An Interview with Allen Bloomfield, cont.
By David Dann • Page 2

Michael Bloomfield with his favorite grandmother, Ida, at his bar mitzvah in 1956. One of the gifts he received, a transistor radio, allowed him to listen to music from Chicago's south side and from down south – music called "blues." Photo courtesy of Allen Bloomfield
 

Was there music in your family?

We really didn't have much music around the house. It was there – we had a piano, and there were the usual pop records. My dad actually played pretty good piano when he sat down to it – he'd do show tunes, stuff like that.

But the men in the family – our father and his father before him, our uncles – they all lived and breathed business. That was their music. And they were very good at it.

But Michael was completely the opposite. He was no businessman. When he discovered black music and began making his pilgrimages to see Odetta and Josh White, he got into that music's total otherness. It was as different from the world we were living in as you could get. Michael gave himself over to a deep exploration of the blues, and by doing that created a separate identity for himself.

How did Michael get along with your dad?

My father had been a boxer in his early days, and was a fine, fine athlete. He was a no-bullshit, physical kind of guy. Michael, on the other hand, had no aptitude for sports and was not at all athletic. That always irritated my father. But Michael did accomplish some remarkable physical things. Even though he was left-handed, he taught himself to play guitar right-handed. Why? Because everybody played guitar that way. He never got credit for that amazing accomplishment.

He also had fabulous endurance. My dad was very proud of the fact the Mike could swim and swim. He wasn't a particularly graceful swimmer, but he could go forever. And he could ride horses pretty well. He might be rocking from side to side, his shirt tails flapping, but he could stay on and keep the horse between his legs.

Dad also really liked Michael's passion for food. We'd be at a restaurant and Michael would say, "I want some oysters! Can I have oysters?" and Dad would reluctantly order him some. He'd eat them all and then Mike'd say, "Can I have some more?" Our father loved that about him.

Of course, Michael was always trying to get Dad's approval, and he never really did. Dad could be very physical with Michael when Michael provoked him. I don't think Mike ever made it through one family meal without being sent away from the table. They had good moments, though. I remember my father sitting in my parents' big bedroom, and Michael was sitting across the way playing guitar. He'd brought his amp in and was playing all these show tunes, like from the "Hit Parade" – just a kid playing for his pop. Dad knew that Michael had real talent, and later even went to see him perform a few times.

What about the summer of 1962 when Michael went to Colorado with Fred Glaser? What did your parents think about that?

By that time, Mike was persona-non-grata at home, and I didn't really know much about what he was up to. He was gone much of the time, and things weren't too good when he was home, so I didn't really find out about that trip until later. I do know that he was very defiant in those days and was trying hard to develop a sense of self. He had a real impulsive side, and spending a good portion of the summer bumming around Colorado seems like it must have come from that aspect of his personality.

I also know that when he married Susan [Smith] and came home to tell our parents, there was a huge blowout. Dad really beat him up, and I remember Michael yelling. He would never raise a hand to his father, but he shouted, "I'm outta here, you motherfuckers!" Weird thing was, a month later my parents gave a huge party for the newlyweds. That was the way it was – Michael desperate for approval and never really getting the real thing. Just the appearance of it.

It seems to me that Michael's difficulty dealing with your father's expectations of him carried over into his adult life – his great discomfort with audience expectations, for example.

That's the funny thing about my brother. So many people found him so electrifying as a personality and as a player. And he was a risky player and could really push the limits, but it became harder and harder for him to deal with people's expectations. He would really take it to heart if they were critical, and after a while he just shunned the spotlight. Oh, he had an ego, and loved to be the center of attention, but once people expected him be a certain way or to perform at a certain level – that was a real problem for him.

What do you know about the "Spanish Village" (an abandoned mall in Wilmette where Michael played some of his earliest gigs)?

I don't really recall anything about him playing there, but I did see Mike perform with that Jerry Lee Lewis guy – Hayden Thompson. I think I went with my cousin because I would have been too young to drive. The club was in Highwood, near the military base there. They were doing rock'n'roll stuff – you know, "Great Balls of Fire," tunes like that. It was kind of funny seeing my brother up there with a working band, but it really didn't really crystallize for me until I saw Michael a few years later with Paul Butterfield.

I was a freshman in college, and they were at Big John's, with Elvin, Jerome Arnold and, I think, Billy Davenport. It was amazing! I sat really close and was just knocked out by Paul's playing. I had never seen or heard anything like what he was doing with the harmonica. Mike was there too, a part of it, and he sounded great, but it was seeing Butterfield play that got to me. The whole band was amazingly woven together, loud and tight, right within the form. Later on they stretched out a lot more, but then they were pure Chicago in their approach.

I was so inspired, I started playing harp myself. Just like a thousand other kids after seeing Paul.

What about other gigs?

Later I saw Michael with Butterfield in Detroit. I drove there with a friend from our dude ranch days who lived in the city. I remember them playing "East-West," the first time I'd ever heard that tune. Paul just strolled away from the stage and let the band go on and on.

Another time I was with Mike at a club in Greenwich Village, and in walked Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. They got to talking with Michael – he could talk to anybody – and later he said to me, "That Joanne Woodward is really something!" He was very impressed with her. And Paul Newman? "What a putz."

I also was there at the first Butterfield reunion [in 1971 at the Fenway Theater in Boston]. That was a fantastic show. Norman Dayron did the sound and they had a scrim hanging in front of the band with backlighting so all you could see were their silhouettes. When the music started, the lights came up and the scrim was raised – it was fabulous!

Then I saw the Electric Flag open for the Band at the Nassau Coliseum [probably on August 30, 1974]. That was a tough gig. Buddy [Miles] started in with his schtick, "Everybody clap your hands!," you know, that whole bit. The audience wasn't into it, of course – they were there to see the Band. Michael was just embarrassed by all his showboating.

Tell me how you got involved with Al Kooper.

Al and Michael were doing this gig at a university in Chicago – not a Super Session show, but something else – and I got involved taking photos of the performance. I was into taking pictures at the time, so I got hired on as their photographer. The shots I got weren't all that great, but Kooper said to me, "Why don't you come work for my manager, Stanley Polley? He needs an assistant." So I went to New York and hooked up with Stanley. He was a remarkable character, the best in the business, and I learned an immense amount about the music industry from him. I worked for him for a total of 18 months.

One time, around 1971, I was given the opportunity to negotiate a deal with Columbia Records for a band called Southern Comfort. Michael, who was in Mill Valley at the time, asked me to pick up the band’s demo at Albert Grossman's place because they were just sitting on it. Mike had endorsed them and the head of A&R at Columbia was hot to sign the band. I got introduced to Albert Grossman, who was managing them, and to Vinnie Fusco, Grossman’s assistant. I go in and there’s Albert sitting behind this huge desk, just like a king on a throne. I’m in this low, tiny chair and he’s looking down on me, a Ben Franklin look-alike character with little granny glasses. Very far from my picture of a businessman! 

Mike called him “Cumulus Nimbus.” “Just like Daddy,” he would say.

So after a lot of haggling with Grossman, I negotiated an unbelievable deal for Southern Comfort. They got everything they wanted, made one record and totally bombed with the follow through.

What about Michael's later work?

Well, he worked with Norman Dayron on his last recordings. Norman was really like a companion for Mike. Alan [Kooper] provided real structure when they recorded together and that's why he got the results he did. But Norman was like heroin for Mike – he made my brother feel comfortable. He is exceedingly bright and a very good producer, but Norman had a fan's adulation for Michael. The two of them were like schemers, cooking up ways to beat the music business at its own game. As a result, their judgment sometimes wasn't the best.

And after a while Norman began taking on many of Michael's mannerisms. The two of them looked very much alike and eventually they began to sound alike! But, you know, I don't believe anyone was as close to my brother as Norman was.

What's in store for the future?

Well, I'm working on a screenplay about Michael for a British production company. Any possible movie is years and years away, but there is real interest.

The Michael Bloomfield box set that has been in the works for a number of years now is kind of in limbo because of a change of management at Sony/Legacy. We hope to have it back on track before too long. It's not the greatest time to be putting out expensive CD packages, what with downloading and file sharing, but hopefully when it comes out it will include selections done for other companies and a DVD. We'll see!

I'd like to end by saying that there is no person on earth that I'd rather hang with than Michael. If you took J.D. Salinger and added a pinch of Bukowski, a dash of Terry Southern and a sprinkle of Oscar Levant – you would have an approximation of what he was like. A wit like Lenny Bruce and the persona of a gangster with a rose tattoo.

The best gift for the future? That would be to preserve the memory of Michael as truly he was. Clearly, to know him was to love him.

 

© 2010 David Dann