'Guitar King' Book Review: Legacy and Tragedy of Michael Bloomfield - Rolling Stone
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Book Review: ‘Guitar King’ Tackles the Life, Legacy and Tragedy of Michael Bloomfield

The guitarist backed Dylan, wowed them at Monterey Pop, and was on the verge of becoming the American Eric Clapton — but wound up dead and obscure. A new bio traces the story.

Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield perform with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at Chet Helms' Tribal Stomp on October 1, 1978 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California.

Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield perform with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at Chet Helms' Tribal Stomp on October 1, 1978 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California.

Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

Michael Bloomfield was the guitar hero who wasn’t remotely interested in being one. Discovered in the early Sixties by Columbia A&R honcho John Hammond, Bloomfield and his bee-sting guitar became a showpiece of the genuinely street-tough Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Dylan’s gone-electric moment, including “Like a Rolling Stone” and his infamous Newport gig. Bloomfield’s subsequent band, the Electric Flag, may have been the first to fuse pop, blues, jazz, and soul, and Bloomfield himself was a wired, energized performer and interview subject — a natural star, down to his signature early Jewfro.

But as journalist, author, and musician David Dann exhaustively chronicles in the 740-page Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues, no one did self-sabotage like Bloomfield. A white, Jewish trust-fund kid, Bloomfield, who died in 1981, took purity to new levels. As Dann writes, the blues, which Bloomfield heard while growing up on Chicago’s North Shore in the Fifties, was the musician’s “entry into an adult world of forbidden pleasures and passions.” That world included everything from drugs (he was already sampling opiates as a teenager) and almost anything that smacked of pop crossover.

Whether it was that sense of authenticity or his innate rebelliousness, the recurring theme of Bloomfield’s life became taking a left turn when his career seemed to be heading in the presumably right direction. Dann superbly chronicles Bloomfield’s work with Dylan and how “Like a Rolling Stone” came together in the studio. Dylan assumed Bloomfield would then join up as one of his backup players –  but instead the guitarist opted to stick with Butterfield’s band, which he’d just joined. There, Bloomfield became one of the first rock guitar heroes. But just as he and that band were poised to break out, thanks to 1966’s East-West and its epic, genre-blending title song, Bloomfield left, stunning Butterfield as much as he had Dylan.

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Likewise, Bloomfield co-founded the Electric Flag, which, along with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, left the most mouths agape at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival. As Dann recounts in nearly hourly detail, Bloomfield put everything he had into their first album, A Long Time Comin’—only to see other members succumb to drug use, which led to Bloomfield to depart soon after its first album. When Al Kooper asked Bloomfield to make what would become the beloved Super Session album in 1968, Bloomfield cut essentially half a record, one that became a crystal-clear showcase for his solos. But without telling Kooper, Bloomfield then flew back home to the Bay Area in the middle of the night — the result, Dann reports, of a heroin jones. Poised to make a name for himself despite that flake-out, Bloomfield finally cut a solo record, It’s Not Killing Me, that spotlighted his weakest attribute – his singing. You’ll smack the side of your head every few pages.

Although it didn’t seem to bother him much, Bloomfield’s career never recovered. Increasingly repulsed by the corporate rock world – and coping with mental health issues that led his father to commit the teenaged Bloomfield to a mental hospital – Bloomfield in his later years seemed content to play clubs and record unplugged and instructional albums for small labels. It didn’t help that Bloomfield never had his “Layla” or “Stairway to Heaven” – a signature song that stayed on FM radio for years. As Dann reports, the closest he came was Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” which Stephen Stills played on the Super Session album after he had filled in for Bloomfield. When Bloomfield and Kooper played live together, fans never failed to scream out for the song despite the fact that Bloomfield wasn’t on the recording—and it didn’t help that Bloomfield hated the song and never failed to complain when he and Kooper had to play it live.

Thanks to new interviews with associates and animated descriptions of Bloomfield’s playing, motor-mouth way of talking and scholarly musical knowledge, that tug of war between the commercial and the uncompromised makes for an absorbing read. Guitar King isn’t the first book on Bloomfield but is most fleshed out, and it also feels like one of the last great untold classic-rock tales, right up through Bloomfield’s mysterious passing: The guitarist was found dead in the front seat of his parked car in San Francisco, and Dann speculates that his subject overdosed at a party (cocaine and meth were found in his system) and was driven to a semi-remote location and essentially left for dead in his own vehicle, with all the doors locked.

By then, Bloomfield seemed content with his scaled-down career – one he was entitled to but which, in retrospective, often shortchanged his talent. Even as the book will make you reach for or stream A Long Time Comin’, Super Session, East-West or even Triumvirate (his overlooked 1973 album with John Hammond and Dr. John, another failed supergroup plan), Guitar King gives you its own version of the blues.

Get the book here.

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