An unknown name to many rock fans, Michael Bloomfield was the Greatest Rock Guitar Hero. That means Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Beck and all others can step aside.
No, really. Those other guys were monster talents themselves, but Bloomfield towered above.
The 3CD/1 DVD box From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, produced by Al Kooper (Dylan, Blues Project, Blood, Sweat and Tears) merely reaffirms this. Bloomfield, born to a rich Chicago manufacturing family responsible for you hipsters’ diner staples such as the salt and pepper shakers and sugar dispensers, rebelled against the monied lifestyle his whole life.
It killed him. He did drugs, lived in hovels, and ate dog food in order to escape it. He was arguably the main draw in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at its absolute peak, he convinced Bill Graham in San Francisco to book his blues mentors such as B.B. King at the Fillmore clubs — thus cross-pollinating black and white culture on a national stage — and he walked away from touring with Dylan after electrifying his band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and playing guitar on Highway 61 Revisited.
After migrating west, Bloomfield later taught many San Francisco guitarists — Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, and Carlos Santana to name three who were, they admit, not very good at the time — his licks. Those cats told various interviewers on the Sweet Blues DVD documentary included in this box set that many popular blues-rock guitarists from out east refused to show newbies their techniques for things like bending notes, and in fact would turn away from observers so as to hide how their fingers rode the strings.
What should have been his crowning achievement, the horn-drenched blues supergroup the Electric Flag, the first band he formed as a leader, was a disaster. Marred by excessive drug use, personality differences, and ultimately Bloomfield’s inability to stop rebelling against his father and accept his fame and fortune, he walked away from his own band after just one record.
Yet his monstrous talent, as well as his influence on 1960s rock, cannot be overstated. A networker and a good-hearted man, he was always talking up other players to record execs and concert promoters. But he had a dark side, too: His miserable insomnia problems, which he self-medicated with heroin just like Kurt Cobain did his bronchitis and stomach ailments, cannot be overstated either. His pathetic death after OD’ing at a 1981 party in San Francisco surprised a lot of people — in that he survived that long.
The DVD documentary — which includes some overlap with the material Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom used to assemble the 2000 book Mike Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues, An Oral History — sort of sugarcoats the drug aspect, glossing over the 1968-1981 fallow period of Bloomfield’s late-stage career. It does, however, end on an incredible high note with a rare 1980 solo acoustic performance that shows Bloomfield, almost done, a la Fat Elvis, burning up his bottleneck guitar, sweet blues emanating from those fingers at the bitter end.
The music piece of the box set, however, devotes a full third of the tracks to this post-Super Session period in Bloomfield’s career, including numbers he performed with Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Muddy Waters. The first two discs of the three, as you would imagine, contain his legendary performances from his pre-Butterfield Chicago days, recordings with John Hammond in New York, up to and including Electric Flag and Super Session.
Kooper ran with Bloomfield recording Highway 61, and also shared club bills with the Butterfield Blues Band while he was in the Blues Project. It could be argued that Kooper captured Bloomfield best of them all on vinyl with his one-off Super Session studio LP in 1968, and again in The Live Adventures of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, which they both admit on the DVD that was an answer to critics who accused then big-time producer Kooper of making a killer studio record whose sound could not be duplicated in a live setting.
Some of us, with the benefit of hindsight, would argue that the live recordings surpassed the original. Both albums, however, were marred by the flakiness of Bloomfield, who bugged out early on both gigs and left Kooper to work his considerable rock ‘n’ roll network to produce fill-ins like B.B. King, Stephen Stills and Santana.
This new retrospective can only whet the appetite of a new generation of Bloomfield fans. While it may take a year or two and delving far deeper into his catalog to arrive at the inevitable conclusion, once you do you’ll understand: Despite his flaws, Mike Bloomfield was the greatest rock and roll guitarist of the 1960s, maybe ever. If you don’t yet get it, that’s fine; one day you shall reach enlightenment. Until then, we’ll await your arrival.