he said, "Oh no man, I left that as a gift for you." I am sure that this was not true, but he was very generous in his way and would have left it if he'd thought of it! That was his style; he seemed to shoot from the hip in everything that he did. I found him to be a very intelligent, very unorthodox person with his own very unique way of doing things.
In New York City
He did the Super Session gigs in New York City soon after that. He said, "Alan (he always called Al Kooper "Alan") gets really great bread. I don't know how he does it, man, big bucks for both of us. Very cool." I spent those two weekends in '68 in the city and hung out with Michael – these were the December 13, 14 and December 27, 28, 1968 shows at the Fillmore East.
Michael was always a nut, and here are some examples: I had a bright yellow MGB roadster and on one of those two weekends we drove around all over New York City and Greenwich Village with him sitting on the back edge with just his lower legs actually in the car – it had only two real seats, of course. He loved it and kept giggling that he felt like the Pope in a parade and we rode around with him sitting up there on the back deck waving to people the whole afternoon. Amazingly, the cops never stopped us – though in New York City they never seemed to care about minor traffic issues.
Another New York story: One meal we had together was at a Chinese restaurant in the city's Chinatown. Michael was supposed to meet us there – which could always mean that he might never show up. But, only about 20 minutes after he said he would be there, he did finally arrive. He brought a six-pack of beer to drink with dinner and actually drank the entire six cans of beer himself with his meal. He was totally bombed by the time dinner was over but still very together – clearly someone who could handle extreme levels of intoxication.
Another meal (which I now remember as I write this) was at a somewhat upscale French restaurant, also in New York. An older guy who was obviously very drunk was at a nearby table with his teenage son – who had apparently told his father that Michael was a famous musician. The guy came over to the table, and in slurred, drunken speech, asked Michael if he could help his son in the music business. This was the only time I ever saw Bloomfield get angry in any way. He said something like, "You know, man, you come over here and bother me while I'm enjoying a meal with my fiends and you think it's OK because I'm famous. But it's really not cool, it's not OK. I deserve my privacy just like anyone else. Now, the thing is, I can't help your son. I'm sorry, man, 'cause everybody has to make it in this business on their own."
But the guy persisted, as any drunk might, and then ineptly just stood there – I guess hoping Michael would take pity on him or something. Michael got really quite angry at that point and said, "Look, man, you are embarrassing your son and me by asking this, so just go back to your table and leave us alone. I'm sorry, man, that's just the way it is. Now go away." The guy finally shuffled back to his table and he and his son had a very heated discussion and the son stormed off towards the bathroom. The guy called after him and then just sat there. Michael, always interested in human nature, was now completely over his annoyance and said, "Wow, what drama! How cool. Man, this is really interesting." That was Michael's style.
One more story that Michael told me about his meeting Ray Charles – Ray and B.B. were his two main musical idols. He thought Ray had the most incredibly soulful singing style of anyone ever (partly because, according to Michael's theory, he wasn't able to hold long notes and the breathing technique he used as a result was very expressive). Apparently, sometime prior to his becoming well-known, a writer Michael knew was assigned a Ray Charles interview (might have been for Rolling Stone or some other music publication) and Michael, of course, was dying to be there. He talked the guy into letting him sneak into the room prior to the interview to just sit there quietly and listen without Ray's knowledge. When Ray walked in, he immediately said, "Who's your friend?" Michael was amazed that he was able to tell that he was there, and a bit embarrassed, but he was thrilled to meet his idol, Ray Charles. (As a side note, I think it's obvious that he tried to sing as close to Ray's style as possible given his limited vocal abilities: "Mary Ann", "That's All Right", "I Wonder Who" and even "Georgia Swing," which has Ray's "Shake a tail feather" lyric.)
The Super Session concert that was recently released as "Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12-13-68" documents an amazing time. December 13, 1968 – it is a real thrill to me to have that show now issued as a CD. I had guest passes to the show, which Michael had arranged for us, and it was a particularly exciting night since this was the first Super Session show on the East Coast and the first Super Session record had just been released. They played even better than the record it seemed (though Kooper's liner notes are correct regarding the drummer and bassists not being well-synced).
Johnny Winter sat in that night and I met him, too. What a strange looking guy he was! He was extremely quiet and very nervous (maybe in New York City for the first time) and was the skinniest human I'd ever seen, all dressed in black with a cool black cowboy hat and long white, white hair! And man could he play his ass off! It is no surprise that he soon became famous.
Sam and Dave were the headliners and were pretty amazing as well. They had an eleven-piece band that was very tight and very funky – a road-hardened ensemble with two great, soulful vocalists. They did amazing things, like choreographed steps that everybody in the band participated in – not only did the horn section dance like crazy but the drummer even somehow dropped to one knee, on cue, while he played! That's something I'd never seen before (or since).
Another memory of that show was standing in the wings with the Sam and Dave band watching the rear projection screen (that the Joshua Light Show used as a rear scrim behind the musicians). They were running a loop of old Disney cartoons, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, which we saw reversed (since we were in the backstage area) and which had superimposed over them the typical lightshow images: psychedelic blobs and sloshing colors. The band was pretty well soused and/or stoned and were laughing uproariously at the odd images – and also, I think, at what these wacko hippie white kids were into.
The details of those two weekends at the Fillmore East are pretty confused in my memory, but on one of the two weekends, Michael was staying at the Chelsea Hotel and went off to some woman's house to sleep and gave us his room. He also gave me a very nice wool-serge bathrobe/dressing gown, maroon, that I still have. He said I should keep it because it looked great on me, but I think it was really just too big for him. Typical Michael.
The yellow MGB and B.B.
The second show, right after Christmas on December 27 and 28, 1968, was also very cool. I think that it was at these shows, for which I also had guest passes, that the following things happened.
That damned yellow MGB – which I intended to drive from Philadelphia to New York for the show – wouldn't start because it had rained that day and the ignition wires often got wet (even though I had a "weather proof" rubber boot cover on the distributor). I was so pissed, I recalled all the anti-British things U.S. car mechanics always say – "Give an Englishman a piece of metal and he'll do something stupid with it," and "Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators" (Lucas was the main manufacturer of all English car electronics). Finally, by pushing the damned thing several times and popping the clutch, I got it running and headed off to NYC, knowing I'd get there late since it was an almost two-hour drive from Philadelphia.
I had (and still have) a B.B. King-model Gibson ES-355TD-SV – the original "Lucille" – that I bought used for $250 in the late '60s – the deal of a lifetime. Michael liked it, and I just happened to bring it with me on that trip in case he wanted to mess with it. When we finally got to the Fillmore in time for the second show, Michael said it was too bad I'd missed the first set since B.B. had stopped by to sit in with them but had no guitar with him and had to borrow one. He said B.B. would have loved to have played mine! Needless to say, this was a traumatic event that I will never get over – to think that I missed B.B. King playing with Michael and that he would have played my guitar (and that I would have met him, etc., etc.). God-damned British sports cars!
One unusual thing about that show was that they booked The Crazy World of Arthur Brown as an opening act. Why this was combined with Super Session will always remain a mystery – probably some contractual obligation that Al Kooper had, I would guess. Arthur Brown had a fairly big hit on the radio – "I Am the God of Hellfire" – that I would describe as early Alice Cooper-style punk rant. He screamed in a deep, super-reverbed voice, "I am the god of hellfire," over and over against a satanic background. Why it ever became a hit is also a mystery. His stage act included some sort of headgear that burst into flame during the song at various points! Really, this is true. Anyway, I chatted with him backstage and he turned out to be just a very regular English guy who basically had an "act," and that was it. He was from a British show-business family, one parent was an actor and his grandparents had been in vaudeville! Crazy world for sure – but he was in no way a "craze-o" like an Ozzie Osborn, for example.
A California junket
Some time later that year, I think, when school was over for the summer (it might have been the summer of the following year, I'm not sure), we hooked up with Michael to come out to California to visit for two weeks. He sounded hesitant on the phone, but we made arrangements and flew out. He was then living in Lagunitas, a little, very rural town in Marin County, about 45 minutes out of San Francisco. His phone was listed under the name "L.P. Gibson." When we called him from the San Francisco airport and told him we'd arrived, he sounded bummed. About two hours later, when he finally showed up at the airport, he said this was not going to work out. He was sick and didn't think he could have company for more than overnight.
As that first night went on and we talked more, he confessed that he was in the process of kicking his heroin habit (the first of many times, I'm afraid) and didn't think he could have anyone around because he felt terrible. But things worked out and we stayed there for the entire two weeks. He kept saying, "You know, man, this is so cool. I didn't think it would be cool but, you know, this is so cool. Cool …"
He almost always spoke like that – in San Francisco slang – and with his Midwestern/Chicago accent he was very funny (although he didn't always mean to be). He was mostly very earnest but had a great sense of humor, too
A good example of his accent (which of course is heard on the spoken intro on the live Super Session recordings) was that he had a little dog, kind of a shaggy sheepdog, whose name I thought for a long time was "Hairy" – which was a great name because he was hairy. I found out when I saw Michael in New York the next time we got together that the dog was really named "Harry" – but the way he pronounced it, I thought he was saying "Hairy." He laughed about this for days.
Anyway, the time in Lagunitas was really amazing. We traveled all around the Marin County area – it is a very beautiful part of California. Michael, however, didn't go out much and still kept his off-kilter sleep habits – though he didn't really sleep very well at all (as in the "It's Not Killing Me" title song: "It's been far too many nights that I have not got no rest/ It's not killing me, but it sure is hard to take"). That was Michael, always the insomniac (hence, among other disasters, the aborted Super Session date where Steve Stills was brought in).
Michael had a beat-up panel van with never-washed, faded-blue paint that had "Electric Flag" in two-inch-high orange letters stenciled on its sides and back. So everywhere we went in it, people waved and shouted, "Hi," etc. (this being Northern California during the hippie days, people were delighted to see a celebrity vehicle but were "hip" and acted very cool about it). That poor old van had seen better days (no Butterfield pun intended) and had about four or five spare tires in the back. This turned out to be a good thing because its tires were so worn that I must have had to change at least two or three flats during that two-week period. It was great fun, though, being taken for a minor celebrity myself, driving around Marin County in this official Electric Flag vehicle.
One day, Michael went out with me to do some routine errands, and I got a real sense of the kind of person he was in his non-musical life. He had me take him to a bunch of shops in Fairfax and San Raphael, two nearby slightly-larger towns. His interaction with the merchants in each store was amazing (a dry cleaner, a grocery store, the post office, the bank, etc.). He seemed to know everybody personally, and they knew him. He asked about their families, about their son or granddaughter, their health – and was really genuinely interested and sincere. And he seemed to be truly loved by all these regular, everyday people, many of whom may not have actually known that he was the slightest bit famous. He was a really sweet, kind person.
Also during that visit, Michael said we just had to go into San Francisco and see a typical Fillmore concert. So he simply called Bill Graham directly and got us on the guest list for a show with Santana and the Jefferson Airplane (he didn't go with us, though). At the time, I had no idea what a cool thing this was – it just seemed like a normal fun thing that Michael had set up for us. Of course, in retrospect, it was an amazing, almost historical show to witness – a classic line-up of two local bands, introduced by Bill Graham himself at the Fillmore!
The Fillmore in San Francisco was very, very cool (and much funkier than the Fillmore in New York). There were all sorts of semi-crazed street people, hippie chickies and far-out dudes (to use some of the slang of the era), most wearing bizarre costumes. People were fully tripped-out, dancing wildly and basically celebrating the whole scene. Quite an event! What a show – really an archetypal hippie happening. I guess, though, that this was sort of at the end of that era. Haight-Ashbury was getting too druggy and a bit dangerous as the "flower power" era soured – unfortunately the result of speed, I think.
In 2008, Gibson finally released a Bloomfield model Les Paul, long overdue considering the lesser artists who have had Les Pauls named for them. Though it's priced stratospherically at $14,115, at least they have glowingly described Michael's playing and influence. You can find their comments and learn more about the guitar at the Gibson Web page.
I was lucky enough during the entire time I was in CA to regularly play that original, beat-up guitar (which was never in its case, if it even had one). It was road-weary, but played just fine (Gibson faithfully recreated all the gouges and the various messed up elements that obviously happened only because Michael didn't seem to think of it as much more than a tool).
There has been quite a bit of discussion regarding what gauge strings he used, no doubt he wasn't really consistent and used various weights, but at the time I played his guitar, it had a set with an .011 top string (fairly heavy for the kind of bending Michael was capable of). He had quite well-developed finger-tip calluses and told me the secret was just to play all the time and play really hard, because then string gauge wouldn't matter.
He liked .011s (at least during that period, as I noted) because, he told me, they had the advantage of staying in tune longer than lighter gauge sets despite lots of bending. He also thought that the heavier strings allowed 2 and 3 fret bends to be made with less horizontal motion because of their stiffness. And he said he always had the top three or four strings set up with pretty high action to allow the bend to go under the adjacent string (otherwise you'd be pushing more than one string). I've set my guitars up this way ever since (even acoustics), and I have to agree that it's the best configuration for lead and bluesy styles.
He also told me why he loved B.B. so much. It was partly because of his phrasing, of course, but also the way he could make a single note sing. Michael talked about his deep sense that there could be just one single note – nothing fast or flashy needed – that would represent the ultimate musical expression, that would go right to the listeners' soul. He said that B.B. approached this ideal more than any other player.
Michael was not really playing much music that summer, I don't think. He had some friends at a car repair shop in an old barn in San Raphael and they would play cards together. They were also musicians (as was just about everybody in the whole Bay Area) and I think he jammed with them just for fun about once a week or so, when he wasn't dealing with his drug problems. He was also into watching a lot of TV and had his own very-Bloomfield perspective on programming. He once explained to me why he watched the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson so avidly. He said, "You know, man, these celebrities are so full of bullshit and everything they say is so self-conscious – they are all too aware of their image. But if you watch really closely, every once in while a little bit of their real personality comes through and it's amazing – they're all such assholes, man, it's cool." That was Michael …
He once told me that he used to take a small portable TV with him to gigs, so that between sets he could watch late-night TV – mainly the Tonight Show. He was amused at his own craziness in doing this, but he really didn't care what anyone else thought – he was a very confident person in his own way. During one of the late-night discussions that we had, he paid me a major compliment. He said, "Man, you know, you really are a good old guy." This was his highest praise (I think it's in one of his songs) and I was genuinely flattered.
Encounter at Keystone Korner
We spoke by telephone from time to time after that summer, but he hated talking on the phone and the conversations were always brief. I kept tabs on his musical career, of course, always hoping that something big would happen for him again like the Electric Flag. Clapton and Hendrix were the new hotshot guitar players and people were beginning to forget about Michael, I'm afraid.
I had been playing in a local funk band called Frankie Beverly and Raw Soul (Frank and his band are still around as Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly). I was the "token white guitar player," and was always teased by my band mates about that, as most of the other members were black. We played a lot of Sly Stone and Santana material, as well as many original songs and had a big following in the Philadelphia area playing five-set gigs, often six nights a week. It was a hot band and we had a lot of fun!
We played two nights on a bill with Isaac Hayes (July 10, 12, 1972, when he had the huge hit with the "Theme from Shaft"). The first night was on Friday at The Spectrum in Philadelphia to a sold-out crowd of 17,500, and then Sunday night at the Cleveland Music Circus to a sold-out crowd of 10,000. These were the biggest gigs we'd ever had and we planned to head out to California from there and open vast new venues. Several of the band members and our three roadies were going to drive our bus (an ancient converted, short-wheelbase city bus that had just had the engine rebuilt) out to California and the other four band members, including me, would fly out to meet them for the first series of gigs that had been lined up for a week or so later.
Well … the bus's new engine broke in Iowa and was removed by local mechanics and shipped back to the shop in Philadelphia that was going to rebuild it again under warranty. This ended up taking at least a month and when we all finally got to the Bay Area, the gigs we had booked were no longer offered – since we had missed the original dates, of course. We did play People's Park in Berkeley, which was a thrill, and had a few other gigs, but nothing that paid decently. Frank refused to go back East and ultimately the band broke up with four or five of us returning to Philadelphia after six or seven months out there. Frank did get it together about three years later though, with a mostly new band renamed Maze. As I mentioned, everybody in the whole Bay Area was a musician of some sort and it seemed that paying gigs were only for the major stars.
I bring all this up because one very cool gig that we did get was at the Keystone Berkeley, a very hip, smaller club in Berkeley that held maybe 100 or 150 people. We were given the flyers that were printed up with our band listed and I was blown out to see the others on the bill with us. We were playing August 21-23; the Elvin Bishop Group would be the headliners for August 21 and for the August 22 and 23 shows, we would be on the bill with Michael Bloomfield and Friends! By this time I had mostly lost touch with Michael and so this was, needless to say, very exciting.
Anyway, the Elvin night was a gas, but he said (as did others at the club) that you never knew if Michael would really show up for a gig – and, true to form, Michael did miss the show on August 22. But … on the 23rd, as I came off stage from our first set, someone grabbed me and gave me a huge bear hug (even though I was still wearing my guitar). Of course, it was Michael, who was as happy to see me as I was to see him. I don't really remember him playing that night either and I think they blew off the gig, though he did stay for at least one set of ours and was very enthusiastic and complimentary.
A unique individual
I think that was my last contact with Michael Bloomfield. We probably spoke by phone once or twice but as I mentioned, he never liked to talk on the phone and was also probably having all sorts of problems with his drug habit (which he was always really trying to overcome, though never successfully). I kept up with his musical career; I bought the records that came out from time to time ("It's Not Killing Me," the Guitar Player magazine cassette "If You Love These Blues Play Them as You Please" and others).
And then one day I saw his obituary in the local newspaper (I think I still have the clipping). It was shocking to know that this sweet, extremely talented guy was gone; truly the end of an era, in some ways. If nothing else, he was a unique individual. And I think a lot of people really loved him – he was a great player and a fine man.
A "good old guy," as he might have said.
Paul Lerman is a musician, guitar collector, former teacher and recording
engineer who has run his one-man AV/Acoustical Engineering Consulting practice
for almost 20 years and resides in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. His
memoir of Michael Bloomfield appears here with his kind permission.
© 2010 Paul Lerman