The Blues in Real Life: The Magic, Tragic Odyssey of Michael Bloomfield
Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero
By Ed Ward
Chicago Review Press, 272 pp., $27.99
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in the life and work of Chicago-bred blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who died in 1981 at the age of 37. A career-spanning box set, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, was released in 2014, also including the full-length documentary Sweet Blues.
Now comes this book, heavily revised and updated from its 1983 edition by longtime music journo, co-founder of SXSW and Austin resident Ed Ward. And while the circumstances of Bloomfield’s death are unclear — the troubled substance abuser was found slumped over in a car, his body jacked with drugs — his musical journey is much clearer.
Michael Bloomfield wasn’t the type you’d think would haunt gritty southside Chicago blues clubs late at night. But there he was beginning at age 15, sitting in with performers like Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf. Bloomfield was first seen as a novelty, but audience and performers soon warmed to the white, upper-middle-class, Jewish teen who talked a mile a minute and never seemed to sleep (Bloomfield suffered from insomnia all his life).
As word spread about his stinging and inventive guitar work, his star soon began to rise. That’s him on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and backing Dylan at the storied 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when he “went electric.”
Then Bloomfield served as a member of the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band for its first two releases, appeared on the Super Session record with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills, and then ruled as the leader of the Electric Flag. Later, Bloomfield ran helter-skelter through a solo career, guest shots, and with various pickup bands in the ‘70s.
Ward gathers firsthand accounts from friends, family and musical collaborators, as well as revisiting his own extensive talks with the performer while he was alive. As Bloomfield's increasing drug abuse derailed his career — combined with his inattention to business matters and hygiene and his lack of ambition — one can’t help but think the overall theme is one of unfulfilled potential.
And while realistically Bloomfield would never have reached the success level of, say, contemporaries such as Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green or Texan Johnny Winter, his work could certainly stand with any of the three.
Bloomfield’s last major appearance was guesting at a 1980 show with Bob Dylan. Though rattily dressed and acting erratic, he provided plenty of fire for his turns on “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” His last gig ever was a solo acoustic show at a small college venue, almost bringing him full circle.
As to the tired question of whether “white men can play the blues,” if Bloomfield’s work was enough to impress Muddy Waters, B.B. King and the irascible Miles Davis, then it should be good enough for anyone. Ward’s book makes that crystal clear.
“You just get vibrations from black people that are swingier than from white," Davis once said. "That’s why when Mike Bloomfield plays before a black audience, his shit’s gonna come out black. You could put Mike Bloomfield with James Brown, and he’d be a motherfucker.”