WHY LES WAS MORE: How Two Electric Guitarists (and One Songwriter) from the Midwest Saw to the Changin’ Times.
(Les Paul live at The Iridium. Photo by Thomas Faivre-Duboz, Creative Commons
By Kevin Lynch
On the New York Times production layout desk, it may have been too late to pull the tiny ad for the Friday Arts section.
“Subbing for Les Paul who will be back soon, Bucky Pizzarelli, with the Les Paul Trio”
Comfort for the worry warts. How strange and ghostly, in truth. Les Paul had died Thursday, August 13.
For those who saw it, the Iridium Jazz Club’s ad compounded the sense of loss for anyone who ever responded to the sound of Paul’s famous invention, the solid body electric guitar.
Paul’s death has become profoundly relevant in light of another far more ballyhooed death and the recent effort, reported by The Guardian, of a coalition of managers and label bosses to forge what they call the “Michael Jackson Clause” to allow labels to legally suspend – and stop paying – any artist who gets too drugged to do the job.
But it’s shortsighted and foolhardy in the sense that numerous artists have created much of their best work while “whacked out.” This only applies to truly gifted artists. Blogger Luke Lewis notes that Fleetwood Mac “burned through so much coke while recording ‘Rumours’, that drummer Mick Fleetwood wanted to credit his dealer on the liner notes – and would’ve done, had said dealer not been executed before the album came out. And yet it’s an utterly, unarguably fantastic record.”
If anything, labels ought to help artists to clean up and stay healthy by financing drug rehabilitation programs, counseling and what AA calls a sponsor. .Given addiction’s inherent insidiousness, it may be impossible to keep hooked artists perfectly clean. And if they do conjur powerful and timeless art while whacked out, then why not help them stay as healthy, productive and lucid as possible, given their altered states.
In this context, I would suggest the term “whacked in,” by which I mean the effect of how truly gifted artists seem able to tap into creative wellsprings and, in effect, turn themselves phantasmagorically inside out.
The sad story of a still-under-recognized genius suggests that one might distill the term to “The Michael Clause” while making it a more enlightened, enabling policy. Only if an artist dies or is incapable of touring and performing, should it provide an escape for the company.
The crux of the music’s modern history reaches from the begloved Michael back to guitarist Michael Bloomfield who, in historical terms, is the pivotal case in point.
The tragic story surely could be written with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Doors’ singer-songwriter Jim Morrison as the lead. But Bloomfield, the brilliant Chicago guitarist- pianist- composer and blues musicologist, was perhaps Les Paul’s closest and most significant offspring and he is also a statistical archetype.
A recent survey determined that many musicians of that generation died prematurely, at about the same age Bloomfield did, an average age of 36.9 years. He was 37.1.
To appreciate Bloomfield’s artistic significance we must rewind the story back to the early 1940s, when the wizardly man from Waukesha, Wisconsin, Lester Polsfuss, streamlined his name for show business and became a pop star in a dreamy duo with his singing spouse Mary Ford. Les Paul would soon streamline the electric guitar into a beauty with a drop-dead, tear-drop figure. It became the favorite plaything of a very different generation, who were enchanted by its musical and magical noises. Electricity engendered expression and exploration and the times changed irrevocably.
This happened by accident, of necessity, the ageless mother of invention.
In 1948, Paul’s car slid off an icy road in Oklahoma. He reached out to protect Mary and decimated his left arm on the windshield. After healing, Paul needed a compact and manageable guitar. The instrument needed a sonic makeover as well. Since the 1930s, fat, hollow-bodied electric guitars had emitted rude feedback when pushed to compete with louder instruments.
Paul struck on the idea of a slender solid-wood instrument directly wired to an amplifier and speaker. First, he assembled a two-inch slab of railroad tie with steel strings and a magnetic sound pickup, which he called “The Log.” He presented the contraption to the Gibson Guitar company, which rejected it. But company president Ted McCarty heard something coming on that railroad track. He called Paul back in and the company went to work on the idea. In 1952 they dubbed it the Les Paul Gold Top, for its inventor and for its lustrous surface.
Guitarists were smitten. “It allowed them to control feedback which was huge,” says musician, producer and music scholar Ben Sidran. “Even the Fender guitar was based on Les Paul’s design.”
By 1957 Gibson had developed a new flat pick-up (designed by Seth Lover) that radiated the thicker, more sustaining tone of Gibson’s “humbucker” pickups.
America’s wandering troubadours would soon begin plugging in, which felt just right to young rebels recoiling against gray-flannel suit squares and phonies. Yet Paul was never a protester, a punk or a hip hopper. He was a jovial romantic who spun musical gold with spouse Ford, starting with their historic hit “How High the Moon”.
Paul’s creative moon-beaming had led him to an even more amazing invention, the multi-track recording unit, with which The Beatles would conjur “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the head-tripping rest of “Sgt. Pepper.” He did that without any magnetic tape, much less computers. He used recordable acetate discs and laboriously layered tracks in real time, from start to finish.
“Dubbing and multi-tracking made the record industry as we know it possible,” says Sidran. “Before that you just brought somebody into a room and recorded, and after that you manufactured it.”
But Paul’s solid-body guitar innovation had iconic staying power, as an extension of the musician’s physical body.
Guitarists tend to hold their instruments very personally. Under hunched shoulders, Bloomfield cradled his guitar like a wailing new born babe. Something was born within Bloomfield’s obsessive embrace and the music world flourished because of it. But what would have happened if Paul hadn’t smashed his arm in 1948 and Bloomfield hadn’t been hired by a genius from Hibbing, Minnesota who wrote long, abstract songs that even he didn’t seem to understand? Paul’s guitar appears to have helped Bloomfield to stretch music to encompass previously unimagined connections of east and west poles.
Truth is often stranger than fiction. Bloomfield created something extraordinary called “East-West” in 1966, the year after Bob Dylan plugged in, and seemed to change everything at the Newport Folk Festival, after recording the era’s anthem, “Like a Rolling Stone,” on the album Highway 61 Revisited. Bloomfield’s playing added a shambling, rusty jangle to the six plus-minute epic. Dylan had hired him after deciding he was the best guitarist he’d ever heard. Jimi Hendrix, the only guitarist of that generation whose talent clearly surpassed all others, nevertheless stole Bloomfield’s recorded licks from “Like a Rolling Stone” when he played the song at the endlessly resonant Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. And it remains surely the anthem of a generation and an era. Rolling Stone magazine determined it was the greatest song of all time, according to 172 musician, critics and industry figures.
Twice the length of a conventional radio hit, it nevertheless reached Number 2 in the astonishingly imposing competition of the summer of 1965, alongside The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” The Temptations’ “My Girl,” The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” The Beach Boys’ “California Girls”and Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” each arguably the greatest songs of those artists’ careers. Dylan’s song fostered an entire book devoted to its recording by Greil Marcus, the era’s Samuel Johnson.
In a photograph of the two musicians (reproduced in the soundtrack liner notes of Martin Scorcese’s Dylan documentary, No Direction Home) they rehearse for the pivotal set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan’s face bursts in delight at Bloomfield, who grins back warmly. Surely no other musician commanded such attention or consideration from Dylan during the most crucial period of his career. Bloomfield’s guitar spit out saucy blues retorts while Dylan sneered “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more!” Bloomfield then played the flat-bottomed Fender Telecaster, which resembles an oversized, lopsided snow shovel. That guitar’s prickly edge and somber moan fit the hard-charging electric blues that Bloomfield played with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band on their first album.
The electric guitars notoriously shocked some of Newport’s folk-purist fans who booed and prompted banjo-playing pacifist and folk traditionalist Pete Seeger to try cutting Dylan’s power cable with an axe. Earlier, Butterfield band manager Albert Grossman scuffled with Alan Lomax after the folklorist introduced them by publicly doubting “these white boys from Chicago” could play the blues.
“I was screaming, ‘Kick his ass Albert! Stomp ‘im! There was bad blood rising,’” Bloomfield told biographer Ed Ward. “It was like [Bloomfield] to zero in on the element of hypocrisy, on the way folkies recast American music in their image.” 2
Bloomfield, a brilliant kid from a wealthy Jewish family was 22 and an insomniac intensely attuned to the musical Zeitgeist. In the days following an all-night acid trip (in Cambridge in late 1965) “Mike sequestered himself in the wee hours of the night,” recalls Butterfield’s keyboardist Mark Naftalin. “When he emerged at dawn he said he’d had a revelation into the workings of Eastern music.” 3.
He had sketched out an ambitious composition that unlocked the doors to what soon became “psychedelic” instrumental music. By shifting from Western harmony to Eastern modality East-West seemed to slip into a parallel sonic reality, traversing time and space to touch those poles of east and west with a palpable arc of energy.
Does Bloomfield’s leap across a cultural abyss matter today, when IPod and Twitter are turning culture into digestible tweets?
Like much worthwhile art, the brooding yet exultant 13-minute East-West compels us to expand rather than compartmentalize our consciousness, and it still echoes like a signpost for direction and connection.
Rock guitarists flipped over it. “We were all just awestruck,” recalled Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, when the Butterfield band hit San Francisco in 1965.
Upon hearing Bloomfield, Carlos Santana avowed, “This is what I want to do and be for the rest of my life.” 4. And the legendary Fillmore Auditorium’s Bill Graham began hiring black blues bands after Bloomfield explained their profound influence on the Butterfield band.
Blues brethren had embraced the white boys who surely inspired the cinematic Blues Brothers. In April of 1969, Waters, Bloomfield, Butterfield, pianist Otis Spann, drummer Buddy Miles and others recorded a landmark blues album, Fathers and Sons, with rollicking live tracks from the Super-Cosmic Joyscout Jamboree in Chicago.
A skeptic might dismiss all this as “the madness of the 60s.” Yet self-styled “white Negro” and New Journalism chronicler Norman Mailer wrote of that time with a precise sense of how we process it. “We often think of it as a collective remembrance that others will share with us. We even speak of it as our time. In fact, it is only one’s personal time.” Yet most of us “are forever revising our personal history of the past until it includes everyone toward whom we reacted over our years…the ones who helped to change our lives.”
Tuned-in black and white youth felt the changing time. At the ‘65 Newport Festival a family of Mississippi R&B musicians, The Chambers Brothers, added a white rock drummer and a theme song, “Time Has Come Today.” The first album by a Bloomfield-led band would be called A Long Time Comin’.
The autumnal Mailer felt “blessed” for being able to write about time as he did. He titled his personal anthology of his work, The Time of Our Time. He suggested that life demands a creative response to those who change us, whether we understand the time, or the change, as individual or collective.
“Because if there is one fell rule in art, it is that repetition kills the soul.”…5.
Bloomfield understood that his music fed his lifeblood. After the first Butterfield band album he changed guitars as his musical mind raced ahead.
When the band’s 1965 tour reached Boston, he traded one of his Telecasters to guitarist John Nuese for a Les Paul Gold Top. Blues and R&B guitarists Chuck Berry, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker and Bloomfield’s mentor, Muddy Waters, all played Gold Tops.
So, as LSD gave way to inspiration and clarity, Bloomfield sat hunched over his new instrument, privately composing, and turning feedback into resonance.*
“The Gold Top has a lot of sustain with those patent-applied-for pickups, which people still covet,” says Milwaukee guitarist Roger Brotherhood, who played the same model. “The way they were wound, the waxing process, it all came together to make a pick-up that was really sweet, that broke up just right. And compared to the Telecaster, the Les Paul had a shorter scale length, so the strings are looser and more conducive to bending, and a lot more forgiving.”
More sustain allowed for a raga like drone and electric guitars could be tuned for sympathetic resonances between the strings. The Gold Top rang clean, allowing a listener to hear Bloomfield’s driving momentum and wrenching moans with gripping clarity. On the East West album, amid an array of meaty blues songs, a hard-swinging cover of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” asserts a muscular, chain-gang contraction that releases magnificently in the title tune. East-West conveys both the weight of a questing spirit and a gravity-defying breathlessness. Drummer Billy Davenport’s suspenseful samba tempo sets up a tough, bracing solo by Bishop, who then recedes into a tamboura- like drone.
Butterfield and Bloomfield then stoke the heat, melding steely John Coltrane-ish “sheets of sound” with gritty blues pentatonics until Bloomfield opens it all up to air and space, riding a slow sequence of harmonically radiant whole notes, like a sonic hang-glider– a passage of Zen-like grace. The guitarists curve back onto a fresh raga-blues melody , and then fire away at each other like World War I dogfighters, until the raptor-cry of Butterfield’s harp virtually swallows the opus whole.
Now, with the death of this story’s father finally shedding light on the tragic demise of the son, the significance of East West emerges. With the Butterfield Blues Band’s titular instrumental we hear the convergence of East and West, of polar histories, cultures and dynamisms which echo evolution’s biological convergence.
“Convergence is ubiquitous and the constraints of life make the emergence of the various biological properties very probable, if not inevitable,” wrote paleontologist Simon Conway Morris. 6.
So even if such cultural convergence seemed only a matter of time – as mass media began to bring the world closer together — it took Bloomfield leaning precipitously over the abyss to accelerate time and convergence. The culture — tearing at the seams with the Vietnam war, the murder of four black Alabama girls and the ensuing Civil Rights turmoil and race riots – foreshadow a global convergence as cataclysmic as it was harmonic.
So here music searches far beyond words, a man edging along a cliff, then trusting in his creative will and vision.
One begins to understand why these were perfect Paul moments, when musicians and audiences realized how those six-string babies could sing sweet and cry stung. And then they conquered the guitar world.
I was listening to a lot of stupendous jazz in 1966, including Miles, Monk, Mingus and Coltrane. And yet, the album East-West deconstructed my head as much as any other, partly because this was a blues-rock band — my generation’s electric eagle cry — breaking into the deep, expansive realm of modal jazz and beyond. On the cover, six black and white men stood shoulder-to-shoulder outside Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, between giant stone goddesses who seemed to embody the mother lodes of Eastern and Western wisdom. An Irish Catholic — leading a Jew, a Scottish American, an Anglo-Oklahoman and two African Americans — asserted a musical identity from a collective interpretation of the blues. This truly American band made “world music” before that term was coined.
At 16, I felt transfixed, transported and slightly shaken by this long blast of harsh beauty. I had to find meaning. I drew a large charcoal picture of a solitary man standing amid looming skyscrapers in the middle of the crossroads of a noirish nightmare, struck by the enormous uncertainty of an existential moment. Teenage angst for sure, but years later Robert Palmer would write that the solid-body electric guitar could even be made to resonate with the “underlying sixty-cycle hum of the city’s electrical grid, forming massive sound textures that already exist in nature.”7. I think the drawing, for me, also touched Bloomfield’s own demons and dreams, akin to those of bedeviled young blues legend Robert Johnson.
“I know (Robert) as this mythic creature, terror-stricken, trying to run away from whatever is trying to get him,” Bloomfield said, shortly before he died at 37. 8.
After a grueling East-West repertoire tour Bloomfield quit Butterfield’s band, an early sign of his insomnia and psychological problems regarding monetary success. In 1968, a year of touring again drove him to quit the brilliantly promising dream band he had formed, The Electric Flag, just as they began lighting up the musical firmament. The pattern recurred in 1975 when he slipped out of the clutches of MCA, and its corporate-contrived supergroup KGB. The suits had hit upon the ultimate co-op job of monikering, by inserting the acronym of the notorious Communist espionage agency as a capitalist marketing tool for an American rock band, but with little artistic justification, according to Bloomfield.
Biographer Ed Ward suggests that Bloomfield’s career long pattern of retreat from success involved a recoiling from the lifestyle of his cold, taskmaster father, who wanted him to be a businessman. Harold Bloomfield became wealthy creating and manufacturing various food service items, including the iconic fluted glass and metal sugar dispenser with the neat little metal flip top. His company has since evolved into industry giant Beatrice Foods.
Despite his son’s musical talent and sleepless creativity, the pressures of an uncompromising musician’s life consistently derailed Michael. It certainly wasn’t the incongruity of him being a kid from a wealthy Jewish family. Black blues musicians grew to love his authentic passion and knowledge and soulful gift and stunning technique which in Bloomfield came across as exuberance rather than hotdog display. He worked and recorded with Sleepy John Estes and toured with Big Joe Williams who immortalized his buddy with the Jewish “fro” in a song about The Pickle, a blues club Bloomfield managed at the time: “Pick A Pickle” included the line: “You know Mike Bloomfield … will always treat you right…come to the Pickle, every Tuesday night.” Bloomfield documented his relationship with Williams in a peculiarly touching story “Me and Big Joe,” detailing their adventures on the road.
As a child Bloomfield met Polish and Irish kids from the working class neighborhood a few blocks west, newly-arrived Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, and rural whites from the Ozarks and the south. He fell hard for African-American culture, the blues and soul music bubbling up from street corners and shops. The black maids at the Bloomfield home served as soul mamas. Michael loved the city and his masterpiece East-West radiated that urban complexity like an airborne taxi ride, a la Blade Runner. His imagination, passion and fat-tired Schwinn carried young Michael around Chicago’s North Side. Another ofay blues scene haunter and lead singer of the Electric Flag, Nick “The Greek” Gravenites, says the best he ever heard Bloomfield play was “just casually after rehearsal. It had nothing to do with show business or selling records or being onstage…He was a pure musician.” There’s also a striving of the self in a Coltrane or a Bloomfield, for both connection and transcendence through pure musicianship.
The guitarist sang ardently, sometimes effectively, but too often like a lovesick bull bemoaning his lost Elsie. His inner geek charmed his own recordings but just as often sabotaged them. That fact, along with his Joe Blow looks and jocular affability suggested a kinship with the like mannered Paul but assured that neither would be pinup music stars – unlike a curly-tressed, Les-playing Jane Blow named Peter Frampton, whose singing-through-a-rubber-tube gimmick made him a star and marked him as perhaps Paul’s tinkering inventor offspring.
In 1967, Bloomfield moved to the Bay area during San Francisco’s idyllic Summer of Love, a social experiment of cooperative living and loving among 100,000 people. Down Highway One from the Bay, the First International Monterey Pop Festival became the era’s second crucial festival, with the emergence of Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and the debut of Bloomfield’s new group, The Electric Flag.
His sense of an American band had become self conscious. Short-lived and under-recognized, The Flag included horns and an unprecedented hybrid of many root American styles. The band’s performance wasn’t used in the ensuing documentary Monterey Pop. Perhaps their politically irreverent overtones scared promoters, amid the obscene turmoil of the Vietnam War.
The Flag’s debut album A Long Time Comin’, a pensive welding of all the soul-baring black music genres, replete with sound collages, sounded like a ‘60s version of a festooned campaign locomotive blowing off steam.
It opens with the Lyndon Johnson’s voice droning “I speak tonight for the dignity of man,” which succumbs to crowd laughter as the band charges into “Killing Floor,” a Howlin’ Wolf blues that would acquire grisly overtones in March of the next year in My Lai, Vietnam.
Murray Lerner did include the beginning of the Flag’s Monterey performance in his film Festival! Perhaps intimidated, Bloomfield simply gushed at the crowd.
“We’re really nervous,” he said. “But we love you all man, because this is very groovy. Monterey is very groovy. This is something, man. This is our generation, all you people. We’re all together. Dig yourselves.”9.
What he does is seriously dig Ravi Shankar, the great Indian sitarist, that Sunday afternoon. On the left side of the stage you see Bloomfield’s fuzzy “fro” mop and mouth agape. Shankar’s breathtaking “Raga Bhimpalasi” provided stirring affirmation of the Chicago kid’s effort to connect East and West with sympathetic strings and percussion.
Meanwhile Paul’s invention became the guitar de jour. I remember both Eric Clapton (with Blind Faith) and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin playing Les Pauls at the Midwest Rock Fest at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis, while fliers floated around the grandstand whispering of “An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music” in Woodstock, New York, three weeks later. Page unveiled his violin-bow-to-guitar-string gambit, producing operatic Zeppelin emissions (Page still brandishes his Les in the acclaimed new documentary guitar movie “It Might Get Loud.”) The next year, virtuoso Georgia pickers Duane Allman and Dickey Betts played dueling Les Pauls at The Scene, in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. I walked in just as they began “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” an eloquently wordless elegy in lyrical strains worthy of Bloomfield’s unbound best.
The boy from a “hillbilly-Jewish” Chicago neighborhood would attain fleeting “superstardom” on the 1968 album Super Session, with its jazz jam-style spontaneity, and set a new bar for rock instrumentalists. It amounted to a barefoot Bloomfield wringing the blues out of his Les like a juke-jointer knee deep in Mississippi mud, with Al Kooper’s grease-spittin’ organ and a few horns added later, via Paul’s now-standard multi-tracking. However, Bloomfield’s growing drug problem left him unreliable, so guitarist Stephen Stills filled in for the album’s second side. He had never done more than pot and some acid. But heedless new members of the Flag gave him heroin for the first time, upon which he soon became dependent as an antidote to his chronic insomnia.
Bloomfield eventually lost his most famous “Super Session” guitar, a luminous, mahogany-grained 1959 Les Paul “Sunburst” which he had traded his “East-West” Gold Top and $100 for in 1967. He never got it back from a club owner who kept it as collateral for money owed him. So he dusted off his old acoustics to play and record in classic blues styles, including the delightfully fascinating Grammy-nominated 1976 survey of various blues stylists, described and performed by Bloomfield, “If You Love These Blues Play Them as You Please.”
His fiancée, a modern dancer named Christy Svane, remembers that Bloomfield died on Valentine’s Day of 1981 in San Francisco. His body lay slumped, in his dilapidated 1971 Mercury, poisoned by methamphetamine and cocaine — after months of apparently being clean, sober and about to marry. His producer Norman Dayron believes that a “lowlife” snared Bloomfield with “some kind of designer drug that asphyxiated him,”10. Then, when cocaine failed to revive him, the dealer fled.
“Mike was a lot smarter than most people knew but maybe he wasn’t the strongest personality,” says guitarist-composer Jim Schwall, who had played harmonica on Bloomfield’s first home recording in 1958. “So he’d get around guys who were doing stuff, and he’d go along with it, like Grams Parsons did.”
As for old Les Paul, he survived one of the nation’s first quintuple bypass surgeries, and played on. “Monday (at the Iridium) is the greatest therapy for me. It gives me a reason to get out of bed,” Paul told Crawdaddy magazine. 11. He knew the music’s healing power flowed in as well as out. Bloomfield, a man of exceedingly generous spirit, sometimes actually lent his guitar to fans to play on. But he “saw too much too soon, for he was looking through his heart more often than his eyes or mind,” says his brother Allen Bloomfield. 12.
This musical son of Les Paul and Muddy Waters felt American music as a presence -“not necessarily music directly from America,” Mike Bloomfield said of the Electric Flag. “I think of it as the music you hear in the air, on the air, in the streets; blues, soul, country, rock, religious music, traffic, crowds, street sounds and field sounds, the sound of people and silence.” 13.
Yet Bloomfield, only 24 at the time, already felt pain and loss in the same experience. A Long Time Comin’ climaxes with a montage-like ode to exile, “Another Country.”: If I could lose all my troubles/ by running away, no, no, I wouldn’t stay/…This whole year has been a blunder/Yes, I’ve lost my sense of wonder/There are no sweet lovebirds to turn to/I have no one to call brother…” In a marvelous samba-blues guitar break, Bloomfield’s juicy notes gleam with sweat and sorrow. I’ve been all over this country and it’s the same old thing everywhere I go. /Don’t you think there might be a place where I might rest my weary head? 14.
“Another Country” ends with an off-key fife tooting “America,” followed by a final tag, “Easy Rider,” a soft blues guitar shuffle amid the sound of rain, like a guy whistling through the graveyard.
During Bloomfield’s decline, even Dylan reached out, inviting him to his concert at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1980. Before Dylan left Bloomfield’s Mill Valley home, the ailing guitarist unexpectedly gave him the Bloomfield family Bible. But he showed up at Dylan’s gig in bedroom slippers and played beautifully on “Like a Rolling Stone.” America’s time, our time, was regained, but not as nostalgia.
“When you see a really great artist, all time stops,” the jazz pianist Cecil Taylor has said. 15. Time becomes our time in the moment.
Yet as the times change, human life ticks away too quickly. Allen Ginsberg’s famous, ranting utterance now feels more like prophecy. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”16.
Paul Butterfield’s heart attack in 1984 at 44 resulted from drug addiction and alcoholism. Considering the many musicians who died before their time, has that generation, still in considerable political and cultural power, grown weary, lost their “sense of wonder” and possibility?
Has America learned from their mistakes – and vision? If the nation had better drug rehabilitation services in 1981, Bloomfield might still be making great music at 66 – 18 years younger than B.B. King and two years older than Eric Clapton, perhaps his closest living peers. I take hope in President Obama’s initiative for a public option alternative to for-profit health insurance, as well as broader heath care reform. America must take better care of its own. The wasteful early deaths of artists like Bloomfield leaves their music, to stir us to greater humanity, and sanity, as a nation.
Kevin Lynch is a Pulitzer-nominated writer who has covered the arts for many publications for 30 years and is the author of the forthcoming book “Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.” (Editorial assistance by Anna Hahm.)
* The lovingly-tended-to and authoratitive fan website produced by David Dann, “Mike Bloomfield: an American Guitarist” rep0rts: “Bloomfield used the Gold top as his primary instrument but kept the new Telecaster handy during gigs, probably for slide work. These were his guitars throughout his tenure with Butterfield. It was the Gold Top paired with a Gibson Falcon amplifier that Michael used to record the landmark Butterfield album East-West.”
1. Google cached link www.av1611.org/rockdead.html as of Sept. 3, 2009. This is apparently a religiously motivated survey, accompanied with biblical quotes, which is unrelated to my intention in noting the statistic. (I simply googled “drug-related deaths of rock musicians.” The site makes this disclaimer to objectivity: “This is not a “rigged” list to produced false numbers, but an honest observation.” My sense of the issue would be sociological, cultural and perhaps generational rather than religious.
2. Ed Ward, Michael Bloomfield, the Rise and fall of an American Guitar Hero. 43-44
3. Dave Marsh, liner notes, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band East-West Live
Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom. Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues, An Oral History vii (Santana), 130 (Weir)
5. Norman Mailer, The Time of Our Time,-x-xi
6. Simon Conway Morris, in Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd 39
7. Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History 194
8. Ward, 9
9. Joel Selvin, Monterey Pop 48
10. . Wolkin/Keenom, 234
11. Max Moran, “Saint Paul the Electric,” Crawdaddy www.crawdaddy.wolfgangsvault.com, online edition, Aug.19, 2009.
12. Ward, 120 (The fan website “Mike Bloomfield: An American Guitarist” includes a deep discography by David Dann. Despite Bloomfield’s vast influence his historical stature still suffers. Historian-critic Francis Davis correctly demarcates the first Butterfield Blues Band set at Newport in 1965 as the start of the “second blues revival,” but he doesn’t assess the innovative role of “East West” in his largely excellent 1995 History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, The People.” “100 Albums that Changed Music” editor Sean Egan props Bloomfield’s ingenious strokes in “the beautiful sound paintings” behind Dylan on Highway 61 but the book whiffs on the first two Butterfield albums and the Flag’s first album. Meanwhile, John Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones awarded Bloomfield’s raga-esque “East-West” five stars in a 1966 Down Beat blindfold test.
The current Rolling Stone online Website of artists contains no bio on The Flag, only song samples. Neither Bloomfield nor The Flag were listed as individual artists in the last print edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide. In the more comprehensive All Music Guide, critic Richie Unterburger writes of The Flag: “The ambitious concept didn’t come off, despite some interesting moments; perhaps it was too ambitious to carry that weight.”
Bloomfield also wrote a number of movie scores, including The Trip with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, the acclaimed Medium Cool, Andy Warhol’s Bad and the under-rated Steelyard Blues. There’s currently one Bloomfield CD in Columbia/Legacy’s discography catalog, the all-too-aptly titled “Don’t Say That I Ain’t Not Your Man.” That good but inadequate career survey includes classic Butterfield material from Elektra Records. A multi-label spanning box-set retrospective -perhaps of Butterfield, Bloomfield and Bishop – is sorely needed.
Among the recent important Les Paul recordings are two Grammy winners: Lester and Chester with country guitar giant Chet Atkins and Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played, his first rock album at age 90, with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, R&B singer Sam Cooke and others. Paul’s tortoise-like career eventually secured his unique place in history even as critical assessment is obscured by his role as a classic American do-it-yourselfer whose creations younger designers, businessmen and musicians took and ran with.)
13. Jeff Tamarkin, liner notes to A Long Time Comin’ The Electric Flag
14. Ron Polte, lyrics “Another Country” A Long Time Comin’ The Electric Flag
15. Howard Mandel, Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz 230
16. Allen Ginsburg, Howl and Other Poems 9