By Harriet P. Gross
This past week marked 40 years since Woodstock. Was I at that mad, musical gathering? In a way, because Mike Bloomfield was there.
I knew Mike almost a dozen years earlier, before he became “the great white rock guitarist,” the founder of the Paul Butterfield and Electric Flag bands, the one you can see riffing with Jefferson Airplane on the Woodstock film clips. I was his Sunday school teacher in 1957–58, in the ninth grade at a great Reform temple in north suburban Chicago.
My students there hailed from incredible affluence; when, the first week of class, I gave them an ethics problem involving how to spend a million dollars, I found that I was the only one in the room who didn’t know how to invest it all outside the United States, tax-free. Mike’s folks were rich, but he was not popular with his peers; the boys were out dirt-biking while he stayed holed up in his bedroom, listening to folk music and discovering the wild tunes of the black musicians who pioneered the then-fledgling rock genre. He knew so little about Judaism, and hated religious school.
My husband was a social worker. All Jewish social workers — or so it seemed in the ‘50s — were also folk singers. Jewish social workers’ wives taught religious school to augment the salaries of their pittance-paid spouses. And they sang along. Some of us weren’t bad — my husband and I made it to the informal stages of Chicago’s College of Complexes and Evanston’s No Exit Café. I “contracted” with Mike: If he’d stick out the year and make it through confirmation, I’d take him with us to our favorite venues.
We kept our bargain. I helped Mike buy his first guitar — the one he was still playing when he died. But I’m getting ahead of my story. He had $500 that he’d won in a poker game with his father and dad’s fellow big-businessmen, and that amount bought one heck of a good instrument a half-century ago. His mother pleaded with me: I was the only one who could talk sense to Mike; he should buy a dirt bike. I said it was his money. She didn’t talk to me any more after that. But Mike made it through confirmation.
After high school, Mike moved to San Francisco, where the early rock action was. Dick Christenson, music critic of the late lamented Chicago Daily News, went out there for the first big concert of its kind, and wrote about the great kid from “home,” also confirming for me that Mike was making magic with that same guitar.
He didn’t come back much, but Mike had a really important Chicago connection anyway: After the riots at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 — less than a year before Woodstock, and also triggered by a young people’s peace movement, particularly in light of the Vietnam War — he wrote the incredible music for “Medium Cool,” the 1969 film about the city and its political/police fiasco. It’s a theme, and a soundtrack, of its time — throbbing and thrumming and humming with all the music Chicago, and Mike, had in them. He was then just 26 years old.
Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Mike became a reclusive abuser of alcohol and drugs. I left Chicago late in 1980, and less than three months later, I picked up the Dallas Morning News and read his obituary. It didn’t say “overdose,” but everyone knew. In the same desk drawer with my essential printer cartridges and other writing-trade tools, I keep that yellowed scrap of paper from Feb. 16, 1981 — the day after Michael Bernard Bloomfield’s exit from this earth.
Every bit of information anyone could want is at our fingertips today. Google Mike Bloomfield, and you can hear some of his astounding music, or read a brief, straightforward biography of him by Barney Quick, published two decades after Mike left us. You can also rent “Medium Cool” — probably not at Blockbuster, but at some place with old films in stock. However, you’ll never know the pudgy, obsessed kid I did, the one who lived for music, and in a way died from it.
The average American passes away at 75 years, 8 months; the average age of a rock star at death is 36 years, 9 months. Mike was 36 years, 7 months. Just about on target.
He did call me before that. He told me “I owe you one.” I’ll forever be sorry that I could never collect.
By Harriet P. Gross