ARCHIVE HIGHLIGHT

Bloomfield's Doomed Field
By Al Kooper

From Gadfly March/April 2001

 
For some strange reason, we referred to each other by our "proper" names, Michael and Alan. To everyone else, it was Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. In fact, Michael was the only one, besides my family, who called me Alan. If anybody else tried a stunt like that, they'd get a quick slap in the head from me. But when Michael said it, it was somehow endearing and flattering. His brother's name was Allen, and I felt that he was taking me into his nuclear family by calling me by my given name.

Michael was one-of-a-kind—completely loose and uninhibited but almost constantly dogged by inner demons that kept him reclusive and far from sleep. If he was your friend, you were damned lucky. He would go the limit for you—lend you money, feed you, give you his clothing or let you crash at his house. He surrounded himself with a rag-tag crew of ne'er-do-wells who somehow found him. They mostly took advantage of his kindness and did not have his best interests at heart. But he was too lazy to go out and look for better friends. Those would come to him through the music.

We met in 1965 at the Bob Dylan "Like A Rolling Stone" recording session. Approximately the same age and religion, we got along famously and instantly. Our economic backgrounds, however, were markedly dissimilar. I was lower-middle class, raised in Queens, New York. My father was a lawyer who worked for his "friends" who never paid him. Bloomfield's father was in the restaurant supply business. He held the patents on some classic stove-side accessories: the hexagon-shaped glass salt shaker with the holes on top in the shape of a Star of David, the glass sugar canister with the stainless steel trap-door top and the classic diner coffee machine that still, to this day, bears the Bloomfield moniker. By 1965, the elder Bloomfield had cashed in his coffeemaker and other patents to Beatrice Foods, one of the top corporations in the world, and walked away with mucho millions.

Michael grew up in a privileged household in the suburbs of Chicago. He rebelled against it almost immediately and, by his teens, was down on the Southside, taking in the native blues sounds that bloomed in the fields of Chicago's "bad" neighborhoods. He had a certain innate talent for playing the guitar that was instantly obvious to his mentors. They knew this was not just another white boy; this was someone who truly understood what the blues were all about. Among his early supporters were B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Buddy Guy. Michael used to say, "It's a natural. Black people suffer externally in this country. Jewish people suffer internally. The suffering's the mutual fulcrum for the blues."

Once he maneuvered out of his family's moneyed grasp, he chose to live in comparative squalor. "I once rented a really nasty, flimsy house in Chicago in a rough neighborhood. I moved in there in November. Me and a puppy. The puppy shit was everywhere in the house, man. I wasn't inclined to clean up dog shit every couple of hours, so I'd just cover it with newspaper. It was cold; the wind blew right through that house and took the smell with it. But every time the puppy took a shit in there, I'd cover it up with flat sheets of newspaper. A man's gotta be able to walk comfortably in his own home, after all."

"Well, what happened when it got really hot in June?" I asked curiously.

"I don't really know," he laughed, "I moved out in March!"

Primitive by choice, he was not a shirt-and-tie-limousine-riding-son-of-a-rich-man. Au contraire. But he was well read and surely had a high IQ. He loved to talk about books he'd read and new music he had just encountered. A good day to him was curling up in his bathrobe with a great book. A good night? Watching television while accompanying on guitar everything that transpired on the screen. He knew all the tunes from every commercial, too.

We once went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to see James Brown, along with a married couple he was friendly with. While we were standing in line to get in, a hardcore brother started hitting on the woman of the couple. Really hard. Bloomfield was aghast. He lost it completely. "Hey man, that is this man's wife, his woman! How dare you come up in his face like that? Now go ahead, apologize and move on!" And the guy did. Simple as that. Michael never saw black and white in contexts like that. People were people. It was a Chicago thing. It was a good thing.

Once we were scheduled to do an interview together for Hit Parader magazine, and I went to his hotel in Manhattan to pick him up. When I called his room from the lobby, he said to come upstairs. When I got there, the door was ajar and I walked in. He was sitting on the toilet, with the door open. "Hey man, how ya doin'? Sit down, sit down." Now I'd heard of shooting the shit, but ... c'mon! Did he greet all his guests like that—or should I have been flattered?

Quite the enigmatic young man. Recently I recovered some tapes of a show we did at The Fillmore East in 1968, which had been lost in Sony's vaults for 32 years. When we played live, we would each pick a sideman; if I picked the drummer, then he would choose the bass player or vice versa. Then we would have one rehearsal and just sort of blunder our way through the gig. We liked it that way. Now in the year 2000, as I sat listening to the tapes for later release, I marveled at the intellectualism of his playing.

He was years ahead of everyone. His melodic sense and feel were incomparable. I saw him outfox Hendrix one night in an after-hours duel. At this show I was listening to, from 1968, he invited Johnny Winter onstage to make his New York City debut. Johnny had no record deal, and no one in the audience had ever heard of him before so it was truly a big chance for him. He got up and played amazingly. People were mesmerized as he put on a spectacular display of blues guitar playing. Bloomfield generously stepped aside and played rhythm guitar quietly behind him. After Johnny had played for about six minutes, to a standing ovation, he nodded for Bloomfield to solo. Michael remained in the back and played, in two choruses, what it had taken Winter six minutes to do. The audience freaked. It was not a cutting contest, either. They both had tremendous respect for each other. And believe me, Johnny Winter's six minutes were truly exceptional, but it's just the way it was that night.

And let's not forget the fire eating. What's that you say, Alan?  No ... really. He could eat fire, just like a circus act. I have no idea how or why he did that! On rare occasions, right in the middle of the Butterfield Band's set piece "East-West," Bloomfield would light a torch and plunge it down his throat—right in the middle of the song! He'd finish up by illegally blowing flames right over the audience's heads! What other guitarist could follow that? Bless you if you were lucky enough to have witnessed one of those nights.

In 1970, I was playing in Chicago and Bloomfield's brother, Allen, invited me to Sunday brunch at his parents' home. I went up there about 10:30 a.m. Michael was there unexpectedly. A few days before, he had checked himself into a mental institution because he hadn't slept in a week. When I walked into their place, he was in the kitchen regaling Allen and his mom with stories from inside the asylum. The father stood by the mantel in the dining room, dressed in jodhpurs, brandishing a riding crop, either on his way to or having just returned from some equestrian experience, one can only hope. He did not utter a word the entire time I was there. Is this dysfunctional? It begs for its own special category.

Of course, the musical experiences are the ones I treasure the most. By 1968, our careers were uncannily parallel. We had met at the Dylan sessions, then both joined existing blues bands; he, Butterfield, I, The Blues Project. Then we both quit the blues bands to form horn bands; he, The Electric Flag, I, Blood Sweat & Tears. Sure enough, we both were asked to leave our respective horn bands in short order by fellow band members. We seemed destined to record together. And as I sat in my new office as staff producer at Columbia Records, just post-Blood Sweat & Tears, all these thoughts ran through my head.

We had just performed on a jam session album included with Moby Grape's second album Wow. Why not do an entire jam album together? At the time, most jazz albums were made using this modus operandi: pick a leader or two co-leaders, hire appropriate sidemen, pick some tunes, make some up and record an entire album on the fly in one or two days. Why not try and legitimize rock by adhering to these standards? In addition, as a fan, I was dissatisfied with Bloomfield's recorded studio output up until then. It seemed that his studio work was inhibited and reigned in, compared to his incendiary live performances. Could I put him in a studio setting where he could feel free to just burn like he did in live performances?

A great challenge.

The result: the album called Super Session, the highest-charting album of either of our careers. It went to 11, like Spinal Tap, but it missed 10, unlike Spinal Tap. Super Session, although successful in its attempt to capture Bloomfield's live fire, was a record tossed off by him in one night. Maybe that was the secret of getting a great performance out of him in the studio. The two of us had nothing at stake. We had finished the initial hectic portion of Part One of our careers, begun in 1965. In 1968, it seemed okay to just have fun in the studio without being concerned about the consequences. And that's how that album was recorded—completely free of business or career-concerned distractions.

After the first night's recording, all the musicians repaired to a Hollywood home, replete with swimming pool, I had rented (courtesy of Columbia Records) for some well-earned sleep. In the morning, Bloomfield's room was vacated. He had checked out at dawn. A note semi-explained his plight:        

Alan,
Couldn't sleep. Went back home to San Francisco.
Sorry, thanks, and good luck.
MB

As a fellow insomniac, no further explanation was needed. And that's why he's only on one side of the album and Stephen Stills is on the other side.

Much is made of Bloomfield's drug use. After all, it brought about his demise. He was found on a lonely road, dead in his car, under mysterious circumstances. Like few of his hangers-on, he was not a heroin addict. He was what they called "a week-end chipper." He'd save up a little "fun-money," go over to the dealer's house and buy and do a hit right then and there. That was sufficient for him. Michael was never high on heroin around me. He would have been too embarrassed. He knew I would have disapproved and given him a lot of shit about it. We never even discussed it. From what his friends know of him, it is surmised that one night he went solo to the dealer for that one fun hit. The guy must have OD'ed him by accident and, panicking, put him in his car and driven him somewhere and just left him to die. What an unnecessary waste of such a unique talent and personality.

By 1981, spurred by Reagan's election, I had relocated to London. One night I sat, reading the paper, and it said Michael had died. I did a newspaper double take and then re-read the article three times. I put the paper down and had a good cry. A month before, we had spoken by phone. He told me his girlfriend was a dancer and was going on a European tour soon, and he would tag along. They would be in England, and would I book some gigs for him and me to play in London? He said he was in great shape—buffed actually, that he had been in a gym working out regularly. I laughed right in his face, through the transatlantic cables. "You are such a liar. The thought of you with muscles is just hilarious to me!" We both laughed, and I told him I'd book the gigs.

That was our last conversation. I sat there with the newspaper in my lap all night, thinking about the times we had spent together and all the good guys and bad guys we knew. As dawn arrived, I wrote this song:

Fame is a funny thing
The way it wraps itself around you like a second skin
And you start to go up
But at the same time you start to go down
Friends that you knew before
Are never quite the same friends anymore
And the new ones leave a lot to be desired

Still discovering how I love to play and I love to sing
But I'm quite content to stand back here on the shore
With a teardrop in each eye
Cause I have watched most of my friends die
And they just don't make 'em like that anymore

I remember when we stood at the bar
And we thought that we'd conquered the world
Cause we always had the latest drugs
And our choice of the prettiest girls

But today's such a long way from that bar
And a much longer way from that super star
And I'm no big deal just a veteran of that war
And if you could just learn from the past
Maybe you wouldn't wanna live your life so fast
'Cause that's not what we were put on this earth for
And they just don't make em like that anymore
No sir
No they just don't make em like that anymore
2000 Rekooped Music Company BMI, All Rights Reserved

Hey Michael—I miss ya big time—it's really gettin' crazy down here now, like you wouldn't believe. I'll see ya in awhile.  Take care....
Alan