An Interview with Allen Bloomfield
By David Dann


Editor's note: Allen Bloomfield is Michael Bloomfield's younger brother. He and Michael grew up together in Chicago and Glencoe, IL, and Allen later worked with Al Kooper and then lived with Michael in the 1970s in Mill Valley. In the mid-'70s, he joined his father Harold Bloomfield's food service business as manager of the company's warehouse on the Bowery in Manhattan. He eventually became the Bloomfield Distribution Center’s national sales manager.

After twenty years in that business, Allen realized a life-long dream and purchased the farm in northeastern Pennsylvania where he currently resides with his family and keeps horses. He has been the conservator of the Michael Bloomfield Estate since his brother's death in 1981. The following conversation with David Dann took place on February 19, 2008.

Tell me about the early years with Michael.

Well, we lived several places in Chicago when we were young – the last being at 424 Melrose. Michael was about 12 years old when we left there for Glencoe. I was 10. We were very happy on Melrose – lots of friends and cool places to go. We were just a block off the Gold Coast, Chicago's Lake Shore Drive where all the rich folks lived. The other direction was rough-and-tumble working class, and we went to Nettlehorst Public School just a block over. We loved that school – it was filled with all kinds of kids from all kinds of backgrounds. Down the street was ABC Toyland, a fantastic store, and another block over was the Clark Movie Theater. One of the highlights of my youth was the start of the Christmas season at that theater – they would have an all-day show with like a hundred cartoons, and then they would bring out a Duncan yo-yo champion resplendent in his embroidered jacket and he would demonstrate all those fantastic tricks you'd see on TV. Then the feature movie would start. Michael and I would sit together, and he'd grab my hand, you know, to reassure me during the scary parts of "War of the Worlds." It was just incredible!

On our excursions to the movies, we'd buy BBQ beef sandwiches and make Lime Rickeys in the vending machines in the lobby of the theater. One time, after we saw Tony Curtis in "Houdini," we were walking down Broadway to Melrose and there were these smudge pots out around a ditch with all this construction stuff lying around. Suddenly Michael says, "I'm Houdini! Bury me!" So we loaded him up with all this dirt and gravel and just walked away. When he didn't show up at home and it was getting dark, we went looking for him and there he still was, only now he was hollering, "You motherfuckers! Get me outta here!" Some Houdini – he was still buried under all that stuff.

Another time I remember Michael elaborating on "Harvey" – you know, the movie with Jimmy Stewart about a guy who has a six-foot-tall imaginary rabbit. The story goes that one day Michael was playing hooky and the school called to check on him. He answered the phone and told them he was very ill and could hardly speak. Then he said, "If you have any other questions, could you please speak to my rabbit? He would be very happy to answer them."

Those were indelible memories!

What caused the move to Glencoe (a suburb on Chicago's north shore)?

Oh, my parents wanted us to go to better schools. My uncle had built a home in Glencoe, and my parents went up there and found this huge house and that was that. Michael and I had these fat-tired Schwinn bikes on Melrose. Within a week of getting to Glencoe we had these skinny-tired English bikes – I couldn't even reach the pedals on mine! I had to have blocks put on them. We wrecked those bikes in no time, we hated them so much. It was just a totally different environment than in Chicago. Suddenly it mattered what you wore, who you were. We went to Glencoe's Central Elementary first and then to New Trier High School in Winnetka – the Harvard of high schools. It was a total college-prep scene. Michael was in sixth grade and I was in fourth when we moved there.

It was right around this time that our cousin, Chucky Bloomfield, got a guitar and when we saw it we each wanted one too. Chucky's was unlike any guitar we'd ever seen – it was similar to one of those National steel guitars, the kind Son House played. It had a big hubcap-type resonator over the sound hole. No kid could resist something like that. Michael wound up getting a conventional guitar for himself, and my mom's beautician, a guy named Tony Carmen, gave him lessons.

He played all the time. I don't think he did it just to practice – it was more like the way he entertained himself. Here he was, this somewhat heavy kid whose hair had suddenly gone kinky, a guy who walked like a duck, in a strange neighborhood, feeling like a real misfit. So the guitar became his solace. He reconstructed his persona with the sounds he could make, and with the sounds made by all the great musicians he was hearing and taking to be his own. He was into Bill Broonzy, Josh White, the Weavers and those people. And he found a group of friends just like himself – misfits, rebels, guys who didn't quite fit in to the New Trier scene. They included Roy Ruby, a really sweet guy, and Fred Glaser.

When Michael had his Bar Mitzvah, it was a real blowout. Tons of gifts. He even got a periscope from a tank from our cousin Haskell Wexler [later the film director who made "Medium Cool"]. I was really envious, and Mike saw that and said, "Allie, take whatever you want of this stuff." The one thing he got that later turned out to be really important to him was a transistor radio. With that, he started hearing all the amazing music coming out of the black neighborhoods on Chicago's south side, and from stations down south. He began to connect to the whole gestalt of black music.

To run the household in Glencoe, my folks would hire a husband-and-wife couple as staff. The couple that provided Mike with his first real connection to live black music was Mary and Dewey Williams. Mary was a long-time, personal friend of Josh White and she arranged for Michael and Roy Ruby and two other friends to see him perform at The Gate of Horn in Chicago. She later introduced Mike to him. Roy also had a maid, but she didn't live with the Rubys – she had an apartment on the south side. She was the one who carried Mike and Roy along with her to clubs she frequented.

It's important to mention here that these people who took care of our house were the first African-Americans that we were exposed to in an intimate, family setting. They became a natural extension of who we were and a deep love was established without judgment. They really were family.

What was school like for Mike at that time?

Michael was in all accelerated classes. They had a tracking system at New Trier and the smart, college-bound kids got into the upper tracks. He was a voracious reader – he read every one of Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" books when he was a kid. He devoured books – literally. He'd eat the edges of the pages as he read. The books would look like these expensive first editions when got through with them – with deckle-edged pages. I remember one time he got into a heavy discussion about gerunds with my father, also a real intellect. And Michael could hold his own with him – no easy thing. He was articulate with words as well as with music.

But in school, he was a disaster. Michael had an acid wit and a highly acerbic tongue. And he could really provoke! The teacher would ask, "What's Moby Dick?" and he say, "It's a disease," and – pow! – he would be booted.

New Trier put on a big show every year, a talent show called "Langiappe." Michael was scheduled to play with his band, and he was told, "No encore!" So, of course, he did an encore and that, along with many other offenses, got him kicked out. Irv Weingarten, the vice principal, had had enough.

Funny thing though. I didn't see that show for some reason – I don't remember why. But cousin Chucky did and he said afterward, "That's what Michael's going to be doing," meaning playing music. Right he was.

So after New Trier they sent Michael to Cornwall Academy in Cornwall, MA. Put him right in there with all the other fuck-ups. It was definitely not the best place for him to be. I believe that's where he first encountered drugs.

You know, Michael loved thrills, and I think that's why drugs attracted him. When we were kids we'd go every other summer to a dude ranch, like Bishop's Lodge in Santa Fe. We had this thing we'd do – each of us would hyperventilate and then have another kid grab us around the chest and squeeze. You'd nearly pass out – a cheap high! Mike loved that. And we'd go to Riverview, Chicago's big amusement park, and get on the Silver Streak rollercoaster. Michael would insist on sitting in the front car and he'd give the guy five tickets so we could ride the thing non-stop for five trips!