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Mike Bloomfield: The First Guitar Hero

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I never practice my guitar. From time to time I just open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat.

-- Wes Montgomery

FULL DISCLOSURE: I play guitar.

By fateful coincidence, my dad had started taking classical guitar lessons about six weeks before The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan-- yes, February 9, 1964. My father was an accomplished violist who could solidly fake his way around a violin and cello, played piano and harmonica as well. His kid brother, Uncle Eliot was and is a full-blown jazz and classical trombonist (see what I did there?) Anyway, my father would discover his musical nemesis for the rest of his life... frets. WTF? They just caused him untold grief. Fought the guitar for 20 years, the way I have for 50 years, hence my Wes quotation up there.

Anyway, he gave me my first lesson, a mash-up of his own meager learning, on Lincoln's birthday, back when the 12th of February was a no school holiday. That was three days after y'know...

To my father's delight and frustration, I picked up his first six lessons, about half of what he'd shown me that Wednesday, in about 48 hours.

I was now going to the same guitar teacher, Basil Cimino, an actual, no-kidding hardcore Flamenco guitarist in Brooklyn Heights, who happened to also have the patience to teach dopes how to play pieces by Sor. His studio was actually decorated with bullfighting posters and signed 8x10's of famous toreadors. I went to Basil and for the most part enjoyed myself 'til I was about 14. By then, rock had messed me well up. And.. I'd finally had my teen growth spurt and was amazed to find that Basil was about 4' 10".

Rita Sherman gets the gold star, though. It was she, guitar counselor St. Camp Thoreau who showed me chords, the Summer of 1964. A one-woman ruination squad!

The Beatles, even to this day, are hard for me to relate to as a rock band. I never quite differentiated between lead and rhythm and bass guitar with that band. They were The Beatles, and of an incomprehensible all being as other bands started showing up.

For me, the Rolling Stones introduced to me by an impeccably cool neighbor, Paul Shann, probably all of 13-years-old, were the first band where I broke down and understood the roles the gaunt guy, the blond guy and the really gaunt guy were fulfilling within the song. I saw Keith play above the twelfth fret on Shindig, during the crescendo of his "Heart Of Stone" solo on my first-ever sunburst Gibson Les Paul sighting as well. There he was. My first guitar hero.

But, this is not about my first guitar hero.

This is about the First Guitar Hero.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome, Michael Bloomfield.

About 10 days ago, I received a copy of this just-released box set on Legacy/Columbia, Michael Bloomfield -- From His Head to His Heart to His Hands -- An Audio/Visual Scrapbook.

MORE FULL DISCLOSURE: My dear friend and mentor, Michael Simmons wrote the absolutely fucking wonderful liner notes, so there.

Okay, so back to me, me, me.

The same down-the-block-from-me-in-Brooklyn-Heights Paul Shann, who, in June '64, turned me onto the Rolling Stones, one day in mid-1966, just before he moved away and out of my life forever, mentioned the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to me. Over the next 18 months or so, the Stones had singlehandedly brought names like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Slim Harpo, Bo Diddley, into my life. I was starting to become aware that the Stones had, y'know, influences. I'd listened to some of that Influences stuff and was simply not ready for the real thing. But, I was aware that this was deficiency on my part.

Following Paul's lead, I went to E. J. Korvette's and found the debut Butterfield album under "B" in "Rock." I wish I had words to convey how shocking the cover was. These five guys did not look remotely like rock stars. Two of them were black (uh, whoa!) one of whom appeared to be maybe even over 30-years-old, and definitely in no mood. The three white guys were dressed like those odd dudes who stood in doorways in the Times Square area, the ones who always seemed to be waiting for someone.

My own little data bank, filled with cute and/or odd looking guys dressed like fops, beatniks or in some dopey uniform, was not computing these Butterfield guys. I flipped it over and in the upper left hand corner was a b&w photo of Mike Bloomfield playing a Fender Telecaster (in 1966, that model was the shit, further discussion unnecessary). And his hands were dirty. Like almost homeless-filthy. To jump ahead for a moment, within weeks of owning this album, I was rubbing dirt from my Mom's garden into my fingers to get them to look as dirty as Mike Bloomfield's. Really.

I bought the album. Ran upstairs, put it on the hi-fi my dad had made me; a handmade amp, an AR turntable, and one 10 inch speaker. I had jacked the volume in anticipation.

"Born In Chicago" came tear-ass-ing out of that speaker and my 13-year-old mind was blown!

The power and menace in the groove of this cut was significantly meaner than my heroes, The Rolling Stones.

(There is a snippet of an interview in this scrapbook on legacy, where Mike Bloomfield talks about being, no-shit, actually afraid of Paul Butterfield. You could see that on the album cover. You could hear it in the opening track. Not Bloomfield's fear, but, its righteous cause.)

Now, I'd been playing guitar for a whopping two whole years when I first heard this debut Paul Butterfield album. I was worshipping Keith Richards' guitar playing at that point, along with Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds. But, this guy named Mike Bloomfield made both of them sound sorta less-than-monolithic. With Bloomfield's super-clean-speed and his Attack of Authority, the guitar sounded like it was having its ass kicked hard, completely overwhelmed my until-then concept of what lead guitar solos sounded like. I'm not knocking George Beatle or Keef or Dave Davies, or -- but, this guy with the dirty hands was just whipping them in the opening cut. He was playing with never-heard-by-me-anyway lunatic dexterity, savage tone, just cleaning the clock of very guy I'd ever heard before.

Actually, this was a schizzy time for my musical taste. The Butterfield album had me now mutually obsessed with "real blues" and The Who, who I'd completely lost my mind over when I saw Pete Townshend destroy a Rickenbacker on Shindig. Almost polar opposite flavas.

It would be another year and half before I started haunting record stores' cut-out bins for actual Chess recordings. For a goodly time, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was The blues for me. For you history students, the John Mayall Beano album was about a year away from being released in the states. And, Canned Heat, whose 1967 debut stands was one of the greatest blues albums ever recorded by white kids, was also a ways off.

While staying thoroughly in my world of rock, Mike Bloomfield easily supplanted every other guitar player I'd been worshipping. Seeing him playing a Telecaster in that little weirdly-cropped photo on the back of the Butter album instantly made the Telecaster the ONLY guitar I wanted. I got one, too. Thank you forever, pop!

This began the brief but very real Reign of Bloomfield.

Also, very very importantly, the inauguration of the "What's Mike Playing Now? Sweepstakes."

Within a few months, amongst young guitar bozos like me, if Mike Bloomfield was playing it, it had to be the baddest guitar made. I now had had my Telecaster for about five months. Thrilled every minute of every day to have it to hold, to play, to stare at. Mike's guitar!!

Then, one day, a magazine had a new picture of Mike. He was playing a gold Les Paul. I have never had a guitar hit me that hard. It looked like a blues guitar. Within maybe five seconds, I no longer owned the coolest guitar on Planet Earth. Mike Bloomfield was playing something else.

And then, about six months after that, BAM!

I had seen Gibson sunburst Les Pauls before. Keef had played one on Shindig when they debuted Heart Of Stone, and the singer in Lovin' Spoonful had one, too. They were really really pretty guitars. But, now, Bloomfield had traded in his gold Les Paul with the white plastic pick ups for one of these sunburst ones with the big metal pick ups.

Well, there it was. The Holy Grail. The guitar Mike Bloomfield had settled on.

When the seminal Beano album came out and Eric Clapton was playing the same exact model, the deal was forever done. I was smart enough as a kid to work two jobs and save my dollars. I own a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, just like the one Mike is holding on the cover of this box set (the back portrait features his Telecasters). Even bought it off a famous guy, the criminally underrated Rick Derringer.

Oh, right. This box set.

You get three CDs and a DVD of the one serious documentary made about Mike Bloomfield, Sweet Blues. Seems to have been shot at least 20 years ago. But, definitive, nonetheless.

The first cut you hear on Disc One is from Mike Bloomfield's audition for John Hammond, the A&R man who signed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. It's just Mike on a Fender guitar backed by Bill Lee (Spike's father!) on bass.

This recording was made during February, 1964. The Beatles have been on Ed Sullivan maybe twice by now. And in Columbia Records' recording studio, Mike Bloomfield is laying down blues guitar that was easily 20 years ahead of its time. I have been playing guitar for FIFTY years as of last month. I listen to Mike on this first goofy little throw-away of a track and my mind can barely comprehend the level of insane technique that never ever gets in the way of feel, probably Mike Bloomfield's single greatest attribute as a player. The Beatles had awoken a new passion in guitar playing and this cat is already in the 1990s as The Beatles were playing covers from The Fantastiks on Ed Sullivan. This one cut, is Pure Revelation.

More revelations...

"Born In Chicago," rather than starting to sound dated, sounds more powerful, more evil than I recall, truth, before getting ahold of this From His Head To His Heart To His Hands set, I hadn't paid any attention to Mike for, sigh, decades. His career, to skip to the sad end, truly petered out in a spectacular way. I know now, having read Michael Simmons' liner notes, and having watched Sweet Blues that Mike very deliberately walked away from stardom. But, I just saw him wither and disappear.

Anyway, "Born In Chicago" was a game-changer. Within months, every band had to include it in their sets along side "Mustang Sally," "In The Midnight Hour," "Good Lovin'," "Satisfaction"... Frankly, if they'd released just that one song, it would have had the same impact as the album all by itself.

I am not going to even thumbnail Michael's wobbly career path. But, his biggest moment probably came when he formed The Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites and Buddy Miles, just in time to play the legendary Monterey Pop Festival, a great clip of which is in Sweet Blues.

Here's a trippy fact... Re: The Electric Flag, as per Mr.Simmons' liner notes...

"The Bay Area became home base. Gravenites... found a house in Mill Valley the Flag would share communally." That house was my Uncle Henry's! He'd moved his family to Huntington, Long Island for a year in early 1968 and rented his Marin home to The Electric Flag.

True.

For me, personally, as Michael Bloomfield would've surely approved, my quest for the real thing, once I'd tasted Butter led me to purchasing Otis Rush, BB King, Freddy King, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy albums, which, sadly, kinda made bands and blues guitarists like Butterfield and Bloomfield superfluous for me. That, and, well, my obsession with The Who wound up completely out-of-control and all-consuming, as any number of my HuffPost blogs can attest.

Al Kooper and Bruce Dickinson, producer and executive producer, have done the kind of job on this scrapbook box set that only true loving devotion can accomplish.

I hadn't planned on quoting Michael Simmons' liner notes. But, having just read the first page again, fuck it. Dig my man layin' it down.

"Forget that Liverpool crap -- that's teenybopper music," 16-year-old Sam Zuckerman says to me and his kid brother, Ed, two Beatlemaniacs, I protest. "Hey, I like The Rolling Stones!" Sam pulls a record out of its sleeve... "Well, if you dig the Stones, you'll love these guys." I behold The Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP for the first time -- three greasy white hoods, and two black soul brothers. They are the five coolest cats I've ever seen.

'Born In Chicago' comes blasting out off Sam's cheap speaker, whacking me in the head like a baseball bat. It's the lead guitar that takes me hostage, the flawless flurry of fluid notes wrapping around my consciousness, alerting my 10 year old brain that there is stuff beyond the beyond. I'd been playing guitar for about six months and I have no fucking idea what this is. I look at the jacket... 'Mike Bloomfield -- Slide Guitar'. I promise myself I will know everything about Mike Bloomfield.

"Can I borrow this, Sam?" I ask, holding the portal to my future. "I swear I'll take care of it."

The wise teen grins.

"Sure," he answers, reaching for something else.

"When you return it, you can borrow this."

And Sam held up an album by Muddy Waters.

Hey, Simmons, sorry, I just realized... I gotta give the last word to this cat:

The guy that I always miss, and I think he'd still be around if he stayed with me, is Mike Bloomfield. He could just flat-out play.

-- Bob Dylan (Mike Bloomfield's singer on "Like A Rolling Stone")